What’s the Origin of Time Travel Fiction?: New Video Essay Explains How Time Travel Writing Got Its Start with Charles Darwin & His Literary Peers

The idea of time trav­el is prob­a­bly as old as the feel­ing of regret, but the desire to go back in time is not the same as the the­o­ret­i­cal notion that it might actu­al­ly be pos­si­ble to do so. Where, the Nerd­writer won­ders above, did this idea orig­i­nate? And where did time trav­el nar­ra­tives come from in gen­er­al? Time trav­el, he argues, “as a device to tell sto­ries, is a rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­non.” And time trav­el as a spe­cif­ic genre of lit­er­a­ture is just a lit­tle over a hun­dred years old.

An impor­tant point of clar­i­fi­ca­tion: We find instances of time travel—or at least a kind of parallax—in many ancient texts, where some char­ac­ters expe­ri­ence time dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent realms and dimen­sions and can thus see the past or future in our world. In the Ramayana, a fig­ure named Kakb­hushub­di lives like the Watch­ers in the Mar­vel Comics’ universe—outside of time, observ­ing mil­len­nia pass­ing. (It is said he sees the same events hap­pen over and over, with dif­fer­ent out­comes each time.)

This is not strict­ly what we mean by time trav­el. Yet many ancient sto­ries do show humans going back in time, or going to sleep and wak­ing up in the future, through divine agency. In the Bud­dhist Pali texts, we learn that the Devas expe­ri­ence one hun­dred human years as a sin­gle day (an idea echoed in the Bible). In the Japan­ese leg­end of Urashima Taro, a man vis­its the palace of the Drag­on God, and when he comes back 300 years have passed. But the Nerd­writer is talk­ing about some­thing dif­fer­ent than these many nar­ra­tive instances of time dila­tion (hun­dreds of years before Ein­stein elab­o­rat­ed the con­cept), though the same devices appear in mod­ern time trav­el sto­ries.

A sig­nif­i­cant dis­tinc­tion, the video sug­gests, lies in the very con­cept of time. Many ancient peo­ple believed that time was cyclical—hence the many vari­a­tions on the same themes in Kakbhushubdi’s experience—or that time was mal­leable, sub­ject to divine inter­rup­tion and dis­rup­tion. After Darwin’s Ori­gin of Species and the rapid accep­tance of evo­lu­tion (if not nat­ur­al selec­tion), pop­u­lar notions of time changed. The mod­ern time trav­el genre begins with broad­ly Dar­win­ian ideas as a cen­tral premise. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, evo­lu­tion meant inevitable, lin­ear progress, and thus was born a form of lit­er­a­ture called the Utopi­an Romance.

One such nov­el, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Look­ing Back­ward, has the dis­tinc­tion of being the third-largest best­seller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cab­in and Ben Hur, with over one mil­lion copies sold. Why haven’t you heard of it before? Prob­a­bly because the book envi­sions a char­ac­ter who falls asleep and wakes up in a social­ist utopia 113 years in the future (the year 2000). It exert­ed sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on the many social­ist move­ments of the time, and “Bel­lamy clubs” sprang up around the coun­try, advo­cat­ing for the nation­al­iza­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty. Few Amer­i­cans, at least, have learned about the wide­spread pop­u­lar­i­ty of social­ism in the U.S. dur­ing the late 19th cen­tu­ry because… well, you tell me.

But Bellamy’s ideas are embed­ded in the genre, in work after work we are famil­iar with (take the par­o­dy ver­sion in Futu­ra­ma). In the mod­ern time trav­el nov­el, utopias “are no longer on a lost island or a dif­fer­ent world, they were in the future.” This obser­va­tion applies most read­i­ly to a more famous foun­da­tion­al text from 1895, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which bor­rows from Swift’s Gulliver’s Trav­els, but sets the action not in a dis­tant land but in the very dis­tant future, the year 802701. Wells’ “sub­ter­ranean work­ers, the Mor­locks, and the deca­dent Eloi” who prof­it from their labor, notes the British Library, do not dif­fer that much from humans of the past or the present—they have evolved tech­no­log­i­cal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly, but are still sub­ject to exploita­tion and vio­lence.

Where Gulliver’s Trav­els can be read as a mis­an­throp­ic under­min­ing of notions of cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, Wells’ nov­el sat­i­rizes the idea that human evo­lu­tion implies an improve­ment in human benef­i­cence. The book set a pat­tern “for sci­ence-fic­tion to cri­tique extreme devel­op­ments of class.” In both Bel­lamy and Wells, time travel—whether achieved by sci­ence or a Rip Van Win­kle sleep—presents an occa­sion for utopi­an or dystopi­an alle­go­ry. The time trav­el genre took on a new dimen­sion after Ein­stein, when the sci­ence of rel­a­tiv­i­ty replaced Dar­win­ian evo­lu­tion as the cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, and para­dox­es and rules became cen­tral con­cerns. This shift high­lights anoth­er impor­tant fea­ture of the mod­ern time trav­el genre—its obses­sion with cause and effect, and there­fore with the very nature and pos­si­bil­i­ty of sto­ry itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

H.G. Wells’ 1930s Radio Broad­casts

George Orwell Reviews We, the Russ­ian Dystopi­an Nov­el That Noam Chom­sky Con­sid­ers “More Per­cep­tive” Than Brave New World & 1984

How to Rec­og­nize a Dystopia: Watch an Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dystopi­an Fic­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Robin Lee says:

    I wish the author would have elab­o­rat­ed how Ein­stein’s con­tri­bu­tions changed the lit­er­ary ideas of time time in con­trast to the influ­ences of the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion. With­out it this aspect the thoughts seem incom­plete.

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