Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative


This book argues that time travel fiction is a narrative "laboratory," a setting for thought experiments in which essential theoretical questions about storytelling - and, by extension, about the philosophy of temporality, history, and subjectivity - are represented in the form of literaldevices and plots.Drawing on physics, philosophy, narrative theory, psychoanalysis, and film theory, the book links innovations in time travel fiction to specific shifts in the popularization of science, from evolutionary biology in the late 1800s, through relativity and quantum physics in the mid-20th century, tomore recent "multiverse" cosmologies. Wittenberg shows how increasing awareness of new scientific models leads to surprising innovations in the literary "time machine," which evolves from a "vehicle" used chiefly for sociopolitical commentary into a psychological and narratological device capable ofexploring with great sophistication the temporal structure and significance of subjects, viewpoints, and historical events.The book covers work by well-known time travel writers such as H. G. Wells, Edward Bellamy, Robert Heinlein, Samuel Delany, and Harlan Ellison, as well as pulp fiction writers of the 1920s through the 1940s, popular and avant-garde postwar science fiction, television shows such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek," and current cinema. Literature, film, and TV are read alongside theoretical work ranging from Einstein, Schrodinger, and Stephen Hawking to Gerard Genette, David Lewis, and Gilles Deleuze. Wittenberg argues that even the most mainstream audiences of popular time travel fictionand cinema are vigorously engaged with many of the same questions about temporality, identity, and history that concern literary theorists, media and film scholars, and philosophers.


“What happened to me?” I whispered to the lady at my side.

“Pardon? Oh, a meteor got you, but you didn’t miss a thing, believe
me, that duet was absolutely awful. Of course it was scandalous: they had
to send all the way to Galax for your spare,” whispered the pleasant

“What spare?” I asked, suddenly feeling numb.

“Why, yours, of course.”

“Then where am I?”

“Where? Here in the theater. Are you all right?”

“Then I am the spare?”


—STANISLAW Lem, The Star Diaries

Anyone who thinks about time travel for a while is likely to encounter something like the following dilemma. On the one hand, time travel stories would seem to constitute a minor and idiosyncratic literature, a subtype of other popular genres such as science fiction, romance, and action-adventure; time travel makes use of improbable devices and extravagant paradoxes, and in general lays claim to only a small share of the plots, topics, or themes that could conceivably interest a reader, writer, or critic of literature. On the other hand, since even the most elementary narratives, whether fictional or nonfictional, set out to modify or manipulate the order, duration, and significance of events in time—that is, since all narratives do something like “travel” through time or construct “alternate” worlds—one could arguably call narrative itself a “time machine,” which is to say, a mechanism for revising the arrangements of stories and histories. In this more expansive view, literature itself might be viewed as a subtype of time travel, rather than the other way around, and time traveling might be considered a fundamental condition of storytelling itself, even its very essence.

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