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Time Travel

The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

David Wittenberg

Publication Year: 2012

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 literal devices 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, throughrelativity and quantum physics in the mid-20th century, to more 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 of exploring 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," andcurrent 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 fiction and cinema are vigorously engaged with many of the samequestions about temporality, identity, and history that concern literary theorists, media and film scholars, and philosophers.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-8

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pp. ix-12

A great number of people helped me think through and complete this book. Thanks to Holly Carver, Dilip Gaonkar, Paul Harris, Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Tom Lay, Tom Lutz, Julia Madsen, David Martinez, Eric Newman, Joe Parsons, Lily Robert- Foley, Garrett Stewart, Satomi Saito, Michael Witmore, Agnes...

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Introduction: Time Travel and the Mechanics of Narrative

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pp. 1-32

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...

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One: Macrological Fictions: Evolutionary Utopia and Time Travel (1887– 1905)

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pp. 33-46

In the mid- 1880s, when Edward Bellamy was writing Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887, the available repertoire of literary devices did not yet include anything so convenient as a time machine for transporting characters into the far future.1 Lacking such a convenience, and yet plainly anxious to avoid the more fantastic...

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Historical Interval I: The First Time Travel Story

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pp. 47-51

I have traced the lineage of the early time travel story to another genre’s residual component, the macrologue of utopian romance. In offering such a genealogy, I have gone against the more usual tendency among literary critics, as well as among historians of science fiction, to locate the origins of time travel in the literary...

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Two: Relativity, Psychology, Paradox: Wertenbaker to Heinlein (1923– 1941)

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pp. 52-78

In 1907, in a paper anticipating some aspects of his forthcoming general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein suggests that light rays approaching a massive body such as the Earth “are bent by the gravitational field” of that body. He then adds, regretfully, that “the effect of the terrestrial gravitational field is so...

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Historic Interval II: Three Phases of Time Travel / The Time Machine

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pp. 79-90

In my first “Historical Interval,” I proposed Harold Steele Mackaye’s The Panchronicon as the first time travel story— maybe a perverse choice, yet compelled by the peculiar, halting origins of time travel fiction. Mackaye’s novel arrives with the decline of a particular narrative mode I named the macrologue, a conglomeration...

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Three: “The Big Time”: Multiple Worlds, Narrative Viewpoint, and Superspace

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pp. 91-115

Early in Albert Einstein’s famous 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” the first formulation of his special theory of relativity, he remarks that any assertions of electrodynamic theory must “concern the relations between rigid bodies (coordinate systems), clocks, and electrodynamic...

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Four: Paradox and Paratext: Picturing Narrative Theory

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pp. 116-142

Samuel R. Delany’s 1966 novel Empire Star opens with this description of its protagonist, Comet Jo: He had: a waist- length braid of blond hair; a body that was brown and slim and looked like a cat’s, they said, when he curled up...

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Theoretical Interval: The Primacy of the Visual in Time Travel Narrative

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pp. 143-147

In the preceding two chapters I have been assessing the merits of my initial proposition that time travel stories are a “narratological laboratory” in which structuring conditions of storytelling are depicted as literal plot. I would like briefly to sum up what one observes in such a laboratory, particularly with..

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Five: Viewpoint-Over-Histories: Narrative Conservation in Star Trek

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pp. 148-177

My chief examples in this chapter are taken from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 to 1994 and featured time travel plots in a number of episodes. I also discuss some ways in which analytic philosophers have treated time travel stories as thought experiments in logic and causality...

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Six: Oedipus Multiplex, or, The Subject as a Time Travel Film: Back to the Future

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pp. 178-203

My concluding chapter offers a detailed study of a very well-known time travel film, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985).1 This film may represent a paragon of time travel storytelling in the mode of straightforward popular literature, indeed possibly the most generic and stridently mainstream version of this peculiar...

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Conclusion: The Last Time Travel Story

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pp. 205-236

In my first “Historical Interval,” I proposed, of course polemically, that Harold Steele Mackaye’s The Panchronicon ought to be considered the first time travel story. Both historical and formal reasons compel this suggestion, even if the retrospective judgment of genre history might seem to render it frivolous...


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pp. 237-275

Works Cited

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pp. 277-296


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pp. 297-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780823250271
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823249961
Print-ISBN-10: 0823249964

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 16 b/w
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: Text

OCLC Number: 859686977
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Time Travel

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Subject Headings

  • Time perception in literature.
  • Time travel in literature.
  • Narration (Rhetoric).
  • Literature -- Philosophy.
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