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Worlds Without End Blog

When Did You Discover Time Travel? Posted at 1:46 PM by James Wallace Harris


How old were you when you first encountered the concept of time travel? I used to believe it was when I first saw the George Pal version of The Time Machine which came out in 1960, and I didn’t see until 1962 or 1963 when I was ten or eleven. Memory is a highly unreliable resource, especially for dating. I vaguely remember that seeing the movie made me get the book from my school library the next day. What’s weird, is I don’t remember being blown away by the idea of a time machine at that time. And time travel is certainly a concept that was mind blowing. What I remember, was being blown away at the idea that humans could mutate into new species. Now that was something to think about.

My guess is I already knew about time travel. But when did I first encounter the idea?

In past decades I assumed all the great science fiction concepts like aliens, robots, time travel, interstellar travel, artificial intelligence came from reading science fiction. But in more recent years, as I wrote about my past, struggling to get the facts right, I realized that assumption was wrong. This line of thought started when I tried to remember when I first learned about dinosaurs. I wondered why little kids love dinosaurs, and if they understood dinosaurs existed millions of years ago and are now extinct. Those are heavy concepts too – vast times and extinction. I remember having dreams about dinosaurs when I was four or five, well before I could read, or attend school. And I don’t remember my parents telling me about dinosaurs. How did I learn about them?

Finally, I assumed I was introduced to all the far out ideas of science fiction via television, even though I grew up in the 1950s when television was primitive. That’s why I’ve felt I’ve always known about outer space, robots and traveling through time. Hell, I might have been exposed to time travel before I could tell time.

Evidently, childhood was a phase when my mind was a mass of proto-concepts gathered from television – like Pangaea before splitting into distinguishable continents. Reading science fiction shaped those vague impressions into precise concepts. Although reading Time Travel by James Gleick made me realize that time travel is a tremendously complex subject that we continue to refine.

Now here’s the thing I really want to talk about. In this age of alternate facts, should we be raising kids by stuffing them with fantasy and fantastic beliefs before they understand the nature of reality? We believe that make-believe is perfect for young minds, but is that true? Can you imagine a different way, where we taught kids facts first, and then later introduced them to fantasy?

Can you imagine growing up only seeing science shows that carefully explained what we know and how we know it? How would that change society? Would a fact-based early childhood education make us more realistic about reality? Is fiction the driving force that makes us constantly reshape reality with alternative facts? Does fantasy consumption encourage fantasy viewpoints? What an idea for a science fiction/fantasy novel! Imagine our world without science fiction and fantasy.

Let’s consider one more thing. What if we raised kids without fiction — at what age would they invent time travel on their own? When would they imagine building robots that could think like people, or traveling to Mars? Do we cheat our kids by telling them about all the far out ideas before they could invent them on their own?

Science fiction is a technology for transmitting speculative ideas, ones that writers have predigested for us, sort of like when Neo in The Matrix is taught martial arts with a program injected into his brain. I’m just wondering if we’d have more grit if we acquired our concepts through working out ideas ourselves.

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Becky Lindroos   |   09 Feb 2017 @ 17:16

While teaching Kindergarten, which I did for many years, I discovered that most of the kids enjoy “fact-based” books more than fiction. They love books about real animals with lots of pictures most, I think, but transportation is also big – boys and girls. Teaching both gives the teacher the ability to help the kids distinguish – “Why is this make-believe?” – “Because pigs can’t talk.” That little skill ought to be sharpened all the way through school – through post-graduate because it ought to be used all the way through life.

jwharris28   |   09 Feb 2017 @ 17:32

Becky, when I was in the 4th and 5th grade, I loved to read books about nature, planes, ships, animals. I don’t think I even understood the idea of novels yet. I was used to stories on TV. And my mother had read me Treasure Island in the third grade. But when they took me to the library I picked out non-fiction books. Then we moved to Homestead Air Force Base and I got to use its library. I discovered the Oz books. That switched me. It’s funny, but in my twenties, I found an old magazine at the library that talked about how in the 1950s that librarians had pulled Oz books because they feared they inspired unrealistic expectations about life. I thought that was horrible, but I also realized it was true with me.

badseedgirl   |   11 Feb 2017 @ 21:53

After reading this blog, I sat down to write a scathing rebuttal, but as I sat in front of my computer, and really started thinking about what you actually said, and I was unable to write anything except this vague concept, that encouraging kids to read anything, fiction or non-fiction is a good thing.

After several days of contemplation, I’m just not sure if I damaged the children I raised by reading them “Goodnight Moon.” each night. I hope that what I did was show them worlds where things could be easier, better, and kinder. I only pray I also gave them the motivation to create that world here.

Jim Harris   |   12 Feb 2017 @ 11:19

Badseedgirl, I agree reading is a good thing. And it’s a very complex question to wonder if some stories are better than others. I believe what I read has shaped who I am. But if that is true, then it assumes if I read something different it would have made me a different person. If we accept that, then we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of trying to determine what is good to read.

By the way, Goodnight Moon is 70 years old this year. It is an enduring story that enchants children. I would think it would be a safe read.

My wondering is different. I was wondering if we give kids too many concepts too soon. That if we held back some, they might think of them on their own. I learned about Mars from stories of people going to Mars. If I had learned about Mars first, I wonder if I would have thought, “I wonder how I could get to Mars?”

I don’t know if letting kids have some space really has any value or not. What we’re really doing is cramming as much knowledge and wisdom into children as fast as possible so they can hit the ground running. The world is so complicated we want them to catch up quickly. I’m just wondering if slowing the pace down would be more pleasurable.

Sable Aradia   |   15 Feb 2017 @ 01:19

I thought about this with some seriousness. But it didn’t take me long to see two flaws in the argument. The first is this: who gets to adjudicate the facts?

I think we’d end up with a situation like that movie “The Invention of Lying.” Having never been told anything but facts, if someone told them a lie, our children would not know the difference.

The second issue is that I think to deny young children fantasy would be to cripple them in future life. So much of our minds are formed in early childhood! Feral children never learn language, because their brains are simply not equipped to develop the facility for language if we don’t forge the neural pathways when they are small. I think denying fantasy to small children would create a generation of adults who could not do art, not appreciate music, and not daydream. I would also argue that a greater facility for imagination and creativity than adults might be the reason that children far more rarely suffer from depression than adults do.

But perhaps it would not hurt us to emphasize the difference between fact, fiction, theory, idea, and opinion. Teach some critical thinking skills. Emphasize when something is “just a story.” Our schools used to do this, and if they didn’t, the news did, but we cannot rely on these teachers anymore. We must do it ourselves.

Jim Harris   |   15 Feb 2017 @ 11:54

Sable, I was mainly wondering about these ideas. It would be interesting to know if children raised with different kinds reading would turn out significantly different. We think of childhood as a magical time because quite often we believe in magic when young. I loved fantasy and science fiction as a kid, but now that I’m 65 and looking backward, I wonder if I didn’t overdo it.

I’m currently listening to One While Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich. It’s a beautiful little book about Heinrich’s observations of wild birds, including some birds that he befriended as pets. It has a tremendous sense of wonder and is magical in its own way. Do we miss a great deal from our current childhood pursuits?

The essay above essentially asks: Should we tell young people ideas before they can figure them out themselves? Our educational system is based on stuffing kids with knowledge. That doesn’t give them time to think for themselves. Maybe that’s why they love escapist activities because they are tired of being spoon-fed data. Living in a book, movie or video game is actually choosing to live in a simpler world.

I was just wondering if we didn’t overwhelm kids with education or fiction, would they learn to think on their own, and see the world differently. I’m just contemplating roads not taken.

Sable Aradia   |   17 Feb 2017 @ 03:03

Okay, fair enough. To that I would argue that George R. Stewart answered that question in Earth Abides. Which changed my whole post-apocalypse plan. I figured that we needed to take care of survival first. But now I know that once we get a roof over our heads and learn how to kill a deer, we need to start schools up again right away, or we’re going back to the dark ages.

I personally don’t think that people give children enough credit in their ability to think for themselves. Now, granted, I ran into things that I thought were true that weren’t as well. But I was a kid just like you, I think: I absorbed both fact and fiction like a sponge. So, as a result, I have become fairly well-read in my adulthood on a lot of different topics; something that I take as a given holds true for pretty much every person who uses this site. I think this is a strong advantage. When compared to people who did not have as great an exposure to books of all types as children, I think that I have an *easier* time, not a harder one, differentiating between fact and fiction; and that would be because I had the opportunity to make those mistakes more *as* a child.

George Kelley   |   28 Mar 2017 @ 10:23

I first discovered Time Travel when I read Andre Norton’s THE TIME TRADERS as a kid. I was probably 10 years old. Then I went back to the Library to read the sequel, GALACTIC DERELICT (great title!), another Time Travel SF novel. That led to Fritz Leiber’s THE BIG TIME and Poul Anderson’s THE TIME PATROL series. And dozens more!

Dido   |   28 Mar 2017 @ 13:29

“Science fiction is a technology for transmitting speculative ideas, ones that writers have predigested for us, …”

That’s true, but it’s also a way of looking at our own world and its issues through a different lense. “Going Green” by Heather Ransom is a perfect example of that. Speculative fiction speculates on where we are headed by way of where we’ve been.

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