[Paradoxes of Time Travel]
From “Without Prejudice”

Israel Zangwill

Countless are the romances that deal with other times, other manners; endless have been the attempts to picture the time to come. Sometimes the future is grey with evolutionary perspectives, with previsions of a post-historic man, bald, toothless and fallen into his second infancy; sometimes it is gay with ingenuous fore-glimpses of a renewed golden age of socialism and sentimentality. In his brilliant little romance The Time Machine Mr. Wells has inclined to the severer and more scientific form of prophecy—to the notion of a humanity degenerating inevitably from sheer pressure of physical comfort; but this not very novel conception, which was the theme of Mr. Besant’s Inner House, and even partly of Pearson’s National Life and Character, [1] Mr. Wells has enriched by the invention of the Morlocks, a differentiated type of humanity which lives underground and preys upon the softer, prettier species that lives luxuriously in the sun, a fine imaginative creation worthy of Swift, and possibly not devoid of satirical reference to “the present discontents.” There is a good deal of what Tyndall would have called “scientific imagination” [2] in Mr. Wells’ further vision of the latter end of all things, a vision far more sombre and impressive than the ancient imaginings of the Biblical seers. The only criticism I have to offer is that his Time Traveller, a cool scientific thinker, behaves exactly like the hero of a commonplace sensational novel, with his frenzies of despair and his appeals to fate, when he finds himself in danger of having to remain in the year eight hundred and two thousand seven hundred and one, into which he has recklessly travelled; nor does it ever occur to him that in the aforesaid year he will have to repeat these painful experiences of his, else his vision of the future will have falsified itself—though how the long dispersed dust is to be vivified again does not appear. Moreover, had he travelled backwards, he would have reproduced a Past which, in so far as his own appearance in it with his newly invented machine was concerned, would have been ex hypothesi [3] unveratious. Had he recurred to his own earlier life, he would have had to exist in two forms simultaneously, of varying ages—a feat which even Sir Boyle Roche would have found difficult. [4] These absurdities illustrate the absurdity of any attempt to grapple with the notion of Time; and, despite some ingenious metaphysics, worthy of the inventor of the Eleatic paradoxes, [5] Mr. Wells’ Time Machine, which traverses time (viewed as the Fourth Dimension of Space) backwards or forwards, much as the magic carpet of The Arabian Nights traversed space, remains an amusing fantasy. That time is an illusion is one of the earliest lessons of metaphysics; but, even if we could realise Time as self-complete and immovable, a vast continuum holding all that has happened and all that will happen, an eternal Present, even so to introduce a man travelling through this sleeping ocean is to re-introduce the notion of Time which has just been expelled. There is really more difficulty in understanding the Present than the Past or the Future into which it is always slipping; and those old Oriental languages which omitted the Present altogether displayed the keen metaphysical instinct of the East. And yet there is a sense in which the continued and continuous existence of all past time, at least, can be grasped by the human intellect without the intervention of metaphysics. The star whose light reaches us tonight may have perished and become extinct a thousand years ago, the rays of light from it having so many millions of miles to travel that they have only just impinged upon our planet. Could we perceive clearly the incidents on its surface, we should be beholding the Past in the Present, and we could travel to any given year by travelling actually through space to the point at which the rays of that year would first strike upon our consciousness. In like manner the whole Past of the earth is still playing itself out—to an eye conceived as stationed to-day in space, and moving now forwards to catch the Middle Ages, now backwards to watch Nero fiddling over the burning of Rome. The sounds of his fiddle are still vibrating somewhere in the infinite spaces, for this is the only “music of the spheres,” these voices of vanished generations, still troubling the undulatory ether. It is all there—every plea of prayer, or cry of pain, or clamour of mad multitudes; every stave of lewd song, every lullaby in every tongue in which mothers have rocked their babes to sleep, every sob of joy or passion.

*     *     *

In verity, there is no Time Traveller, Mr. Wells, save Old Father Time himself. Instead of being a Fourth Dimension of Space, Time is perpetually travelling through Space, repeating itself in vibrations farther and farther from the original point of incidence; a vocal panorama moving through the universe across the infinities, a succession of sounds and visions that, having once been, can never pass away, but only on and on from point to point, permanently enregistered in the sum of things, preserved from annihilation by the endlessness of Space, and ever visible and audible to eye or ear that should travel in a parallel movement. It is true the scientists allege that only light can thus travel through the infinities, sound-waves being confined to a material medium and being quickly dissipated into heat. But light alone is sufficient to sustain my fantasy, and in any case the sounds would he aeons behind the sights. Terrible, solemn thought that the Past can never die, and that for each of us Heaven or Hell may consist in our being placed at the point of vantage in Space where we may witness the spectacle of our past lives, and find bliss or bale in the panorama. How much ghastlier than the pains of the pit, for the wicked to he perpetually “moved on” by some Satanic policeman to the mathematical point at which their autobiography becomes visible, a point that moves backwards in the infinite universe each time the green curtain of the grave falls over the final episode, so that the sordid show may commence all over again, and so ad infinitum. Pascal [6] defined Space as a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. This brilliant figure helps us to conceive God as always at the centre of vision, receiving all vibrations simultaneously, and, thus beholding all Past time simultaneously with the Present. We can also conceive of Future incidents being visible to a spectator, who should be moved forward to receive the impressions of them aeons earlier than they would otherwise have reached him. But these “futures” would only be relative; in reality they would already have happened, and the absolute Future, the universe of things that have not happened, would still elude our vision, though we can very faintly imagine the Future, interwoven inevitably with the Past, visible to an omniscient Being somewhat as the evolution of a story is to the man of genius upon whom past and future flash in one conception. Mr., Wells might how been plausibly scientific in engineering his Time Machine through Space and stopping at the points where particular periods of the world’s past history became visible: he would then have avoided the fallacy of mingling personally in the panorama. But this would not have suited his design of “dealing in futures.” For there is no getting into the Future, except by waiting. You can only sit down and see it come by, as the drunken man thought he might wait for his house to come round in the circulation of the earth; and if you lived for an eternity, the show would only be “just about to begin.”


1. Walter Besant’s [1836-1901] dystopic [romance] The Inner House was published in 1888, C[harles] H[enry] Pearson’s [1830-94] socio-historical study National Life and Character: A Forecast in 1894.

2. The Victorian physicist John Tyndall [1820-93] [distinguished physicist] often preached the importance of the creative imagination in scientific research.

3. According to the premises on which the argument is based.

4. An eighteenth-century politician renowned for his Yogi Berra-esque misstatements. [Irish politician (1743-1807) known for his unintentionally comic sayings, e.g., “it is impossible I could have been in two places at once, unless I were a bird.”]

5. Zeno, the famous Greek philosopher associated with the Eleatic school founded by Parmenides, was known for his paradoxes. [I.e., Zeno of Elea (fl. c. 460 B.C.), inventor of such famous paradoxes as “Achilles and the Tortoise.”]

6. Blaise Pascal [1623-62], the seventeenth-century French [mathematician and] philosopher.

SOURCE: Zangwill, Israel. [Paradoxes of Time Travel] from “Without Prejudice,” Pall Mall Magazine 7, September 1895, pp. 153-155, out of pp. 151-160.

Reprinted in:

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine: An Invention. Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism; edited by Stephen Arata (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), pp. 184-187.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine: An Invention; edited by Nicholas Ruddick (Peterborough, ON; Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2001), pp. 272-276.


[Zangwill (1864-1926), only a couple of years older than Wells, had come to prominence in 1892 with his novel Children of the Ghetto, about the experience of Jewish immigrants in the East End of London.]

Text and footnotes are taken from Arata. Ruddick’s text is slightly abridged, hence not used. Additional information from Ruddick’s footnotes is added in brackets to Arata’s footnotes, here reproduced as endnotes. Note also that Zangwill was the creator of the concept of the “melting pot” and a defector from mainstream Zionism, favoring “territorialism” and at one point establishment of a Jewish colony in Uganda. —RD

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