The Most Important (and Enjoyable) Time Travel Stories [Traveling Through Time and Other Vacations of the Mind, Part 2]

Last time, I speculated on why time travel is such a popular trope of science fiction, and why it is even considered science fiction at all, as opposed to fantasy. I ended with a promise to list and discuss what I felt were some of the more important (and enjoyable) time travels stories.

What follows are ten novels and one short story all involving time travel in some form or another.

  1. The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein (1956). This is not your typical time travel novel for two reasons. First, paradox–a big element in most time travel stories–is virtually absent from this novel. Second, while there is travel into the future and the past, they are done through different techniques. Traveling into the future is done via “cold sleep” (e.g. suspending animation), while traveling into the past is done via a time machine. And as can often be found in Heinlein novels, there is also a cat involved in this one.
  2. Up the Line by Robert Silverberg (1969). Until recently, this was my favorite time travel novel. Unlike The Door Into Summer, this one is loaded with paradox. Time travelers are tourist who visit historical events, with the result that many of the people attending the actual event are not contemporaries but visitors from the future. There is a Time Patrol that tries to prevent people from breaking the rules of time travel and that adds some complications. But it is the ending of this book–the very last line–that makes it so spectacular. I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it. It’s worth finding a used copy.
  3. Timescape by Gregory Benford (1980) won both the Nebula and the Campbell Memorial Award. It is the story that takes place in two time frames: a future in which earth is ecologically ruined; and a past in which physicists seems to be picking up a code from the future. It involves not only a kind of time travel (via communication from future to past), but alternate history and alternate time tracks that involve the Kennedy assassination. There is a reference in the book to a character meeting “David Selig” on a Manhattan college campus. When I read that, I emailed Benford and asked him if this was an intentional reference to Robert Silverberg‘s protagonist in Dying Inside. And indeed it was! Wonderful, outstanding book.
  4. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992). A Hugo and Nebula winner that completely blew my mind when I read it for the first time last year. Oxford historians use time travel to study the past. One historian goes back to study the “Black Death” but becomes stuck in that time. Over the course of her stay there, she lives through this outbreak and sees the toll it takes on the people that surround her. It is captivating and horrifying and funny and thought-provoking and I was completely wiped out when I finished reading the book.
  5. Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997). A unique “time travel” novel that examines the meaning of time travel and free will. A time-quake occurs that shifts everyone on earth back in time by 2 years. Those 2 years have to be relived with the knowledge of what will happen, but absolutely no ability to change the outcome.
  6. Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson (2003). Most of this novel was originally serialized in Science Fiction Age, and while not everyone liked it, I think it is a unique example of a time travel story. In this novel, the “time travel” is done through genetic engineering. In order to preserve the human genome, clones are created that live initially on a space station. These clones grow old and die and eventually a new generation of clones is created, on and on and on for millions of years. Civilizations are born and die while these clones watch. The narrative structure of this novel is interesting. Each of the clones in each generation are named the same so that it feels like we are looking at the same characters over the course of millions of years.
  7. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003). This is the story of two lovers forced to deal with an illness in which one of them bounces randomly through time. This novel was not marketed as science fiction and it took me a while to decide to read it, but when I did I was rather amazed at the complexity of it.
  8. The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (2007). If you want a fun science fiction novel, this is it. A student invents a time machine (accidentally, of course) that can only move forward through time in ever increasing intervals. This is a fun ride into distant imagined futures and I remember having a blast reading the book.
  9. Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt (2009). Another fun time-travel novel, this one is perhaps closest to Silverberg’s Up the Line in its themes. It is all about paradox and the consequences thereof, and challenges the notions of what would happen if I ran into my past-or-future self. I could tell that Jack McDevitt had a lot of fun writing this one. And there is a wonderful, touching scene at the end that I really enjoyed.
  10. Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (2010). This is the novel the ousted Up the Line from its position as my favorite time travel novel to second-favorite. Blackout/All Clear isn’t only the best time travel novel I’ve ever read, it’s one of the best novels period. It revisits the universe from Doomsday Book. This time, historians are studying the Blitz of London in World War II. Once there, they begin to find discrepancies with history, to say nothing of the fact that their “drops” that return them to the future are not opening and they appear to be stuck. The novel was broken into two parts because it was too long to publish as one book. The six month wait between the two was one of the longest waits of my life (it was then that I read Doomsday Book to fill the void). It combines time travel, historical fiction, and World War II into a stunningly complex and entertaining story that had me in tears at the end. And I was there at the Nebula Weekend a few weeks ago to see Connie Willis take home the Nebula for the novel. It was well-deserved.

Finally, I have to mention one of the most charming time travel short stories I have ever read. The story is “Cosmic Corkscrew” by Michael A. Burstein (Analog, 6/98). In this story, a time traveler goes back to the 1930s to convince a young Isaac Asimov not to give up on writing science fiction.

What time travel books and stories are on your list?

33 thoughts on “The Most Important (and Enjoyable) Time Travel Stories [Traveling Through Time and Other Vacations of the Mind, Part 2]”

  1. Great Work of Time is far and away my favorite time travel story. Unfortunately, like much of John Crowley’s work, it seems to be under-read.

    It’s relatively short–novella-length (~100 pages)–but manages to satisfy the genre reader and feel like Real Literature at the same time. It’s got epic scope, paradoxes cleverly resolved, secret societies, zepplins and angels and intelligent lizard-folk…but most of all, a compelling humanity that most writers who aren’t Crowley can only dream of crafting.

    Enjoyable? Very.

    Important? It sets the bar, for me, for what 100 pages can accomplish.

  2. Now I want to read “Up the Line” and the local library doesn’t seem to have any copies…

     

    Thanks for the mention of “Cosmic Corkscrew.” It’s one of my favorite time travel stories as well. :-)

  3. Thanks for the recommendation, codefool. I haven’t read that one yet, but I’ve heard of it.

    Euphrosyne, I haven’t read the Crowley piece either, but the description sounds just so cool. Compact stories like that can be impressive. Silverberg’s Up the Line is not a long one either.

    Michael, you must find a copy of Up the Line. It was Barry Malzberg who originally recommended it to me, indirectly. He mentions it in the intro of an anthology of time travel stories he edited.

  4. Up the Line is unfortunately a lacunae in my Silverberg reading that I need to correct.

    I have to disagree with you, Jamie, on the Accidental Time Machine. I was frankly disappointed in the book.  

    In its niche, I am partial to the Poul Anderson story “Flight to Forever” which covered a lot of the same ground, and, IMO, better.  

     

    Other Time Travel stories and novels?

    Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun has time travel and alternate histories in the same book.  I recently re-read this and it still holds up for me.

    I also enjoy the Svetz stories of Larry Niven, as I mentioned in part one of this series. 

     

  5. I think the original by H. G. Wells (The Time Machine) reads still pretty well, as does the sequel by Stephen Baxter (The Time Ships). Another excellent one is David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself.

    In short fiction I’ve always been impressed by Varley’s Air Raid and Bester’s The Men Who Murdered Mohammed and Hobson’s Choice.

  6. Paul, Silverberg’s book is a good one. Interestingly, there was a story in the July 1940 Astounding called “The Mosaic” by J. B. Ryan which, to some extent, foreshadows what Silverberg does so well in Up the Line. And you are not the only one to tell me they were disappointed by Accidental Time Machine. I thought it was a lot of fun.

    I really need to read more Poul Anderson.

  7. The first one that came to mind was one I read back in middle school – “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury. It was an incredibly vivid experience for my impressionable mind.

  8. Scotoma, I haven’t read Varley’s “Air Raid”, but I agree with you about Wells. And I did enjoy The Man Who Folded Himself, and especially liked Bester’s stories.

    Chris B., “Sound of Thunder” is a classic.

  9. Okay, a few more:

    Stephen Baxter Timelike Infinity (first time I’ve seen time machine build by a wormhole in combination with time dilation, also one of the most accessible and imminent readable books by Baxter)

    Stephen Baxter Exultant (first time I’ve seen someone not glossing over that FTL automatically means time travel and instead uses it to describe a space opera where time travel is part of the war effort, pretty smart, but like many Xeelee novels also pretty bleak)

    Ken Grimwood Replay (actually, I don’t really count this as time travel in an SFnal sense, but it’s an excellent novel and I quite like it)

    Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth is a great, nearly brilliant time travel book, but falls apart at the last moment and made me hate it even more. But up to that moment, I loved it. And it has dinosaurs, always a point in its favor.

    William Hope Hodgson The House at the Borderlands had a few scenes that were like time travel, thought there were more like vision quest into the very far future.

     

    I heard great things about Kage Baker’s Company novels, but there are so many of them and I don’t know where to start.

    I tried reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, but found it too schmaltzy and the general idea of wife-husbandry a bit icky.

  10. Ummm, I think you forgot the most respected Time travel novel of our generation in Ken Grimwood’s Replay.    

     

     

  11. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine is pretty much required; great AND influential.

     

    Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootsraps” and “All You Zombies” are also classics.

     

    Ray Bardbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” is likewise a must.

  12. The Company series by the late, great Kage Baker is my favorite time travel story of all time. The first book is called “In the Garden of Iden”.

  13. Speaking of H.G. Wells, after originally watching Malcolm McDowell (as Wells) and David Warner (as Jack the Ripper) in the Movie, I sought out and completely enjoyed Karl Alexander’s Time After Time.

    James P Hogan’s The Proteus Operation (brilliant story of travelling back in time to WWII to rewrite a Nazi dominated world) is also quite good (as is his understated Thrice Upon A Time - about being able to send messages back in time)

  14. I’ll second The Man Who Folded Himself. It’s stuck with me since I read it when it came out…

  15. Time Travel is not my favorite trope of Science Fiction but that said I like Paradox Man By Charles L. Harness and I recall someone in a recent mindmeld wanting to classify time travel as fantasy and not Science Fiction since Hawkings and others have said time travel is only theoretically possible to the time you started building your time machine. OK. But then the mindmelder went on to say FTL novels and FTL short stories are also fantasy since our scientists have said that FTL is not possible. Maybe in our galaxy and universe that maybe so. But in another universe the laws of that universe make FTL possible and once shown how it’s done maybe possible in our universe. So I will continue to consider the FRL trope science fiction.

     

     

  16. I have a special place in my heart for Moorcock’s “The Dancers at the End of Time”.

  17. One of my favorite stories is There Will be Time by Poul Anderson. It’s about Jack Havig who can travel through time without the aid of any machinery; he is just born with the ability. I remember when I read it the first time as a kid and learning about Constantinople. I also enjoy the way Havig returns to the man who befriended him and he maintains his visits over the years, growing only slightly older himself while his friend lives out his life in normal time.

    Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_Will_Be_Time

  18. Does The Forever War count? The Female Man?

    Let me add some stories, however:

    Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames” (1912).

    J.G. Ballard’s “The Greatest Television Show on Earth”.

    William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (I think you can count this one as time travel).

    Bruce Sterling’s and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades”.

    Michael Swanwick’s “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur”.

    Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”.

  19. Connie Willis?  Are you serious?  A novel about historians that contains some of the most horrendous historical gaffes ever committed to print? Actually a series of novels that seem to flaunt the author’s ignorance of her subject, and her arrogance in not actually bothering to do basic cursory research?  An example that has been widely cited in the UK, a character takes a trip on a rail line that wasn’t opened for 30 odd years.  Maybe Connie Willis thinks that Britain doesn’t really matter, in which case why does she continue to write about us so badly?  More to the point, why do reviewers like Jamie Todd Rubin abandon their critical faculties and allow her to get away with this rubbish?

    Connie Willis recent Nebula winning novel insults its readership repeatedly by its disregard for actual British history and culture, and the awarding of any acclaim to this offensive work removes all credibility from this article and from SFWA and SF Signal.

  20. It’s not that Britain doesn’t matter. It’s that a few historical errors in a work of fiction don’t matter. At least not to rantish level you suggest.

    Mike

     

  21. Kev, sorry to have upset you. But I would make a few points:

    1. I’m not from Britain and I would not have known about the rail line, but if I had, it probably would have only bothered me for a minute or two. The story was what mattered to me and I still think the story she told was a phenomenal one. 
    2. I do know that these types of errors can be frustrating. I was mildly annoyed with Dan Brown for committing a similar error in The Skeleton Key when he had his characters being chased out of the tunnel at the King Street metro station in Alexandria, Virginia. Of course, the King Street metro is above ground. There is no tunnel. Took me out of the story for a moment, but only for a moment.
    3. I wouldn’t consider the rail line “one of the most horrendous historical gaffes ever committed to print.” I could imagine others, like misplacing London, or year of the Blitz, or something like that. You might have been referring to others, but the rail line was the only example you provided so it’s all I have to work with.
    4. The idea that I allowed Connie Willis to get away with “this rubbish” implies that I would or should have known about the rail line error. But, not being from Britain or a scholar of British rail history, I am afraid I didn’t and I’m sure there were any number of small items like this that I took her word for, just as I do any author when reading a work of fiction. Otherwise, I, along with every other reader would spend all of my time fact-checking as opposed to reading.
    5. The key word in all of this I think is fiction. If the world is believeable and self-consistent; if the characters are compelling and the story is well-told, what do I care whether the historical details are accurate? Why should they be? No one ever said this was a scholarly work? It is a piece of fiction, it’s made-up, conjured in the authors imagination. We’re talking about time-travel here, after all. I don’t recall hearing about time travelers in the Blitz, but the fact that they appear in the story didn’t bother me in the least. For all I know, this could be an alternate London on some alternate time line where the rail line in question did run during the timeframe indicated.
  22. A little off topic, but Lawrence Block has written about research and getting the details right in a few of his essays on writing. In “Make No Misteak,” published in the August 1981 Writer’s Digest, he notes how he left an incorrect bus route in one of his novels because he didn’t want to deal with the changes fixing it would ensue. But he decided later that he was wrong, and he should have fixed it. He points out that it can throw the reader out of the story, and make the reader think the writer was lazy or ignorant.

    Here’s my own thoughts on this: http://mabfan.livejournal.com/192142.html

     

    In short, I think Kev has a point, but I think he’s letting himself get too worked up over it.

  23. My favorites? The five novels in John Schettler’s “Meridian Series”

    1) Meridian: A novel in Time (ForeWord Magazine’s Silver Medal Wionner for Sci-Fi Book of the year, 2002)

        Setting: WWI – Lawrence of Arabia

    2) Nexus Point

        Setting: The Crusades

    3) Touchstone

         Setting: 1799 Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt

    4) Anvil of Fate

        Setting: Early 8th Century – The Battle of Tours

    5) Golem 7

         Setting: 1941 – The Hunt for the German battleship Bismarck

     

    Five linked novels – Half a million words of great time travel fiction!

    Fined ‘em here: http://www.dharma6.com

  24. I want to thank everyone for giving me so many more time travel books to read.They all sound marvelous and i just downloaded Connie Willis’s “Doomsday” on my kindle.

    If i may suggest one that i haven’t seen on anyone’s list is Dean Koontz’s “LIGHTING” i thoroughly enjoyed it as well as the surprise ending.
    Thanks again…

  25. Time Out Of Mind by Pierre Boulle (author of Planet Of The Apes) is a classic time travel (short) story.

  26. Interesting lists! Ann and I are working on The Time Traveler’s Almanac right now, which will include over 600,000 words of reprinted time travel stories from the last hundred years.

    1. Not sure if you’ll see this, but I’ve been looking for a short story on time travelers for some time. It’s premise was that they were trapped and isolated. To locate fellow travelers, a want ad would be placed that just listed events of the future, or phrases that would have meaning to someone from the future. For instance, in 1970 posting such things as “Obama, glasnost, Apple, Bill Gates, Nokia” wold work.
      Do you remember ever encountering such a story before, and if so can you tell me who wrote it and what its title is?

  27. Thanks for all the possibilities for good reading all of you have contributed.

    No one has yet mentioned the time-travel novel I enjoyed by Octavia Butler entitled “Kindred”. Here is part of the summary from Amazon: “Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South.” Octavia Butler’s viewpoint is quite original, her writing is captivating, and if you like this novel, she has written others you might enjoy.

    I also read “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and it was well written with an unusual theme. I found it confusing, though, because the viewpoints of both people were portrayed, and the event sequence was not chronological–or was it? Hmm. What is chronological event sequence–and from whose point of view–when time traveling? Interesting considerations are involved.

    Probably my favorite time-travel short story is Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” about someone who travels on safari into the past, which I also read at a young age, so it made a great impression on me. Here is a link to the complete story: http://www.lasalle.edu/~didio/courses/hon462/hon462_assets/sound_of_thunder.htm

    1. Ah, “A Sound of Thunder!” I was just talking about that story with my daugher the other day. Now I have a copy to show her! Thanks.

      I, too, read it when young and it’s always stayed with me.

      1. Thanks for your feedback, Phil. I’m so glad the link I posted was useful. If you have a chance, I would be interested in knowing your daughter’s appx. age and her reaction to the story “A Sound of Thunder.” I am imagining her to be about 10 or 12, but she could be any age.

        For Chris B. who posted above earlier, you have some company. You and Phil and I all read this Bradbury story when we were young, and it made a lasting impression on each of us. I think there must be many others in the same boat with us.

        By the way, Phil, if your daughter is pre-teen, I just heard about a pre-teen time-travel book, which I have not read, but there sure are a lot of raves about it. I also found it at the library. It is: “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead. I am including some links for it below.

        Here is a link to reader reviews: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5310515-when-you-reach-me

        Here is a link to an excerpt: http://www.today.com/id/47326288/

Comments are closed.