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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler
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