Six of the Best … Time Travel Stories

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Who among us hasn’t dreamed of travelling through time? Not necessarily to change anything, but just to have a look. Many of us would love to leap forward and see the consequences of our actions, or find out what happens to the planet. Maybe we even want to just get a look at the lottery numbers. Similarly, don’t many of us want to head back through time as well, to meet the late, great heroes of history, or maybe just to find out exactly what dinosaurs tasted like. It seems, however, that time travel – particularly into the past – will remain something that we find only in fiction. As Isaac Asimov said, “Time travel is theoretically impossible, but I wouldn’t want to give it up as a plot gimmick.”

Time travel didn’t originate as a science fiction concept, however, and has been around a lot longer than you may realise. In Hindu mythology, there is the story of King Raivata Kakudmi who visits Brahma in heaven, only to return home to find that “many ages have passed”. The Japanese fairy tale Urashima Tarō – first recorded in the eighth century – features a protagonist who spends three days in an undersea palace, but returns home to find himself three hundred years into the future.

When the concept begins to slip into science fiction territory, it at first focuses on characters who fall asleep for great lengths of time, only to wake up in the future. Examples include Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving (20 years into the future), Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (113 years into the future), and The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells (203 years into the future). Wells, of course, changes everything with the writing of The Time Machine in 1895 – see below for more on this – by giving the protagonist some agency in his travelling. He, however, wasn’t the first to produce a time machine. In 1881, the story “The Clock that Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell introduced a clock that, when wound, transported people nearby back in time. The first vessel actually engineered specifically to travel in time, however, appears in El Anacronópete, a Spanish novel by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau. It predates The Time Machine by just eight years. Since then, science fiction has expanded the nature of what makes a time machine hugely, giving us such greats as the TARDIS and the Back to the Future DeLorean, easily two of the coolest time travel vessels in fiction.

So, how does time travel work? Truthfully, we don’t know. We’re trapped in our forward linear progression of one second at a time. Of course, minds greater than mine have explained what happens when we start moving at the speed of light, but I’m not even close to understanding any of it, so instead I’m going to focus on fiction and what happens in other time periods once we get there. Depending on the story you’re reading (or writing) there will be various “laws” of time travel. There are, broadly speaking, five sets of rules and most works fall into one of these categories.

  1. In the first set of rules, it is impossible to change the past, as since the past has already happened, you’d already done anything that you went back to do. (Time travel is also notorious in making tenses incredibly uncomfortable, so bear with me.) An example of this is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry and Hermione go back in time to save Sirius Black from death, and are able to do so only because they already did. History cannot be changed. (The later Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play, however, ignored this entirely.)
  2. Secondly, you’ve got a situation where time can be changed, but there are people or forces in play that ensure it doesn’t happen. A good example is 11/22/63 by Stephen King, where the larger the change one is trying to make in the past, the more the past resists, relying on contrived coincidences to keep the timeline “normal”.
  3. The third idea is that of the “rubber-band theory”. That is, you can change history but it will snap back and undo most of the changes. This is mentioned in Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak as the reason there’s no point in killing Hitler – someone else will just fill that role instead.
  4. The fourth idea is one in which history can be changed but you can also go and play around in it and affect nothing. It seems to run on rules beyond our understanding or any given explanation. This is probably also why it’s the kind that features in the Discworld novel, Night Watch.
  5. Finally, you’ve got the chaos theory version of events, in which even the tiniest changes will have unpredictable, massive effects on the future. The most famous example of this is Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, which I’ll discuss below.

And then what about the changes you made – if you were able to make them at all? Sometimes you’ve overwritten your present (which opens a whole barrel of snakes regarding paradoxes and whether this means you would have been alive to go back in time in the first place),

There’s still so much I could discuss here regarding wormholes, paradoxes, quantum physics and multiverses, but we’ve all got places to be. Suffice to say, there’s always time to mention how time travel works in the Thursday Next series of books by Jasper Fforde. For the first four books of the series, it works in such a way that people can travel freely through time, passing through anomalies and such, and sometimes being entirely wiped from history and never having existed at all, despite their children still surviving. The absolute highlight of what is already a very funny and clever series of books comes in the fifth book when it turns out that time travel has only been being used on the assumption it’ll be invented one day, and when travellers reach the end of the universe and find it was never actually invented, they have to close down the departments and stop it all from happening. Simply genius.

So what are some of the best books about time travel? Let me introduce you to six of the best…

A Sound of Thunder

If you’ve never heard of Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept it birthed – “the butterfly effect”. In 2055, Time Safari Inc. is a company that lets wealthy adventurers head back into the past to hunt extinct creatures. Unsure as to how much they may impact the future, they specifically target creatures that would have died minutes later anyway, trying to change as little as possible. Told to keep to the prescribed path, one traveller panics and as he flees, crushes a butterfly beneath his boot, sending a ripple effect through time that changes the present in ways no one could have comprehended. It’s a brilliant book that explores the nature of causality. It also raises the issue that we seem to worried about making tiny changes in the past, apparently not realising that the things we’re doing right now, in our present, are sending ripples of change down into our future.

Time Salvager

Wesley Chu does wonders with time travel in Time Salvager by drawing attention to some aspects of it that seems to be forgotten. Set in 2511, it follows James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who travels back in time to rescue artefacts and power sources from history so they can be reused in this dying future. He finds himself on the run, however, when he breaks the first law of time travel and brings someone from the past with him into this desiccated new existence. I primarily remember the book for being the only one I’ve ever seen to take location fully into account with time travel and understanding that if you travel back to the exact same spot, the whole planet will be absent, as it is constantly moving in space. Loaded with science fiction tropes of all kinds, the book plays up the fact that humans are the great survivors and will whether whatever storm comes their way.

Man in the Empty Suit

How time travel came to be in Man in the Empty Suit is left unanswered – we simply know that our unnamed protagonist can and does flit around the timeline, only returning every year on his birthday to a hotel in New York in the year 2071 to party with sixty or so versions of himself. Things go wrong, however, when he arrives on his 39th birthday to find his 40-year-old self dead. The versions of him that are older are still present, however, and warn him that he’s got a year to solve his own murder, as by the time the next birthday rolls around, this will be him. Sean Ferrell then weaves a beautiful, dark and very clever time travel murder mystery in which the same man is the victim, investigator and all the suspects. It’s been some years since I read this, but the unique premise has stayed with me ever since.

Making History

One of the most commonly recurring ideas in time travel fiction is that of Hitler’s early demise. It seems that every other writer has contemplated killing off Hitler and stopping World War Two, usually to find the present they return to is radically different. Making History is Stephen Fry’s attempt at the notion and is one of the most intriguing. Here, a male contraceptive pill is sent back in time and put in the well in Braunau am Inn so that Hitler’s father drinks the water, is sterilised and Hitler is never born. The timeline shifts to an alternate future where, in the absence of Hitler, another even more charming, patient and effective leader founded and took control of the Nazi party, using the water from the well to sterilise Jews and wipe them out in a single generation. Utterly chilling, it is a brilliant and spooky alternate universe that maybe makes you realise that things could always be worse.

The Time Machine

The first novel to really popularise the concept of a vehicle that has been specifically designed to travel through time, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is one of the keystones of the genre. Beginning in Victorian England, the Time Traveller (as the protagonist is known) leaps ahead to AD 802,701 where humanity has divided into two species. On the surface live the Eloi, small childlike beings with a fruit-based diet and no curiosity regarding the world around them. Underground and in caves, we find the Morlocks, simian troglodytes that only emerge at night to hunt the Eloi. When the Morlocks steal his time machine, he must seek out a solution in this weird world to get it back again. Broadly speaking, the novel serves as an allegory for the class system, but is enjoyable on its own merits if you don’t feel like having political ideology interrupting your reading.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Perhaps my favourite example of time travel fiction – or at least the one that has made me cry the most – The Time Traveller’s Wife is, in my opinion, a thing of beauty. In it, we meet Henry who has a genetic disorder that displaces him from time, sending him to other points within his life with not even the clothes on his back along for the journey. When he’s 28, he meets Clare for the first time and has no idea who she is. She, however, has known him since childhood. Now their relationship can begin in earnest, if Clare can learn to live with Henry disappearing without warning at any time. Simply, this is one of the most beautiful and powerful love stories I’ve ever come across, and in many ways the time travel is incidental, as if it’s a far more banal disease that Henry suffers from. It doesn’t feel like science fiction, and Niffenegger manages to construct very human and realistic characters and situations from a very unusual premise.


Thanks for joining in and reading the second entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu (2015)

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time-salvager“A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display.”

An ongoing theme of 2016 has been a fear for the future. Humans have always worried, but this year, with the terror of Brexit, several very high profile tragedies involving people from all walks of life, and a xenophobic madman just a few steps away from taking the most powerful office in the world, it makes anyone stop and think long and hard about what we might be stumbling into. I’ve been trying to give dystopian fiction because it feels too much like fact these days, but old habits die hard and that’s how I ended up in the horrendous future depicted in Time Salvager.

It’s 2511 and we meet James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who is one of an elite band of highly trained individuals who is employed to leap back in time and collect equipment that will help humanity in this future. The species is spread across the solar system, from Mercury to Eris, but it’s rapidly dying out. Heading back in time to collect energy sources and more mundane resources from spots in history that won’t alter the chronostream is the only way humanity is continuing to cling on. The Earth itself is poisoned and almost destroyed, with just a few cities left populated by scavengers and primitive tribes. The land, sea and air of our former home are all brown and grey, polluted and overrun with a plague that destroys everything it comes into contact with.

James is assigned a new task to rescue a power source from an oceanic rig in 2097, the year before World War Three started. If he succeeds in this job, he and his handler Smitt can retire to Europa and never have to work again. However, while there, he forms an attachment quickly to biologist Elise Kim, and when the rig begins to fall into the sea as history dictates, he breaks the first law of time travel and brings Elise with him back into the future to a world far grimmer than she could ever have imagined.

Now considered a fugitive, James must hide on the toxic wasteland that is Earth, in a city that once may have been Boston, and make sure that neither he or Elise are found by the ChronoCom, or worse, the megacorporation Valta. James may have some of the most advanced technology in history at his disposal, but it’ll take more than machinery to stay hidden and survive on that Earth.

Wesley Chu manages to neatly sidestep the question of how time travel actually works in this book, by having James explain that just because he uses it, it doesn’t mean he understands it. This is fair, really, because while I’m typing this on a laptop, I’d never be able to explain to a stranger exactly how it works. The vision of a brown, desecrated Earth is a terribly sad one, and the book suggests that life out among the planets isn’t much better. Humans have continued doing what they’ve always done – fought wars over resources – but we learn through neat exposition that the stakes always got bigger, whether humans were fighting for the rocky minerals of the asteroid belt, or mining the gas of Saturn and Neptune. Our knowledge of what happened between our time and 2511 comes piecemeal, explained to Elise by James. Humanity seemed to go through various phases, including one where the planet turned into something Orwellian for a while. Specific explanations of what the technology used by the characters are also fleeting, but you get the general idea.

James Griffin-Mars isn’t outstandingly interesting as a character. He’s plagued by guilt with all the people he’s left to die (chronmen must take resources from a point where it won’t affect the timeline, so it’s usually just before some major disaster was going to destroy the equipment anyway) and sees visions of some of these people. He’s also something of a cliched alcoholic who doesn’t like authority. He’s not entirely without redeeming features though. He’s brave and he certainly cares about (some) people, just often has a funny way of showing it. He also has the most character development throughout the novel, but it’s not much we haven’t seen before. The best characters are the two leading ladies, Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, the latter being the scientist who first drew up the rules of time travel and is almost worshipped by the chronmen and their organisation. They each lend James a touch of humanity, but in different ways, and allow us often to get a better grasp on what’s happening in this future.

Like most books set in dystopian futures, there is a note of hope in the text, especially towards the end, and a sense that while humans will almost always do the wrong thing first, they will eventually see the error of their ways and try to do the right thing, in their own slapdash, do-it-yourself style. Humans are the great survivors, and once more you get the impression that they’ll make it through this in one form or another.

A nice addition to the time travel canon, and definitely one for those who can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, but full to the brim with science fiction tropes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.