When it comes to reading fiction, many of us have a guilty pleasure or three. One of mine is time-travel novels.
Yes, few of those novels are great literature, though some come close. But even mediocre time-travel books attract my interest. That’s because the genre can fire the imagination as well as offer wish-fulfillment (who among us hasn’t dreamt of visiting the past or future?). I’m also curious how the protagonist will fit in with the visited time, and whether she or he will be “found out” as someone not of that time. Some time-travel novels also grab readers by cleverly taking unexpected approaches to their temporal leaps, and/or by making strong sociopolitical points, and/or by including real-life famous people in cameos or major roles.
My most recent foray into time-travel fiction, this past week, was Connie Willis’ novel Blackout — which stars several historians from 2060 who go back to World War II-era England to observe people and events, even as the 2060 society’s time-travel system starts exhibiting some glitches that put the historians in added danger. Among the points Willis makes amid the absorbing plot threads is that “average people” (in this case, English citizens of the 1940s) can exhibit a lot of bravery or at least stoicism, and that history unfolds somewhat differently than the way it’s chronicled. Plus there’s the inevitable question of whether going back in time might change history.
One of the memorable fiction works relating to that last possibility is Ray Bradbury’s iconic short story “A Sound of Thunder.”
Re time-travel fiction as a sociopolitical device, excellent examples include Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In Butler’s novel, the vicious evil of American slavery is depicted via the experiences of a 20th-century Black woman yanked back to the pre-Civil War south, while Twain uses his seriocomic time-travel book to satirize deadly militarism.
The Looking Backward novel by Twain contemporary Edward Bellamy puts a lens on the dystopian nature of much of late-19th-century life by making the year 2000 a utopian time. (Our real 21st century turned out differently. 😦 ) H.G. Wells is much more pessimistic about the (distant) future in The Time Machine.
Many other time-travel books offer readers pure entertainment and/or edge-of-the-seat adventure and/or mystery and/or passionate romance. Among them are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its eight sequels co-starring 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser in the 1700s, Jack Finney’s New York City-set Time and Again, and Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back — all terrific novels.
Other titles I’ve read with a lot or some time-travel elements include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Karl Alexander’s Time After Time, Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Caroline D. Emerson’s The Magic Tunnel, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” to name a few.
Any time-travel works you’d like to mention?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s sorry public pool situation — is here.