Time to Talk Time-Travel Titles

Connie Willis

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.

113 thoughts on “Time to Talk Time-Travel Titles

  1. Interesting post about time travel novels. Thank you. I suppose I’m an “accidental tourist” when it comes to time travel novels. I read them because I like the author, the characters, or the theme. Time travel is a secondary attraction.
    I will add “Many Waters” and “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by L’Engle to your list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, vanaltman! Interesting take — I can definitely see enjoying time travel as a secondary aspect of a novel. Certainly the case with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” among other books. I like novels with time travel both when that travel is the main element or a secondary element.

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  2. Even though I haven’t read much on time travelling related fictions but I’ve definitely watched the Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban. This article gave me some recommendations to start on. Thanks Dave !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love “The Time Machine”.

    I’d like to add the book “The Viking and the Courtesan”, by Shehanne Moore. The neat part is the time travel is from long ago – 1819 to 898 ad. and back and forth.
    Shey is very clever.

    I used to like reruns of the tv show,”The Time Tunnel”, and thought I remembered reading a book by that title. Turns out there are 3 books, and they are based on the TV series. They came out after the series came out, so that’s a different subject.
    There are definitely some times and places I’d like to visit!

    Meet you in Paris during the Jazz Age, for coffee and croissant, Dave! Of course we just need to figure out how.

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    • Thank you, Resa! “The Time Machine” is a VERY memorable novel. And definitely one of the earlier time-travel books.

      That Shehanne Moore novel does indeed sound great and clever. Two adjectives Shehanne is very deserving of. πŸ™‚

      I watched “The Time Tunnel” as a young kid, and loved it! Yes, some TV series spawn books — certainly also the case with “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” etc.

      LOL — your final paragraph! πŸ˜‚ Meeting in Paris in the 1920s only requires finding the right metro… πŸ™‚

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  4. Dave, Jonathan Swift was satirist, author, essayist, , poet, and Anglican cleric who became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin,
    was also called Dean Swift
    .
    How about Gulliver’s Travels,by Swift, satiriing both human nature and the travellers’ tales .
    It is Swift’s best known full-length work. A classic of English literature. or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts.

    About ten years ago I visited Dublin, one of the most friendly cities we visited.There was the huge statue of Oscar Wilde, across his residence, smirking at the World , now what it has become.

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    • Thank you, Bebe! I read “Gulliver’s Travels” so long ago that I forgot some of the details. If there was some time travel involved, that’s very interesting.

      Wonderful that you visited Dublin — associated with Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker… (And the band U2. πŸ™‚ )

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  5. Argentinian Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote “The Invention of Morel” (1940), a surreal tale of an escaped prisoner who arrives at an island on which the inhabitants seem to be engaged in repetitive actions, which he cannot alter. Nor can he quite interact with his fellows, despite falling in love with one. Eventually, he discovers that the inhabitants are actually recordings in three dimensions, reproduced by projecting machines which replicate visual, aural, tactile and even olfactory information with such accuracy that they cannot be distinguished from human beings. The visitors who had been recorded by these fantastic machines were long dead, but the kinetic energy of the wind kept the projecting machines working, so that, in a way that predates the virtual world, they have a sort of eternal existence.

    I would count this as one example of a sort of time travel in that the conversations and scenes depicted were all out of a past time that the prisoner came to live within.

    Casares also wrote a short story about a man who was so immersed in his research of history that he somehow manages to leave his own time and disappear physically into the subject of his inquiry , a story thematically related, I think, to his contemporary and friend JL Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” about a man who researched “Don Quixote” and the times in which Cervantes wrote so thoroughly that he is able finally to write the novel from end to end without error, so entirely has he made himself simpatico and attuned to his subject.

    Each of these examples I would also hold up as time travel of a kind,which though entirely imaginary, are at least as palpable and viable as more traditional sci-fi time travel tropes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! “The Invention of Morel” sounds amazing, and I agree that it’s time-travel fiction in an unusual way. Expertly summarized by you, and it’s now on my to-read list. That short story you also described sounds intriguing as well!

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      • The book I’ve got around here somewhere (and I’ve looked!) among the tottering piles was, if I remember, put out by the University of Texas, and included other stories besides “Morel”– including the one I described about the history researcher. Maybe, since “Morel” is a novella in size, most publications available will have both.

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  6. When I saw this title, Dave, I thought I wouldn’t have read any books in this genre as sci-fi isn’t a favourite genre of mine. When I looked at your list of books, I realised I have read more than I thought. I suppose time travel has always fascinated people and so authors are drawn to it. Stephen King did this with his novel 11/22/63. Teagan Riordain Geneviene has also just finished her splendid tale involving time travel. WRT HG Well’s Time Machine, I didn’t really find his idea of the future races pessimistic. What I took away from that book is that humans need adversity and challenges in order to progress. If we lived in a utopia, we would diminish as beings as there would be nowhere to channel our brain power and make our minds grow. That is the aspect of that particular book I just loved. I thought it was so utterly clever of the author to see how mankind works that way. Some authors are just geniuses, aren’t they?

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    • Thank you, Robbie, for the various mentions of authors and titles!

      I appreciate the interesting thoughts about “The Time Machine.” I see your point about H.G. Wells basically saying humans need adversity and challenges in order for things to progress. But I guess he was being pessimistic in showing that this was not happening as much as it should have in the future — which, at least for some of the population, didn’t seem that utopian. And then the melancholy very end of the novel, in the far-far-far-distant future… 😦

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      • I read “Looking Backward” in high school, which is a wee bit more than a half-century ago, but what remains in memory was Bellamy’s conception of a society in which all work was valued, as each job, however humble, was indispensable to the proper working of the whole. The Wellsian future was, I agree, a much more bleak and grim circumstance– in which class distinctions had hardened into two distinct human types, each of which loathed the other, over a great expanse of time. Ironically, the upper class had become the prey of the lower order which once had been driven underground by what had been its intellectual superiors.

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        • Yes, “Looking Backward” was utopian in many ways, and quite popular in its day because of that — and because it was also pretty clever and absorbing. “The Time Machine” was indeed much more downbeat, and thus more realistic, in a sense.

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  7. Wonderful topic! Since I tend to like my sci-fi time travel in perhaps a light-and-clever vein I can recommend two British authors whom I think reinvented time travel and parallel universe scenarios. My all-time favourite is Jasper Fforde and his mind-bending Thursday Next series (although he has written standalones) and Jodi Taylor’s superlative Chronicles of St Mary’s currently standing at 30+ books. To quote Monty Python “for something completely different” they are worth reading πŸ™‚ Gretchen.

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    • Thank you, Gretchen! Great mentions! I’ve read one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels — “The Eyre Affair” — and liked it a lot. So clever with that “Prose Portal” enabling Thursday to enter the pages of “Jane Eyre.” πŸ™‚ As for Jodi Taylor, I’ll see if my local library carries her work. πŸ™‚

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  8. George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not strictly a time travel novel, but it pictures a future totalitarian state based on the Soviet Union under Stalin. This novel was published in 1949.

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  9. I think time travel is a lot like traveling to the next star: easy to dream up, but practically impossible. Our entertainments are filled with tales of astronauts going to galaxies far far away, but the nearest star would take thousands of years to reach– unless there are wormholes, or space can be folded– neither of which notions seem viable or even credible, beyond somebody’s wishful thinking. But as such sojourns in the imagination seem tantalizingly possible, we will continue to intrigue ourselves imaginatively, and I predict, never lack for fictional vehicles that traverse time and space– or is it timespace?

    Meanwhile, the planet earth is on fire, and we hold the matches.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Very well stated! Yes, one must suspend belief when reading time-travel fiction. It’s an escapist genre in many ways, meaning one might forget current disasters (such as worsening climate change) while reading. Though of course time-travel fiction can discuss some very serious stuff.

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  10. The Time Traveler’s Wife is definitely one of my favorites in this category, as is Slaughterhouse Five. And I did just recently read a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court which I found highly entertaining. I’ve always wanted to write a time travel story but worry I wouldn’t be able to keep track of the science and small nuances. One of these days I ought to just go for it πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, M.B.! You named three very memorable novels.

      Yes, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” is highly entertaining, even as it’s also savagely satirical in parts.

      If you ever write a time-travel story, I’d look forward to reading it! You certainly know a LOT about history. πŸ™‚

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  11. I’d love to to talk time travel titles, but that’s the one element I can’t dig up: the title!

    An early HP Lovecraft short story features the sort of time travel one could almost believe in some years back in Manhattan, though now it would be near– after so much building and rezoning and renovation and demolition– impossible: a mysterious guide, by taking his hesitant charge through back alleys and ruined courtyards and closed-off squares, leads him not only to old places time had forgotten, but to old places trapped in time itself. The last scene, as I recall it, featured Native Americans in full regalia as they mount an attack on the earliest Europeans to attempt settlement there. The notion, when the story was written, had more support from the place itself a century and a half ago: tenement buildings were often built behind street-facing apartment blocks, or were there first, before being obscured by newer construction, and there were also, in the oldest parts of Manhattan, obscure empty squares and strangely timeless sidestreets that seemed to defy the ages and the commercial ambitions of speculators.

    Nowadaze, as 40 year-plus resident, I wander around the island as Mr. Christian once did on his return to Pitcairn Island: what I see mostly is where once there was but is no more, places now boarded up, or repurposed. There is no music business of consequence here any longer, barely a recording studio or three when only a few decades ago there had been literally dozens, and many more dozens of people working therein, now scattered, some few finding work in what remains of the music business, but most gone.

    As Woody Guthrie sang, “I never see a friend I know as I go rambling ’round.” That’s not time travel in its unusual and fictional sense, but time travel as we live it– forward, ever forward, with only memory going the other way: no man steps in the same river twice, and you can’t get there from here.

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    • Thank you, jhNY, for the eloquent (and melancholy) thoughts. Manhattan HAS changed a lot — losing a lot of its edginess, its economic diversity, etc. Too much wealth, “corporate-ness,” and so on.

      That amazing H.P. Lovecraft story you mentioned sounds VERY familiar. I think I read it when I polished off a Lovecraft collection a number of years ago, but I don’t remember the tale’s title, either.

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      • The wreck of the newspaper business, the shrinkage of the book publishing business, and general wholesale wrecking-ball alterations of so many old haunts, to say nothing of the hundreds of vacated storefronts would likely haunt you as well, were you to take a thorough trip down your own memory lane here.

        But I think my main problem is I got old and stayed here after the business to which I had devoted my working life had shrunk to pocket-size.

        (I managed to add a self-portrait to replace that assigned green pattern under which I have heretofore labored, and thought for a moment I had managed to give myself the power to ‘like’ with the button— now I’m not so sure.)

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        • Yay for the self-portrait! Congratulations on getting that to “stick”!

          Yes, Manhattan has lost a lot of good stuff in publishing and other realms, though it remains an amazing place in certain ways.

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          • Yep, apart from the sad fact that the circular framing somehow robbed me of my crowning glory (my hair- which at my age I’m happy to report I’ve still got most of), the operation was a complete success– except I still can’t ‘like’ anything by button.

            Manhattan is and will always be an amazing place, no matter what. I walk in Riverside Park most nice days, and it pleases me to see all the honey locust trees with their forbidding thorn clumps around the bases of their trunks and lower branches, because it reminds me that the thorns are there to prevent overgrazing by mammoths– which, though long gone, once roamed the island. Not only the trees remain– a few years ago, somebody came upon a mammoth tooth fossil in Fort Tryon Park, due north from me!

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  12. Dear Dave
    We have our problems with time-travel-novels and in general with the idea of time travel. They seem to us mostly based on a kind of physics not rearly understood. On the other hand, those stories show that we see and judge history always from our standpoint of the here and now. Interesting in this respect is Stephen Hawking’s book “Brief Answer to the Big Questions” (especially chapter 4) and “A Brief History of Time”. For the history of the idea of time travel we found “Time Travel” by James Gleick quite fascinating to read.
    Keep well
    The Fab Four of Cley
    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, Klausbernd! Time travel and time-travel fiction definitely require a suspension of belief. In that respect, time-travel novels are sort of in the fantasy genre. πŸ™‚ And whatever scientific basis there might or might not be for time travel, I imagine few novelists would be able to truly understand the science.

      Also, I greatly appreciate the mention of “Time Travel” by James Gleick. It would have been an excellent book for me to read before I wrote this post. πŸ™‚

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  13. Time travel books are often my favorites, Dave, and you’ve mentioned many that I have enjoyed, mostly recently “The Midnight Library,” which carried a wonderful message. Another that I really liked was “The Psychology of Time Travel” by Kate Mascarenhas. It’s about female scientists who create a time machine but run into major problems. It shows how much these people gave up in their lives in order to do this research.

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    • Thank you, Becky! I hadn’t heard of “The Psychology of Time Travel”; your description has me intrigued! That novel (great title!) is now on my list. πŸ™‚ And I agree that “The Midnight Library” offers an important message.

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    • Thank you, butimbeautiful! I haven’t read “The Man in the High Castle,” but I think it’s an “alternate history” novel about if the Axis countries had won World War II. Alternate history fiction feels kind of similar to time travel fiction. πŸ™‚

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  14. Dave – we share a sense that time travel is possible. If writers envision our ability to one day find a way back, then there is an excellent possibility that some form of time travel will be available in future years. I have read fiction and non-fiction on this thought. When I read Stephen Hawking’s book β€œA Brief History of Time” I confess there were many times, I had to reread certain portions because of the complexity of the subject matter. However, he believe that time travel was possible. These paragraphs were included in a 2018 Forbes Article:

    Hawking famously held a party for time travelers but did not send out the invitations until after the party. No one showed up for the festivities. But the scientist writes that there is still some hope that traveling back in time could be possible according to the laws of the universe. He pegs this notion on the promise of something called “M theory” that suggests the universe may contain seven hidden dimensions in addition to the familiar four dimensions of space-time.

    “Rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding,” he writes. “Science fiction fans need not lose heart: there’s hope in M theory.”

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2018/10/16/stephen-hawking-believed-time-travel-was-more-likely-than-the-existence-of-god/?sh=1665efb5679f

    Stephen Hawkins seemed to have changed his mind since early publications. The question then becomes, why did he change his mind. Always a mystery.

    My money is on writers, who have a gift of prescience!

    Liked by 3 people

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