The Science Fiction Checklist Challenge: Time Travel

~posted by Dave H.

One of the most enduring concepts in science fiction is that of time travel and its consequences. From Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “A Sound of Thunder” to the BACK TO THE FUTURE films and beyond, time travel has remained a core idea in the science fiction genre. The concept itself dates back even before the creation of the genre: both Charles Dickens (A CHRISTMAS CAROL) and Mark Twain (A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT) used it in their work. However, most science fiction fans date the first full use of the idea to H.G. Wells’ famous novel THE TIME MACHINE. Published in 1895, Wells’ novel follows an unnamed time traveler into the far future where he discovers a human race that has diverged into two different species: the peaceful, childlike Eloi and the brutish, light-fearing Morlocks. Originally meant as a commentary on class in English society, Wells’ novel still holds up as an excellent adventure story.

If you’re looking for a good time travel novel from the Golden Age of science fiction, try one of Isaac Asimov’s two: PEBBLE IN THE SKY and THE END OF ETERNITY. In the first, a retired tailor finds himself transported to a future where Earth is merely one planet among a vast Galactic Empire. Given an experimental treatment that gives him telepathic abilities, our hero finds himself embroiled in a revolution against the planets overlords. In the second, a time travel organization named Eternity works to minimize human suffering in a future where space travel doesn’t exist. When a technician is sent to the past to secure Eternity’s future, he begins to realize that Eternity may not have humanity’s best interests at heart. Both novels tie into Asimov’s FOUNDATION saga, telling stories set during the age of Galactic Empire.

Even during the “new wave” of science fiction in the 1970s, time travel remained a key idea. David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF tells the story of a young man who inherits a time travel device. His explorations in time lead back and forth along his own history, including meeting several different versions of himself (and herself). Though not as well-known as many science fiction novels, Gerrold’s book explores the concept of time travel in ways few books before or since have done.

If you’re interested in a more contemporary take on time travel, try Kage Baker’s “The Company” series. Beginning with IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN, Baker’s novels tell the story of The Company or Dr. Zeus, Inc., an organization that rescues dying children throughout time and changes them into immortal cyborgs so they can secure artifacts to be sold in the far future. As the novels progress, we learn more about the history of The Company, its many agents, the enemies its work has created, and the ultimate reason for its’ existence. Featuring a wide variety of characters and set across a wide stretch of human history, “The Company” novels are science fiction at its best.

4 thoughts on “The Science Fiction Checklist Challenge: Time Travel”

  1. Thanks for doing a science fiction checklist! Can you recommend something similar to Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book/Oxford series? I really like the time travel aspect of the books but I also like the historical detail and the character development.

    1. Some other time travel books with intricate plotting/historical detail: Delia Sherman’s young adult novel THE FREEDOM MAZE bounces between Lousiana of the 1960s and the 1860s. Olivia Butler’s KINDRED does the same with a more adult story. Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove take a fascinating look at ancient Rome in HOUSEHOLD GODS. And if you want something a little offbeat, try Sheri Tepper’s THE FRESCO or THE FAMILY TREE.

  2. If you’re looking for time travel books with a historical bent (beyond The Company novels mentioned above), there are several you could try. Tim Power’s THE ANUBIS GATES is an excellent time travel novel set during Victorian England. You could also try TIMELINE by Michael Chricton involving a group of historians stuck in the Middle Ages. Finally, though not science fiction, Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series, set in Scotland during the 17th century, has a time travel aspect and is highly regarded.

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