Time travel has long been a staple trope of fantasy and science fiction. It’s hard to say which might have been the first. 1819’s Rip Van Winkle comes to American minds, but the basic plot of Washington Irving’s classic tale has antecedents in folklore stretching back for centuries if not millennia. Folk tales of “the king under the mountain” type abound–the once and future king connected with the King Arthur legend, and so on. The Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus dates as far back as around 250 CE.
Perhaps the first–or maybe just the most well-known–to be considered “science fiction,” though, is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
Time-travel fantasy is an enduringly popular sub-genre, one of a number of so-called “portal fantasies,” where a character from a world we understand as realistic steps through some kind of gateway into a different time. There are similar types of fantasies where the portal might not lead to a different time but to some other kind of different reality, such as a parallel universe. We can all think of famous examples of those: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Harry Potter books, to name a few.
But for portal fantasy leading to a different time, here are a few recent ones and a few classics of the sub-genre:
Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889. Like most of Twain’s writing, this novel is a social and political satire, this one in the guise of a time-travel fantasy. After a blow to the head, a practical American of the late 19th century is transported to the time of King Arthur. Beware kiddie editions, abridgements, and other shoddy versions of this novel.
H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine makes a stab at explaining the mechanisms of time travel, including a fantastical machine for doing so. Many time-travel novels leave the mysteries of it under a veil, as it were, but Wells tries to puzzle out how such a thing might happen, at least a little.
The cover depicted above is the one on the Norton Critical Edition of Wells’s novel (actually novella-length). This particular edition is pretty expensive but very well edited. You have to be careful about the editions of this novel sold on Amazon and similar places. The novel is in the public domain now, and many bad, cheaply printed, disgracefully edited editions of it (not to mention abridgements and reimaginings) are offered in these popular online venues. On a quest to re-read it, I recently ordered a fairly decent older edition for my Kindle. Only a few days later, it had seemingly been replaced on the Amazon web site by dozens of questionable editions. (If you’re interested in this very pervasive problem plaguing classics in the public domain, check out this article. See the warning for Twain’s novel, above. And for a laugh, look at this blog post.)
Strictly speaking, I suppose, The Time Machine is science fiction, not fantasy. There’s a thin line separating the two in any case. Is it overly simplistic to say the science fiction variety emphasizes the science of the story, while the fantasy variety doesn’t, or not so much? Sometimes it’s too close to call. Here’s a great article on the subject posted on Tor.com by Natalie Zutter: https://www.tor.com/2017/06/09/is-time-travel-science-fiction-or-fantasy/comment-page-1/
The Time Machine is short on details about how the machine actually works, but Wells puts some effort into explaining the principle of time travel. Wells also explores the physical and sociological details of the future environment he encounters, and shows the time traveler engaged in drawing hypotheses about them and experimenting to find out if he is right. In my opinion, these are the features that put the novel firmly in the science fiction category.
The characters in the novella take a back seat. It’s an interesting book, though, using the familiar 19th/early 20th century device of the frame story, especially the hair-raising adventure told to a group of clubby men by the intrepid explorer who survived the ordeal. Conrad’s masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, is that kind of story (although missing the time-travel element). The Time Machine is a variant of this narrative method. Wells gains a big advantage by relating the tale through one of the listeners and not the time traveler. Wells asks us to imagine a device near-impossible to describe, but he can present the time traveler as plausibly coy about the details of the machine he has invented.
The time traveler himself is a nicely-developed character, and the narrator is pretty well-developed. The other listeners are caricatures. Wells describes the beings of the future mostly in the aggregate: the fragile, child-like Eloi and the brutish Morlocks. Wells understood the bouba/kiki effect (aka the maluma/takete effect) very well when he named his two societies! The only future being we get any sense of at all, as an individual, is the Eloi female Weena. The time traveler is concerned about her, but his fears for her jeopardy take a distant second place to his fears for his own. The ideas in the novel are pretty fascinating; the characters not as much.
Wells shares this tilt toward a literature of ideas with a lot of science fiction. It’s not my own preference. I want the characters and the writing! If I were in it mainly for the ideas, I’d rather read some interesting nonfiction on the subject instead. On the other hand, I suppose I can admit that a work of fiction makes a nice thought experiment.
Another very famous science fiction take on time travel is Ray Bradbury’s great short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” published in 1952, in his collection R is for Rocket. The story invokes the “ripple” or “butterfly” effect whereby one tiny change in the past re-forms the entire future, a persistent trope in time-travel novels. I’m calling it science fiction, but Bradbury apparently didn’t. Bradbury credits science fiction great Robert Heinlein for steering him toward the humanistic rather than the technological side of science fiction, and he famously claimed that the only science fiction novel he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451–all the rest he labeled fantasy. You might want to investigate these claims yourself. I’ve only read them on Bradbury’s Wikipedia page, where they are carefully footnoted. Yet I haven’t been able to run down the footnotes independently.
From the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1955) and Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer (1957; first serialized in 1956 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) are especially memorable, and Heinlein’s novel features a great cat as a main character.
Here are some relatively new entries into the time travel canon
Audrey Niffenegger’s enjoyable time-travel fantasy, The Time Traveler’s Wife: Clearly fantasy. The hero suffers from “Chrono-Displacement Disorder,” which transports him willy-nilly backward and forward in time, apparently due to a childhood trauma. Beyond that, the mechanism of time travel isn’t explained in this popular novel from 2003.
Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander series (and the Starz long-form television series based on it): Again, fantasy. Claire, the heroine, goes back to the Scotland of the Jacobite Rebellion by touching a cleft in a circle of standing stones. These transport her to the past by mystical means. In Gabaldon’s novels, there’s the good (absorbing local color and a steamy romance) as well as the bad (wife beating more or less condoned, a gay villain portrayed in troubling terms), but the novel and its many sequels have their rabid fans. When I went on a tour of Scotland recently, at least half the other people on the tour were there because of these books. I haven’t been able to get myself to read past the first one, but I admit that I have obsessively watched all of the television episodes.
A Discovery of Witches and its sequels, by Deborah Harkness, wherein the heroine is transported into past episodes of her long-lived vampire love interest’s life: Fantasy again, because the mechanism by which this happens is mysterious and not really explained. I’ve blogged about these books previously on this site. I read several of them before giving up on them after a strange episode during which the main witch character conjures up Fourth of July fireworks via her magic. Once more, this is a fictional property I’ve enjoyed more in its long-form television version than between the covers of its books. It’s kind of a shame–Harkness knows more than I ever will about one of the main time periods her characters visit, and that’s the time period of my own scholarly research (such as it is). But her characters and the writing are pretty pallid.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life: This book from 2013 is billed by its publisher as a “postmodern novel” for its intricate plot twists and fractures. It’s not marketed as fantasy at all. Yet it’s a fascinating take on a time-travel idea that our lives (or some people’s lives) might be a succession of do-overs. (Think Groundhog Day, as a comedic example.) In Atkinson’s novel, the protagonist is transported back and forth in time, experiencing multiple variations on a life that illuminates the pain and difficulty of the World War II era.
A fun recent addition to the time-travel genre is Mike Chen’s 2019 Here and Now and Then:
The book is a nicely-paced story of a man torn apart by two different times, two different lives. I found the characters realistic, relatable, and compelling. I enjoy a character-driven story. And this one has secret agents, breathtaking chase scenes, and many enjoyable twists and turns of the plot.
Another new one, from 2020, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab:
Schwab’s novel is slow, angsty, more of a romance than a fantasy, but the time-travel element is central. It’s part Picture of Dorian Gray, part Faust, part The Gift of the Magi. I found it interesting, but only by fits and starts. Its polysyndeton-riven style, which gives it a false and unearned gravitas, begs for an editor’s slashing pen. A major relationship begins far too late in the book (long after my patience frayed to a thread), and another stayed under-developed for far too long. Other readers disagree with me. It’s very popular. It has landed on multiple best seller lists, and you can even order tee shirts with quotations from the novel on them. I did like the novel’s ending, though. I’ll admit that. I found it a clever and intriguing way to bring the book to a close.
Later classics–books that defy genre
Kurt Vonnegut’s great 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five:
This is one of those books that helped define a generation. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, has famously “come unstuck in time.” He fought in World War II and in the present time of the book lives a conventional and privileged suburban life as an optometrist with a wife and children. But he can never shake the horrors he witnessed during the firebombing of Dresden, an especially meaningless and brutal episode of that war. The novel shuttles from past to present to some strange alternate future as Pilgrim tries to make sense of the senseless. Only the alien Tralfamadorians help him gain any perspective. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, the novel explores the tragedy and pointlessness of war. Is it a sci-fi classic? Is it mordant satire? Is it a Kafka-esque and absurdist cry of pain? A fractured post-modernist narrative? A savage depiction of PTSD? (Vonnegut himself survived the firebombing of Dresden as a serviceman.) All of the above, no doubt, and I’m probably missing a lot. So it goes.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred:
Octavia Butler’s absorbing 1979 slave narrative takes place through the perspective of a late twentieth century Black woman repeatedly transported back and forth from her own time to the plantation of her slave-owning white ancestor. Butler, who died in 2006, tragically early, won the important sci-fi awards–the Hugo, the Nebula–but she was also the recipient of one of the coveted MacArthur “Genius Awards.” Her book has influenced a generation of readers on the difficulties of thinking about the “problem of the 20th century. . .the color line,” as W. E. B. Dubois memorably put it. That problem has persisted into this next century of ours, and Butler’s novel and its reputation have, too. In other novels, Butler wrote memorable science-fiction or perhaps more specifically dystopian fiction, that transcends genre. Two of the most interesting are The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.
I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of good books in this post. If you have favorites to offer, please note them in the Comments.