If you had a time machine, where would you go? Back to Austen’s England, or the swinging Sixties? To an exciting / terrifying future millennium (delete as applicable)? Time travel has been with us ever since Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol whisked Ebenezer Scrooge into the past and future to learn the error of his miserly ways. Since then, writers’ imaginations have been fired by the idea of jumping through time, or time flowing backwards, or any other permutation of the enticing and the impossible. Here are some of the best examples of time travel in novels.
The great grandfather of modern science fiction (Men on the moon! A war of the worlds!) popularised the idea of being able to scoot back and forward in time at will. The hero is a classic gentleman scientist, who travels hundreds of millennia into the future to find humanity has evolved into two types: the elegant Eloi, and the ape-like Morlocks, representing an extreme version of class divisions in Victorian society. As with most science fiction, Wells was writing not about the future, but about his own society, and about evergreen human truths.
Twain got there a few years before Wells, but he didn’t really care about the theory of time travel – he just gave his modern-day engineer, Hank Morgan, a bash on the head and transported him back to King Arthur’s England. These days we call it the time-slip genre. And he invented another classic time travel idea: Hank uses his modern knowledge (such as knowing when a solar eclipse will take place) to persuade the Arthurians that he’s a powerful wizard, as any sensible person would. It’s all in the service of Twain’s romping satire of romantic ideas about the Middle Ages, which he saw not as romantic but filthy and snobbish.
This classic children’s book is a ghost story with a difference. Hero Tom, staying with relatives for the summer, discovers a secret garden one night when the clock strikes thirteen (“‘Fancy striking midnight twice in one night!’ jeered Tom”), and befriends the girl living there, Hatty. The garden is not just in another world, but in another time: Victorian England, and to Hatty, Tom is a kind of ghost. This is a book that appeals both to children and the adults who used to be children: full of adventure but also tinged with memory and loss.
“All this happened, more or less”, begins Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel. The book was both true – inspired by the fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden, which Vonnegut witnessed during World War Two – and extravagantly invented, as its hero Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time”. He shifts between decades and is kidnapped by aliens, and that’s just the start of it. Vonnegut, a charming and funny man, had an overall message for the reader, encapsulated in one word at the end of the book’s long and winding subtitle. “Peace.”
Before The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power, there was Woman on the Edge of Time. In it, Connie Ramos, a mental hospital patient in New York, is visited by a being from the 22nd Century, who describes a utopian future. But the future is not certain, and Connie must help to make it happen. Equal parts polemic and plot, Woman on the Edge of Time is undeniably powerful, and aptly enough for a novel about seeing the future, it was well ahead of its time in its highlighting of queer characters and gender-neutral pronouns (“per”, short for “person”).
Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler
Butler was the first African-American woman to become a successful science fiction writer, though she preferred to classify her best-known novel as “a kind of grim fantasy.” The premise is as juicy as you could wish for: in modern-day America, a Black woman, Dana, time-slips back to the 1800s, where she has to save the life of her ancestor who is also an abusive slave-owner. Butler’s boldness in applying genre rules to Black slave history was followed by Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead, among others. If you think you don’t like speculative fiction, wrote the New York Times, “Kindred will change your mind.”
There’s a different kind of time travel in Martin Amis’s most audacious novel – the narrator slowly comes to realise, after the reader does, that he’s living his life backwards. This creates strange experiences, some funny (imagine going to the toilet), some disturbing (domestic abusers ‘cure’ their victims). But “when is the world going to start making sense?” wonders our man. “Yet the answer is out there. It is rushing toward me over the uneven ground.” The destination is Auschwitz, where the narrator is a Nazi doctor: only in a world running in reverse, argues Amis, could such a place make sense.
A lesser-spotted work by the high-concept literary machine who gave us Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Timeline is a wild ride. It uses Crichton’s usual interest in science to develop the idea of time travel via quantum physics, and then jets off into a world where American historians can investigate medieval France up close. Timeline, with jousting knights and testicles for dessert, gives us a literal race against time (can the Americans find their way back to the present?) and asks us whether we really understand the past.
A favourite time travel game is: if you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler, would you? In Kate Atkinson’s most acclaimed novel, Ursula Todd may have the chance to do just that. Ursula keeps getting whisked back in time to live her life over and over, learning a little more each time – like a literary Groundhog Day. Atkinson described Life After Life, with its glorious blend of alternative reality, family drama and wartime horror, as “the best thing I’ll ever write”. It also inspired a companion novel, A God in Ruins.
Sea of Tranquility (2022) by Emily St John Mandel
Everyone knows that the first rule of going into the past is not to interfere with it, as a time traveller in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder discovered when he crushed a butterfly in the Cretaceous period and then returned home to find his world changed beyond recognition (hence ‘butterfly effect’). In Sea of Tranquility, a man from the 25th Century investigating parallel hallucinations disregards this rule by warning a woman of her impending death. Whoops! Like all the novels on this list, Sea of Tranquility uses inspired techniques to take on the biggest stuff of all, including the end of the world. Follow that.