DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jan 22 2010

Time Travel Fiction

by Jesse M

time-machine DCPLive imageIn this week’s post, I will discuss one of the most interesting and variable of genres, time travel fiction. For our purposes, time travel simply means either going forward or backward in time (for a more detailed explanation of time travel, go here). Time travel fiction can generally be divided into two distinct catagories, time travel fantasy vs. time travel science fiction. Generally, the categorization is made based upon the method of time travel; stories involving time travel devices and technologies are considered part of the science fiction genre, whereas stories that involve time travel through supernatural, magical, or unexplained means are considered part of the fantasy genre. Additionally, time travel science fiction is more likely to concern itself with the possible consequences of time travel, such as the Grandfather Paradox.

While time travel fiction has been around for centuries (many different cultures possess ancient myths and folktales in which the characters engage in something akin to forward time travel; examples include the Hindu account of King Kakudmi and the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro), it was in the 1800s that the genre came into its own. One of the earliest examples of time travel in fiction takes place in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the ghosts of Christmas past and future serve as the medium by which the travel occurs, putting this into the time travel fantasy category). The latter part of the century saw the publication of the seminal time travel novel, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the protagonist builds a device which carries him to the far future, and eventually back again. The book marked the first appearance of a “time machine”, a term coined by Wells, and as such can be considered the first time travel science fiction novel (this is not entirely accurate, actually The Time Machine was his second published work involving the concept of time travel, the first being a short story titled The Chronic Argonauts, however The Time Machine was more successful and is responsible for popularizing the genre). Other novels published in the 1800s involving time travel include A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (which is an excellent example of time travel fantasy, as no explanation for the time travel is ever provided, and despite the protagonist’s introduction of ideas and technology well in advance of the time period, there is no examination of the potential consequences of this) by Mark Twain, and Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, the third largest best-seller of its time, which features a young American male who falls into a hypnotic sleep and wakes over 100 years in the future.

More recently, time travel fiction continues to be produced by a variety of authors, most notably by Audrey Niffenegger, whose inventive and popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was adapted into a major motion picture. The sub-genre of time travel fantasy is well represented by Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series, which describes the adventures of a WWII era British nurse who is transported backwards through time to eighteenth century Scotland after a visit to a site of standing stones. And of course the celebrated Harry Potter series of novels features time travel in the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sci-fi time travel is also alive and well, a frequent topic of top SF authors, of whom Neal Asher is an excellent example. His novel Cowl features complex explanations for and consequences of time travel, far future high technology societies of augmented humans, and a beetle-faced antagonist forcibly evolved to the point of being unrecognizably related to humanity. Another excellent example is Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which details the travels of several twentieth century historians back to the middle ages. The book espouses the multiverse theory of time travel, which avoids the problem of time travel paradoxes by stating that time travelers are actually journeying to another, distinct timeline and universe from their own, and that their actions do not directly affect their own present.

There is a plethora of time travel fiction out there, far more than I could list in this already lengthy post. So instead I have provided a link to a Wikipedia page which lists some of the most popular and important titles in the genre. Enjoy!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy M January 22, 2010 at 1:56 PM

Funny, I just finished a great time traveling children’s book, Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It is the first book in the Missing series. I also just read Gideon the Cutpurse, another fun time traveling children’s book, by Linda Buckley-Archer.

Sondra S. January 23, 2010 at 12:07 PM

Two of the American Library Association 2010 literary award winners feature time travel – Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me” (Newbery Award Winner) and “Going Bovine” by Libba Bray (Printz Award Winner).

Graham Storrs January 25, 2010 at 11:57 PM

As a writer, I love it that there are so many different theories of how time travel might work, each with their different mechanisms and possible consequences. It is a huge sandpit of the imagination.

I’m squarely in the sci-fi camp but I have been noticing a big upsurge in so-called ‘timeslip’ romantic fiction lately, where characters from different eras meet and fall in love (my all time favourite of this genre is “The House on the Strand” by Daphne du Maurier.)

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