Never go back in time to read old books

Things change. You change. You can never go back again. Over the last few months, I’ve been on a time-travel reading jag, and I revisited some books I haven’t looked at in at least 30 or 40 years, and sheesh, was I disappointed. I guess my lesson is that if ever I do manage to travel backwards in time, I shouldn’t do it, because everything old just sucked.

First up, Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg. It was published in 1968, and it shows. Hawksbill Station is a penal colony in the Cambrian, time-travel is one-way so you’ll never get home again, and the government was casting all the hippie-type “revolutionaries” there. Silverberg has some odd ideas about what 60s era protesters did; his protagonist reminisces about casually raping women (no, that’s not what he’s being punished for) and how his apartment was “stacked with sprawling exhausted naked females”. There are no women in the story — the powers that be keep men in separate penal colonies, separated by millions of years — so Silverberg doesn’t have to write any women characters. Nothing really happens in the story, except that they eventually learn that two-way time travel has been perfected. It’s a time-travel story that doesn’t actually use the time-travel concept, and could have instead been set in a prison in the middle of the Pacific or the Sahara, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t even the slightest attempt to pursue the magic of seeing what the Cambrian was actually like. It was ploddingly written, too, and was a slog to get through, even though it’s short.

Please, please, please, if you’re going to write a story about going back to a distant time, use the time period. That’s the whole point!

I thought the next one would have to be better: Mastodonia, by Clifford Simak. I have more respect for Simak as a writer than I do Silverberg, but again, he makes the same mistake. In this one, a semi-retired professor and his archaeologist girlfriend have bought a farm in Wisconsin that has a mysterious crater on the property — it’s the site of an ancient spaceship crash. Their time-travel method is a bit of a reach. One of the aliens survived, and has been living there all this time, and it has the power to open time-tunnels to anywhere in the past. The magic alien is just an arbitrary gimmick to give them time-travel capability, but otherwise that particular aspect of the story goes nowhere.

But hey, it starts out fun! The protagonist accidentally stumbles into one of the time-tunnels, and sees a herd of mastodons before stumbling back. This is where I’d expect a professor-type to be excited about the ability to study the past, and a host of ideas to light up behind his eyes — at least, that’s what would happen to me. But no. No, not at all.

They start trying to figure out how to get rich off this discovery. Most of the novel is taken up with the pair jetting about the country trying to set up lucrative deals to use the time-tunnels. Primarily, they make arrangements with a safari company to send rich clients back to the Cretaceous with elephant guns to shoot dinosaurs. There are no ethical concerns expressed. There is no consideration of what one could actually learn from the Mesozoic. Nope, it’s all wheelin’ and dealin’, and complaining about how the IRS was going to take their money and how terrible it was that the government was stepping in to regulate their business when one expedition of rich fucks gets eaten by a pack of giant carnivores.

Jesus. Capitalism really does ruin everything. It certainly made this book boring.

Now I’m thinking that there are few good books about time-travel. One exception is Bones of the Earth, by Michael Swanwick. Most of the story is about the machinations of the people who police time-travel, but it gets one thing supremely right, the wonder and awe of scientists who actually get to sample the biology of the past. They recruit researchers by just showing up at their lab with a small dinosaur head in a cooler, and that’s enough to get them excited and whip out their scalpels, to start drooling over the possibility. They have conferences on dinosaur systematics, physiology, and anatomy! That rings true. Swanwick actually captures how his protagonists would think.

Another exception is The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, which I consider the very best time-travel novel ever written. This one isn’t focused on the science, though, but will instead appeal to anyone who fantasizes about using a time machine to explore 19th century literary history. Come on, you know we all want to have a conversation with Lord Byron and Keats, right? It does get a little (OK, a lot) twisty with a plot about trying to achieve immortality via a body-jumping magical werewolf, but at least in that one the rich capitalist is most definitely the bad guy.

Have you got a favorite time-travel story? My primary conclusion isn’t that time-travel is a terrible premise for a novel, but that any SF novel written before about 1980 has a high probability of being total crap. Prove me wrong.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    in the Cambrian, time-travel is one-way so you’ll never get home again

    You lost me already. The Cambrian is in the past, which implies backwards time travel. Meanwhile we are all traveling forward through time, at a rate of one second per second.

  2. Alverant says

    I decided I wanted to read “the classics” in sci-fi, 20k Leagues, Frankenstein, House on the Borderland. All BORING! They were a slog to get through even though they were short.

  3. says

    Something similar: I’ve tried showing excerpts of old documentaries in my classes, and the pacing is always intolerably slow for them (and me).

    In old movies, when someone wants to go somewhere, they’ll show them putting on their coat, walking to the car, driving the car, getting out at their destination, walking in, and then the story resumes at the new scene. Old-timey audiences apparently had to be led carefully from scene to scene, otherwise the transitions are too jarring.

  4. anarchobyron says

    I reread Dickens, Fielding, Sterne, Austen, Gaskill, Wright, Steinbeck, Kant, Marx, Hume, Descartes, Shakespeare, etc., all the time. So far, never had an issue.

  5. anarchobyron says

    I have the opposite experience, I find the rapid movements, banging sounds, flashing lights, and general glitz and glamour of most contemporary films to be jarring and difficult, whereas the pacing of older films settles me down to a more humane pace, and makes the pacing of modern capitalism at least momentarily cease. It’s a PLEASANT experience, not a jarring one. Hitchcock will always be more pleasant than: insert whatever stupid super hero movie came out in the last 25 years

  6. Artor says

    The Suck Fairy strikes again!
    I haven’t read them in a long time, but The Many Colored Land series by Julian May looms large in my memory. Again, it involves a one-way time travel to the Pleistocene, and is used as a penal colony. However, the people sent into the past discover that there are powerful aliens living on Earth during that time. They happen to be the Tuatha Dé Danann of Celtic legend, those legends being a “racial memory,” from before our species evolved. Messages can be sent forward in time by preserving them in amber and leaving them in pre-arranged drop sites, so eventually an eon-spanning war against alien despots happens. It’s got some interesting ideas mixed in with clunky premises.

  7. stroppy says

    Conditions on land in the Cambrian would have been inhospitable to life as we know it…

  8. petesh says

    I have two: 1. The Future Took Us by David Severn, a novel for young people that I have not seen in many decades. It involves a couple of kids being warped 1,000 years into the future, where civilization has collapsed but one maths [it’s English] textbook survived, the one they had been using in school, and some people were beginning to rebuild technology from that. I am pretty sure this was the book that I read in an afternoon at the age of about 10, when my parents gave it to me as we were heading for a picnic, and I completely ignored them and my younger brother and sister. As I recall, Mum and Dad thought this was most amusing.
    2. The Paradox Men by Charles Harness. A short classic of early-50s SF. Hilarious and wonderful, and don’t let any scientific or social criticisms get in the way.

  9. says

    Time travel is always problematic, unless you also introduce alternate timelines/parallel universes to manage causality. I’ve only got a few books that I can think of that have any kind of time travel in them: Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series (dragons can teleport through time – kinda) – but not in significant distances (except once). Julian May’s Many-Colored Land series has a one-way jump to the early Pliocene. While there is commentary on the era (valid or not, I don’t know – I’m not a student of the Pliocene), it’s mostly concerned with the alien exiles found there. And that’s probably about it in my library. But I agree with your general complaint about reading older stories. I have a cache of Analog Magazines from 1965-1973 and occasionally read through them. I can overlook technological advances that they didn’t foresee and enjoy the SciFi for what it is, but the rampant sexism (or just plain complete absence of women) in those stories is frequently very jarring.

  10. Allison says

    I decided I wanted to read “the classics” in sci-fi, … Frankenstein, … All BORING!

    I have to disagree about Frankenstein. You do have to be patient (this is 19th century literature, after all), but the “monster” that it describes is very different from the way he is usually portrayed. The book humanizes him, and though his behavior in the end is kind of monstrous, it is also very much understandable.

    I may be something of a female chauvinist, but my impression is that, on the whole, women writers tend to write with a lot more empathy towards their characters, even their villains. Male writers, especially the so-called “classical” SF authors, treat pretty much everyone who isn’t a main character as little more than a plot device, and usually also as a red-shirt. (Asimov in particular tends to treat even his main characters as puppets of his plots.)

  11. says

    Well of course H.G. Wells started it with The Time Machine, which I think holds up well. The classic story about the paradoxes and complications is Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps, which also remains quite readable. Asimov’s The End of Eternity is another classic. I haven’t read it for a while but from what I remember, it should stand up well also.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    PZ @3:

    In old movies, when someone wants to go somewhere, they’ll show them putting on their coat, walking to the car, driving the car, getting out at their destination, walking in, and then the story resumes at the new scene.

    I watch a lot of ‘old’ movies (mostly mid 1930s to mid 1950s), and I’ve never noticed this. If you follow someone, it’s usually for a good expositional reason. Can you give some examples?

  13. Rich Woods says

    The only one of those four I’ve read is The Anubis Gates, which is stunningly good. I’ve read it twice, the last time maybe half a dozen years ago, which means that I will have forgotten enough of it now to enjoy it as if it were new again. That’s my weekend sorted.

  14. says

    I have fond memories of the Julian May stories, which means I am now afraid to pull them down off the shelf.

    I still want a chalicothere to ride around town.

  15. Allison says

    anarchobyron @5

    I find the rapid movements, banging sounds, flashing lights, and general glitz and glamour of most contemporary films to be jarring and difficult

    I agree.

    I would add another jarring aspect of modern video and film: the quick cuts from one view to another. I’m a slow thinker and an even slower viewer. It takes me time to process each new thing, and if I get hit with too many dramatically different things in a short time, my brain locks up.

  16. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Back when I sold books Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” was a near universal favourite of the time travel genre.

    Never read it, I have a weird loathing for time travel novels, so hearsay and all that.

  17. says

    Trivia time: the description in Bones of the Earth of the lab in which the dinosaur head in the cooler was delivered was the Smithsonian Morphometrics lab as it existed at the time (under the leadership of Ralph Chapman).

    Also, I’m proud to note that I show up (or rather, am referenced) early in that novel; at the time “old Doc Holtz” was supposed to be something of a joke, as I was one of the younger professional dinosaur Ph.D.s at the time. Of course, the years have rolled on.

    Various other paleontology researchers from the DC/Baltimore/Philadelphia corridor are mentioned specifically or obliquely in it, as many of us helped out Swanwick in this or other paleo-related stories.

  18. christoph says

    I don’t know-a bunch of rich fucks getting eaten by carnivores sounds like a good idea. I agree about The Anubis Gates though-great book.

  19. says

    The Saga of Pliocene Exlie (previously noted) has some interesting bits, although the science was somewhat-to-completely dated at the time it came out. But it does have a wonderful line when (spoiler) a paleontologist is attempting to use the time portal to warn the future that the Pliocene Earth is occupied by aliens. An alien zealot says “Go back to where you came from” and the paleontologist responds “You fool; we came from HERE.”

    Steven Utley has a series of short stories available as collections with the title or subtitle Silurian Tales, where the time travels are working in one of the least dramatic time periods in Earth history (intentionally so.)

  20. cinnamon says

    Mid-late 80s publications, but I remember enjoying Simon Hawke’s Time Wars series. Same tired “27th century agents gotta preserve the timeline” premise, but the twist is that Hawke pulls plots and locations from classic literature, which the characters treat as histories. And vice versa. First book is “The Ivanhoe Gambit.”

    Not really a time travel story, but I also like Hawke’s Reluctant Sorcerer series. A “absentminded professor”-type scientist builds a time machine and gets stuck in the Middle Ages, (actually a fantasy world, though -never having studied history or read fantasy, he doesn’t know it). Everyone thinks he’s a sorcerer because he teaches them how to make aluminum and cigarette lighters. Meanwhile, his girlfriend back home is reverse-engineering his machine to save him and an evil wizard realizes he can hear and interact with the bored narrator.

  21. captzimmo says

    I thoroughly enjoyed Larry Niven’s “The Flight of the Horse”, where our hero in the distant future where many animals are extinct, goes back in time to get a horse for the zoo. He doesn’t realize that going back in time, wonders into alternate universes and he comes home with a unicorn. His adventures continue in other stories in the book.

  22. Anthony Barcellos says

    I’ve enjoyed Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles of St. Mary’s,” in which a team of historians “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” (and dare not call it “time travel” lest they call down the wrath of their director, although time travel is exactly what it is). She fearlessly mixes slapstick comedy (the explosive-fixated members of the science team and the dodo mascot) with tragedy (the protagonist’s baby is kidnapped and some nice people get murdered). Taylor’s plots get suitably convoluted (they capture a bad guy and then have to release him because he didn’t finish his recorded crime spree and paradoxes would result if he doesn’t), but she’s careful with detail. They raid the library at Alexandria, check whether the Trojan Horse was real, filch items from King John’s treasure trove, and visit the dinosaur era (chomp, chomp).

  23. says

    Harry Turtledove has a pair of mirror-imaged short stories “Forty, Counting Down” and “Twenty-one, Counting Up” which show the story of a man time-traveling back to his own past, told (respectively) from the traveller and the “native” version, respectively. As I recall, these weren’t bad, but obviously were more modest in scope.

  24. says

    The Forgery of Venus, by Michael Gruber is a novel involving what artists think about art, and a mystery of a forgery. The protagonist starts hallucinating that he is a famous painter and concludes he’s actually time traveling. Is he really? How is this happening? Best novel I’ve read during the pandemic.

  25. Duckbilled Platypus says

    I can probably second End of Eternity, but admittedly it has been 25 or so years since I read it. And then, it’s about time travel itself and the paradoxes and butterfly effects it brings about, but it’s not an exploration of the past. It’s Asimov so it’s written with surgical precision, but if I remember well he isn’t much for character development and beautiful prose.

    A classic where I live would be Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman. It’s a children’s book (well, young adult) as well as a film, although I haven’t seen the latter. It’s about a boy who volunteers to use a time travel machine for a quick exploration in the past, but ends up in a children’s crusade where he uses his 20th-century knowledge to their advantage (I know this is not a new theme, but the book dates back to 1973).

    Highly recommended for historical acuteness as well as being a compelling and moving story, but don’t expect the kind of Asimov time travel conundrum, it’s just a vehicle to put the plot in motion.

  26. Timothy Hamilton says

    Challenge accepted:

    Olaf Stapledon. Stanislaw Lem. The Stugartsky Brothers, to get started. Now, if you mean US Science Fiction before 1980, I got nothin’ other than a handful of Philip K. Dick stories & novels. “The Father-Thing” scared the beejeezus out of me when I was in middle-schoo. Bamboo groves still make me uneasy and I’m in my 60’s.

  27. unclefrogy says

    I read H.G. Wells the time Machine which was well written but it dated. good twists and turns but still coming from a very english and imperial point of view so middle class english
    Not to far from the character of Dr. Henry Jekyll in Stevenson’s story the ending is very good
    I personally rather watch DR Who from the beginning to now would occupy some amount of time and be well worth it. I do not think I have ever seen one that was not satisfying in at least 2 ways often more.
    old movies and old TV do use those “establishing” sequences some times trying to make in the case of Hollywood LA look like somewhere else, I grew up there and it never worked very well. On another note I like watching old Perry Mason one of the things that stands out is which shows were sponsored by tobacco companies and which were not.
    uncle frogy

  28. littlelocomotive says

    There is something that has always bothered me about time travel stories. If I traveled 100 years back in time, wouldn’t I find myself floating at a point in space that our solar system wasn’t going to reach for another 100 years?

  29. KG says

    Have you got a favorite time-travel story? – PZM

    First, The Time Machine. Remarkably, H.G. Wells (a loathsome racist, unfortunately) grasped that evolution =/= progress. I enjoyed Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, although the later novel in the same universe, Blackout was tedious – I didn’t even finish it. Stanisław Lem deals very amusingly with the paradoxes in Star Diaries, particularly when his protagonist, Ijon Tichy, coerces an earlier version of himself into leading THEOHIPPIP, the organisation that is (was? will be?) attempting to clean up the human past so we’ll be allowed into the Galactic Federation. And if you ever get a chance, watch Tomorrow I’ll wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea by Jindřich Polák (I haven’t read the short story by Josef Nesvadba on which it is based).

  30. rpjohnston says

    I’ve been meaning for a long time to give a reread to Animorphs, Redwall and His Dark Materials. It’s only been a couple of decades, I hope they stand up better!

  31. Tracy Walker says

    There is the All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness. It’s unashamedly magical, not sci fi, but the past history bits are well done.

  32. microraptor says

    I remember reading Bones of the Earth back when it first came out.

    The time travel was about the only part of it I actually liked.

  33. Artor says

    The most amazing time travel story I’ve encountered is a series involving Burton and Swinburne. That’s Sir Richard Burton, who did the translations of 1001 Arabian Nights. A time traveler from the future comes back to stop an ancestor from disgracing the family name, and ends up fracturing causality. Burton is made an Agent of the Crown, and he and his poet friend Swinburne set off through the time stream and alternate realities to set things aright. It’s very well-written and engrossing. I highly recommend it.

  34. says

    Rob@12 – Lower budget old movies tend to be more guilty of that, so documentaries are included. Think MST3K. But also some things comparatively well regarded. Eyes Without a Face comes to mind, but my brain is pretty feeble this minute. I know what you’re talking about though. A good old movie usually does not have the pacing problem. Maltese Falcon is nice and snappy.

  35. mnb0 says

    @14: “I have fond memories of the Julian May stories, which means I am now afraid to pull them down off the shelf.”
    Some 25 years ago I read the Saga of Pliocene Exile. The first book was very good, but volumes 2-4 gradually went downhill by becoming more and more boring.
    A few years ago I finally read Dune. Meh, just a messias story on steriods.

  36. flex says

    Speaking of Simak, while not specifically a time-travel story, in his novel Time is the Simplest Thing he proposes a view of the universe which prevents any time travel paradoxes without using multiple dimensions. In short, time travel is possible, but not all that useful, because (IIRC) life only exists in the present, which is constantly advancing in time. So going back in time may allow you to interact with non-living objects, but as life only exists in the present and not in the past, changing the past has no affect on life in the present.

    Clearly a person could learn a lot about a lot of things by travelling backwards in time, but any changes they made wouldn’t impact the present. Although it would still be possible to dig up a lot of pirate treasure multiple times in the past and bring it to the present. Which would change the present. Or maybe I’m miss-remembering details like that.

    Anyway, it was one of the most novel approached to the problems of time travel that I’d ever read.

  37. dorght says

    Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book was excellent. Do Say Nothing of the Dog so so.
    Black Out / All Clear had so much potential. The story of Londoners trying to survive WW2 was the most engaging part, the time travel became an annoying side story. The phrase ‘if only I had…’ was used by the chrono-stranded so endlessly many times that obviously the editor thought it was Connie Willis so free pass. Again though, the nuances of surviving in war time England were the best part.

    A time viewer novel I like is Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s The Light Other Days. Not so much because of the time viewing, which was mostly confined to contemporary times (until the end), but because of the classic sci-fi nature of telling how technology affects society.

  38. stroppy says

    @28 littlelocomotive

    Yeah, I’ve wondered about that. I haven’t seen anywhere a rational for avoiding that, even one far fetched.

    Maybe you ride backward on a current of gravity-space-timey wimeyness… in relative dimensions… so to speak…

  39. Rob Grigjanis says

    stroppy @40: That’s trivial compared to the problems (paradoxes, free will) inherent to “same timeline” time travel. If your contraption can move you backwards in time (rather than dematerializing at time T and rematerializing at time T−Δt), arranging for it to compensate for position/momentum should be a piece of cake.

  40. gyreandgimble says

    “ littlelocomotive
    13 August 2020 at 10:56 am
    There is something that has always bothered me about time travel stories. If I traveled 100 years back in time, wouldn’t I find myself floating at a point in space that our solar system wasn’t going to reach for another 100 years?‘

    No, though you would be closer if you went forward in time. You would be in a vastly different area of space though since the earth not only revolves around the sun, and the sun is moving rapidly through space (so earth’s orbit moves in a spiral ) and the whole Milky Way galaxy is moving, and at increasing speed. So earth is traveling at hundreds of thousands of mile per hour away from its current position.` So obviously any time travel mechanism would have to account for this change in position.

  41. gyreandgimble says

    I read somewhere the “The Man Who Folded Himself” was the best time travel novel ever written. I didn’t like the time travel stuff so much. On a separate note, the protagonist meets himself at one point and has sex with himself. I don’t mind homosexuality but that was a little creepy for me. I’m a straight man. It just occurred to me that if the protagonist were a woman I would have enjoyed that.

  42. moxie says

    it’s been a while since i’ve read it but i recall liking “behold the man” by michael moorcock.

  43. louis14 says

    Just on your threshold of 1980 is James P. Hogan’s ‘Thrice Upon a Time’ which I’ve read twice, though not in the last 20 years. I highly recommend it for its careful exploration of time-travel paradoxes, where the main protagonists are scientists.

    This is the only one of his books I’ve ever read, but I notice in an Amazon review somebody says, ‘I thought this was a great book back in the day. It’s a shame Hogan lost his mind to the Brain Eater and became a kook in his latter years.’ No idea what that means!

    But I’d say give it a try PZ.

  44. Rob Grigjanis says

    gyreandgimble @42:

    So obviously any time travel mechanism would have to account for this change in position.

    Well, my time travel mechanism has me moving forwards in time, and I don’t seem to have to account for any of those motions.

  45. pilgham says

    Technicolor Time Machine. Why has nobody mentioned it? You can never go wrong with Harry Harrison. Plot Summary from Wikipedia “The narrative revolves around the efforts of a mediocre film director to save his job, his livelihood and, incidentally, the studio he works for. To do this, he enlists a mad scientist, the crooked studio owner, a jazz tuba player, a cowboy, two fabulously stupid movie stars, and a real live ocean-crossing Viking. He ends up making history, but in a way he never dreamed of.”

  46. Chaos Engineer says

    Moorcock’s “Dancers at the End of Time” trilogy is fun. The setting is a decadent far-future where people have access to God-level technology; the main character meets a Victorian-era woman who’s fallen through a time portal and he decides it would be amusing for him to fall in love with her. His friends think that it was amusing for a while, but now it’s just gotten tedious and someone should do something about it.

  47. says

    I tend to agree with the up-votes for The End of Eternity, but it’s been long since I read it and I don’t remember it very clearly. A few other titles come to mind, but I remember them even less well.

    One title does stand out in memory: Transfusion, a novelette by anthropologist Chad Oliver (first published 1959.) A time machine is invented, and anthropologists use it to look for humanity’s ancestors. However, they find out that, in the words of the story, “Man wasn’t home.” Nowhere before 25,000 years BCE do they find any evidence of humanoid existence. The reason for this, I’ll leave other readers to discover.

  48. pilgham says

    Another fun read, The Skyway Trilogy by John DeChancie. From Amazon “Independent space trucker Jake McGraw, accompanied by his father, Sam, who inhabits the body of the truck itself, his “starrig,” picks up a beautiful hitchhiker, Darla, and a trailer‑load of trouble. One of the best of the indies, Jake knows a few tricks about following the Skyway, which connects dozens, or maybe hundreds, of planets—nobody knows how many and nobody really knows the full extent of the Skyway, and much of it remains unexplored” Of course, a frame of reference for time is impossible and when you’re flitting from planet to planet faster than light …

  49. blf says

    Not a time-travel story per se, but it compresses and conflates evolutionary and social events — so there is an altered flow-of-time aspect — and does so in a very humorous way, is the book with many names, but perhaps most commonly known as The Evolution Man, written in 1960 by Roy Lewis. One hint it’s worth a read is a paleontologist(?) fell off his camel in the Sahara whilst reading it. And somebody named Terry Pratchett said it was one of his favourites,

  50. jrkrideau says

    @ 45 louis14
    . It’s a shame Hogan lost his mind to the Brain Eater and became a kook in his latter years.’ No idea what that means!
    He moved to the USA and the last book I read , he sounded like he thought Ayn Rand was a SJW.

  51. sc_adfd8c8ec8090f2bcb65d004c9a22580 says

    “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “Slaughterhouse 5” are some of the best examples that use the time travel conceit as a vehicle for social commentary. Both definitely hold up.

  52. JustaTech says

    littlelocomotive @28: The whole “location relative to planet” thing is a plot point in the last Callahan’s book by Spider Robinson (Callahan’s Con). In that case the problem is a very short time hop that causes spacial dislocation.

  53. npsimons says

    any SF novel written before about 1980 has a high probability of being total crap. Prove me wrong.

    I’ll not take that bet, but I can add some commentary. There are classics out there, tainted though they may be by the chauvinism of their times. Haldeman’s “Forever War” and Niven’s Mote come to mind.

    I’ll go on the record as saying that reading them is worthwhile to just pull the pieces out that are mind expanding, although perhaps the only people who could do that without being naïvely influenced are already too experienced to benefit from the mind-expanding ideas. Which is to say, the mind-bending ideas could use an updating. I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps a modern re-write or re-make of some classics is in order? Most of my objections to movie remakes is that they are pure cash grabs done poorly and the originals left nothing to be improved upon.

  54. flexilis says

    As a kid I fantasized about time travel, often to the Mesozoic era. I clearly remember “A Gun for Dinosaur” by L. Sprague de Camp. In general today I am not much for time travel stories. However, I have been reading the Chronos series by Rysa Walker. The basic idea is that an organization of historians in the future use a combination of technology and genetics to come back to our era and earlier to study events that for them are historical. They have strict protocols to prevent actions that would change the timeline. Of course, there is a villain who comes back in time to create a new religion for the purpose of ruling the world. All the plot twists and time jumps are hard to follow, but I have been entertained by the series.

  55. seedye says

    Also have to recommend Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book — time travel used as archaeology/history research. Both past and present times dealing with a pandemic, so it’s topical! It’s a moving story, too. I don’t think I’ve ever cried about a cow not being milked on time.

  56. npsimons says

    @25 “End of Eternity” is great, or at least I like it. I took away the “minimum necessary change” as an approach to maintaining software.

    And since I can’t edit, I’ll mention that @55, I meant to say the stories around the mind-expanding ideas could use some updating. Not ignoring of prejudices, but more respectable, realistic and relatable characters.

  57. goaded says

    littlelocomotive You might like the book Timescape, I did, at the time. No time travel, but communication back in time firing tachyons to where the Earth was a few decades ago.

    Unfortunately, the title doesn’t match the book I was thinking of, where people go back to the civil war with designs for a sub-machine gun…

  58. says

    “Doctor Who” in any form is chock full of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. May not be your cuppa, but I enjoy it quite a bit. (Bonus: Violence is rarely, if ever, the answer.)

  59. Erp says

    The Story of the Amulet (1906) by Edith Nesbit. A children’s book more fantasy than Science Fiction (though the author knew H.G. Wells and there are references to him in the book). Four children, boarding in London with a former servant and desperately worried because their father is away covering a war and their mother has been sent to a warmer clime to recuperate from a serious illness, find half an amulet. The whole amulet, they are told by an old non-human acquaintance they rescue, will give them their deepest desire; the half amulet alone allows them to travel through time and place to find the missing half. They proceed to hunt (including one trip to the future in hopes that there they will remember how they found it [they don’t]). They also pull in the boarder upstairs, a poor scholar of ancient history who doesn’t believe what he’s seeing though he finds it fascinating. Not sure how it would stand up to a reread; Nesbit was a person of her time even if somewhat to the left politically.

  60. magistramarla says

    We happen to own the book “Stargate”, by Pauline Gedge in 1982, upon which the movie and the TV series of the same name were based. My husband picked it up at a used book store long before the movie came out. He read the book and liked it, but I’ve never had the time to do so. I just now found it on a bookshelf and I’m now inspired to read it.
    I’ll second the opinion of WMDKitty – Any iteration of Dr. Who is fun to watch. It is fun to watch the emergence of women on the show from “those who must be protected” to companions who have much to contribute to the triumphant female regeneration of the Doctor.

  61. gijoel says

    Not a book per se, but I really enjoyed the movie Primer. Multiple time lines crashing together over the same three day period.

  62. magistramarla says

    Someone mentioned Harry Turtledove, and it jogged my memory, so I went searching through my Latin books.
    It was written in 1999, but Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr wrote a book call “Household Gods”.
    It greatly appealed to this old Latin teacher. In the book, a modern young professional woman finds herself living on the Roman frontier in A.D 170. I enjoyed it, and I requested that our high school library purchase it so that I could recommend it to some of my more mature students. (Another book that I must re-read!)
    My husband loves anything with time travel, including TV series. Our daughter suggested “Travelers” on Netflix, which we binge-watched. It was a little creepy, with people from the future inhabiting people at the moment of death so that they could make changes in order to save the world of the future.
    More recently, we binged “Timeless” on IMDb network, which I loved. A group of time travelers chase a bad guy to key points in American history to try to keep him from changing history. I recommended it to all of the grandkids.
    On re-reading books – I’ve read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte countless times since I was 11 years old. I call it my “comfort book”. I’ll often read it if I’m feeling upset. I think that the story of a poor abused little girl finally getting her heart’s desire appealed to me as a poor, abused little girl myself. At the age of 62, I can still pick up that book and enjoy it yet again.

  63. aziraphale says

    Jack McDevitt’s Time Travellers Never Die is a good read, in a “what would I do if I had a time machine?” way. Poul Anderson’s Corridors of Time series was also good, as I recall.

  64. Duckbilled Platypus says

    @58, npsimons

    I agree, developer myself – but our whole minimum change required stems from Agile Scrum driven development these days.

    I realize I might be doing Asimov a disservice – I only read the Dutch translations, and the local SF publishers weren’t known for spending a great deal of translation money on what was essentially considered a small but profitable niche market. I don’t think the publishers really understood the genre.

    Dr. Who has been mentioned here several times even though it’s not a book series. I think the reboot the BBC did is excellent and doing a great job of fitting a two-hour movie into 45 minutes of murderously paced, brilliantly executed stories. But in spite of the SF background, the heart of it is suspense and horror. Time travel is just a trick to set the stage.

    But jebus, those weeping angels…

  65. Duckbilled Platypus says


    So true. But, I’m surprised they even managed to make those 60s-SF-looking, aluminum-boxes-on-wheels, trumpet-nosed Daleks, scary as hell. If they can do that then well, better watch your teacup.

  66. alexanderjohannesen says

    Actually, yes, yes I do! I recently had the pleasure of reading one of my favourite books from when I was a kid to my own son, so it was both a great dad / son moment, but also a happy moment of re-connecting with old litterature that also happened to still be good;

    “Lukas-Kasha” by Lloyd Alexander

    There is time travel. There is adventure. There is strange lands. There is love. There is self-growth. And, without spoiling it too much, an incredibly harrowing ending (but not in the way you think). I think this book is a hidden gem, so I’d highly reccomend giving it a go.

  67. Commentor says

    I loved Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early”, about a man transported to the Viking age who find that none of his modern knowledge is applicable.

  68. Ian R says

    @45: He became (among other things) a Holocaust denier, a climate change denier, and an evolution denier. I’m not sure I would have phrased it as “lost his mind to the Brain Eater and became a kook”, but the reviewer isn’t wrong.

  69. lochaber says

    It’s got a lot of problematic elements, but I rather enjoyed Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”, and thought the recent movie version (predestination?) was decent enough.

    More recently, I rather enjoyed Annalee Newitz’s “The Future of Another Timeline” – it’s basically a bunch of feminist academics waging a wikipedia style edit-war on the timeline with a bunch of incels/MRAs. Also had some neat 90s riotgrrrl nostalgia…

    I also really enjoyed Neil Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.”, which I found generally more humorous than Stpehenson’s solo work, so I suspect that is due to Galland’s influence. There were some mechanistic things I questioned, but that’s just me being nitpicky…

    I think there were a couple more that I’m forgetting…

  70. kaleberg says

    I tried rereading Dancer From Atlantis. It didn’t hold up well. Then again, George Frazer didn’t hold up well either. Now I’m nervous about rereading Guardians of Time. I expect it will be rather awful. One problem is that as we keep learning more about the past, old fiction set in the past tends to have jarring notes.

    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea held up well for me despite its dated marine biology. At least Verne knew how to be amazed. It helped that I was reading a new translation that brought in some geopolitics, also dated. Nemo was on a campaign to avenge the death of his wife and children by attacking British shipping.

    I enjoyed a season of the Spanish show, Ministry of Time. The time travel, from a Madrid basement, had a lot of fun with Spanish history. Apparently, the team included a variety of historical figures. The house artist, for example, was Velazquez. There was a bit of a whitewash regarding Franco and the Nazis though. Still, I’d rather see the Nazis as villains than more realistically, especially in light entertainment like this.

    My favorite time travel short story is about a man getting by on a small pension who builds a time machine in his basement, but he is horribly disappointed that it can only take one back exactly 20 years into the Great Depression and into that same basement. His wife, however, is more pragmatic and digs up some old currency and does her food shopping back when things were a lot cheaper. The punchline has the butcher, after sending her off with a roast, lamb chops and more, remarks to a co-worker that shoppers like her show that there is still some money around. It’s almost Keynesian and probably better as economic fiction.

    (Frankenstein held up very nicely. The doctor fainted so often I wondered about his health, but his creation was the ultimate outsider who was finally willing to accept that and wanted only some solace.)

  71. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    I must, must, MUST vote for “Technicolor Time Machine”. I read it when it first came out. If you’re going to write about something as wacky as time-travel, trivialize it and make it funny. I reread the book every few years, and fantasize about it actually being made into a movie. Sincerely, if you follow the book, the movie would have EVERYTHING:

    1) Special Effects (time travel, trilobytes, etc.)
    2) History (Vikings and the discovery of North America by Europeans)
    3) Violence (several very gory Viking battles)
    4) Sex (Ottar and Slithy Tove get it on)
    5) Humour (throughout)

    I can always dream . . . .

  72. Nathan Mauk says

    Funny, I’ve only now realized that I don’t think I have ever read a novel involving time travel.

    Some of the commenters have mentioned Doctor Who, which brings us full circle to the discussion of pacing in old and new media. I’ve long been a fan of the classic series, dating back to the days when it was shown on PBS in the U.S.; so I was delighted when the show was revived in 2005. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that I find the modern series all but unwatchable. What I’ve seen of it just seems like a breathless barrage of flashy pyrotechnics, excessive CGI, fast cuts, running around, cheap quips and embarrassing pop-culture references, simplistic plots and slight characters, plot holes and abandoned story arcs, and pointlessly elevated stakes. The best I can say about the new series is that it does sometimes try to deal with the philosophical implications of time travel, something the old series neglected.

    I’d be the first to admit that classic Doctor Who had its glacial longueurs, especially when viewing an entire story (often two hours long) in one sitting. But at its best it filled that time with intelligent writing, character development, and imaginative world-building. That immersive feeling of exploring an interesting and believable alternative world is what I miss the most. The contrast has reminded me how I much prefer to read or watch science fiction about ideas, not explosions. Contrary to what somebody mooted above, I don’t think my preference for a slower pace makes me a particularly stupid viewer/reader, or one who requires hand-holding. Elliptical plots and demanding ideas occur in media both fast and slow. I just prefer media with room to breathe.

  73. handsomemrtoad says

    THE TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton?

    TUNNEL THROUGH TIME (I’ve forgotten who wrote it)?

  74. bell says

    I like the Sirens of Titan (1952 I think) by Kurt Vonnegut. It involves time travel, but in a rather unusual way.

    Harry Harrison’s Technicolor Time Machine is also fun (as others have mentioned).

  75. says

    @74 – a strong yes to Annalee Newitz and Stephenson/Galland. Both of those books — very different in tone — are terrific. The Vikings in Walmart is one of my favorite scenes! I gather from a friend of a friend of Nicole Galland that she is under contract to write a sequel to “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.”

  76. hhhh says

    Jack Finney.
    Time and Again
    From Time to Time
    Both classic time-travel stories. I haven’t read them in about 20 years, but I am about to re-read them.

  77. leerudolph says

    SPOILERS (probably unnecessary to say this, but still).

    The best part of The End of Eternity is its curtain line (which I would bet was where Asimov started writing): “It was the end of eternity, and the beginning of infinity.”

    As curtain-lines go, in fact, I think it’s only outdone by that in van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher (also, to some extent, a time-travel story; also, to a great extent because van Vogt, sexist as hell): “He would not witness but he would aid in the formation of the planets.” There too it wouldn’t surprise me if he had that line first.

  78. carter says

    I would second hhhh’s recommendation of “Time and Again”, the graphic novel from 1970. Just reread it after decades and it holds up well. Great description of the difficulties of accomplishing time travel (back to 1882 NYC) plus plausible reactions / exciting plot / great twist at the end.

  79. leerudolph says

    There’s also Finney’s The Third Level, though I am having trouble finding a copy to refresh my memory of it. Time travel plus the New York City subway system; what could be better?

  80. Loree says

    any SF novel written before about 1980 has a high probability of being total crap. Prove me wrong.
    Share this:

    The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle Jr. 1968

  81. PaulBC says

    I listened to an audiobook of Philip K Dick short stories on my commute last year when I had one, and I don’t think they have lost anything. The worst you can say is that the themes that seemed fresh now are a bit hackneyed, but that is because of his influence and others like him.

    I used to like Arthur C Clarke but would probably consider him a colossal bore if I had to go back to it. I don’t think I’ll bother. I think Kim Stanley Robison and Andy Weir do a much better job with the plausible space exploration niche. (But it’s a slog getting through Robinson’s Red Moon right now.)

    Hawksbill Station… is that the one where they have to eat trilobites? About the only thing it left me with was the idea of eating a trilobite sandwich, maybe like a po boy or lobster roll (and of course they would not have bread for it, not to mention condiments). Also, one of the exiles tries to make a simulated woman out of invertebrate parts. (Sorry, this is so crazy, I hope I have the right book.) Not one I would bother with now.

    I still like Clifford Simak and reread Way Station fairly recently. I would still recommend it, but I can’t say how a younger reader would react to it. I think of a fiddle playing soulfully in the background through the whole tale. I think the protagonist’s Civil War origin is a more interesting to me than the ultimate resolution where he establishes galactic harmony. Simak is hit or miss with a lot of misses, but I love his focus on the humble over the heroic.

    Some time I would like to reread Piers Anthony’s Macroscope. However, I suspect I would be disappointed.

    I never liked Heinlein much in the first place and found the Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be one of the most idiotic sock-puppet libertarian screeds I have ever read when I finally picked it up a few years ago. It was like “How much amateur political theory and terrible fake dialect do I have to get through before they start launching the damn moon rocks?” (Ultimately way too much.)

    Also, I don’t think Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz has lost anything in the years since if you didn’t mind such a Catholic story in the first place.

    Finally, everything by Ursula K LeGuin remains excellent. My favorite is still probably The Lathe of Heaven, but The Left Hand of Darkness can hold its own to today’s “woke” SF (I’m sure some will dispute this. I’m a middle aged nerd and I guess I have the empirical evidence that my kids don’t like most of this stuff as much as I do.)

  82. wanderingelf says

    any SF novel written before about 1980 has a high probability of being total crap. Prove me wrong.

    In addition to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darrkness and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I think Frank Herbert’s Dune deserves its status as a classic, and I still found it enjoyable the last time I reread it. If it is permissible to include short stories, most of the stuff by James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) is quite good and holds up rather well (I would think “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” would especially appeal to arachnophiles).