Time travel is a staple in science fiction, with a rich history from the very earliest days of the genre’s existence, and has produced many gems over the years. I even wrote a time travel story myself (“He Who Controls” in my Dead Reckoning collection) that envisages a nightmarish world where time travel is cheap and widely available, leading to people en masse trying to change the future for their own selfish benefit.
The genre is wide open for speculation. What would you do if you could go back and change things? Or how will things be in the future? Could you really change the past, and if you did would the results be in any way predictable? And of course, there’s that whole wonderful world of paradoxes to be considered.
So here is my selection of favorite time travel books and movies.
10. The Time Tunnel
The Time Tunnel was a sixties TV series where two scientists (played by James Darren and Robert Colbert) make use of an experimental time machine and get lost in the depths of time. Sure, it looks cheesy now. The scripts were often terrible, and the locations visited remarkably limited considering they could travel “throughout the infinite corridors of time.” But as a kid I thought it was great, so it still holds a soft spot for me.
Some interesting trivia about the show. It only ran for one season, and at the end of the last episode, you see the heroes jump to the same time period they were in during the first episode, intimating that the scientists were trapped in a time-loop—pretty clever for back then.
Also of note: James Darren’s association with sci-fi didn’t end there. He went on to play the wonderful holographic crooner, Vic Fontaine, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
9. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Who can possibly forget Bill And Ted? Two bonehead friends have to travel through time to learn enough about history to be able to pass a history test, otherwise a future where everyone lives in harmony will fail to come about. Zany, often hysterically funny in ways comedy shows no longer seem able to achieve. It was a highlight of its time and gave Keanu Reeves, both his big break, and his finest performance 😉
8. Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World – Harry Harrison
The Stainless Steel Rat books are always very funny and this one is in no way short on the laughs. It tells the tale of how the organization Jim (codenamed the Stainless Steel Rat) works for comes under attack from someone operating in the past, and he is forced to use a time machine to go back in history to prevent this happening and save the world as he knows it, including his beloved wife, Angelina. If you can imagine a cross between, James Bond and John Robie from To Catch a Thief, all mixed together with comedy that is almost at a Monty Python level, you’ll be close.
7. Back To The Future
Robert Zemeckis’ movie with Marty McFly going back in time to the fifties and accidentally interfering with his parents’ original meeting is legendary. A fantastic cast led by the incredibly talented Michael J. Fox runs through the whole gamut of entertainment and gives us a masterclass in the “fish out of water” theme, set against a wonderful 50s soundtrack. Not only that, the movie turned the De Lorean sports car into a sci-fi icon. One interesting fact about the film is that Michael J Fox wasn’t the first choice for the role of Marty McFly (Eric Stoltz???)—something that seems almost impossible to believe now.
6. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
This classic story of interstellar war isn’t strictly about time travel. Rather, it’s a story about interstellar war, and how it affects the people involved in it. The time-travel aspect comes from Haldeman’s brilliant use of Einsteinien time-dilation. The soldiers who go out to fight age much slower than the people they leave behind, meaning that when they return to Earth, decades, hundreds or even thousands of years may have passed-effectively giving them a one-way ticket to the future, with no possibility of return. This fills the story with a haunting feeling of perpetual loss, where the soldiers lose connection with their families, friends, and eventually humanity as a whole. Simply an enthralling read, and one of the author’s best.
5. The Technicolor Time Machine – Harry Harrrison
Harry Harrison already has another book on this list, but with all due respect to Slippery Jim DiGriz, this one tops it. The story is an extraordinary and hilarious poke at Hollywood and features a film director who uses a time machine to go back to the Viking age to make a movie in a desperate attempt to save the film studio and his career. If that sounds crazy—that’s because it is and Harrison pulls it off beautifully. Slick, fast, at times touching, and rib-achingly funny!
4. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
The book that started it all. When Herbert George Wells penned this novel, he most likely didn’t realize he was inventing a whole new genre, and one that would still be going strong a hundred and fifty years later. A scientist who, tired of the seemingly endless European wars, builds a time machine to find a new world built around intelligence rather than violence. Although he eventually finds something that resembles paradise, he soon discovers that the world of the Eloi people holds a terrible secret.
3. The End Of Eternity – Asimov
One of my favorite books. Asimov envisions a future where people can live outside of time and create an agency aimed at preventing disasters before they happen. This is a fairly common theme now, but when Asimov wrote this, it was probably among the first explorations of this idea and the possible consequences. I’m not going to say much about it, in case you’ve not read it, but it’s well worth tracking down.
2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond the Stars”
Like The Forever War, this isn’t strictly a time travel story but has elements that make it worthy of inclusion on my list. In this episode, Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) has a series of visions in which he finds himself in the mid-20th century in the persona of a struggling science fiction writer. A very dramatic and poignant episode sees Sisko (as Benny Russell) fighting against racial prejudice, when his employer refuses to publish a story he’s written about a black space captain (modeled on his own Sisko persona)–a reflection of society still relevant even now. This is one of my top Deep Space Nine episodes, along with “The Visitor” (which coincidentally also has a bit of a time-travel theme).
1. –All You Zombies– – Robert Heinlein
This classic time travel short story is a masterpiece of handling paradoxes and building an infinite loop in time. The story revolves around a “male” writer who writes confession stories from the perspective of an unmarried mother. Early on, he explains to a barman that he is perfectly qualified, because he was, in fact, an unmarried mother before going through gender reassignment. The story is incredibly detailed and a whirlwind of twists and turns that only a master like Robert Heinlein could pull off. Again, I won’t spoil things by going into detail, but you’ll relish this if you like mind-bending time travel sci-fi. One of the most haunting sections happens right at the end, and I don’t feel this is a spoiler without the context of the rest of the book. One of the main characters says:
“You really aren’t here at all. There isn’t anybody but me. Jane, here alone in the dark, I miss you dreadfully!”
So that’s my round up. Now over to you. What’s your favorite time travel story or movie?