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The timestream or time stream is a metaphorical conception of time as a stream, a flowing body of water. In Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the term is more narrowly defined as: "the series of all events from past to future, especially when conceived of as one of many such series".[1] Timestream is the normal passage or flow of time and its historical developments, within a given dimension of reality. The concept of the time stream, and the ability to travel within and around it, are the fundamentals of a genre of science fiction.

This conception has been widely used in mythology and in fiction.

This analogy is useful in several ways:

  • Streams flow only one way. Time moves only forward.
  • Streams flow constantly. Time never stops.
  • People can stand in a stream, but will be pulled along by it. People exist within time, but move with it.[2]
  • Some physicists and science fiction writers have speculated that time is branching—it branches into alternate universes (see many-worlds interpretation). Streams can converge and also diverge.

Science fiction scholar Andrew Sawyer writes, "The paradoxes of time—do we move in time, or does it move by us? Does it exist or is it merely an illusion of our limited perception?—are puzzles that exercise both physicists and philosophers..."[3]


Brian Stableford writes of the historical and philosophical concepts of time (and using the terminology of "flow"):

Like space, it is a basic aspect of experience; early philosophical treatments of the idea hesitated in a similar fashion over the question of whether time could be said to exist apart from the objects manifesting its effects. The manner of time's experience is, however, markedly different from that of space; time appears to 'flow' unidirectionally from the past into the future, bearing all existence with it, encapsulated in the momentary present.
The controversy as to whether time's flow is the very essence of reality or a mere allusion was already sharp in Classical times, Heraclitus holding to the former view while Parmenides and Zeno were convinced of the latter.[4]

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was famous for a statement that has been translated in many ways, most commonly as "No man ever steps in the same river twice," which is often called his "flux [flow] doctrine."[5][6][7][8] An essayist for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explained it in this manner: "Everything is in flux (in the sense that 'everything is always flowing in some respects'...) ..."[9]


In fiction, an alternate continuity is sometimes called an alternate timestream.[10][11][12][13][14]

Science fiction[edit]

The Time Stream, a 1946 science fiction novel by author John Taine (pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell), is the first novel to see time as a flowing stream.[15] It was originally serialized in Wonder Stories, in four parts, from December, 1931, to March, 1932.[16] Science fiction scholar E. F. Bleiler described how Taine employed the metaphor:

The basic concept is that time is a circular stream that runs eternally, with far past blending into far future. It is possible for certain individuals to enter this stream mentally and move in either direction, although this is a dangerous venture, for they may be carried away erratically by the stream. ... In San Francisco nine associates, who have been troubled by occasional memories of [the planet] Eos, band together to explore the time stream. They live out crisis moments in both times.[17]

Another mid-century novel which employed the term in its title was The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream (1965) by G. C. Edmondson (pseudonym of José Mario Garry Ordoñez Edmondson y Cotton). John Clute writes that this "and its sequel, To Sail the Century Sea (1981), are amusingly and graphically told Fantastic-Voyage tales involving a US ship and its inadvertent Time Travels. They remain his most successful books."[18]

Other fiction titles with the term include J. Robert King's 1999 novel Time Streams (ISBN 0-7869-1344-4),[19] Michael Moorcock's 1993 collection A Nomad of the Time Streams (ISBN 1-85798-034-4), and Charles M. Saplak's short story "Backwater by the Time Stream" (Manifest Destiny #1, Winter 1993).[20]

Discussing the theme of parallel universes, in an encyclopedia article which can usefully be applied to the concept of timestreams, Brian Stableford and David Langford write,

"A parallel world is another universe situated 'alongside' our own, displaced from it along a spatial fourth Dimension (parallel worlds are often referred to in sf as 'other dimensions'). Although whole universes may lie parallel in this sense, most stories focus on parallel Earths. The parallel-world idea forms a useful framework for the notion of Alternate History, and is often used in this way...
The idea that other worlds lie parallel to our own and occasionally connect with it is one of the oldest speculative ideas in literature and legend; examples range from Fairyland to the 'astral plane' of Spiritualists and mystics. There are two basic folkloristic themes connected with the notion; in one, an ordinary human is translocated into a fantasy land where s/he undergoes adventures and may find the love and fulfilment that remain beyond reach on Earth; in the other, a communication or visitation from the other world affects the life of an individual within this world, often injuring or destroying that person. Both patterns are very evident in modern imaginative fiction, shaping whole subgenres...
A common variant of the theme is that of a multiplicity of almost-identical worlds existing in parallel: alternate worlds in which there has been no significant change."[21]

Fantasy fiction[edit]

Rick Sutcliffe provides a definition in a brief essay on his own fiction: "The timestream is an alternate history device used in Rick Sutcliffe's fiction. It is the medium in which the various alternate earths exist, or, if one prefers, it provides the connections among them, in the manner of C. S. Lewis' wood between the worlds -- a place between."[22]

While not discussing the timestream per se, scholar John Grant discusses a related topic, that of the time slip: "Generally protagonists [return] to their starting points but a frequent device is that, after repeated timeslips, the 'traveler' chooses to remain in the other period. Generally there is an emotional or psychological connection of some kind between the character and the earlier time — most often love... Unsurprisingly, timeslips are a staple of the subgenre of romance fiction called the Paranormal Romance, exemplified by Diana Gabaldson's Outlander (1991) and its sequels."[23]


Examples of the usage of timestream:

  • In DC Comics, the timestream is an invisible current that flows through the DC Universe. It is used as a way for heroes like the Linear Men, and especially Waverider, to travel and correct time fluctuations from time traveling supervillains who seek to alter the correct reality. The timestream was mainly used by Waverider during Armageddon 2001, Death of Superman, and Zero Hour events. The timestream is connected to the Speed Force, so speedsters are able to tap into certain points in it in order to time travel. It is possible Per Degaton, Chronos, Vandal Savage, Hourman, Max Mercury, Savitar and Epoch, has also used the same type of time stream for time travel.[24]
  • In the Legacy of Kain game series, the timestream's nature (as to whether or not it can be changed) plays a vital role throughout the story.
  • Similarly, in Three Days to Never by Tim Powers, various individuals and groups try to find and control a time machine, hoping to travel back in time, make changes to events, and thereby enter a parallel universe in which they might find themselves experiencing a happier life.[25][26] Powers also explicitly links time travel with rivers in his 1983 novel The Anubis Gates.[27][28]
  • In the Terra Nova (TV series), the Terra Nova settlement exists in a different timestream, so that it doesn't affect the future of 2149, from where the settlers arrive. To decide upon where (and when) to start the settlement, a timeprobe is sent out from 2149 and, when it can't be traced back anywhere on Earth, they sense that it reached a different timestream and begin the settlement in that timestream.
  • David R. Slavitt's Walloomsac begins with a description of a river and the stones which it flows over; the narrator is philosophical: "What would be the subject? The water rushing by, looking the same but always different?" Later in the narrative, many lives and changes are discussed.


  1. ^ Jeff Prucher, ed. (2007). "Time Stream". Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-0195305678.
  2. ^ Science fiction scholar Paul Kincaid comments, "The time machine allows not movement in time (we already live in time, and a novelist has always been able to set a story in any future or past era), but transposition in time." Kincaid, Paul (2005). "Time travel". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 820. ISBN 0-313-32950-8.
  3. ^ Sawyer, Andy (2005). "Time". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 818. ISBN 0-313-32950-8.
  4. ^ Stableford, Brian M. (2006). "Time". Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. p. 529. ISBN 0415974607.
  5. ^ Graham, Daniel W. "Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 B.C.E.)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. IEP.
  6. ^ Marvin, Chris. "Heraclitus of Ephesus". Trinity College (Connecticut). Archived from the original on January 6, 2015. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  7. ^ Cohen, S. Marc (2006). "Heraclitus". University of Washington. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  8. ^ Beavers, Anthony F. "Heraclitus of Ephesus". University of Evansville. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  9. ^ Graham, Daniel W. (2011). "Heraclitus". Stanford University. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  10. ^ Gerrold, David (1973). The Man Who Folded Himself. New York: Random House. ISBN 039447922X. But every time you make a change in the timestream, no matter how slight, you are actually shifting to an alternate timestream.
  11. ^ Leiber, Fritz (1950). Gather, Darkness!. New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy. No alternate time-stream, no dead come alive, nothing like that.
  12. ^ McIntyre, Vonda N. (1981). The Entropy Effect. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-83692-7. As they were now, [neither] had existed in the alternate time-stream.
  13. ^ Dean, William M. (2014). The Space between Thought. Bloomington, IN: Iuniverse. ISBN 9781491752845. Let's say you go back, kill your grandfather, then return, but to an alternate time-stream indistinguishable from your own except that, in this one, your grandfather was killed and one version of you never existed. The obvious intuitive problem with this theory is that it...presumes an infinite number of time-streams are generated spontaneously each moment in order to accommodate all possible divergence.
  14. ^ Hollinger, Veronica (2005). "Science Fiction and Postmodernism". In David Seed (ed.). A Companion to Science Fiction. Series: Blackwell companions to literature and culture, vol. 34. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. p. 235. ISBN 1405112182. ...Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), which presents readers with a violent and pulpish science fiction novel, Lord of the Swastika, penned by a little-known author named Adolf Hitler in an alternative time-stream in which the Second World War never took place.
  15. ^ Chalker, Jack L.; Mark Owings (1998). The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Bibliographic History, 1923-1998. Westminster, MD and Baltimore: Mirage Press, Ltd. p. 125.
  16. ^ Anon. "Bibliography: The Time Stream". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  17. ^ Bleiler, Everett Franklin and Richard J. Bleiler (1998). "Story Descriptions". Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years: a Complete Coverage of the Genre Magazines Amazing, Astounding, Wonder, and Others from 1926 through 1936. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. p. 426. ISBN 0873386043.
  18. ^ Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (2014). "Edmondson, G C". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Rev., online ed.). New York: St Martin's Griffin.
  19. ^ Anon. "Publication Listing". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  20. ^ Anon. "Bibliography: Backwater by the Time Stream". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  21. ^ Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (2014). "Parallel Worlds". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Rev., online ed.). New York: St Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-09618-2.
  22. ^ Sutcliffe, Rick (2013). "Timestream Index". Arjay Enterprises. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  23. ^ Grant, John (2005). "Timeslips". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 821. ISBN 0-313-32950-8. A timeslip occurs when a person inadvertently, and acausally, slides from one era into another...
  24. ^ Comic Vine (2014). "The Timestream". CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2014. In the DC Universe, the timestream is a place unaffected by time flows and a place used by the Monitors and time [travelers] in order to travel and correct time fluctuation.
  25. ^ Santella, Andrew (August 20, 2006). "Fiction Chronicle". The New York Times. p. Sunday Book Review. Retrieved December 27, 2014. Powers's latest genre-blending thriller (call it an occult/fantasy/espionage/existential adventure with elements of paranoid rant) concerns shadowy groups of international intriguers racing to locate a lost discovery of Albert Einstein's that could quite literally change history. ... Their predicament is about as dire as can be imagined, but it gives Powers's heroes the opportunity to confront their own pasts.
  26. ^ Wagner, Thomas M. (2006). "Three Days to Never". SFReviews.net. Retrieved December 27, 2014. If one were to glean a message from this story, it could be that, as much as we might dream of going back and changing events in our past that have hurt us to one degree or another, the point of life is to move forward through the pain, and not linger on it, tormenting ourselves by never learning lessons or growing as people.
  27. ^ Wagner, Thomas M. (2006). "The Anubis Gates". SFReviews.net. Retrieved December 27, 2014. [Time travel is] a process involving gates, like holes in the ice over a frozen river...
  28. ^ Wandason, Paul (August 25, 2014). "The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers". Time2timetravel. Retrieved December 27, 2014. Darrow describes time as a river and uses this as a really good counter argument to the butterfly effect (i.e. that a small incident in the past (e.g. the flap of a butterfly's wing) can affect the future on a much larger scale (like causing a hurricane); small disturbances in the river effect the flow downstream (i.e. in the future)...