Time travel in fiction

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Time travel is a common theme in fiction and has been depicted in a variety of media, such as literature, television and advertisements.[1][page needed][2]


H. G. Wells' 1895 story The Time Machine popularized the concept of time travel and introduced the concept of travelling through time by mechanical means.[3]

Prototypes of time travel stories include:

  • the ancient Hindu folk tale of the King Revaita, who travels to a different world to meet the creator Brahma and is shocked to learn that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth;[4]
  • the 8th century Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, which features a fisherman who visits a world under the sea and stays there for three days, only to find after returning to his village that three hundred years have passed and his family is long dead;[5]
  • Washington Irving's 1819 story Rip Van Winkle, which tells of a man who goes to sleep on a mountain for a night and wakes up 20 years in the future: he has been completely forgotten, his wife is dead and his daughter is grown up;[5]
  • Charles Dickens' 1843 story A Christmas Carol, which shows Ebenezer Scrooge dreaming of events from his past and possible future.[3]

Time travel stories in general focus on the consequences of travelling into the past or the future.[3][6][7] The central premise for time travel stories is changing history, either intentionally or by accident, and how altering the past changes the future and creates an altered present or future for the time traveler when they return home.[3][7] As an extension of this, some time travel stories focus only on the paradoxes and alternate timelines that come with time travel, rather than time travelling itself.[6]

Sean Redmond regards time travel as providing a "necessary distancing effect" that allows science fiction to address contemporary issues in metaphorical ways.[8]

Early stories featuring time travel[edit]

  • A very old example of this type of story can be found in the Talmud, with the story, written in 300 CE, of Honi HaM'agel, who went to sleep for 70 years and woke up to a world where his grandchildren were grandparents and where all his friends and family were dead.[citation needed]
  • Walter Map's 12th century De nugis curialium ("Courtiers' Trifles"), tells of the Briton King Herla, who is transported with his hunting party over two centuries into the future by the enchantment of a mysterious harlequin.
  • Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), by Samuel Madden, is mainly a series of letters from English ambassadors in various countries to the British "Lord High Treasurer", along with a few replies from the British foreign office, all purportedly written in 1997 and 1998 and describing the conditions of that era. However, the framing story is that these letters were actual documents given to the narrator by his guardian angel one night in 1728. For this reason, Paul Alkon suggests in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction that "the first time-traveler in English literature is a guardian angel who returns with state documents from 1998 to the year 1728", although the book does not explicitly show how the angel obtained the documents. Alkon later qualifies this by writing, "[i]t would be stretching our generosity to praise Madden for being the first to show a traveler arriving from the future", but he also says that Madden "deserves recognition as the first to toy with the rich idea of time travel in the form of an artifact sent backwards from the future to be discovered in the present."
  • In the play Anno 7603, written by the Dano-Norwegian poet Johan Herman Wessel in 1781, the two main characters are moved into the future (AD 7603) by a good fairy.
  • In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), the editor August Derleth identifies the short story Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism, written for the Dublin University Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838, as a very early time travel story. In it, the narrator is waiting under a tree to be picked up by a coach which will take him out of Newcastle upon Tyne when he suddenly finds himself transported back over a thousand years. There he encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery, and gives him somewhat ironic explanations of the developments of the coming centuries. It is never entirely clear whether these events actually occurred, or were merely a dream.
  • The book Paris avant les hommes ("Paris before Men"), by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard (published posthumously in 1861), has the main character transported to various prehistoric settings by the magic of a "lame demon": he can actively interact with prehistoric life.
  • The short story The Clock that Went Backward, written by editor Edward Page Mitchell, appeared in the New York Sun in 1881, another early example of time travel in fiction.
  • Looking Backward (1888), by Edward Bellamy, and News from Nowhere (1890), by William Morris, each feature a protagonist who wakes up in a socialist utopian future.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), by Mark Twain.
  • Tourmalin's Time Cheques (1891), by Thomas Anstey Guthrie (under the pseudonym F. Anstey), was the first story to explore the paradoxes that time travel might cause.
  • Golf in the Year 2000 (1892), by J. McCullough, tells the story of an Englishman who fell asleep in 1892 and awakened in the year 2000. The focus of the book is how the game of golf would have changed by then, but many social and technological themes are also discussed along the way, including devices similar to television and women's equality.

Time travel themes[edit]

Changing the past[edit]

Paul J. Nahin, who has written extensively on the topic of time travel in fiction, states that "[e]ven though the consensus today is that the past cannot be changed, science fiction writers have used the idea of changing the past for good story effect".[1]:267

Time slip[edit]

Time slips featuring a child and a realistic depiction of an earlier period enjoyed a vogue in the UK in the mid-20th century. Successful examples include Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time (1939) going back to the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) returning to the 1880s and 1990s, Barbara Sleigh's Jessamy (1967) and Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes, both slipping back to the period of the First World War, and Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow (1980), where the slip in Sydney, Australia, is to the squalor of 1873.[9]

Time war[edit]

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes a time war as a fictional war that is "fought across time, usually with each side knowingly using time travel ... in an attempt to establish the ascendancy of one or another version of history". Time wars are also known as "change wars" and "temporal wars".[10]

Nahin compiles a variety of examples of fictional works that raise issues framed as arising in a time war:

Consider this passage from The Fall of Chronopolis (Bayley), a novel about a "time-war." Just after the detection of temporal invaders, we read of them that "They had come in from the future at high speed, too fast for defensive time-blocks to be set up, and had only been detected by ground-based stations deep in historical territory. If the target was to alter past events— the usual strategy in a time-war— then the empire's chronocontinuity would be significantly interfered with." And in Time of the Fox (Costello), American physicists battle KGB physicists in a war of time travelers in the past, each side attempting to change history to its advantage. In this novel the history changers isolate themselves from all the alterations taking place outside of their Time Lab, and they compare their stored historical records with those of external libraries. That allows the staff historian to adjust for each new round of changes. As the historian explains, outside of the Time Lab "History might change, but here [in the Time Lab] the past lives on."

In a novel of a galaxy-wide confrontation between humans and androidsTime and Again (Simak) — the use of time travel to alter history is central: "A war in time . . . would reach back to win its battles. It would strike at points in time and space which would not even know that there was a war. It could, logically, go back to the silver mines of Athens, to the horse and chariot of Thut- mosis III, to the sailing of Columbus. ... It would twist the fabric of the past."[1]:267

Time paradox[edit]

Many time travel works explore the topic of disrupting causality leading to time paradoxes. One of the most commonly referred to in time travel literature is known as the grandfather paradox. Many writers tried to provide answer to the following question: "What would happen if I went back in time and killed my own grandparents?".[11]

Communication from the future[edit]

A communication from the future, as a plot device, is encountered in various science fiction/fantasy stories. In particular, Forrest J. Ackerman noted in his 1973 anthology of the best fiction of the year that "[t]he theme of getting hold of tomorrow's newspaper is a recurrent one".[12]


An early example of this device can be found in the H.G. Wells 1932 short story "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper",[12][13] which tells the tale of a man who receives such a paper from 40 years in the future. The 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow also employs this device,[12] with the protagonist receiving the next day's newspaper from an elderly colleague (who is possibly a ghost). Ackerman's anthology also highlights a short story by Robert Silverberg, "What We Learned From This Morning's Newspaper".[12] In that story, a block of homeowners wake to discover that on November 22, they have received the New York Times for the coming December 1.[1]:38 As characters learn of future events affecting them through a newspaper delivered a week early, the ultimate effect is that this "so upsets the future that spacetime is destroyed".[1]:165

The television series Early Edition, inspired by the film It Happened Tomorrow,[14] also revolved around a character who daily received the next day's newspaper,[1]:235 and sought to change some event therein forecast to happen. Back to the Future Part II used a similar device, having the antagonist prosper after receiving a booklet of sports trivia from the future, based upon which he could place bets.[citation needed] In the television series Goodnight Sweetheart, a man who is able to travel at will between his own time (the 1990s) and World War II era places successful wagers on sporting events of the 1940s by consulting the next day's paper, which exists in his own era (the 1990s) as an antique.[citation needed]


A newspaper from the future can be a fictional edition of a real newspaper, or an entirely fictional newspaper. John Buchan's novel The Gap in the Curtain is similarly premised on a group of people being enabled to see, for a moment, an item in Times newspaper from one year in the future. During the Swedish general election of 2006, the Swedish liberal party used election posters which looked like news items, called Framtidens nyheter ("News of the future"), featuring things that Sweden in the future had became what the party wanted.[15]

Narrative themes[edit]

A communication from the future raises questions about the ability of humans to control their destiny.[1]:165 If the recipient is allowed to presume that the future is malleable, and if the future forecast affects them in some way, then this device serves as a convenient explanation of their motivations. In It Happened Tomorrow, the events that are described in the newspaper do come to pass, and the protagonist's efforts to avoid those events set up circumstances which instead cause them to come about. By contrast, in Early Edition, the protagonist is able to successfully prevent catastrophes predicted in the newspaper (although, if the protagonist does nothing, these catastrophes do come about).

Where such a device is used, the source of the future news may not be explained, leaving it open to the reader or watcher to imagine that it might be technology, magic, an act of a god etc. In the H.G. Wells story, the author writes of the newspaper that "apparently it had been delivered not by the postman, but by some other hand". As in It Happened Tomorrow and Early Edition, no explanation is offered for the source of the future news. Ackerman suggests that "[t]he longer that authors mush on with the tale of... the next-week's-newspaper-now, the more difficult it becomes to pull a new rarebit out of the hat".[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Nahin, Paul J. (1999). Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (2nd ed.). New York, NY [u.a.]: Springer [u.a.] ISBN 9780387985718. 
  2. ^ Nahin, Paul J. (2011). Time Travel: A Writer's Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. ix. ISBN 1421401207. 
  3. ^ a b c d Sterling, Bruce (2014-08-27). "science fiction | literature and performance :: Major science fiction themes". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  4. ^ "Revati". Mythfolklore.net. 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2013-08-30. 
  5. ^ a b "JET 15(1) - February 2006 - Yorke, Rowe - Malchronia: Cryonics and Bionics as Primitive Weapons in the War on Time". Jetpress.org. 2005-01-03. Retrieved 2014-07-25. 
  6. ^ a b Sterling, Bruce (2014-08-27). "science fiction | literature and performance :: Major science fiction themes". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  7. ^ a b Alison Flood (2011-09-23). "Time travel in fiction: why authors return to it time and time again | Science". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-29. 
  8. ^ Redmond, Sean (2014). Liquid Metal: the Science Fiction Film Reader. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 114. ISBN 0231501846. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  9. ^ "Timeslip in Children's Fiction (121 books)". Goodreads.com. 2014-03-15. Retrieved 2016-02-05. 
  10. ^ Langford, David. "Changewar". sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved November 17, 2015. 
  11. ^ Langford, David. "Themes : Time Paradoxes : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". Sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Forrest J. Ackerman, ed., Best Science Fiction for 1973 (1973), p. 36.
  13. ^ "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper". Gutenberg.net.au. 1971-11-10. Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  14. ^ Young, R.G. (1997). The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film: Ali Baba to Zombies. New York: Applause. p. 318. ISBN 1557832692. 
  15. ^ Gunnar Jonsson (29 June 2006). "Fp satsar på löpsedlar som valaffischer" (in Swedish). Dagens nyheter. Retrieved 9 September 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Nahin, Paul J. (1999). Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (2nd ed.). New York, NY [u.a.]: Springer [u.a.] ISBN 9780387985718. 

External links[edit]