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 home to his village that three hundred years have passed and his family is long dead, 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 where he has been completely forgotten, his wife is dead and his daughter is grown up, and Charles Dickens' 1843 story A Christmas Carol, which shows Ebenezer Scrooge dreaming of events from his past and possible future.[3][5][6]

Modern time travel stories examine the side effects of time travel, such as when a time traveler travels into the past and accidentally or intentionally changes history,[3][5] while others involve a time traveler or groups of time travelers warring across time and attempting to preserve or change history.[3] Time travel stories also examine the temporal paradoxes that come with time travel, such as the grandfather paradox, and the creation of alternate histories and parallel universes.[5][7]

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]

  • Another very old example of this type of story can be found in the Talmud, with the story of Honi HaM'agel, written in 300 A.D., 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]
  • In Walter Map's 12th century De nugis curialium ("Courtiers' Trifles"), Map 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 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 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", and who is then able to actively interact with prehistoric life.
  • 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".[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 known as "change wars" in science fiction literature and "temporal wars" in the Star Trek franchise.[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 androids — Time 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."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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 2015-10-04. 
  4. ^ "Revati". Mythfolklore.net. 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2013-08-30. 
  5. ^ a b c Alison Flood (2011-09-11). "Time travel in fiction: why authors return to it time and time again | Science". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-10-01. 
  6. ^ "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. 
  7. ^ Sterling, Bruce (2014-08-27). "science fiction | literature and performance :: Major science fiction themes". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2015-11-18. 
  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. ^ a b Nahin, Paul J. (1999). Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (2nd ed.). New York, NY [u.a.]: Springer [u.a.] p. 267. ISBN 9780387985718. 
  10. ^ Langford, David. "Changewar". sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved November 17, 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]