A Brief History of Time Travel Literature

Yesterday, Stephen King’s newest work, 11/22/63, a novel about a man who travels back in time via a storeroom to stop the JFK assassination, hit shelves. Inspired by this newest addition to the time travel literature genre, we got to thinking about a few of our favorite time travel stories, and particularly about all of the different ways those fictional mortals manage to thrust themselves back and forth in space-time. From our vantage, there are a few types of time travel that we see used over and over again: mechanical (time machines and the like), portal-based (stepping through some sort of floating hole in the space-time continuum), fantastical (ghosts or other unbelievable phenomena), magical/item-based (some sort of artifact that holds the power of time travel), and the simply unexplained (because why does it matter? Get to the cool future stuff already). There are hundreds of novels and short stories about or involving time travel, so these are a few of our favorites, plucked both from the beginnings of the genre and from contemporary literature. Click through to read our list, and let us know your own favorite time travel novels — or time travel methods — in the comments.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895 – Mechanical

Though not the first instance of time travel in literature, and not even the first example of a time machine (that honor goes to Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau’s 1887 novel El Anacronopete), this is the novel that really brought time travel to the forefront of the public’s imagination. It makes sense, for while Wells didn’t dream up the concept, he did coin the term ‘time machine,’ and he also was the first to cement the idea of a machine that allows the user to travel back and forward purposefully, as opposed to randomly.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu, 2010 – Mechanical

In Yu’s meta-science fictional novel, the protagonist (also called Charles Yu) is a time machine repairman who lives in his own time machine. Like many protagonists of time travel novels, he catches himself in a time loop by shooting his future self, and tries to escape his own self-inflicted fate by cycling through time-space, while reflecting on his life, always trying to “keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment.”

By His Bootstraps,” Robert A. Heinlein, 1941 – Portal-based

This short story by one of the great masters of science fiction was originally published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name Anson MacDonald. In the story, Bob is finishing up his thesis on — what else — time travel, when he is interrupted by a man named Joe, who declares that he has come from the future via a ‘Time Gate’ and asks him to come through. Before he can, another man appears, and a fight ensues. Needless to say, if you’re at all familiar with this genre, but all are versions of Bob from one point in time or another, and the story continues with Bob navigating his way through the time tangle, going back and forth through the gate that leads thirty thousand years in the future.

11/22/63, Stephen King, 2011 – Portal-based

An example of an alternate history style time travel novel, thirty five year old high-school English teacher Jake Epping is leading an ordinary life when his friend Al, who runs the local diner, revelas that his storeroom is a portal to 1958 and sets Jake on a mission to prevent the JFK assassination. Though this is not even the first novel to deal with the JFK assassination via time travel, it sure is a good one.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843 – Fantastical

If you’re anything like us, when you first read Charles Dickens’ famous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, you didn’t even think of it as a time travel story. But time travel it is — Scrooge travels through space and time, visiting both his past and his future. Sure, he’s being lead about by ghosts, but the idea is the same — this greater understanding of the universe and the way things link to each other changes Scrooge’s mind and actions.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, 2003 – Fantastical

Though the technical explanation for Henry DeTamble’s time travelling is a genetic disorder they call ‘Chrono-Displacement,’ the concept is so far-fetched that we have to put this in the ‘fantastical’ category. The time-travelling in this book is pretty interesting, however, because it’s involuntary — Henry can’t control when he will travel to, or how long he will stay in each time period, though it appears that his time travelling is sometimes brought on by stress. Now there’s a reason to relax if we’ve ever heard one.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, 1992 – Magical item-based

Another time travel-based romance novel, the first of a series of seven, Claire journeys from 1945 to the 18th century via a set of mystical standing stones on a hill in Scotland. She tends the wounds of a young man using her 20th century medical knowledge and nursing ability. Obviously, they fall in love. Swoon!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling, 1999 – Magical item-based

Though this installment of Harry Potter can’t be classified as a time travel novel in its own right, time travel plays a huge part in the plot, so we’re counting it. Because she is such an epic nerd, Hermione is given a ‘time turner’ that will allow her ‘do hours over’ in order to take an extra-full course load. It’s an interesting and pretty unusual artifact in the Harry Potter universe — nothing about the world suggests that time travel should be possible, and it’s never really mentioned again. However, it’s magic, so who are we to say. Ultimately, Hermione, Harry and Ron must use the time turner to save an innocent man and secure his escape. It’s all carried off quite nicely.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain, 1889 – Basically unexplained

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan, a regular guy living in Hartford, Connecticut in the 19th century, gets hit on the head with a crowbar (by a man named Hercules, no less) and wakes up in Camelot. This novel is one of the first to revolve around the idea of a character from the future introducing his knowledge and technology to a past civilization.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 – Basically unexplained

In Vonnegut’s satirical novel about World War II, American soldier Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” which causes him to experience the different events in his life non-sequentially and sometimes more than once. Thus, he is able to experience his death before his actual death, leaving him rather fatalistic. He is abducted by aliens, the Tralfamadorians, one of whom tells him, “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” Instead, the Tralfamadorians have seen their lives in their entirety, and believe that everything simultaneously exists, confusing the very notion of time, stuck or unstuck. So it goes.