In science fiction, time travel tends more often than not to be either a form of temporal tourism (as in Connie Willis’ beloved Oxford Time Travel novels, in which history professors get a chance to study their subject matter first hand) or a good way to quickly muck up the spacetime continuum (dating back to the wing-flapping butterflies of Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”).
Whereas I’d wager that if we all had access to our own personal time machines, we’d mostly use them to fix the tiny mistakes we all make every day (shout-out to R.A. Lafferty’s out-of-print classic Space Chantey, which featured a time travel device best suited for just that purpose—and called, hilariously, the Dong Button). This of course ignores the hyper-inflation that would result after we all traveled back a day to buy winning lottery tickets (more on that below). Regardless, time travel as a positive, problem-solving technology is a rare but worthy trope of science fiction—as evidenced by these eight books.
The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz
If time travel carries the potential to accidentally ruin the future, it could certainly be used to purposely ruin it, and in Newitz’s new novel the worst people in the world—aka Men’s Right’s Activists—try to do just that. In this reality, time travel is more or less a force of nature, accomplished through ancient geological formations that have been studied and traversed since before the dawn of civilization. The massive rock gates littered across the globe seem to operate by rigid rules that prevent drastic change—but subversive elements within the “geological societies” that use them have found that small pushes, correctly applied, can have a large impact—hence why we’re presented with varied versions of the present day status quo in which women have curtailed rights (abortion and contraception are illegal) or almost no rights at all. Luckily, a woman named Tess and other like-minded travelers are also working in secret to traverse time to counteract the misogynists’ actions, chasing them back to the late 1800s (and much further back) to unwrong the past and protect a future that’s worth protecting. Newitz’s sophomore novel (after the Nebula-nominated Autonomous) is a temporal thriller for the #MeToo era, presenting the tantalizing possibility that time travel could be used to not just protect the sanctity of the past, but to nudge the present in the right direction.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling
Sure, Hermione Granger is exactly the sort of super achiever who would use the awesome power of time travel to essentially give herself twice as much homework, but it still seems, on the face of things, like a bit of a waste of a truly awesome ability. But if you think about it, this rather mundane application has the potential to solve so many problems—imagine generations of scientists, researchers, engineers, and artists producing twice as much (or more) in the same amount of time. Imagine if George R.R. Martin had written the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire in the gap between episodes of the HBO series. Imagine Steve Jobs had been able to pack a second lifetime’s worth of tech innovation into his limited years on Earth. Imagine being able to read all the books on your TBR and still get a full eight hours of sleep.
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Maybe the laws of physics (which abhor a paradox) won’t let us use time travel to fix the entire world. Does that mean we can’t use it to at least make ourselves into better people? That’s the situation facing the protagonist of Ken Grimwood’s cult favorite Replay, which unfolds like a grander vision of the film Groundhog Day (the novel came first): a man named Jeff Winston dies at the age of 43 and wakes up in his 18-year-old body, memories intact. This unexplained phenomenon gives him the chance to relive his life entire, doing all the things he’s always wanted to do—but the next time age 43 rolls around, he dies again and is forced to start over, again. As he repeats the cycle, Jeff goes proceeds from nihilism, to despair (mourning a child who suddenly doesn’t and can never exist), to history’s hero (during one memorable go-round he recruits early ’70s versions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to craft an socially aware sci-fi epic that kicks the environmentalist movement into high gear in time to maybe save the planet)—but he never seems to be able to avoid dying and sending himself back to the start. Instead of working to enrich himself, or even improve the world, Jeff winds up simply trying to be a better person—which turns out to maybe be the point of it all.
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey
Resource management doesn’t often come up in time travel stories, or if it does, it usually focuses on wealth—burying things in the past that will be incredibly valuable in the future, investing in the past in order to arrive at the future with a ready-made fortune, or using your foreknowledge to bet on the right horse. McCaffery offers a different idea, and one more useful to society as a whole: when a plague threatens civilization and there isn’t enough of a vaccine to protect everyone because the necessary plants to manufacture it haven’t yet bloomed, why not use the time travel talents of the dragonriders to jump into the future to harvest what’s needed? While you’d have to be very careful about managing the depletion of a valuable resource in the past (with implications for the current timeline) or the future (with implications for our descendents), the idea of being able to shift needed medicines or other materials to the time periods that desperately need them could be a huge problem-solver—unless, of course, you go to your medicine cabinet for some aspirin only to find a note of apology from your future self.
Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett
Leave it to Sir Terry Pratchett to come up with a delightful subversion of a trope, as the titular character in this Discworld adventure can alter the flow of time relative to himself—and routinely uses the ability to manage his daily schedule instead of, say, doing much more awesome things. Okay, sure, the awesome stuff happens—the universe, having been frozen in time, gets unstuck without shattering into chaos, which is good—but this points the way to another huge benefit of time travel: no one ever being late ever again, and everybody arriving at precisely the right time for every party, ever. No one ever thinks about time travel’s potential for removing awkward social interactions from the human experience … but we should.
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“The Minority Report”, by Philip K. Dick
This classic story (and All the Troubles in the World by Isaac Asimov) deal with the notion of “pre-crime,” or the potential to identify horrible crimes before they actually occur. While that’s not the classic understanding of time travel, since no one is actually traveling in any sense, it’s still an incredibly cool application of time mastery. While the moral and metaphysical questions of whether the crimes in question would have actually happened before they were “prevented” (don’t worry, our heads hurt too) are complex, the idea of probing the time stream, identifying murders and worse, and then ensuring they don’t happen sounds like a pretty fantastic solution to at least some of the problems of the modern world. (Now let us pause to consider how horribly this would all go awry… or we can just read the story.)
The Dreamers Series, by David and Leigh Eddings
Spoilers follow! Written towards the end of his life (with his wife Leigh, often an uncredited co-author of his earlier works), Dave Eddings’ The Dreamers is not considered to be among the best examples of the author’s signature brand of epic fantasy. But most fans would regard it as worthy enough if not for the epilogue: after nearly four novels’ worth of plot and conflict revolving around the struggle of four fading elder gods to prevent an evil force from taking control of the world, Eddings tossed in a final few pages that use time travel to essentially undo… everything. The entire plot of the series simply didn’t happen. While erasing horrifying, tragic, and deadly moments entirely from history would certainly be useful, there’s a reason it doesn’t get used much in fiction—unless you count all those episodes of Star Trek.
To Sail Beyond the Sunset, by Robert A. Heinlein
I think we all can agree that time travel would be a great solution to the problem of the current state of our respective bank accounts. Heinlein certainly thought so, and in this Lazarus Long story he makes it explicit: Long travels back in time and warns his family about many upcoming events, including the stock market crash of 1929, making them very wealthy as a result. Heinlein’s careful to note that the information doesn’t automatically benefit them—they also have to put some effort into shoring up their own interests without inadvertently negating the events before they happen. We’d have to have some kind of system to ensure we didn’t wake up tomorrow a planet of paper billionaires, but maybe we could at least all pay off our student loans?
The Technicolor Time Machine, by Harry Harrison
The problem: movies, especially ones with historical settings, are expensive, and the logistics of recreating a different era can be mind-bending (and incredibly expensive). Solution: instead of building sets, hiring extras, and sewing costumes, why not just time travel to the age in question and start filming? That’s exactly the problem Harrison solves in this delightful novel, as a mediocre film director working for a failing studio seizes on a time travel machine as the way to save both his own career and the studio’s fortunes. While polluting our past may not be a great idea, who wouldn’t pay good money to see Brad Pitt track down some actual Nazis?
What’s your favorite time travel novel?