Mon
Jul 5 2010 1:58pm

Five Short Stories with Useless Time Travel

I want to consider a selection of short stories on the theme of useless time travel. In SF, often a lot of the best work has always been at short lengths. I’m going to talk about Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” (1956), Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” (1958), R..A. Lafferty “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” (1967), Robert Silverberg’s “House of Bones” (1988) and Robert Reed’s “Veritas” (2002).

All five of these are excellent stories, all of them are thought provoking, and they’re all in dialogue with the novels I’ve been discussing. Most of them have been much collected and anthologized and are easy to get hold of, but the only copy of “Veritas” I have is in an old Asimov’s.

What I mean by useless time travel is time travel that doesn’t change anything—either where somebody goes back in time and stays there without making any difference, or time travel that changes itself out of existence, or time travel that is in some other way futile. I don’t just mean changing time. In books like Butler’s Kindred where the protagonist saves the lives of her ancestors but doesn’t otherwise affect the world, time travel still serves a useful purpose.

“The Man Who Came Early” is notable from being from the point of view of the locals who meet the stranded time traveler and are not impressed by him. Anderson is taking the Lest Darkness Fall model and saying no to it, showing a man from the future failing to make any headway among the Norsemen. His protagonist is even less successful than Tarr and Turtledove’s Nicole who at least makes it home.

In “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” it is the nature of time itself that confounds time travelers—history is personal, in Bester’s memorable metaphor it’s like a strand of spaghetti for everyone, and when you change history you become like the spaghetti sauce, detached from the world. So you can go back in time and change it, and it doesn’t change it for anyone except yourself. Very clever, very funny, and quite chilling when you think about it. Typical Bester.

“Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” is typical Lafferty in that it’s very weird, very clever, and impossible to forget. It’s the traditional three wishes fairytale told with time travel and making changes, with the twist that after the changes have been made the time travelers are unaware of any changes, though the reader can see them plainly. The time travel isn’t useless, but it appears to be, and ultimately everything returns to the way it was.

“House of Bones” is about a time traveler stranded among cave men and Neanderthals, learning a lesson about what it means to be human. He doesn’t change history and he doesn’t go home, and so it’s all useless in that sense, but it’s a surprisingly heartening story nevertheless, and I’d list it among Silverberg’s very best. Silverberg has written plenty of other things about time travel, but it’s usually useful.

“Veritas” is set in a world that has easy time travel to “moment universes” as in Corrupting Dr Nice. Once you’ve gone into a universe, you can’t get back to your starting point. The story concerns some young men who go back to conquer Rome, and end up with a mission to spread Romanitas over as many worlds as possible. It’s futile, or perhaps quixotic, because there are an infinite number of worlds, and they can never revisit any of them to see what happens.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

17 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
Probably the ultimate useless time travel story is Time's Last Gift by Philip Jose Farmer. There's an immortal born in the 17th century who gets involved in a future time travel project and wind up staying behind in the Neolithic(?). He spends the intervening millennia taking detailed notes that he secrets away for the project, ultimately vanishing or dying when he is born. About the only effect any of the time travel has is creating the forerunner of the Basque language, which evolves to be exactly as it already was.
sunjah
2. sunjah
Useless time travel as a genre category--yes!Thank you!

Geoffrey Landis' "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" was the first of the kind I ever read. I hung on to that issue of Asimov's for years. I leave it to my betters to discuss without (or with)spoilers.

WV: love darius

Hate alexander?
sunjah
3. B_Munro
A story similar to "Thus we Frustrate Charlemagne" is William Tenn's "Brookyln Project", in which the entirely unnoticed changes are much, much greater - although I personally always felt the ending was in some ways a happy one...
sunjah
4. Neon Sequitur
Aside from 'all that tedious mucking about' with alternate histories, my first rule of time travel when it comes to writing SF is: if someone could go back in time and change the past, then they already have. Useless time travel is the best kind, IMHO.
Chris Meadows
5. Robotech_Master
Writer Henry Melton has done some great time travel stories (as well as a really good time travel novel, Golden Girl, in which time travel proved to be anything but useless, but he had a great explanation for why). Most of them were posted free to his blog, where you can find them with a little googling, but he's put together a Kindle e-book of them for 99 cents, which is a great price and helps support the writer.

In particular, "Echoes" is a great example of why time travel is useless: every time it is invented, someone invariably travels back in time and accidentally cancels out the timeline that led to its invention. I thought it was a rather clever little take on why there's never been any discovered evidence of time travelers, even though if it is invented in the future that means they should be all throughout history.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Robotech Master: It's clever, but it isn't original -- John Brunner gave that explanation in 1962, see previous rock for details.
Matthew Sanborn Smith
7. MatthewSanbornSmith
B_Munro, I am in love with you. I read The Brooklyn Project over twenty years ago and forgot the name and author until you mentioned it here. The story has stuck with me for years. Thank you.
sunjah
8. Crittias
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is one of my favorites.
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
IIRC, Swanwick's Bones of the Earth is more useless time travel.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Nancy: Yes, that's about as useless as it gets.
M Linden
11. mlinden
I've always found that there are two different kinds of "useless" time travel in SF. There's the Frustrating model, in which the protagonists' efforts are squelched at every turn by cruel, inviolate fate, and then there's the Comforting model, in which no matter how badly the protagonists mess things up, it all seems to work out as it should in the end. Both models are a lot of fun, but for very different reasons.
Maiane Bakroeva
12. Isilel
Isn't "The Doomsday Book" yet another such example? Of course, there it is the result that they specifically aspire to.
Anyway, this makes me want to check all these stories...
Peter D. Tillman
13. PeteTillman
I just reread Jim Kelly's "Undone" (2001), a fabulously entertaining story, featuring (almost) useless time travel. The protag is exiled by a long, long leap uptime, +/- accidental, and can do local "undos" -- but doesn't much. She can (and does) grow bigger breasts for her boyfriend. Charming, romantic & fun. Reprinted several times, http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?91974

As always, I enjoy your reviews. So, this is your "day job"?
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Pete: It's part of my day job. Writing novels is the other part.
sunjah
15. Dr. Thanatos
By His Bootstraps

Not only does our hero find himself unable to get himself out of the time loop, but Heinlein finds an amazing economy by having virtually all the characters be the same person at different points in time.

Also by the same author:

"All You Zombies" where he manages to incorporate the old folk song "I'm My Own Grampa" into the plot twist.
Nancy Lebovitz
17. NancyLebovitz
And also Lieber's "Try and Change the Past".
sunjah
18. Anne-Lise Pasch
And Steins;Gate - My favourite useless time travel - the time travelling microwave oven.

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