All of us have dreamed of hijacking a Time Turner or a Quantum Leap Accelerator to go back to fix a moment in our pasts. Many of us have also dreamed about a TARDIS or Delorean-based trip forward into a dimly-imagined future. Luckily, we here at Tor.com have access to vast tracts of science fiction, and we can celebrate some of the best authors in history as they work out their own time travel scenarios.
Here are 20 of our favorites, from H.G. Wells to Octavia Butler, but be sure to add your own picks in the comments!
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Time Salvager—Wesley Chu
In a future when Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humanity has spread into the outer solar system to survive, the tightly controlled use of time travel holds the key to a fragile existence among the other planets and their moons. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman—a convicted criminal with the perfect psychological makeup for a very dangerous career recovering resources and treasure from Earth’s past without altering the timeline. James is on a final mission to secure his retirement when he meets an intriguing woman from a previous century, scientist Elise Kim, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, James brings her back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, and discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.
Dana is a modern black woman, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband, and just starting to plan their life together, when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning…and Dana has been summoned through time to save him. She is drawn back again and again, finding herself in the slave quarters rather than her own life, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous. Will Dana’s life end in the past before it can even truly begin in the present?
The Many-Colored Land—Julian May
In the year 2034, Theo Quderian, a French physicist, made an amusing but impractical discovery: the means to use a one-way, fixed-focus time warp that opened into a place in the Rhone River valley during the idyllic Pliocene Epoch, six million years ago. But, as time went on, the invention’s usefulness became clear: the misfits and mavericks of the future began to seek this exit door to a mysterious past.
In 2110, a particularly strange and interesting group was preparing to make the journey—a starship captain, an athlete, a paleontologist, a female priest, and others who had reason to flee the technological perfection of twenty-second-century life. The group that passes through the time-portal finds an unforeseen strangeness on the other side. Far from being uninhabited, Pliocene Europe is the home of two warring races from another planet—the knightly race of the Tanu and the outcast race of Firvulag. Myth and legend, wit and violence, speculative science and breathtaking imagination mingle in this romantic fantasy, which is the first volume in a series about the exile world.
Somewhere in Time—Richard Matheson
This classic work of science fiction from Richard Matheson, originally titled Bid Time Return, tells the moving, romantic story of a modern man whose love for a woman he has never met draws him back in time to 1896. Richard Collier finds himself in a hotel in San Diego, and when he meets Elise McKenna, a celebrated Victorian actress, he knows he has met his soulmate. But how can their love survive across time? Somewhere in Time won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1976, and the 1979 film adaptation remains a cult classic, whose fans continue to hold yearly conventions to this day.
The Time Machine—H.G. Wells
A dreamer obsessed with traveling through time builds himself a time machine and, much to his surprise, travels over 800,000 years into the future. He lands in the year 802701: the world has been transformed by a society living in apparent harmony and bliss, but as the Traveler stays in the future he discovers a hidden barbaric and depraved subterranean class. Wells’ transparent commentary on capitalism and class inequality was an instant bestseller and helped launch the time-travel genre.
Time After Time—Karl Alexander
In 1979 Karl Alexander posited a wonderful theory: H.G. Wells actually invented a time machine. But when Wells showed it off to his famous friends—Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and other literary lights of 1893 London—he never suspected that his college friend, surgeon Leslie John Stephenson, was in truth the infamous Jack the Ripper.
When Scotland Yard detectives show up at Wells’ house to inquire about Stevenson, Jack takes the machine and flees to the future—1979 San Francisco. When the time machine, as designed, returned to its point of origin, Wells follows the Ripper to the future to save the city from a new reign of terror at the hands of the depraved, grisly Jack.
The Doomsday Book—Connie Willis
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin—barely of age herself—finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
In the Garden of Iden—Kage Baker
This is the first novel in what has become one of the most popular series in contemporary SF, now back in print from Tor! In the 24th century a mysterious organization preserves works of art and extinct forms of life (for profit of course). It recruits orphans from the past, transforms them into nigh-immortal cyborgs, and trains them to serve Dr. Zeus Inc., know as The Company. One of these orphans is Mendoza, who becomes a botanist after she’s rescued from certain death. She is sent to Elizabethan England with a mission to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden, which seems simple enough…until she meets Nicholas Harpole. Their love will sound great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company.
The Shining Girls—Lauren Beukes
Kirby Mazrachi is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper Curtis is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a house in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times. At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable—until one of his victims survives. Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth…
The Big Time—Fritz Leiber
The Big Time, a short science fiction novel by Fritz Leiber, won the Hugo Award during 1958. It’s told over the course of a couple of hours on a claustrophobically small stage, known as The Place, “a regular theater-in-the-round with the Void for an audience.” The Place is a rest-and-recuperation station for soldiers in the Change War. Two factions, the Spiders and the Snakes, both capable of time travel, battle each other this war, changing the outcomes of events throughout history. New soldiers, entertainers, and medical staff are recruited by existing Change War participants from various places and times: Cretan Amazons, Roman legionnaires, eight-tentacled Lunans (natives of Earth’s moon before it was rendered uninhabitable through warfare), Hussars, Wehrmacht Landsers, Venusian satyrs, American GIs, Space Commandos…they all come to The Place. And they all meet Greta, murdered in one timeline only to live on, outside of time and change, to tell these soldiers’ stories.
Time and Again—Jack Finney
When advertising artist Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring the possibility of time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave his twentieth-century existence and step into New York City in January 1882. Aside from his thirst for experience, he has good reason to return to the past—his friend Kate has a curious, half-burned letter dated from that year, and he wants to trace the mystery. But when Si begins to fall in love with a woman he meets in the past, he will be forced to choose between two worlds—forever.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August—Claire North
Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.” This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.
A Bridge of Years—Robert Charles Wilson
Tom Winter thought the secluded cottage in the Pacific Northwest would be the perfect refuge—a place to nurse the wounds of lost love and happiness. But Tom soon discovers that his safe haven is the portal of a tunnel through time. At one end is the present, and at the other? New York City, 1963.
His journey back to the early 1960s seems to offer him the chance to start over in a simpler, safer world. But he finds that the tunnel holds a danger far greater than anything he left behind: a human killing machine escaped from a bleak and brutal future, who will do anything to protect the secret passage that he thought was his alone. To preserve his worlds, past and present, Tom Winter must face the terrors of an unknown world to come.
“The Color of Paradox”—A.M. Dellamonica
Something is wrong with the color of the future. Cities below, sky above, even the air… all splashed with colors never seen before. Everything was off the accepted painter’s wheel of red, blue, yellow.
A.M. Dellamonica, author of Child of a Hidden Sea, trades in swashbuckling for quantum mechanics in “The Color of Paradox,” and introduces us to a series of time travelers sent back to the past not for lost treasures or historical insight, but to buy more time for the human race… Can the agent codenamed Jules accept the terrible mission that awaits him? Or will time travel drive him mad before he can even begin?
In an Arizona desert, a man wanders in a daze, speaking words that make no sense. Within twenty-four hours he is dead, his body swiftly cremated by his only known associates. Halfway around the world, archaeologists make a shocking discovery at a medieval site. Suddenly they are swept off to the headquarters of a secretive multinational corporation that has developed an astounding technology. Now this group is about to get a chance not to study the past but to enter it. And with history opened up to the present, the dead awakened to the living, these men and women will soon find themselves fighting for their very survival—six hundred years ago.
Rainbow Mars—Larry Niven
Hanville Svetz was born into a future earth that matches the sorriest predictions of the environmental movement. With most of Earth’s original species extinct, Svetz travels back and forth in time retrieving them. Along the way, he learns that Mars was once inhabited, and he also learns the chilling truth of how the Martian species were wiped out.
Can he save Earth from the same fate? Or will all of his worst fears come true?
A Tale of Time City—Diana Wynne Jones
London, 1939. Vivian Smith thinks she is being evacuated to the countryside to escape the hails of German bombs. But in truth, she is being kidnapped out of her own time by two boys her own age, Jonathan and Sam. They’ve come from a place called Time City, designed especially to oversee history, which is beginning to go critical. They’re convinced that Time City’s impending doom can only be averted by a twentieth-century Londoner named Vivian Smith.
Too bad they have the wrong girl…
The Time Roads—Beth Bernobich
In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man’s benefit, and who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.
Áine Lasairíona Devereaux is the young Queen of Éire, a intricately detailed steam-punk version of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. Facing assassination attempts from Anglian rebels, Áine funds the research of the scientist Breandan Ó Cuilinn, who attempts to send objects into the future. Síomón Madóc investigates murders of mathematicians at Éire’s largest university—until suddenly, after the explosion of Ó Cuilinn’s airship, the crimes never happened at all. Tormented by visions of a different timeline, police officer Aidrean Ó Deághaidh suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game…
Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
The Anubis Gates—Tim Powers
Only the dazzling imagination of Tim Powers could have assembled such an insane cast of characters: an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, our hero, Professor Brendan Doyle.
In 1801 the British have risen to power in Egypt and suppress the worship of the old Egyptian gods. A cabal of magicians plan to drive the British out of Egypt by bringing the gods forward in time from an age when they were still powerful and unleashing them on London, thereby destroying the British Empire. In 1802, a failed attempt by the magicians to summon Anubis opens magical gates in a predictable pattern across time and space, allowing Doyle to travel back from 1983 as a guide for wealthy time-tourists. But things don’t go exactly according to plan when he is kidnapped and stranded in the 19th century…
The Technicolor Time Machine—Harry Harrison
Barney Hendrickson is a mediocre movie-maker working at a failing film studio, and he’s hit on one fantastic idea to turn his career around. With the help of Professor Hewitt’s more-or-less functional time machine, he can make his historical epic, Viking Columbus, by recruiting real-life Vikings, paying extras in beads, and shooting on exotic locations in the past for cheap! On the first trip, they capture a Viking named Ottar, and pay him in Jack Daniels. So far so good. But Barney soon learns that even in the past, film shoots never go exactly as planned…
“The Cartography of Sudden Death”—Charlie Jane Anders
When Ythna is sent to serve the Beldame Thakkra, she is only a child, but as she grows, so does her love of her mistress. When tragedy strikes, Ythna has no idea what to do, or how to save herself from Obsolescence, until she meets the mysterious Jemima Brookwater. Ms. Brookwater claims to come from the future, and wants Ythna to come on a terrifying journey that uses a most unusual mode of travel.