British writers seem to have a thing about time travel. Perhaps it all started with H.G. Wells, or maybe we can blame Doctor Who in all his varied incarnations. Or perhaps it’s because the British have quite a lot of history and it’s all around them. Is it surprising if they think it would be simply smashing to toddle back into the past for a quick peek? And, having exhausted the vanilla versions of time travel quite early on, authors from my native land have thought up quite a few ingenious variants. Herewith, I regale you with five frightfully peculiar time travel tales penned by Brits…
Chekhov’s Journey by Ian Watson
Right out of the gate, I can tell it’s going to be tough to describe some of these books, but here goes: So there’s this chap making a movie about Anton Chekhov, who is apparently such a believer in method acting that he hypnotizes his lead actor into believing he is Chekhov. And it turns out that Chekhov made a trek into Siberia that the actor now finds himself traveling back in time to relive, while also finding himself mentally entwined with a spaceship captain who… Okay, time and reality start unraveling, and it’s all connected with the Tunguska explosion of 1908 in a way that’s impossible to explain without spoilers. Chekhov’s Journey is twisted, absorbing, and exceptionally well-written.
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
This one’s much easier to describe. Maybe. It’s a straight sequel to H.G. Wells’ celebrated masterpiece, The Time Machine. We have the Victorian Time Traveler himself (whose voice and attitudes Baxter channels effortlessly), and the Eloi and the Morlocks, parleyed into a huge book that plots a zigzagging path back and forth through space, time, and alternate timelines, some unnervingly familiar and others utterly alien, and then breaks out beyond it all into a brain-expanding Multiplicity of universes that boggles the mind. Amidst it all are sly in-jokes, references to other works by Wells and others, and much more. If we could send a copy back for Wells to read, I think he’d be pleased. Though we might need to send him a Quantum Physics 101 textbook as well.
The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Closer to home but no less profound is The House on the Strand. Here the hero travels in time using a potion rather than a machine, and his movements are oddly constrained. While back in the Cornwall of the Middle Ages, Dick Young makes emotional connections with its inhabitants but cannot be seen by them. Moreover, while his mind is firmly locked in the fourteenth century, his body is still walking around in the present duplicating the movements of his past self. Story-wise this shouldn’t work in any way, but in du Maurier’s capable hands it’s clever, gut-wrenching, and completely convincing.
Cryptozoic! by Brian Aldiss
In Aldiss’s classic, Edward Bush and his fellow time travelers have constraints of their own. Their bodies stay in their present but their minds return to the past, wandering through Devonian and Jurassic landscapes they are unable to interact with. In ‘mind-travel’ they walk on a generalized floor that may be above or below the ground level of the scenery they walk in, and those landscapes are utterly silent. But while scientists, artists, and bikers roam through surreal prehistoric eras, the totalitarian government of the book’s present has its own nefarious plans. Ultimately, Bush gets trained as an assassin, and sent on a mission back to a time much closer to the present…
Okay, it has to be said: even “timeless” books can become dated, and Cryptozoic has aged the worst of the books here. Its navel-gazing 1960s philosophy and casual sexism make it a painful read now. But its ideas are so bizarre and off-center that it’s still like no other time travel book I’ve read.
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Back onto deeper and more hallowed grounds. The main Dark Is Rising sequence consists of five books: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; and Silver on the Tree. They’re fantasy novels, and some people even have the nerve to claim they’re for kids. But, no, not really, not unless the kids have an adult reading level plus a solid background in British history, myth, and folklore. In these books it’s the dramatic and historical elements that take the forefront rather than the sheer joy of hopping through the ages, as we follow Will Stanton, the three Drew children, and the strongest of the Old Ones, the enigmatic Merriman Lyon, in their quest to join the Six Signs in opposing the Dark. But the Old Ones’ time traveling powers are central to the fabric of the story, and those elements are handled as reverently as any of the more classical aspects of the tales.
There are other themes that these very different books share, aside from their innate and unmistakable Britishness. Each has a strong sense of irony. Each delves deep into the intimate connections between the present and the past (and, sometimes, the future). And each is imaginative and original. If you’re not familiar with them, giving them a read would be time well spent.
Darned cunning, those Brits.
Alan Smale grew up in Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. By day he works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a professional astronomer, studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects. However, too many family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall in his formative years plus a couple of degrees from Oxford took their toll, steering his writing toward alternate, secret, and generally twisted history. He has sold numerous short stories to magazines including Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and he won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The second book in his Clash of Eagles trilogy, Eagle in Exile, is out today from Del Rey.