One of the fun aspects of a time travel story is extrapolating how enormously the present day would change if you made only a small adjustment in the past. Books involving time travel can really dig into this kind of story, bringing in huge amounts of research and detail. Below are five recent books that really push this concept to insane limits, throwing out alternate timeline after alternate timeline, and forcing us to choose: if time travel can make anything true, then what’s the deeper personal meaning to truth?
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson’s bestselling novel opens thusly:
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual.
Life After Life creates a novel out of this premise, starting a new chapter, and a new iteration of Ursula’s life every time she dies in the previous iteration. It takes a while for Ursula to land upon a series of circumstances that sees her living to the events of World War II, and that struggle intensifies when it comes time to find circumstances that allow her to live beyond World War II. The time travel is all within the structure of the book. The reader is omniscient, but Ursula is never aware of her other timelines; which can be very frustrating for the reader when she repeats previous failures, but which also brings relief when a particularly monstrous timeline ends and Ursula can start fresh.
Atkinson’s novel hits hard at the reader’s sense of self. You really start to wonder just what happened to all the versions of you that never made it this far…
Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson
Spin author and winner of both the Philip K Dick Award and the John W Campbell Award, Robert Charles Wilson brings the past and present together in his new book Last Year.
In the 1880s bouncer Jesse Cullum is scavenging for food when he literally staggers into the City of Futurity, a luxe hotel for time travelers visiting from an open time portal to the 21st century. The hotel soon becomes a hub of culture, as modern visitors mingle with the elite of 1880s Chicago, who buy day passes for the opportunity to see the future.
Then someone tries to assassinate Ulysses S. Grant, and time gets weird. Last Year starts as a reverse time travel story, but evolves into an examination of time travel as cultural adaptation. The past is framed as “another country,” existing in the same geographical space but containing behaviors that are frowned upon while also creating habits that will solidify into tradition. When we hop around the globe in the present day, aren’t we essentially doing the same thing? Or do actions in our past have more effect on the present day than actions taken in the present day, but in a developing country?
These are big questions to unpack, and there’s more in Last Year that informs them, but to go into detail would spoil the fun! Essentially, what is an alternate timeline, really? And aren’t we already surrounded by them?
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2015, and was described as being as being “Groundhog Day on Red Bull” in Kirkus Reviews, which is practically perfect.
North’s novel follows Harry August, a man destined to live over and over again, always as himself, always with the same parents. He is a member of the Kalachakra, and there are others called the Cronus Club—but unlike those others he is also a Mnemonic, and can remember every single detail of his previous lives. (Unlike Ursula in Life After Life.) While he lays dying his eleventh death, he is visited by a young girl with a message: “The world is ending.”
For Harry the world is always ending, but someone now seems to be speeding the process up for unfathomable reasons. As Harry embarks on his 12th life, he notices that events are happening sooner than they should, and he begins to investigate the person or thing who is meddling with time. But could it be that this sinister individual is also a friend of his?
Replay by Ken Grimwood
Grimwood’s 1998 novel Replay planted (or re-planted, depending on your perspective) the flag on the concept of repeating through one’s own life. In this instance whenever the main character Jeff dies he wakes up in 1963 as an 18-year old. Replay examines the idea of lives-never-lived through a science fiction angle. He knows that man will land on the moon in 6 years. He knows that The Beatles will break up around then, too. That Nixon will come to power and then leave in disgrace. That computers will become personal. That an internet will arise. That money and information and time will get more and more conceptual.
How do you relive your life knowing of the insane science fiction things to come? What if you could create better and better timelines, knowing each time that you’ll get rebooted back to the start?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ends up as a critique of the entire concept of alternate timelines, slingshotting Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy through timelines where Voldemort is still very much alive, then widening the scope to give Harry himself the opportunity to make some big, BIG alterations to the fate of the wizarding world.
Ultimately, events spiral well out of hand and Harry ends up with the opportunity to prevent his parents’ deaths and create an alternate timeline where he could grow up…happy? Harry is surrounded by his future friends and family during this climactic moment of decision, and it’s a clever touch on Rowling’s part that Harry has to make it while disguised as Voldemort. The message is clear: Don’t take your life for granted. Don’t take your happiness for granted. If you survived a terrible upbringing, and an entire war, be grateful for the friends and family you’ve nurtured in spite of all the danger. Their value is worth more than time itself.