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What Is Time Travel Fiction?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Time travel fiction involves characters exploring the past or the future. This usually involves a time-travel device of some kind, making these stories part of the science fiction genre, although this is not always the case. The genre was pioneered by British writer H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. The perpetual one-way nature of time makes the topic endlessly fascinating to many people. Time travel fiction includes many popular novels, movies, and comic books.

The unwavering nature of time and its effect on human life has provoked much speculation over the centuries, some of it inevitably recorded in stories. Legends of ordinary people traveling far into the future occur in Chinese, Japanese, and Irish myths. Early works of time travel fiction included Washington Irving’s story Rip Van Winkle and Charles DickensA Christmas Carol, both featuring characters who visit the future. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which a modern man visits the past after a blow to the head, appeared in 1889.

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was first published in England in 1895. This popular science fiction novel introduced the world to many of the concepts and contradictions of time travel fiction. It was made into successful films in 1960 and again in 2002, as well as numerous adaptations in other media. Later films, like the Back to the Future comedy adventure series of the 1980s, had certain elements in common with Wells’ story, including a device that allowed travel through time to a specific destination. These works focused on the effects and consequences of changing the past or visiting the future in human terms while glossing over the scientific details of the actual time travel process.

Much time travel fiction involved commonly used science fiction themes, called tropes. A classic example was Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder, in which a butterfly’s death changes a time traveler’s future; this story provided the origin of the phrase the butterfly effect. The television series Quantum Leap and Doctor Who, among others, involved heroes traveling in time to change sequences of events for noble reasons. The classic Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” is an example of another time-travel trope: that time must unfold as it will, sometimes tragically, despite the best intentions of the time travelers.

Another form of time travel fiction disregards the actual method, preferring to focus on its effect on the characters. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, his hero, Billy Pilgrim, famously becomes unstuck in time, living his sad life out of sequence. The TV series Lost and Iain Sinclair’s novel Slow Chocolate Autopsy also dealt with the experiences of unstuck characters. The films The Lake House and The Time Traveler’s Wife explored the effects of time travel on romantic relationships. The 2004 independent film Primer applied cutting-edge physics to its story and used a documentary shooting style to portray the consequences of time travel on its characters.

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Discussion Comments

By pastanaga — On Nov 04, 2013

Time travel can be used in so many different ways in fiction. I think one of the best time travel films I saw recently was called "About Time" and it was basically a very gentle film about learning to appreciate everyday life.

It didn't have a lot of special effects or really very much conflict in it. Even though it had time travel it wasn't really a science fiction film either. It was more like a kind of character study about what happens when a generally good person is given a chance to do a little bit more with each day and make sure they don't have any regrets.

I'd recommend it to anyone who feels like watching a charming, funny and relaxing film.

By MrsPramm — On Nov 03, 2013

@browncoat - Another really good, if weird, example of that is "All You Zombies" which is one of those short science fiction stories that leaves you feeling quite disturbed afterwards.

I won't give away the ending, but it really is a classic of the genre and if you like that kind of thing I would give it a try.

By browncoat — On Nov 02, 2013

My philosophy lecturer had a small list of time travel in fiction that was done well, so that it made sense. I was actually surprised to see that 12 Monkeys was on there, because it seemed like it had kind of glossed over a lot of the details of the travel itself, but according to my professor, it still worked.

He said that in order for there not to be a paradox, there can't be any changing of the past in a way that actually changes the future (unless you want to get into alternative universes).

Even though the characters can affect the past, it won't change anything because they were always going to affect it, if that makes sense.

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