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The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century

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Time travel has been one of the enduring staples of science fiction ever since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895, right up there with little green men and ray guns. Einstein’s theory of relativity lent credence to the idea that time is not absolutely linear but could be bent, reshaped, or even re-entered like a river. The twentieth century saw an explosion in popular discussion of the paradoxes inherent in time travel – from the idea that those moving at the speed of light might return “before they left” to the possible permutations associated with the ability to “change” time. From killing one’s grandfather, marrying one’s mother, preventing Hitler from being born (or assuring that the Nazis won the big one), time travel offers some wonderful brain teasing puzzles.

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century attempts to collect some of the century’s best time-traveling short fiction. Featuring authors such as Paul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, Jack Finney, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, and Connie Willis, this book spans not only the decades but the gamut of approaches to both time travel and science fiction itself.

In R.A. Lafferty’s “Rainbird,” an inventor is so brilliant that he manages to come up with a way to go back and give himself a head start – only to discover that if you go to the well too often, it ends up dry. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” explores both the commercial exploitation of time travel (for purposes of hunting extinct creatures) and the possible paradoxes associated with altering the past. L. Sprague de Camp explores the “hunting dinosaur” theme with a bit more humor as his protagonist explains why he won’t take a particular person hunting a Late Mesozoic dinosaur in “A Gun for a Dinosaur.” In “Yesterday was Monday,” Theodore Sturgeon reinvents the idea that “all the world’s a stage,” and each of us are but players in it with a sci-fi time travel twist – as a player finds himself stuck backstage on Wednesday when it really ought to be Tuesday.

In Henry Kuttner’s “Time Locker,” a haphazard experiment plays havoc with not spatial relationships but temporal ones as well – much to the protagonist’s ultimate dismay. Jack Finney’s “I’m Scared” creates a paranoid vision of inadvertent time travel created by a collective unconscious yearning for yesterday. In “Death Ship,” Richard Matheson’s astronauts are seemingly caught in an unfortunate temporal loop. Connie Willis’ “Fire Watch” is an entertaining precursor to her wonderful time travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog. Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium” isn’t just about time travel – it’s about the meaning of being human. There’s a total of eighteen stories in this volume, and virtually all of them are entertaining twists on the time travel theme. Perhaps the weakest of the collection is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” if only because her works have a tendency to read like scientific textbooks mixed with a bit of anthropology.

As Editor, Harry Turtledove notes in his introduction, “We’re all time travelers,” going into the future “at a steady rate of one second per second, and we leave the past behind.” The imaginative stories collected here all assume that we might one day shake that limitation, and that we might no longer be locked into that steady one second per second progression. Being able to go against “the normal flow of time,” of no longer being “trapped” in time, is a fascinating topic. These stories all reflect wrinkles in that idea, and they do the theme justice. There may well be other stories that could have justifiably been included in this collection, but those that were selected earned their place. They are each in their own way a unique, intriguing examination of the paradox of time.

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About Bill Wallo

  • One of my favorites is Robert Heinlein’s 1941 story “By His Bootstraps.” I’m guessing it’s not included.

  • One of my favorite books is Making History, by Stephen Fry, a funny scathing romp of a read. Fry’s just about my hero in pulling off a comic novel nowadays.

    Great work as always, Bill.

  • Must add this book to my wish list. Totally agree with you about Connie Willis, Bill, and I loved Doomsday Book as well.

  • Bennett

    Thanks for pointing out what I sure will be a great read. You didn’t mention which Niven story is included, but if it’s “The Return Of William Proxmire” many folks will get an eye opener about where we could be today, without that obstructionist bastard….

    Thanks again for this review!

  • htom

    By His Bootstraps is the only time-travel story that I’ve ever had to read taking notes to unwind the twists. It’s reprinted in the collection The Menace From Earth.

  • Eric:

    Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

    Lisa: For all I’ve read of Willis (and I enjoyed Bellweather and both short story collections I’ve read – she has a collection of Christmas-related SF that is great fun), I haven’t read Doomsday Book. I’ve picked it up a time or two and it just never seemed to grab me for some reason. Based on your recommendation, however, I’ll have to try again.


    Sorry, I actually started to reference Niven’s entry and then got sidetracked, I think by Silverberg’s story. It isn’t “The Return of William Proxmire” but is a story called “Leviathan!” which features time travel being used to suit the vagaries of a futuristic dictator sort who wants extinct animals for some sort of personal zoo.

  • I’m fond of “Inconstant Moon” myself – a bad time trip and a rock dissolver left on in the wrong place wind up erasing Earth’s satellite…

  • gonzo marx

    “by his bootstraps” IS good..

    but the BEST time travel story, IMHO..is also written by R.A.H.

    “all you zombies”

    that one will hurt yer brain…


  • “I am my own granpa…” Yep, that’s one of the best.

  • “Inconstant Moon” has no time travel if I recall correctly, and the moon does not go missing in that story, either. If it’s the one by Larry Niven we’re talking about here, the moon merely becomes extremely bright, for a reason which turns out to be more serious than one might immediately realize.

    Could you be mixing up the details with some other story, DrPat?

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • “STR8 BOLT” by J. T. Whitman is an exciting, action packed time travel thriller. It was one of those stories that made you want to keep reading to see what happens next. It looks like this is the authors first book but it was written well and the story line kept me reading and wanting more. I recommend everyone give it a chance.