‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’ Or so says Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I think time travel, I think science-fiction. And when I think science-fiction I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the more I mulled it over the more I started to realise how the most impactful time travel novels I’ve read traverse so much more than traditional hard science-fiction. In fact, the time travel genre as I’m now going to call it might be one of the most relatable genres of literature, encompassing the full range of human emotions and experiences. Let me prove it to you.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
When this novel was released in Japan in 2015 it was an immediate bestseller and as of 2019, it is available in English, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot. The story takes place in a small basement café in Japan, home to a very special urban legend: visitors can travel back in time. There are strict rules, however; you can only travel back to speak to people who have visited the café itself, you cannot leave your seat while in the past, nothing you do will change the present, and you must return before your coffee gets cold. Despite the caveats, the café still draws in customers keen to take a trip to the past. Starting with a woman who wishes to relive the moment her boyfriend broke up with her, each character comes to the café with a new reason to time travel that will inevitably strike a chord with each reader in turn. You can’t change the present, as the rules state, but you can change yourself.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Butler’s 1970’s classic is historical fiction at its heart. Over the course of the novel, we witness our protagonist Dana transported back to the antebellum south at random intervals. Dana is a black woman living in 1970s North America who thinks herself well-versed in the experience of slaves. Knowing and experiencing, however, are two very different things. Appearing in the past without warning, Dana is forced into the role of house-slave to survive. Based on the historical accounts of slaves themselves, Butler uses time travel to great effect. It’s one thing to read a story of slavery and tell yourself ‘you wouldn’t allow yourself to accept the treatment you face’ but the contrast between Dana’s 20th century expectations and what she must do to survive in the 1800s makes the reader face their biases head-on.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I doubt many of us think science-fiction when we think Dickens, but in actuality, A Christmas Carol is one of the original time travel novels. Set in mid-1800s London, this classic follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy and miserly Englishman who knows not ‘the meaning of Christmas’. Over the course of one night Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. They show Scrooge the impact his cruelty had, has, and will have on one Christmas Day. Each time period offers Scrooge new insights and helps him learn ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. Whether or not you’re sick of over-dressed-up trees and rampant consumerism, however, the lesson still stands: reflection. Scrooge is offered the opportunity to quite literally reflect on his life and the lives of those around him. Not to be cheesy, but it seems we are all capable of a little bit of time-travelling if we take a leaf out of Dickens’ book.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
If Agatha Christie were to have dabbled in science-fiction it might have looked something like this. Stuart Turton’s debut novel took him almost a decade to write and once you’ve read it it’s not difficult to see why. This is a complex blend of time travel, body-swapping, and mystery that has you on your toes every step of the way. The novel is set during an extravagant party held in a manor house. Our nameless protagonist wakes every morning to experience the same day, just in a different host’s body. Why? As it turns out he has been tasked with finding out ‘who killed Evelyn Hardcastle’ and he must do so by the seventh day, or all of his memories will be wiped. Time travel doesn’t have to cross huge distances to be exciting, and with each repeat of the day the protagonist, as well as the reader, learns new details surrounding the crime that will inevitably take place each evening; all of which makes for one of the most intriguing mysteries I have ever read.
Buy The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Last but not least, what everyone really hopes for from a bit of time travel, a second chance . . . or five. Reynold’s young adult debut uses time travel to explore the universal experiences of love and grief. The story follows Jack, a young man who’s head over heels in love with his girlfriend Kate. Their relationship comes to a devasting end, however, when Kate dies. Or does it? Unexpectedly, Jack finds himself stuck in an endless loop, reliving his time with Kate over and over again, but hoping for a different ending. The surrealness of time travel doesn’t impede the relatability of this beautiful, moving novel, if anything every loop just draws you a little bit deeper into Jack and Kate’s story.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
People who know more about science than me have said that time travel is in fact theoretically possible. Most of the books on this list, however, haven’t really dealt with the ‘scientific’ aspect of this science-fiction trope. Enter The Time Machine, literally. Throughout the story, we follow an inventor dubbed ‘The Time Traveller’ whose latest creation transports him more than eight-hundred-thousand years into the future where humanity has been replaced by two races known as Eloi and Morlocks. Through his speculative time travel, Wells poses questions surrounding hierarchy and human relationships. The book popularised the concept in fiction and has continued to have a huge influence on the genre.
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