23 Best Time Travel Science Fiction Books

time travel

I’m not a huge fan of time travel because of all the paradoxes that are usually ignored or explained away badly. I also watched way too many Star Trek episodes where time travel was used as a fix-it for almost any situation, like some temporal Gorilla Glue.

Fortunately, the books below deal with time travel in intelligent (or just fun) ways, introduce cool ideas, and are generally excellent stories that are very well written.

 

1
A Sound of Thunder
by Ray Bradbury – 1952

As of 1984, this story about a hunter traveling back in time to kill a Tyrannosaurus rex was the most-republished short story of all time (and may still be). Like many of Bradbury’s works, it takes place in a dystopian future where society has created a new technology that it is not ready for.

2
A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle – 1962

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L’Engle’s words, “too different,” and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adult’s book, anyhow?”

The book has been in print continuously since its publication in 1962, so apparently it wasn’t too difficult for children. However, it has been too challenging for the more religious adults: it was on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 at number 23, due to the book’s references to witches and crystal balls, the claim that it “challenges religious beliefs,” and the listing of Jesus “with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders.”

3
All You Need is Kill
by Hiroshi Sakurazaka – 2004

Original title: Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru

All You Need Is Kill has been adapted into manga, a graphic novel, and the film Edge of Tomorrow.

When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his 158th iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally—the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?

4
Ghost Country
by Patrick Lee – 2010

A piece of impossible technology has fallen into Travis Chase’s hands: a device that opens a doorway to a point seventy years in the future. What Travis finds on the other side are the long-abandoned ruins of our world, devoid of any human presence. Now, with the only two people he trusts, he begins a search of the ruins, in the hope of discovering what will end our world—and how we might yet avoid it.

…imaginatively blends a Baldacci-like political tale of betrayals and assassination with time travel in a thoughtful science-fictional thriller.
-Publishers Weekly

5
Hyperion
by Dan Simmons – 1989

Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

6
Kindred
by Octavia E. Butler – 1979

Kindred involves time travel, so while being technically science fiction, it’s often shelved under “literature” or “African-American literature,” due to the protagonist shuttling back into a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Butler herself called it ”a kind of grim fantasy.”

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

Author Octavia E. Butler is a multiple-recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and one of the best-known female writers in the field. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant.

7
Millennium
by John Varley – 1983

In the skies over Oakland, California, a DC-10 and a 747 are about to collide. But in the far distant future, a time travel team is preparing to snatch the passengers, leaving prefabricated smoking bodies behind for the rescue teams to find. And in Washington D.C., an air disaster investigator named Smith is about to get a phone call that will change his life…and end the world as we know it.

8
Slaughterhouse-Five
by Kurt Vonnegut – 1969

Satirical, surreal, and darkly funny, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s most important (i.e., influential) and popular work. One can argue that no time travel actually occurs since the main character (in addition to the narrator) are unreliable witnesses to their own lives. One can also argue who cares? It’s a great story.

“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…”
-Kurt Vonnegut

9
Tau Zero
by Poul Anderson – 1970

Hard science fiction with a hell of an idea: what would happen if your light-speed engine malfunctioned and instead of slowing down, you just went faster and faster? Tau Zero does a masterful job of dealing with the consequences of near-light-speed, and the reaction of the humans trapped in the ship.

10
The Accidental Time Machine
by Joe Haldeman – 2007

Grad-school dropout Matt Fuller is toiling as a lowly research assistant at MIT when he inadvertently creates a time machine. With a dead-end job and a girlfriend who left him for another man, Matt has nothing to lose in taking a time-machine trip himself—or so he thinks.

Hugo-winner Haldeman’s skillful writing makes this unusually thoughtful and picaresque tale shine.
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

11
The Anubis Gates
by Tim Powers – 1983

The Anubis Gates feels more fantasy than sci-fi, but it has time travel and won the Philip K. Dick award in 1984, so that’s good enough for me.

The book features an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, the protagonist Professor Brendan Doyle, who wanted none of this nonsense.

12
The Chronoliths
by Robert Charles Wilson – 2001

One day in Thailand, 21st-century slacker Scott Warden witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar. Its arrival collapses trees for a quarter mile around its base. It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiseled into it commemorates a military victory…sixteen years hence.

As more pillars arrive all over the world, all apparently from our own near future, a strange loop of causality keeps drawing Scott into the central mystery—and a final battle with the future.

This superb novel, combining Wilson’s trademark well-developed characters and fine prose with stunning high-tech physics, should strongly appeal to connoisseurs of quality science fiction.
-Publishers Weekly

13
The End Of Eternity
by Isaac Asimov – 1955

In December 1953, Asimov was thumbing through a copy of the March 28, 1932 issue of Time when he noticed what looked at first glance a drawing of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. A longer look showed him that the drawing was actually the Old Faithful geyser. However, he began pondering the question of what the implications would be if there had been a drawing of a mushroom cloud in a magazine from 1932, and he eventually came up with the plot of a time travel story.

The End of Eternity is widely regarded as Asimov’s single best SF novel.

14
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North – 2014

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

“Wonderful novel… held together by a compelling mystery involving nothing less than the end of the world itself. Beautifully written and structured…a remarkable book.”—Booklist (starred review)

15
The Langoliers
by Stephen King – 1990

“The Langoliers” is a novella, one of four works published in the book Four Past Midnight.

On a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston, ten passengers awaken to find that the crew and most of their fellow passengers have disappeared, leaving the Boeing 767 airliner under the control of the autopilot. After managing to land the plane, the passengers find the world abandoned.

16
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
by Douglas Adams – 1980

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is the sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and while not quite as funny, is still hilarious.

(Note that you MUST read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first, or this book will be impossible to follow.)

It’s the same gang from the first book, blasting about a confusing universe in their ship powered by the Improbability Drive, and getting in trouble.

17
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells – 1895

A great old classic that invented the phrase “time machine.”

Just don’t watch the modern movie, because that ends in a fistfight for some reason.

18
The Time Ships
by Stephen Baxter – 1995

The Time Ships is the official sequel to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It was authorized by the Wells estate to mark the centenary of the original’s publication, and, by all accounts, is actually really good.

The Time Traveller, driven by his failure to save Weena from the Morlocks, sets off again for the future. But this time the future has changed, altered by the very tale of the Traveller’s previous journey.

19
The Time-traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger – 2003

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap.

It’s more love story than sci-fi, so keep that in mind.

20
Thief of Time
by Terry Pratchet – 2001

This book’s inclusion is an absolute, terrible cheat, and I should be ashamed of myself. The only reason I’m not is because author Terry Pratchett does several entirely new things with time, and they’re fantastic. It’s worth reading the book just for them, even if it already wasn’t incredibly entertaining, wildly imaginative, and funny as hell.

If you’re not familiar with Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time is a fantasy story that takes place on Discworld, a pizza-shaped world that rests on the back of four elephants who stand on the shell of a giant sea turtle that swims its slow way through space.

21
Time and Again
by Jack Finney – 1970

When advertising artist Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring the possibility of time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave his twentieth-century existence and step into New York City in January 1882. Aside from his thirst for experience, he has good reason to return to the past—his friend Kate has a curious, half-burned letter dated from that year, and he wants to trace the mystery.

But when Si begins to fall in love with a woman he meets in the past, he will be forced to choose between two worlds—forever.

Time and Again is an illustrated novel, and many of the illustrations are real (though not all are from the 1882 period in which the actions of the book take place).

“THE great time-travel story”
-Stephen King

22
Time Enough For Love
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1973

The capstone and crowning achievement of Heinlein’s famous Future History, Time Enough For Love covers several periods from the life of Lazarus Long, the oldest living human, now more than two thousand years old.

In the framing story, Lazarus has decided that life is no longer worth living, but (in what is described as a reverse Arabian Nights scenario) agrees not to end his life for as long as his companions will listen to his stories.

23
To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis – 1997

The book’s title is inspired by the subtitle of an 1889 classic work, as explained by the author in the dedication: “To Robert A. Heinlein, Who, in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.”

Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.

But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right—not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.


 

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16 thoughts on “23 Best Time Travel Science Fiction Books

  1. Some of these I’ve read, and I totally agree with you! Some I haven’t read, so thanks for the suggestions. Can’t believe you left off Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, though.

    1. Agree! The Doomsday Book is one of the finest written time travel books in my opinion. Willis captured some of it in her later series, Black Out & All Clear, but neither of those books mesmerized me as much as The Doomsday Book.

    2. I picked up Doomsday Book from the library on a whim a long while back and thought it was incredible. So, I’m certainly surprised it didn’t make the list either! Still, the list looks promising and I want to give some of the books a go. Thanx!

    1. Gerrold’s hilarious and brilliant book is better than most anything on this list, and gets multiple time lines necessary for time travel right when so many works fail, fail, and fail.

      The Stephen King novel is garbage and does not belong at all.

  2. I do enjoy your lists, and bow to the effort involved. In this case, I would have expected “Lest Darkness Fall” by L. Sprague de Camp to appear here. It’s certainly no more a “cheat” than Pratchett or Powers, and sets up a distillery in 6th century Rome!

  3. A great list, although it could go on and on – Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake…

  4. I am looking for a book about the time travel of a young lady. She goes back in time to meet the greatest scientists.

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