Charles Yu’s top 10 time travel books

Time travel … A horologist at work inside Manchester Town Hall’s clockface.

Charles Yu is a director at Digital Domain, the Oscar-winning visual effects and animation company set up by James Cameron to create state-of-the-art digital imagery for feature films. His award-winning fiction has been published in magazines and literary journals, and he was named by The Daily Beast as a “writer to watch”. His debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, tells the story of a time traveller in search of the truth about his father.

“There are two kinds of stories: those that are explicitly about time travel, and those in which the time travel is hidden. Unless a narrative is supposed to represent a single, unbroken, continuous stretch of duration in the timeline of the actions portrayed (in which case it’s probably either a court transcript or pornography), there is always, in any story, some element of compression, dilation, distortion or deformation of time – which is a long-winded way of saying there are a lot of time travel stories, and choosing just 10, regardless of criteria, was very hard. I haven’t included, for instance, many of the best-known time travel books (The Time Machine by HG Wells, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few), because (i) everyone already knows about them, and/or (ii) they are already beloved, and deservedly so.

“Instead, I’ve come up with a much more idiosyncratic list. I’ve also cheated. This isn’t a list of 10 novels. I’ve got five novels, one book of lectures on literary theory, two short stories, and one seminal scientific paper. If they have anything in common, it’s that many of them are probably not thought of primarily as writings about time travel, even though they are all essentially about the fundamental weirdness of moving around in time.” 

1. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Vonnegut’s classic about a protagonist who comes “unstuck in time” is a four-dimensional cross-section (a novel) of a four-dimensional object (a life). A discontinuous, non-chronological examination of Billy Pilgrim’s temporal existence, especially his time in the war and the fire-bombing of Dresden. Plus, Trafalmadorians. As Professor Jack Gladney says, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “All plots tend to move deathward.” The truth of this statement is never more clear than in a time travel narrative, and particularly in Slaughterhouse-Five. Even though we are rarely moving in a straight, forward direction in time through this book, we are always, in every story, inevitably moving toward The End.

2. “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Almost instantly, I understood: ‘the garden of forking paths’ was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not to all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space.”

In the space of just a few pages, Borges manages to evoke an idea that might take other writers whole novels to explore: the idea of a narrative as a temporal labyrinth, a set of parallel, counterfactual universes. The brevity only adds to the mystery. We are given a glimpse of one momentarily illuminated portion of a single, ephemeral footpath in a far-flung region of the garden, but in that fleeting interval, we also can sense the scale of the branching structure, infinite in all directions.

 3. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

These are poems made of physics, or maybe physics made of poem. Professor Lightman, a physicist and a literature professor at MIT, creates a kind of rigorous dream, one in which equations (or even perhaps the minutes themselves) seem to hang in the air, or are embedded into the gauzy fabric of the Swiss town in which the young Einstein is dreaming. A town that, despite the fact that it seems to be filled with clocks, is permeated by a haunting stillness, a metaphysical, eternal quality, as if we are inside a word problem as illustrated by de Chirico.

 4. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Arno Strine can stop time at will (more or less; the exact mechanism that allows him to do so changes over the course of his life). He uses his ability as follows: he finds a woman who is sexually desirable to him, stops time, undresses her, writes down his thoughts about her anatomy, re-clothes her, then re-starts time. It’s not as creepy and invasive as it sounds (although maybe it is), because it seems to be an extended metaphor and meditation on fantasy, masturbation, thinking and writing. But here’s where the time travel comes in. When Strine has stopped time in the diegesis of the novel, but is still narrating his thoughts to you, as the reader, something very weird is going on. The narration of the story is taking place outside of time for everyone in the world of the book except for Strine, but it is, of course, still taking place in time for the reader in the physical world. In other words, it’s not just slowed-down time in the story; for large chunks of the book, no time is passing inside the book, meanwhile, plenty of time is passing for you outside. In other other words, this book is a time machine.

 5. The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

It’s hard for me to express how much I love this book. Deutsch weaves together concepts from the theory of computation, quantum mechanics and Karl Popper’s epistemology to make something entirely new. I doubt I understand more than 8% of the book. I’ve read it three times and I’m starting to think Deutsch is actually trying to tell me that I’m in the Matrix. I’ll keep reading it until I can’t read anymore.

 6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

I still remember the feeling of being swept away by this book in elementary school. Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, the brilliant children of world-class scientists, Drs Alex and Kate Murry, move through the cosmos via a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional folding of the space-time fabric. This universe felt more real than my own, and I desperately wanted to live in a place where kids could save their parents, where any minute now, one might be visited by an inter-dimensional being who would explain to me how much more there was to everything than I’d ever imagined.

 7. “—All You Zombies—” by Robert Heinlein

The ultimate time travel short story. The absolute limit in narrative economy and efficiency. One character begets him/herself, and all the others, too. It’s like a grand unified theorem of ontological paradox stories. Amazing that Mr Heinlein laid it all out in 1959.

8. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco

Adapted from Eco’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1993. It might seem like I’m veering off the path here a little, but I promise this is time travel-related, especially if you read chapter three, “Lingering in the Woods”, in which Eco lays out his explanation of the concepts of “story time”, “reading time” and “discourse time”, and explains how a text is a “lazy machine” that sometimes wants to linger and slow itself down.

9. “An example of a new type of cosmological solution of Einstein’s field equations of gravitation” by Kurt Gödel (Rev. Mod. Phys. 21: 447–450.)

OK, now I’m really cheating, but please bear with me. Albert Einstein once told a colleague that he joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, chiefly for the purpose of walking home with Kurt Gödel. Somehow, out of those leisurely strolls through campus, the two got to talking, and then one day, Gödel says to Einstein, “Hey, guess what, I’ve got a solution to Einstein’s field equations for gravitation that involves a rotating universe where time travel is possible”. Now, granted, Gödel probably didn’t call them “Einstein’s field equations”, since he was talking to Einstein – he probably called them “your equations”, and he probably didn’t drop it so casually in conversation: more likely he gave him some calculations on a piece of paper. Regardless, the point is that Kurt Gödel actually discovered mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equations that would allow for a form of time travel in a universe that was governed by general relativity. Not this universe, a hypothetical yet theoretically possible one. But still: whoa! 

10. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

Who can forget the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional tense? This book is my own Total Perspective Vortex on writing. Always something to go back to, in order to feel small, and to laugh, and to remember that whatever I think I might do in the future, Mr Adams probably already did it in the past. And did it funnier.


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