My favorite time travel stories, revisited

Early in my BookTube “career”, I posted 10 time travel book recommendations. These were basically my top 10 favorite time travel books. It quickly rose to be my biggest video, now at nearly 6k views, which is a lot for me! I’ve considered doing another list, especially since I cringe when I watch my self early on BookTube (at least less than I do now haha). Many of these books, I’ve reread several times, but most of them, I haven’t read in 3 or more years. I’ve wanted to reread many of them for a long time, but it’s hard to plan for such a thing when I’ve got nearly 500 unread books on my shelf to read. This month, I ended up moving apartments, and it has been the perfect opportunity just to throw on some fun reads. Now, having reread several of these on this list, I have a lot of thoughts, some really good some really bad. I thought it would be fun to discuss these books. I’ll be doing a video in the same vein, but for now, lets chat on here since I need a blog for my next meeting.

Lets start with the big ones. These are books I’ve reread at least once (maybe more) since this video posted because they remain all time favorites. When I am asked what my favorite books are, I always go to Kindred by Octavia E Butler and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. Both of these are time travel (as are many of my favorite books of all time, and they’re favorites for good reason. I love the concept of time and the nature of time. I have an inherent thrill of time travel in general. This may have begun with the Magic Tree House series. That’s the earliest series I remember reading. However, the reason these two stand out are for how well each author uses the genre to tell a much greater story. Kindred is a story about a black woman, Dana, in her late 20s (present time, 1970s) who gets thrust back in time to the Antebellum south. In each visit, she finds herself interacting with this boy, Rofus, who is always in some dire situation. Once the situation passes, she gets thrust back forward in time. This cycle continues as we learn more about Dana’s relationship to Rofus, but it is also a stark reflection on slavery, bigotry, and privilege. It is so excellently used that it is hard not to become as enthralled as you are horrified. Middlegame is also dark, but it uses time travel for a different purpose. It is instead purely a speculative exploration of the genre, with an intersect of fantasy and science fiction. Roger and Doger are twins, made by alchemist trying to harness some great power. The story follows them in their childhood, as they are separated, and their inevitable finding of one another. That familiar sibling connection really strikes a cord for me, but more than that, the story is told in a somewhat nonlinear fashion, as Roger and Doger can manipulate time, but these abilities of theirs are not well understood. The story we are following is but one, not in a multiversal type way, but in a cyclical way. They are approaching the end of the world, and they are the cause. This is a lot of info, but I think it is a fairly reasonable synopsis (after all we start at the end, them near death in Timeline XYZ). It is the human connection coupled with the complexity of the story that makes this story work so damn well for me. Another work I enjoy, is Beneath the Sugar Sky also by Seanan McGuire. This is an example of a nonsensical story that subverts the usual need for a logical framework with time travel, and instead we have a nonsense world (quite literally a fantastical world ruled by nonsecial laws of nature). It’s not an all time favorite, but its the perfect example of a unique time travel story.

Similar to Kindred and Middlegame, I have a great love for 11/22/63 by Stephen King. This is a story about going back in time to save JFK. The concept is intriguing, but at the core, it’s King’s ability to write a compelling story with characters you can’t help but love, that keeps me coming back. This book is ungodly long. It meanders in directions that are unnecessary for the plot. It suffers from the diarrhea of the mouth that is so common for King, yet I’ve read it 5 or 6 times. It’s like an amusement park ride that never disappoints. It has the feel of classic Stephen King with a bit more modern perspective that can lead to the more problematic portions of his older works.

Now, moving on to my more recent rereads. I’ll start with the good, and save the really bad for last. I reread Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. This is a young adult book about a young girl and her friend who eat a dead, petrified, bat that somehow gives them the ability to look into the eyes of people and see their past and future (including that of ancestors and descendents). At it’s core, this book is about growing up, mental health, and understanding one’s self. The time travel (if you count that, clearly I do) is merely a method to explore these ideas. It takes it a step further by analyzing all of our futures. In doing so, it becomes a dystopia as we enter a world where women’s rights have been stripped away, and the US falls into a civil war. When I first read this (2 years ago to the month), it seemed like scary but reasonable reflection on the direction of the US. Now, nearly a year since the insurrection at the capital, and the supreme court actively discussing and taking seriously the possibility to overturning Roe v Wade, the book is pretty damn prescient (and it was written in 2014). It retains its young adult feel, but the ideas are fundamentally real and terrifyingly easy to imagine.

Up next, I reread The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. This is a book I read nearly three years ago and absolutely loved. In the years since, I’ve seriously contemplated that it might be a favorite of all time (beyond my time travel list), but I’ve been slow to mark it as such because of how long it had been since I read it. Upon returning to it, I think it earns a position in my top 10 books. My love of this book is similar to Middlegame; that is, I appreciate the intricacy that went into it. The story follows the lives of Harry August except Harry does not live just one life, he repeats it. His entire life is a ground hogs day narrative. The first half starts with him, and us as readers, reflecting on what this is like, and I really appreciated the way North goes about this. I read this after rereading (for maybe the 3rd time) another ground hog day book that I will discuss, and it really outshines it. First off, it tales his life in a semi-nonlinear fashion. We follow him across his 15 lives, but he isn’t afraid to venture off in his story when another part of his lives is relevant to the situation being discussed. At about half way, we finally begin to realize the bigger picture, how this story, and the foreshadowing within it, is coming together. The end of the world is upon us, and it is happening sooner in every life. The ultimate cause relates to scientific progress and the ambition of one (or multiple) individuals. Overall, it has intriguing concepts with complex characters and plot.

Finally, there are four books I want to discuss together here: 1) Replay by Ken Grimwood, 2) The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov, 3) The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman and 4) Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson. Now we enter the territory of very sexist books. It was these books that motivated me to revisit this list of books. These books really shouldn’t have been on my recommendation lists, or at least they ought to have had a deeper discussion of the problems within them. Replay was, I think, my most recent read (last reread in 2018). This was my third reread, and I approached this read intentionally considering more than the plot, but the overall characterization, especially of women. This book was written, by a man, in the 1980s. It is often credited as inventing (or being one of the earliest uses of) the ground hog day narrative (even preceding the Bill Murray film). A man in his 40s dies, and wakes up in his ~18 year old self. The book explores similar themes to that of North’s book, but it does so lazily and without real depth. For instance, his younger self is attending Emory University in Atlanta, in the early 1960s, but we see no discussion of race. Naturally, he uses his youth to find women to sleep with. During his reliving, our main character encounters a woman experiencing the same thing. She is her own person, but I still don’t love her characterization as it still feels like it is written by a man. They spark a relationship, because, naturally, if a woman shows up in a mans story she most be there to be his love interest. There are other problems as well. She wakes up in her 14 year old self. At one point, they reunite in their younger selves and he makes a comment about how he likes the idea of her younger body. She responds with “I bet you do.” It’s disgusting in its own right, the sexualization of this child, even if she is mentally mature, but what woman would casually and amusingly accept that kind of statement? There are also larger problems with the sex he has that isn’t really explored. This man has lived decades, and more as time goes on, and he uses that to sleep with young women. There is a power dynamic there that just doesn’t work. It reminds me of the problematic power dynamic in the Time Travelers Wife.

The Accidental Time Machine was obsessed with sex in a different way, but it manages to touch on all the same problematic aspects. This is essentially a carbon copy of the Time Machine by H.G. Wells as a grad student at MIT makes a machine that goes forward in time. At the core, it’s a cool concept. It is an easy fun read. More broadly, it suffers in many ways. While it explores the future, the ideas feel hollow. He creates worlds that seem plausible, but I don’t feel like he does enough to have a compelling conversation. I’m instead left bored quickly by each period. Then we have the problem of women, where every woman is described by her sexiness and appearance. There comes a point in the far future where our protagonist takes on a time traveling companion. She is a young uneducated ultra religiously raised woman, and she’s introduced as his “grad student” (as he was granted professorship for his time travel machine long ago). In reality, she is an assistant. There is an attempt in all these to critique religion and the patriarchy, but it is extraordinarily shallow. Inevitably, our protagonist sees this woman sexually, but he, in all his nice guyness dares not make a move as he would be taking advantage of her. Of course, he is inevitably awarded for his good nature as he and her “fall in love”, which is ridiculous in its own right. It also side steps the power dynamic problems that exist between them, and the fact that they are not simply resolved, they’re just no longer a problem for him. He also fixates on her age, 18. Of course, the book feels the need to justify his attraction, because, after all, the legal age of consent is 18 in his time. This was yet another shallow attempt at him being a progressive good guy, but never do is there a substantive thought or discussion as to the purpose of the legal age of consent, treating it as if its purely a legal matter and no other reason that it would be wrong. This book is so bad, I cringe at how none of this stuck out to me the first time I read this. I am embarrassed for myself.

Moving onto the End of Eternity. This was something I rated 5 stars when I read it some 4 years ago, but I come to it with a different perspective now. Asimov has written a very well constructed time travel story. The basic premise is very similar to Loki with its time variant authority. I suspect the TVA was very inspired by this book. Overall, the main story itself is structured really well (once you get past the characters base motivation). It was creative and thought-provoking. I suppose we should expect that of Asimov. What I didn’t realize the first time I read this was that Asimov’s signature sexism is very much apparent in the story. From the get-go, this time travel authority who controls the timeline are all strictly men. Asimov makes an excuse for why women can’t be present, and in a way it almost feels as if he’s trying to imply they were something unique and superior about them that makes them too necessary to reality not to be removed from the timeline (where all the people in the “TVA” originate). But at the same time, it all feels very condescending in “a woman belongs in the kitchen” type of way. The only real female character in this book only really exists as a motivator for our main character. Our main character who is unbelievably insufferable. How the hell did I not catch this the first time around? The guy is horrible. He is so fucking self involved. It’s clear that Asimov intended it to an extent, but I wonder if he’s even worse than Asimov intended. Soon after he meets a woman, he falls in love, but before then he has a series of microaggressions against her because she dares to tempt him. The sexism at first seems almost intentional on the part of Asimov, but it quickly turns into something that I quasi-respectful or honorable when all it really does is put women on a pedestal and create a character who is entirely one dimensional. Every time we see this character she’s described by her looks, as an object, as something to be admired. She’s constantly referred to as *his woman*, as to be *his* and *not someone else’s*. It’s always a matter of who will win her and who will take her. It’s made all the worst but the fact that she’s not given any real personality. There is a moment (I suppose) towards the end where she has the slightest bit of characterization but not really. It’s shoehorned in and not well constructed. This book could have been so amazing if Asimov hadn’t let his own sexist ideas prevent him from realizing the fact that he had to build this relationship and the woman within it. It’s this woman, and the supposed relationship between her and our main character, that is quintessential to the entire storyline. And because that love story is sexist, forced and just out of nowhere it undermines the entire story. So when I could be here talking about how creative and the narrative this is, I’m instead left complaining about the fundamental problem of this book that keeps it from really being that great. At the end of the day, Asimov was very progressive for his time, but he was still very backwards and his literature clearly suffers because of it. I’m not saying it’s not worth reading, but the problems seem pretty glaring. 

Lastly, Somewhere in Time is not worth reading. I read this four years ago, and at the time I liked it, but it was my least favorite of these. Picture this: a man in his late 30s, whose never been romantic (emotionally or sexually), sees this woman on tinder and becomes so enamored that he stalks her Facebook, Instagram linked in. Anything he can find, he hunts her down. This alone is creepy stalker territory, all inspired by that tinder picture of her. Of course, it’s all okay because it was clearly meant to be. Now, when he finds this woman (lying to get close to her), every part of him gets the impression this woman is extremely uncomfortable. But he persists. Beyond all odds, she does not reject him because of some magical feeling that they were meant to be. Now add in time travel for them to meet and you’ve got this book. Except, instead of tinder, it’s a painting. And instead of social media is the library. Naturally, their connection must be fated or the author will have to acknowledge the utterly problematic basis to his story. I wish it was as simple as the motivation being why they meet, but the creep factor just never goes away. It’s constantly a battle of him doing what it takes to convince her, her comfort with a situation be damned. The fact that she so cavalierly accepts everything doesn’t negate the problematic underpinnings. What I will say, is that she feels more real than any of the women in older time travel stories I’ve been rereading. At least, she’s as real as the main protagonist is, which isn’t much. She has her own career and what little we learn about her revolves around it, but at the core of each other’s beings is their relationship to one another.

Big picture, I can see my reading has changed. I think I owe booktube for that, specifically booktubers like ONYX Pages who stress the importance of intentional reading. These kinds of reflective readings are things I am more consciousness about which is obvious by how my feelings have changed in just a couple years (in some cases).

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