Time travel is one of the most versatile plot devices in literary history. Do you want pure science fiction? Check. Perhaps some romance? Absolutely! Tragedy or comedy? Both work brilliantly. Time travel can fit practically any genre, from the most cerebral literary fiction to cheerfully trashy space operas. So whether you enjoy visions of the future or jaunts in the past, you’ll have a great time with one of these 20 books.
1. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the original “time slip” comedy. Its plot points have become standards of the genre as Hank Morgan, the “Yankee,” suffers a head injury and wakes up in sixth century England. With no way of returning to his own time, Hank makes the best of things, using his 19th century knowledge and skills to rise through the ranks and “modernize” Camelot. The result is a satirical classic that lampoons Arthurian legend and absolutely shreds romanticized notions of “chivalry” that were popular in Twain’s time, adding social commentary to the satire and time travel.
2. The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells
You can’t talk about time travel without mentioning H. G. Wells. He may not have invented the concept, but he brought it to the masses and gave us the term “time machine.” That said, The Time Machine is more than a foundational text of the sci-fi genre. It also offers an adventure story and biting critiques of Victorian society as we follow an unnamed gentleman scientist who flings himself into the distant future. But the seeming utopia he discovers hides dark truths about the Eloi and Morlocks, evolved humanoid races—secrets the time traveler must unravel when his time machine is stolen. The Time Machine explores Victorian anxieties about class warfare and assumptions about human “progress,” along with more scientific concepts, like the fourth dimension, evolution, and entropy.
3. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Otherworldly beings, an embodiment of evil and time travel barely scratch the surface of A Wrinkle in Time. What begins as a fairly classic childhood quest to find a missing parent gets gloriously weird and philosophical as Meg and Charles Murry recruit their friend Calvin and the mysterious Mrs. Ws to cross space and time via tesseract. Light fighting darkness adds a spiritual overtone to the adventure story, balanced by more down-to-earth teen issues like death, loss, and the pressure to conform. A Wrinkle in Time has also been hailed as a feminist classic thanks to its unusually dynamic (for the time) female characters, especially Meg, our dauntless protagonist.
4. Picnic on Paradise, by Joanna Russ
For a slightly different spin on time travel, try Picnic on Paradise. The time traveler is a Greek woman named Alyx, plucked straight out of the Bronze Age by a shady 22nd century corporation. Her mission? To guide a group of pampered tourists through a war zone using only her wits and survival skills. Fortunately, Alyx has plenty of both, making her an excellent, stoic foil to her hapless charges. Joanna Russ was a pioneering feminist writer and Alyx is a true antidote to all those helpless “damsels in distress” of classic 60s pulp sci-fi.
5. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
While technically not time travel, Slaughterhouse-Five’s time jumps tick the same boxes. Billy Pilgrim’s episodes “unstuck” in time can be read as a metaphor or narrative device representing his own mental breakdown. Or as literal time travel. Either way, they allow for pretty unique storytelling that catapults the reader from Billy’s wedding day to his World War Two action to the firebombing of Dresden. And there are aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, too, just to throw in some extra surrealism and philosophizing over the nature of time and space.
6. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
It would be a crime to miss Kindred in a round-up of time travel fiction. We follow Dana, an African American woman who finds herself repeatedly wrenched back in time to an antebellum Maryland plantation. Each time, she must save the life of Rufus, the son of the plantation’s owner, and preserve her own family line. But as her trips to the past become longer, can Dana survive in the past herself? Butler captures the evils of white supremacy and slavery with chilling precision, drawing parallels with the “modern” racial tensions of the 1970s. Kindred is a grim but necessary meditation on how much and how little has changed in the last 200 years.
7. Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
In Hyperion, Dan Simmons slingshots The Canterbury Tales straight into space, specifically to a distant planet in the 29th century. Despite the imminent threat of invasion, a band of pilgrims sets off to the Time Tombs of Hyperion, sacred structures moving backwards in time. They all have business with the Shrike, a terrifying victim-impaling entity guarding their destination. And en route, they will each reveal why they’re seeking it out… Hyperion’s blend of sci-fi and literary allusion is pure genius. The pilgrimage and all six “tales” are packed with tropes like time travel, reverse aging, and cyborgs. And little nods to its source material, like the titles announcing each pilgrim’s backstory (i.e. “The Priest’s Tale” and “The Soldier’s Tale”), add a literary twist to the space opera.
8. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
For time travel romance, Outlander is still unbeatable thanks to its fantastic writing, intricate historical detail, and terrific couple, Claire and Jamie. Expect plenty of angst, adventure, and saucy sex scenes as Claire Beauchamp, a recently married WWII nurse, time travels to 18th century Scotland via mystical standing stones. After being rescued from the English by Clan Mackenzie, Claire is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a basically perfect romantic hero. Much drama ensues, along with the Jacobite Uprisings and a romance for the ages. Claire’s decent but bland original husband never stood a chance. Outlander is only the first of 10 planned novels in the series, of which only eight have been published. The ninth is scheduled for release in November 2021, so there’s still time to catch up… if you start now.
9. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Connie Willis has won more Science Fiction awards than any other writer. Arguably the jewel in her crown is her Oxford Time Travel series, starting with Doomsday Book. Kivrin is a keen history student attending the University of Oxford in the 2050s. Thanks to “the net,” time travel is now a common tool of historical research, and Kivrin is determined to pioneer a trip to her pet period, the 14th century. But when a mistake leaves her stranded in time, Kivrin will have to survive the looming spectre of the Black Death as her colleagues scramble to retrieve her. Willis excels at playing up the alienness of the past while still making the reader care deeply about the people Kivrin meets there. It’s a neat trick, though brace yourself, since this is very much an “Anyone Can Die” type of story.
10. The Woven Path, by Robin Jarvis
Robin Jarvis cornered the 90s market in scary books for children, like his Tales from the Wyrd Museum trilogy. Time travel is just one element of The Woven Path, which also features Norse mythology, a possessed teddy bear, and a high body count. When Neil Chapman and his caretaker father move into the Wyrd Museum, Neil immediately knows something’s up. He’s proven correct when a secret room and portal to WWII London throw him into a bizarre adventure. He must help free the spirit of a US airman trapped in a teddy while simultaneously battling an eldritch abomination. The Woven Path sets up the mythology and characters of the series, but has enough scares and tragic undertones to be a great read in its own right.
11. The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price
Parallel universes join the mix in The Sterkarm Handshake. Time travel is just another way for the FUP corporation to make money harvesting natural resources from alternative worlds. Unfortunately for them, the version of 16th century Scotland they’ve chosen to plunder is home to the Sterkarms, a notoriously aggressive Borderlands clan. Enter Andrea Mitchell, an anthropologist and translator dispatched to keep the peace. To the Sterkarms, she’s a beautiful, magical “elf,” and for Andrea, living with them is a historian’s dream come true. As her bond with her hosts deepens and she starts to fall for the chieftain’s son, Andrea is forced to decide where her loyalties truly lie. Corporate imperialism, environmental exploitation, beauty standards, and toxic masculinity are all explored between action scenes and sweeping romance.
12. King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you can’t miss King of Shadows. Joining a theatre troupe heading to England is an unmissable opportunity for Nat Field, a young American actor struggling in the wake of a family tragedy. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when he wakes up in Elizabethan London, primed to perform in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Bard himself. No stranger to loss, Shakespeare is the father figure Nat desperately needs. But can he live in the past forever? King of Shadows may be YA, but readers of any age can appreciate its body-swapping approach to time travel, assumed identity tropes, rich historical detail, literary allusions, and sensitive subjects like suicide, grief, and trauma.
13. The Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson
Taking an alternative approach to time travel, The Chronoliths asks what would happen if mysterious objects from the future suddenly appeared worldwide. The answer is global pandemonium. When massive monuments commemorating the future victories of “Kuin” start appearing across the globe, it doesn’t take long for panic and paranoia to set in. Wars break out, economies tank and rival fanatical cults embracing and opposing “Kuin” spring up and battle. We follow Scott Warden and Sue Chopra as they attempt to study the “chronoliths,” avert even greater disasters, and solve the great mysteries. Who is Kuin? How and why did the chronoliths appear? And can humanity ever recover? The Chronoliths verges on pre-apocalyptic territory, which makes a change from classic “fix it” time travel quests.
14. Thermae Romae, by Mari Yamazaki
Forget modern day protagonists jumping to the past or the future. Mari Yamazaki flips the narrative with her hero, Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect saved from a creative slump when a mysterious drain sucks him in and spits him out into modern day Japan. Luckily for Lucius, the wonders of the future offer plenty of inspiration for new and exciting projects in Ancient Rome. And solutions to fresh problems are only ever a time travel trip away. Thermae Romae (Latin for “Baths of Rome”) is a series of manga (graphic novels), so be prepared for male nudity, gorgeous art, and cultural misunderstandings. Lucius stumbles his way through water parks, private bathrooms, hotsprings, and other Japanese destinations, milking the “fish out of temporal water” trope for all its comedic worth.
15. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
Time machines, time loops, and time paradoxes are all present and correct in Charles Yu’s debut novel about a time machine repairman. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is inventive and delightfully meta as our hero, Charles Yu, juggles his customer support job with investigating his father’s disappearance. After accidentally trapping himself in a time loop, Charles’ only hope of escape (and finally finding his father) is a mysterious book titled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe….by Charles Yu. Off-the-wall worldbuilding details and characters (like Charles’ depressed computer, TAMMY) will fill your “originality” quota. But more universal themes, like loneliness and parent-child relationships, give How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe a solid emotional core.
16. 11/22/63, by Stephen King
It was only a matter of time before Stephen King tried his hand at writing time travel, and in 2011 he delivered this door-stopper of a novel. As the title suggests, 11/22/63 revolves around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Strap in as Jake Epping, a regular Everyman, discovers a portal to 1958 and sets out to change history. King staples, like domestic abuse, doomed romance, and the town of Derry, make their appearances. But the thorny complications of time travel itself are the book’s real draw. Parallel timelines (or “time strings”) caused by changes to history offer fascinating possibilities, and the disastrous repercussions of Jake’s every well-meaning action will keep you on the edge of your seat.
17. Just One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor
Time travel played for laughs perfectly sums up Just One Damned Thing After Another. Madeline Maxwell, historian extraordinaire, may be the protagonist, but the whole crew of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research are loveable weirdos, all bound and determined to “investigate” historical events in person (it’s not time travel). And inevitably screw them up. Fixing time lines and accidentally changing history at break-neck speed is the bread and butter of the series and it never gets old. The Chronicles of St Mary’s series is blessed with some great titles (Lies, Damned Lies, and History is another standout) and even quirkier characters.
18. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
Serial killer thriller meets time travel in The Shining Girls. Hunter Curtis is a Depression-era drifter who has unlocked the secret of time travel. He owns a key to a house that literally opens the door to other times. But in order to continue time traveling, he must stalk and murder the “shining girls,” young women brimming with potential. As his time-hopping crimes continue to baffle Chicago’s police, Hunter seems unstoppable. Until his latest victim, Kirby Mazrachi, survives his attack and vows to hunt him down. The premise of a fairly standard “the hunter becomes the hunted” thriller becomes fresh and original with the addition of time travel. The Shining Girls is unputdownable.
19. Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Japan has themed cafés for everything (otter café, anyone?), so perhaps a time travel café isn’t such a stretch. Strictly speaking, it’s really a time traveling chair. Customers who sit in the seat furthest from the café’s door may travel to any point in its history. The catch? They cannot change the past or leave their seat. Most importantly, they must return to the present before their coffee gets cold or face dire consequences. Before the Coffee Gets Cold was a hit in Japan, and its English translation has been a surprise success worldwide. It’s definitely an intriguing concept. After all, what can really happen on a hot beverage’s schedule? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
20. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
“Romeo and Juliet but with time travel” could be the elevator pitch for This is How You Lose the Time War. Red and Blue are rival agents on opposite sides of a centuries-long war, meddling with history in multiple universes for their own side’s political advantage. But that doesn’t stop them from leaving each other taunting, flirty, and (eventually) passionately romantic notes. It’s an epic epistolary love story and completely forbidden, of course. The writing is exquisite and the slow-burn, enemies-to-friends-to-lovers romance is one of the best you’ll ever read. For extra authenticity, Gladstone and El-Mohtar wrote exclusively as Red and Blue respectively, so it genuinely does feel like we’re witnessing a real, evolving relationship.