There are, of course, great time travel novels (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example), but in general I think the idea is overdone and the novels that use it don’t show a ton of variety in them. In many cases if they go to the future they may as well have just written a sci-fi novel about that future. If they go to the past they may as well have written historical fiction. The problem is in very few of them is there any particular reason for the story to be science fiction.
I think the way to do it is to establish the character(s) who is traveling and give them a reason for being interesting and important in whatever temporal situation they are placed within. That’s what Doomsday Book did right, though even Doomsday Book had the problem of not having the “present” time being very compelling or interesting. It’s not done enough. Too often, time travel books have fairly flat main characters who serve almost entirely as a vehicle to get the reader to whatever time and place the author desires.
Just as important, there must be interesting characters in whatever time the travelers get to. Too often in time travel books, the characters in the future or past are little more than vehicles for showing how strange or different that time period/place is. That’s not enough.
Another difficulty with time travel books is that they often feel more like gimmicks than like serious science fiction. That is okay in some cases–Callahan’s Crosstime Salloon, for example, is a quite fun romp that doesn’t take the time-travel aspect at all seriously–but in others it makes the whole thing seem contrived. On the opposite end of the spectrum from turning the time travel into a gimmick is making the time travel itself, and its mechanics, the center of the work and the primary driving factor. That gets old pretty fast. There are only so many times and ways I can deal with reading about possible paradoxes of time travel and whether they make time travel impossible and for the sake of this novel this is why it really is possible after all… etc. I really don’t like pointing to this one because it was clearly such a labor of love, but Stephen Baxter’s Time Ships gets caught up in this big time. It’s a rather fun tribute to H.G. Wells’ time travel novel contained in a massive tome of scientific and philosophical contemplation on quantum theory and the like.
I end my extended rant by once again affirming that there are time travel novels I enjoy, but overall the sub-genre has too little going on in it to make me enjoy it consistently.
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