Five SFF Novels With Fresh Approaches to Time Travel

I’ve always loved time-travel stories—from the freewheeling adventures of the Doctor; to the neat twist in the Sound of Thunder. This is a genre of fun plots and cool ideas—but also deep emotion: the tragedy of witnessing events that can’t be changed; the poignancy of knowing someone’s fate; the sadness and joy of meeting a deceased loved one; the awe of seeing lost and future wonders.

When I started my own series about time-travelling monsters, I discovered that it’s also a very tricky genre to write. How do you create tension in a world without ticking-clock jeopardy? How do you create stakes if characters can just go back and do it all over again? And, of course, how do you avoid paradoxes?

Over the years, many authors have solved these problems by crafting worldbuilding in which time-travel has limitations and rules. Here are five different approaches to time travel: from a self-protective continuum; to an unavoidable fate; the ability to act freely in the unrecorded shadows of history; time loops; and the power to change the timeline, but at terrible personal price.


To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


To Say Nothing of the Dog is a charming romp through Victorian England. An historian of the future, Ned, is on a mission to find an object lost in time—the Bishop’s bird stump. Time-lagged and exhausted, he is sent to rest and recuperate in the Victorian era, where he accidentally causes a paradox that must be fixed to save the world. Immaculately researched and hilarious, this story is underpinned by carefully crafted time-travel worldbuilding. Connie Willis has created a space–time continuum that protects itself from time-travellers’ hijinks—to an extent.

I also highly recommend Doomsday Book, in which a future historian lives for a time in a 14th century village. Set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book is brilliant and devastating.


The Upper World by Femi Fadugba

upper world

Femi Fadugba is a physicist, and The Upper World combines the physics of time-travel (complete with appendix diagrams and equations) with a thrilling mystery that has everything—compelling characters, humour and tragedy.

Esso, a teenager from Peckham, is navigating a path between gang rivalries and a crush on his classmate Nadia, when he is suddenly thrust into the ‘Upper World’—a nebulous place where the future can be glimpsed. There, he sees a violent event that he becomes desperate to stop. Meanwhile, fifteen years later in a dystopian London policed by killer drones, Rhia begins to investigate the fate of her missing mother, Nadia…

I love how this book explores the concept of fate, and unravels mystery after mystery as we approach the event that Esso needs to stop.


Son, Observe the Time by Kage Baker

best of kage baker

This novella, available in The Best of Kage Baker collection, was my introduction Baker’s Company series, about time-travelling immortal cyborgs who—among other things—collect the lost treasures of history for a company founded in the future.

Set in San Francisco, on the eve of the 1906 earthquake, Son, Observe the Time evokes wonder and horror as the characters go about their work, knowing that this beautiful city will soon be destroyed, and that many of the people around them are doomed.

I love Baker’s approach to time travel. Her characters can’t change recorded history—but that leaves a lot of leeway (recorded history can tell lies; and much of history is unrecorded). And then there’s my favourite piece of the Company worldbuilding—‘the Silence’. Beyond a certain date in the 24th century, no information is known. There is a series-long mystery about what happens after that date, and what causes the blackout.


Midnight Strikes by Zeba Shahnaz

midnight strikes

Another approach to time travel is the Groundhog-Day-style time loop, seen recently in the television series Russian Doll, and in recent young adult novels: Lynn Painter’s The Do-Over, Justin A. Reynolds’ Opposite of Always and Zeba Shahnaz’s debut fantasy, Midnight Strikes.

In most time loop stories, something goes very wrong and, just as the main character is about to face the fallout, they are thrown a short distance back in time, and have to play out the events leading up to the calamity again (and again and again). Midnight Strikes gives this subgenre a Cinderella twist: Anaïs goes to a ball attended by the infamous Prince Leo. But as midnight strikes, the ballroom is hit by an explosion. Anaïs wakes up a few hours before the disaster, and must figure out who is responsible for the attack.


Revelle by Lyssa Mia Smith


In Lyssa Mia Smith’s fantasy debut, Revelle, magic always has a cost. Different families have different magical abilities, and the Chronoses can time-travel (and even change the timeline). Smith cleverly limits this ability, though, by imposing a cost so terrible that few are willing to make full use of their power. If they travel a day in time, they age a hundred days. Attempting to travel back a year would kill them.

Still, they make formidable enemies. And when the book’s main character, Luxe, makes a bargain with a Chronos, she finds herself drawn into a world of mystery, danger and romance.


Vanessa Len is an Australian author and educational editor who has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources, to professional learning for teachers. Her first novel, Only a Monster, won the 2022 Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and has been translated into nine languages. The sequel, Never a Hero, is out in August 2023.

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