Good time travel books and movies
May 16, 2010 9:28 PM   Subscribe

I have just got the time travel bug. After watching this movie, I realized I wanted to read more books and watch more movies on time travel. Please recommend some good ones; the more screwed up/paradoxical/complex, the better, as long as the explanations are reasonably rational.
posted by dcrocha to Media & Arts (64 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you'd enjoy Primer, especially if you don't mind having to watch it two or three times.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 9:33 PM on May 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

2nding Primer
posted by fieldtrip at 9:40 PM on May 16, 2010

Seconding Primer. Not only the best movie about time travel, but arguably the "hardest" sci-fi movie produced in the last twenty years.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:40 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

So I came here to say... Primer. Okay. I'll just be leaving now.
posted by Nattie at 9:49 PM on May 16, 2010

If I could go back in time to recommend Primer ahead of HumuloneRanger and dephlogisticated, I would.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:49 PM on May 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis are both good, as is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:56 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The movie you linked to is a rip-off of Primer: it's Primer with nudity.
posted by whiskeyspider at 9:57 PM on May 16, 2010

The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, deals with time travel in an oblique but fascinating way. People can't actually travel trough time themselves, but an advanced wormhole-based camera system dubbed the WormCam allows them to view any location in the universe at any point in history.

At first the technology is used for small-potatoes political intrigue, but once it becomes mass-produced it leads to radical revelations in fields like history, religion, and biology. As the WormCam becomes more advanced and more deeply ingrained in everyday life -- including sophisticated brain-based VR systems that allow people to "walk" through the past for days at a time -- privacy is totally destroyed, and society changes in some interesting ways.

You can search or browse the book here.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:01 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @whiskeyspider It seems like it (though I haven't watched Primer), but I enjoyed the movie nevertheless, with the exception of the lack of one explanation about how Hector got into the time loop in the first place.
posted by dcrocha at 10:03 PM on May 16, 2010

12 Monkeys is a time travel narrative, murder mystery and a tragic love story all in one, pushing a possibly mentally-deranged or simply stressed-out protagonist back and forth through history to investigate how billions of people were murdered in a deliberate pandemic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:05 PM on May 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold is pretty fantastic. Alot of the more non-intuitive consequences of time-travel get a hearing.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:06 PM on May 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Moves with overt time travel using a machine:
Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, Back to the Future III, The Time Machine (1960), The Time Machine (2002)

Movies with implicit time travel through some unseen/unexplained force:
Run Lola Run, Groundhog Day
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:09 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Did anyone mention Primer? [bzzt] How about now? Okay. Good. You should watch Primer.

After (after) you watch Primer a few times, check out the forum for stuff you can't figure out on your own. It's more-or-less dead now, but definitely a great resource.

Then there's this timeline chart which I'd warn is full of spoilers but you'd probably need a good half-hour to figure the thing out after watching the movie a few times, so trying to read it beforehand is almost pointless.
posted by griphus at 10:10 PM on May 16, 2010

Might I recommend Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure?
posted by howgenerica at 10:12 PM on May 16, 2010

And of course, in addition to the Time Machine movies, there's H.G. Wells's book on which they're based.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2010

I'm not much of a time travel fan but Benford's Timescape was a good read.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:22 PM on May 16, 2010

La jeteé (can't use the link button on the iPhone) is what 12 Monkeys was based on. French narration over still images. From the 60's. I like it a lot when I watched it about 15 years ago.
posted by gally99 at 10:36 PM on May 16, 2010

C.L. Moore's "Vintage Season"
Heinlein's "All You Zombies" and The Door Into Summer
John Crowley's "Great Work of Time"
Ditto Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates
After reading Wells' The Time Machine, Stephen Baxter's sequel The Time Ships
Robert Charles Wilson's The Chronoliths
John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century if you don't mind dealing with Clockwork Orange levels of violence by the narrator

Ditto Connie Willis recommendations; her time travel stories are set in a common milieu first published in "Fire Watch" and most recently in Blackout, the first half of one ginormous story to be continued in September with All Clear.

Some stories that don't involve travelling backwards in time, but which still center around time travel:
Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days"
William Sleator's Singularity
Joe Haldeman's The Forever War
posted by Zed at 10:38 PM on May 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Doctor Who. The entire show is about a time travelling alien called the Doctor who ricochets through time and space with various human companions. He used to look like David Tennant, but now he looks like Matt Smith.
posted by colfax at 10:40 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Remembered the second one I was trying to remember.
Lathe of Heaven
Not necesarily time travel, but the main character has the problem of his dreams becoming reality. When his psychiatrist decides to take advantage of this he has George, the dreamer, change things in the past.
There's an older one and a newer remake, and both are very good and very different.
posted by gally99 at 10:46 PM on May 16, 2010

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman is very enjoyable.
posted by cmonkey at 10:55 PM on May 16, 2010

Seconding Great Work of Time and The Chronoliths. And you should definitely check out Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany.

Delany's Dhalgren and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun probably aren't quite what you're looking for, but they both involve screwed-up time travel and they are both extremely awesome. If you try the Wolfe, read Urth of the New Sun afterwards; it clarifies some of the time travel stuff from in the first four books that you didn't even realize was there.
posted by twirlip at 11:02 PM on May 16, 2010

An Excellent book is Time and Again, by Jack Finney, who also wrote The Body Snatchers. The movie The Philadelphia Experiment is ok. And there are several Star Trek movies that rely on time travel as a main plot element.
posted by TDIpod at 11:06 PM on May 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you want something a little more light and fluffy, there's Kate & Leopold.
posted by amyms at 11:26 PM on May 16, 2010

Yes, 12 Monkeys is good, but everything good about it was (I believe) taken from the excellent La Jetée, a short film that is well worth seeing. Incredibly thought-provoking and powerful, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 11:30 PM on May 16, 2010

Islands in the Sea of Time - by S.M. Stirling
posted by cwhitfcd at 11:34 PM on May 16, 2010

Timeline by Michael Crichton.

I read it when I was about 17, but I remember it being pretty good, and the explanation not being totally out of the question.
posted by iwillcatchthebird at 11:57 PM on May 16, 2010

If you're up for a short story, check Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps." The story sets itself some logic problems and ends up being pretty complex - enough that I don't think I could any longer track the sequence of events. It was very enjoyable.
posted by wjm at 12:00 AM on May 17, 2010

Peggy Sue Got Married
posted by fifilaru at 12:02 AM on May 17, 2010

Here's another vote for Primer, and a second viewing of Primer, which I need to do. You probably already know this if you're on Netflix, but it's available for streaming there.

There are some Star Trek episodes based on time travel, but I don't know how many of them are really that mind-bending. The Next Generation finale, maybe.

And maybe some Twilight Zone episodes?

Oh, and I wondered at first if this question was partially inspired by Lost. It doesn't get much more screwed up/paradoxical/complex than that, particularly when time travel was utilized about halfway in.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:03 AM on May 17, 2010

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov has some good ideas in it. So does Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. They're both well known authors with solidly good writing, and it was with high expectations that I began reading their take on time travel (a difficult subject) and I was not disappointed.
posted by xdvesper at 12:40 AM on May 17, 2010

I am a huge fan of time travel stories myself. I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine. I also heartily recommend Ken Grimwood's classic Replay.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:46 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you ever get a chance to see this, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is really, really good.
posted by misozaki at 1:18 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

roadmarks by roger zelazny nips back and forth in a pleasant manner.
posted by kimyo at 1:40 AM on May 17, 2010

Also, forgot to mention Jack McDevitt's delightful Time Travellers Never Die.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:57 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The time traveller's wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I liked the book very much but there isn't much of an explanation of how it actually works. It is more of a love story. I haven't watched the movie.
posted by Glow Bucket at 2:01 AM on May 17, 2010

Um, the Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger? While it can be easily classified as a romance, it illustrates the interaction between a couple, one of whom can travel in time accidentally. Surprised to not see it mention considering how many times it gets recommended in other book threads.
On preview: doh! jinx.
posted by chronic sublime at 2:05 AM on May 17, 2010

Frequency is a pretty good, if occasionally schmaltzy movie, about being able to communicate with the past.
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:36 AM on May 17, 2010

n'th'ing Primer

...but some Hollywood examples that I enjoyed from the past decade were: Frequency, Deja Vu, The Jacket, The Butterfly Effect, and Donnie Darko.

...and from a little further back in time, the delightful Time After Time.
posted by fairmettle at 2:43 AM on May 17, 2010

Jasper Fforde writes a series of books about a character named Thursday Next. Basically, in the future people have the ability to time travel as to well as travel within works of literature.

The Eyre Affair
is the first in the series, and I loved it. There's a lot of weird paradoxical things that come up as Thursday's father is a rogue time traveler.

And if you want to take things a step further from books and movies, Looney Labs, the company responsible for the game Fluxx and many hours of fun for me and my friends, has a game called Chrononauts, which is all about time travelers preserving or reworking key moments in history as required by character and mission you are playing. There's also an Early American edition and a character expansion pack, which are worth getting. It is a fabulous game.
posted by zizzle at 3:48 AM on May 17, 2010

Somewhere in Time -
posted by blaneyphoto at 3:50 AM on May 17, 2010

Also, NBC had a show called Journeyman that lasted only a few episodes, but it dealt with a lot of practical matters regarding time travel like money and having the right type of $20 bills on you at in the 1980s and so forth.

It was quite good and I was rather disappointed when it was canceled.
posted by zizzle at 3:50 AM on May 17, 2010

Nthing The Time Traveller's Wife, Time and Again, and hey I really liked Journeyman, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:36 AM on May 17, 2010

Douglas Adam's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency has time travel as a central theme. It's another one that where the actual timeline is fairly difficult to work out. Adams himself described it (on the cover copy) as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic".
posted by flipper at 5:14 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

It steps a bit into alternate histories, but you might like S.M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time. In a nutshell, the 20th century island of Nantucket gets thrown back to 1250 B.C - with their technology intact. This is part of the Change series (scroll down). Good stuff.

Also, try Kindred by Octavia Butler. Tough reading, but a masterful exploration of the true implications of time travel.
posted by dirtmonster at 6:32 AM on May 17, 2010

City on the Edge of Forever, often considered the best of the original Star Trek.
posted by Harry at 7:09 AM on May 17, 2010

You Must Watch Primer.
posted by curious_yellow at 8:20 AM on May 17, 2010

Here's an Amazon Listmania list of books I made a while back based on this thread at and this one at Marginal Revolution about how to survive if you travel in time back to 1000AD.

I'm also very partial to Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time trilogy, and many of his other novels which feature some of the same time-travelling characters. They probably don't feature much in the way of crazy confusing time paradoxes though, if that's what you're after particularly.

However, Moorcock's Behold the Man, about a man who travels back to witness Christ's crucifixion is a bit more that way inclined. For another take on the same subject, Gore Vidal's Live From Golgotha is about TV networks broadcasting from the event.
posted by fabius at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2010

The Final Countdown. The USN aircraft carrier Nimitz sails through a whirlpool in time and is thrown back 40 years to the day before Pearl Harbor. A glorified Twilight Zone episode but it has it's moments.
posted by beatnik808 at 10:43 AM on May 17, 2010

Seconding "All You Zombies" by Heinlein. Arguably THE best time travel story ever written.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:30 AM on May 17, 2010

The classic Slaughterhouse Five (book), and Donnie Darko... just because it should be included.
posted by lizbunny at 12:52 PM on May 17, 2010

Response by poster: Just watched Primer last night and liked it, but I still have more trouble understanding Donnie Darko than I did understanding Primer. I will probably have to watch them both again, though :)
posted by dcrocha at 1:04 PM on May 17, 2010

Deja Vu!

Action + time travel + Denzel Washington = one of my favorite movies. I had to watch it 3 times (AND Wikipedia the 4 or so timelines that criss-cross throughout the movie) to fully get it, so I think its complexity will suit you.
posted by ardent at 5:24 PM on May 17, 2010

Hirsute is a cool short movie (under 15 minutes) that I saw at a film festival, about a guy who invents a time machine. The video is available online, on IMDB.
posted by daikon at 5:39 PM on May 17, 2010

I liked The Fountain, though the story is not heavily grounded in hard science; it tends towards the new-agey. Nice effects, though.

I know you're looking for complex and rational, but in case your brain needs a break, let's not forget some modern classics:
- Time Bandits
- Army of Darkness
... and who can forget the movie that tackled the American future with the subtle wit and wisdom it so richly deserves: Idiocracy
posted by krippledkonscious at 6:03 PM on May 17, 2010

Seconding Pastwatch. Great book about time travel. Lots of great cause-and-effectyness.
posted by raygan at 10:01 AM on May 18, 2010

I asked the same question about books a few years ago. Got some great advice.
posted by Robot Johnny at 1:11 PM on May 18, 2010

and you shouldn't restrict yourself to just English language films... try Cronocrimenes too, low budget Spanish time travel flick.
posted by itsjustanalias at 1:16 PM on May 18, 2010

Recent episode of Fringe co-starring Peter Weller. It's episode 18 from this season, called "White Tulip." It's a standalone episode, which does not rely on Fringe mythology to appreciate.

There is a big spoiler referenced in the episode regarding Walter's relationship with his son, Peter, which isn't necessary to understand in order to appreciate the episode, but which might ruin a nice surprise for you if you are watching the series and aren't up to date.

The episode may still be available on Hulu. Not sure, though.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:15 PM on May 18, 2010

^ I should say guest-starring Peter Weller.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:19 PM on May 18, 2010

I'll be back.
posted by kenliu at 8:46 PM on May 18, 2010

A few more movies well worth seeing if you can find them: Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, Summer Time Machine Blues.
posted by ffrinch at 3:15 PM on May 20, 2010

I would recommend The Time-Traveller's Wife and Timeline, but ONLY the books. The movies were pretty crappy. And now I have to go watch this Primer movie.
posted by artychoke at 9:28 AM on May 23, 2010

Way late to the party here, but Rant by Chuck Palahniuk deals with time travel, although really only later in the novel. Anyway, he has a pretty interesting take on what one might do with the ability to time travel. It's a bit convoluted but I enjoyed the book.
posted by elder18 at 7:38 PM on June 23, 2010

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