Time Travel Story Writing Technique
March 22, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

What good sci-fi stories do you know that involves someone going back in time and meeting several of his previous selves, all at once (e.g. all of them are in the same room together). I want to see the writing techniques that make it easy for the reader to distinguish between the different selves.
posted by storybored to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

The Man Who Folded Himself
posted by Proginoskes at 2:03 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Star Diaries, Seventh Voyage.
posted by Nomyte at 2:08 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't remember exactly how many end up in the same room at the same time but "—All You Zombies—."
posted by griphus at 2:12 PM on March 22, 2013

I just started The Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell. It's about a time traveller who meets his other selves at a hotel for a party every year on his birthday. Like, they all meet at one hotel on a fixed date in time. I'm literally one chapter in, but it definitely deals with how he relates to his past and future selves.
posted by itsamermaid at 2:24 PM on March 22, 2013

I've never heard of "The Man in the Empty Suit," but how funny -- in one of his fiction-writing phases, he wrote a short story about the same thing. Not necessarily time travel, just that they all showed up.

Basically, they just all showed up like different characters normally do, identified by their appearance and actions. The 12-year-old (I think) insisted that he be called by a clubby variation of his middle name, and the 17-year-old was trying to convince everyone he was incredibly cool by smoking cigarettes and wearing sunglasses, and the 38-year-old looked really tired because he'd pulled a late night at the office and really just wanted to go home and sleep, but he'd promised his wife that they would all go to the party, so here they all were...

If you're talking about how to identify them in dialogue, etc... that's a different story. I can't remember, although of course Bassy was easy to distinguish :P Maybe they referred to each one by their age. "38 asked 17 to please not smoke so close to 12, and 17 acted like a jerk and said, 'It's a free country.'"
posted by Madamina at 2:45 PM on March 22, 2013

Not prose, but relevant, I think:

Subnormality - Ethels
posted by UncleBoomee at 3:11 PM on March 22, 2013

(Mefi's own) Charlie Stross wrote the novella Palimpsest (found in his collection Wireless) about a time-traveler working for an organization that acts across all of time. Not only must he kill his own grandfather to join, but he is required to have a peculiar encounter with himselves as well.

As I recall, the book was told from first-person, and the encounter was retold once or more times from the perspective of the different first-persons.

Read Heinlein's "All You Zombies" (suggested above) last, though-- it really breaks the universe.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:31 PM on March 22, 2013

I should add that you might also seek out cloning fiction or similar where a person meets an contemporary duplicate of his/herself, generated from a backup copy, transporter accident, etc. Iain Banks played with this, but I don't recall him doing multiple perspectives by instances of the same person in the same room. ST:TNG featured an episode in which Cdr. Riker meets a version of himself, unknowingly duplicated by a transporter malfunction, but isolated by circumstances from other people for a long period of time. At any rate, it would have multiple people with essentially the same identity in the same room together and might be helpful.

At the risk of spoiling, both the book and movie of "The Prestige," turn this concept to a horror, but they each do it differently. Not useful to your need, though, as the characters don't interact the way you're looking for.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:39 PM on March 22, 2013

Heinlein did another one of these, By His Bootstraps. All You Zombies is the more interesting one.

Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time (graphic novel)
posted by Zed at 3:52 PM on March 22, 2013

Polish author Stanislaw Lem wrote a series of short stories about Ijon Tichy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_Diaries), a "famous" time and space traveller who happens to get stuck in few time loops. Some language will be translator dependent, but a fun read.
posted by Yavsy at 4:32 PM on March 22, 2013

It's a movie, but the central conceit of Looper is that the main character has to deal with himself via time travel.
posted by jquinby at 5:26 PM on March 22, 2013

Came in to suggest By His Bootstraps. It may be simpler and hokier than All You Zombies, but I think it better exemplifies what you're looking for -- multiple iterations of the same character interacting. The very first scene incorporates an argument and fistfight among at least three rapid iterations of the protagonist. (Who's also the antagonist, of course...)
posted by sesquipedalia at 8:17 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly what you're asking for but it's close enough (and a technically interesting accomplishment) that I feel it has merit--

Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life in this anthology has a protagonist who ends up living all of her life at once in her consciousness; the timeline of the story is simultaneously past-present-future and you can distinguish which version she is by the tense being used and other signifiers.
posted by foxfirefey at 8:36 PM on March 22, 2013

In Time Traveler's Wife, the main character interacts with himself several times at different ages, but I think it's only two of him at any given time. I think because the older one is usually warning/explaining to the younger one, it's always obvious from context which is which.
posted by loveyallaround at 10:11 AM on March 23, 2013

It's not time travel, but I'd put The Hemingway Play at the top of your list. Four versions of Hemingway in the same play. Young journalist Hemingway interviewing successful novelist Hemingway, etc. It's pretty amazing to see/read.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:51 PM on March 23, 2013

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