Books with time travel as a minor subplot?
January 27, 2016 4:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find stories and/or novels which are mostly about something else but also include a bit of time travel, with that aspect of the story only made clear toward the end.

I'm writing a time travel novel where the bulk of the story is written in a realistic fashion and set in what appears to be everyday society, with the time travel subplot unwinding underneath. I'm trying to thread clues throughout the novel, and thought that one place I could do that would be in books the main character's book club chooses. Some of the selections are primarily and obviously about time travel, but I didn't want them all to be so obvious, if possible.

In any case, I can only think of one book which is primarily about something else but which includes time travel (one of the Harry Potter books, which I won't spoil here even by naming the antagonists. It's mostly about Harry's schooling and his worries about someone who might be plotting against him). I think that book could have even been rewritten to work without the time travel (though I enjoyed it and thought it was very clever), so really I was hoping for something along those same lines: time travel is the garnish, not the main dish.

Unfortunately that Harry Potter book just really doesn't work with the rest of what's being read in the book club--it's one single volume out of a 7-volume series, and it's written for kids when all the rest of the books they read are for adults. As a clue, I think it would call too much attention to itself.

I also haven't had much luck Googling this--everything on the lists I'm finding is obviously and primarily about time travel, and adding terms like "subplot" really doesn't improve the results. I'm not sure that it's ungoogleable, but I'm not having any luck with it.
posted by johnofjack to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
What qualifies as a subplot and what's central is deliberately hazy in a story about a holistic detective, but maybe Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
posted by aubilenon at 4:52 PM on January 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Connie Willis' work is subtle but brilliant with some time travel.
posted by nickggully at 4:57 PM on January 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

While it is not time travel per se, any book from the Discworld series in which the History Monks appear involves some amount of time manipulation, and might work to fit your theme, as the Monks are often in the background, working tirelessly to see that history unspools as it ought.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Mostly a straightforward tale about a Japanese journal that washes ashore on a British Columbia island.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2016

Long Division by Kiese Laymon is described as a "Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi." Who knew there would be time travel?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:07 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding Connie Willis; her stuff is great. They're manners comedies (not always comedy ha-ha, but comedy isn't-it-funny-how-people-must-behave-when-stifled-by-social-rules) set substantially in the past, but some of the characters are Oxbridge historians visiting the past. There are several novels as well as the (critical, IMO) novella (or short story?) "Firewatch," which is found in a collection of the same name. But I think they are what you're looking for-- the time machine is not located in the physics department of the university, but in the history department where it belongs, if that gives you any idea of how commonplace time-travel is.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:12 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Landline by Rainbow Rowell uses a telephone that can reach the past as an device in her otherwise conventional romance novel. (Also, it's an adult novel, unlike her other YA books.)

Jo Walton's Philosopher Kings series also makes use of time travel to bring people from various eras together in a Platonic utopia.
posted by alicat at 5:32 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your recipe is exactly what you'll find in the wonderful and provocative Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson.
posted by grounded at 5:45 PM on January 27, 2016

I'd say that Neal Stephenson's Anathem fits this category, as would David Brin's Kiln People (though I thought it was completely irrelevant and muddying in the latter).

And while Time and Again is most definitely "about" time travel, it's approached in the most "normal" way possible (no whiz-bang science-y stuff or fancy machines or space-time continuuum blather).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 5:48 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kindred by Octavia Butler - time travel is central to the plot, but the book is not about time travel per se.

If being frozen/put in stasis and coming out tens or hundreds of years later is close enough to time travel, you might take a look at Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music and/or Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought series.

If you want to go full out the other way, Stephen Fry's Making History is a very funny rendition of the using a time machine to stop Hitler from being born story.
posted by snaw at 5:51 PM on January 27, 2016

'—All You Zombies—'  fits your seek perfectly.
posted by Mitheral at 6:08 PM on January 27, 2016

Response by poster: The books I was already planning for them to read include Doomsday Book and Kindred, and I was still debating about 11/22/63. With Connie Willis I could swap out Doomsday Book for To Say Nothing of the Dog to make the time travel less prominent and the manners & mystery more prominent. Kindred is obviously about time travel but I'm keeping it because a) it's brilliant and b) the characters aren't even addressing the time travel so much as the characterization and Dana's dilemma, so I feel like there's some (acceptable) misdirection going on there. I hadn't really decided yet if including 11/22/63 tipped the hand; I guess I'll know when I get there.

I'd considered & rejected Thief of Time, wanting ones less obviously about time travel, but Small Gods could definitely work. I'd forgotten that Lu-Tze was in that one.

Philosopher Kings is a good suggestion, but now I'll have to re-read it. Is there any time travel at all in it ? The Just City is the one where Athena's pulling people from all throughout history and setting up the city; if I recall correctly (and maybe I don't) the 2nd one is mostly about vengeance and forgiveness, and takes place entirely (almost entirely?) in and around ancient Greece. If there is any time travel in it, it would have to be on the very last page, wouldn't it? Brilliant, if so.

I haven't read most of the rest of these but will add them to my TBR pile to see how they'd work and what people can say about them.

snaw, it's funny you mention the Fry book--have you read I Killed Adolf Hitler? I'm not seeing it as a great candidate for a book club, but it is very entertaining and I'm tempted to have the main character read it amongst all the rest of the books he reads.

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I'd plotted the story as taking place over five or six months, tops, so this might be enough.
posted by johnofjack at 6:09 PM on January 27, 2016

Best answer: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is about a girl in 1970s New York who's obsessed with a Wrinkle in Time and whose mother is trying to get on a game show, and she's dealing with middle school friend drama. There is also actual time travel involved, revealed at the end. It's a beautiful book.
posted by leesh at 6:42 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry for the chattiness of that. I've been away from AskMe a while and forgot what it's supposed to be like.
posted by johnofjack at 6:43 PM on January 27, 2016

(To add, When You Reach Me won the Newbery a few years ago, so it's conceivable that a book club would read it.)
posted by leesh at 6:45 PM on January 27, 2016

Kafka on the Shore has time shifting, depending on how you interpret events.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:00 PM on January 27, 2016

also came here to rec When You Reach Me -- oh how I love it.
posted by changeling at 7:26 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Accidental Time Machine probably doesn't quite fit your bill, but the central character is really charming and his personal journey is really the central story that time travel just abets.
posted by brookeb at 7:27 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The film "Donnie Darko" basically fits your description of a story "written in a realistic fashion and set in what appears to be everyday society, with [a] time travel subplot unwinding underneath." It's not a book, but you could still throw in a reference to it in the dialogue.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:30 PM on January 27, 2016

I have to recommend Charlotte Sometimes, one of my favorite books as a child (though it has a lot to offer adults as well). There is time travel, but it is a plot device used to explore other issues.
posted by peacheater at 7:30 PM on January 27, 2016

The 1990s reboot of Lost in Space. The TV show Lost.
posted by gerryblog at 7:31 PM on January 27, 2016

Maybe too explicit a reference, but Slaughterhouse-Five.

The Master and Margarita keeps jumping back in time in the form of a story. I don't remember if any of the characters actually time travel, but it's not out of the realm of possibility with that story, and it kind of has that feel as I recall.

Cloud Atlas is kind of like a time travel book.
posted by willnot at 8:18 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Illium has incidental time travel (or at least manipulations of time) in it, but it is about other things.
posted by willnot at 8:22 PM on January 27, 2016

Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein is an SF book that gets about 90% of the way through its story before suddenly... time travel.
posted by 256 at 8:25 PM on January 27, 2016

Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan" is about a character who is "unstuck in time" and so the events of his life happen out of order (or something like that - been a long time since I read it ). But it's got a lot of odd conceptual stuff going on, including aliens and space travel, WWII, and autobiographical elements. It's a hodgepodge of sci-fi, and I would find it hard to imagine anyone would characterize it as a time-travel story first and foremost. Time travel is just a high concept that conjoins a variety of Vonnegut's nonsense.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:52 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The meat of the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde revolve around her dealings with the Bookworld, but the 'real world' in the series is a slightly off-kilter alternate reality where the ChronoGuard serve a similar function to the Discworld's History Monks. They're mentioned almost offhandedly in the first book but play a significant role later on in the series.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:59 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All You Need Is Kill, which is more of a Groundhog Day loop than time travel, but is relatively obscure compared to the movie it inspired, Edge of Tomorrow.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:04 PM on January 27, 2016

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which signals it's going to be time travel itself by referencing A Wrinkle in Time.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:06 PM on January 27, 2016

Maybe you'd be interesting in one of these high concept SF novels I've read recently - none of them have a time travel narrative such, each very different but all of them eventually reveal a deep philosophical meditation on the nature of time / time travel / causality.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Light by M. John Harrison
Inverted World by Christopher Priest
posted by iivix at 2:32 AM on January 28, 2016

Sunburnt: I think you are mixing Sirens of Titan up with Slaughterhouse-Five.
posted by 256 at 4:10 AM on January 28, 2016

In that it unfolds the way you're describing for your own novel, letting you know about the time travel element in Beatriz Williams' Overseas is kind of a spoiler. I have to be honest, as a time travel nerd, I wasn't super satisfied with how it was explained (hand waving timey-wimey) but it's still one I've re-read a few times. I went in thinking it was a straightforward romance novel and then whoops!
posted by librarianamy at 5:36 AM on January 28, 2016

> Sunburnt: I think you are mixing Sirens of Titan up with Slaughterhouse-Five.

On reflection you're correct. oops. I told you it had been a while.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2016

Before The Cradle Falls by James F. David. It is a police procedural/thriller (published 2002). I enjoyed it.
posted by quincunx at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2016

Mr. Abernathy was a quick, fun read with a time travel element that doesn't show up until near the end.
posted by angry.polymath at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2016

The novella Great Work of Time by John Crowley has a very interesting take on time travel.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:59 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Free Live Free" by Gene Wolfe is almost exactly what you're describing.
posted by Ipsifendus at 10:17 AM on January 28, 2016

Chuck's Rant
posted by kpmcguire at 1:25 PM on January 28, 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock could be a candidate, although the potential time element is only in a posthumously published chapter excised from the original book.
posted by Coaticass at 6:54 PM on January 28, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. There's a lot here I haven't read yet, but I'll give myself reminders to revisit this and mark best answers.
posted by johnofjack at 3:26 AM on January 29, 2016

Response by poster: I'm about 98% done with the rough draft of this. The main character is on a committee putting together a comic convention and there's a scene early on where someone comments on the main character's love of time travel stories and mentions that he could lead a panel discussion on the subject. The main character isn't very social and is very much not interested in that idea; the scene's there half for characterization and half for misdirection.

Here are the time travel stories I've used:
  • Kindred
  • Doomsday Book (I still haven't decided whether to swap this out for To Say Nothing of the Dog; I'm certainly tempted)
  • Donnie Darko
  • Source Code (mentioned in passing)
  • The Terminator
  • Groundhog Day
  • Edge of Tomorrow (mentioned in passing)
  • Run Lola Run (mentioned in passing)
  • 11/22/63
  • When You Reach Me
  • About Time
On at least three of those there's some misdirection about why they're in the story, and on one of them the twist has already been revealed and the story is just there for one character's reaction to one of the scenes.

I still haven't read some of the books mentioned above but will continue working through them.

Thanks again for the suggestions.
posted by johnofjack at 6:04 PM on June 11, 2016

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