Time travel that doesn't break the laws of physics
February 10, 2021 7:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in media (short stories/novels/TV shows/movies) that depict "time travel" to the future by some sort of theoretically plausible means, such as cryogenic sleep or time-dilated travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

My preference is for stories where this kind of "time travel" is deliberate or central to the plot, as opposed to an incidental feature. The further into the future the better. Thanks so much!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"Idiocracy" has cryogenic sleep, but it's accidental.

"An American Pickle" has a 100-year pickling (also accidental), but although that seems like it should be a key part of the plot, it's basically ignored after about 15 minutes in.

"Interstellar" has lots of deliberate time dilation, as does the novel "The Forever War."
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:31 PM on February 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Without too many spoilers, the last section of Death's End by Cixin Liu would seem to fit the bill. It's the third book in a trilogy, though, and you'd probably want to read the first two books first.

A major character in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series lives a surprisingly long time due to his travels through the galaxy, and two other characters are effectively sent into the future by being put on relativistic ships making round trips to nowhere.

Both authors are known to have some problematic views, so caveat lector.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:32 PM on February 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

The Twilight Zone episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”
posted by Melismata at 7:41 PM on February 10, 2021

There's anime from the late 80s called Gunbuster (トップをねらえ!, Toppu o Nerae!) which featured earth sending soldiers and mecha into space to fight hostile aliens, and they experience the results of time dilation as they return to Earth years after they departed for a short mission. Later in the OVAs, the main to soldiers fight a battle in minutes while hundreds of years pass on Earth.

Much more recent is Makoto Shinkai's first big release, Voices of a Distant Star. If you watch his movies, you'll see two elements repeated in endless variation: people missing each other's texts (or in general, asynchronous communication), and things moving along tracks. In this one, a high school student is somehow elevated into the position of piloting a huge mecha, and she keeps in touch with her boyfriend via text, but as the ship travels further and further away, the gaps between their communications lengthen.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:43 PM on February 10, 2021

TV Tropes sections its Time Dilation trope into Slower than Light, which you want, and FTL, which you may not.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:44 PM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Primer explicitly addresses lots of the 'realistic' aspects of time travel that are often glossed over. Though the mechanism is not especially well fleshed-out in a hard sci-fi sense, the complications and consequences absolutely are.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:48 PM on February 10, 2021 [13 favorites]

Uh, this is low rent but Futurama is about the main character cryosleeping 1000 years into the future, and in later seasons we find out that a higher power needed him there for a reason.

The Forever War covers this.

Interstellar covers this in a vaguely (but not really) plausible way and has a memed quote ("this little maneuver's gonna cost us 51 years").
posted by ftm at 7:50 PM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding Primer hard. It felt so "plausible" that the very first time I saw any of it - I caught it mid-way through on PBS or something - I thought I was watching a dramatic recreation of something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:50 PM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is not a typo so I won't edit but Futurama has another episode about forward time travel, The Late Philip J Fry. They go all the way to the rebirth of the universe so you can't really go farther than that.
posted by ftm at 7:52 PM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Dr Who episode "World Enough and Time" has a large spaceship slowly pulling away from near a black hole's event horizon, causing the people on different floors of the ship to experience huge differences in the flow of time.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:57 PM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

The book series "The Hyperion Cantos" by Dan Simmons features the concept of "time debt," whereby people who travel between planets on space ships experience less time passing on the ship than people back home on the planet do. The stress this phenomenon puts on a certain relationship is an important part of the first book. Highly recommended!
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 8:07 PM on February 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Not that far into the future, but “Demolition Man” is a super-fun cryogenic sleep action movie.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:16 PM on February 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

The original Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2149 AD, has Buck put into stasis with "radioactive gas" back in 1927. The TV show similarly had him frozen in space for five centuries.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:26 PM on February 10, 2021

Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a novel that also involves various forms of time displacement (not dissimilar to cryogenics in the beginning, somewhat more... exotic later).

Events covered also include the end/rebirth of the universe.
posted by mce at 9:36 PM on February 10, 2021

Second recommendation for Forever War.

Lots of old "hard" SF played with this. Niven's World Out of Time has a ramjet pilot returning to the Earth something like a million years in the future IIRC. One of Heinlein's YA novels, Time for the Stars, has a one of a pair of telepathic twins on a ship moving at relativistic speeds, aging slowly as his brother lives his life.
posted by mark k at 10:04 PM on February 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Poul Anderson's Tau Zero follows the journey of a ship of unintentional extreme time dilation colonists.

The Edge of Madness in Larry Niven's Neutron Star short story collection of Known Space stories is about space travel time dilation.

Both are pretty hard sci-fi.

The plot of the second book in Stross' Saturn's Children duology Neptune's Brood has as a major component the problems created by relavatistic travel and the transfer of weath among systems.

Robert A Heinlein's The Door into Summer has two periods of forward time travel via suspended animation sandwiching a fantastical reverse time travel.
posted by Mitheral at 10:52 PM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

'Across Realtime' (a collection of novellas and short stories) by Vernor Vinge is exactly what you want.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:03 AM on February 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

The Babylon 5 episode ‘The Long Dark’ has a woman awoken from over 100 years in a cryogenic sleep.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 1:55 AM on February 11, 2021

Frederik Pohl's The World At The End of Time is about an intelligent sun who uses time dilation to accomplish certain goals. Some humans get caught up in it. The narrative alternates between the sun's story, and a human who ends up "traveling" through various future ages of the isolated human society by cryosleep.

It's one of those books that always stuck out in my memory for some reason. Though I've not read it since the 90s and I'm not sure how well it will have aged.
posted by Lorc at 2:45 AM on February 11, 2021

issue #8 of the comic Transmetropolitan tells the story of a 20th century woman waking from cryogenic sleep after a couple of centuries into the sensory overloading future of the comic
posted by kokaku at 3:56 AM on February 11, 2021

Octavia Butler’s Kindred has this sort of time travel.
posted by childofTethys at 4:14 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I came in to recommend Tau Zero too, with a caveat: the gender politics and blatent sexism grated on me no end (tis very of it's time) but the physics is great.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:20 AM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

"A Fire Upon the Deep" and "A Deepness In the Sky" by Vernor Vinge both depict time travel as a result of long-term space journeys in cryosleep (or...other, weirder, but comparable things). I might suggest starting with "Deepness In the Sky" — it's later-written, but it's a prequel and IMO a good intro to the pair.
posted by branca at 4:54 AM on February 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Much as I love the suggested Primer and its mundane depiction of time travel, its characters can only travel into the past, whereas the OP is asking about travel into the future.
posted by fabius at 5:04 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns (and related stories) and Verner Vinge's Bobble series might count. (Bobbles aren't part of contemporary physics, but the concept breaks fewer things than most such fiction.)
posted by eotvos at 5:07 AM on February 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Cyril Kornbluth, the world’s greatest unknown SF writer, used involuntary cryosleep as the hook for his very influential short story, “The Marching Morons.” Idiocracy is basically a Marching Morons remake.
posted by PaulVario at 5:09 AM on February 11, 2021 [5 favorites]

Also, and perhaps obviously, there's H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes. It only passes your test because the mechanism for sleeping for centuries is left undefined. One could add a few sentences to make everything (well, except the Mesmerism and airplane design) physically plausible.
posted by eotvos at 5:22 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

time dilation is a common complication in Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series of novels, novellas, and short stories.
posted by cosimoilvecchio at 6:20 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Most "hard sci-fi" set in space will have to face time dilation at some point, and end up with time travel in that way.

I would caution against both Marching Morons and Idiocracy: that way lies fascism.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:38 AM on February 11, 2021

You might like Three Hainish Novels, a compilation of early Ursula LeGuin books. The problems of slower than light space travel are central plot elements.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:47 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ursula Le Guin mentions space travel time dilation constantly in The Hainish Cycle, it's referred to in almost every story.
posted by ovvl at 6:52 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Red Dwarf (British tv show) covers cryogenic sleep, time dilation, alternate universes, and other physics-based time travel plot devices.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:28 AM on February 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Time travel by sleeping through space travel is a huge component of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers.
posted by esoterrica at 8:13 AM on February 11, 2021

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy has physically plausible (though biologically implausible) time travel.
posted by All Out of Lulz at 8:38 AM on February 11, 2021

Children of Time and Children of Ruin (I am currently slogging through, I don't know if it is because it is objectively not as good/catching-my-attention as the first one, or if I am going through another pandemic "blah against reading" period)
posted by rozcakj at 9:07 AM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

Greg Egan's Orthogonal trilogy is based in a universe where the speed of light depends on its frequency, and consists of the hardest of hard-science takes on the physical results of that. Time travel is one of the less complicated ramifications.
posted by ook at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

The original Planet of the Apes (the US film, for sure, possibly also the original novel?) included time dilation as a big plot point.
posted by gimonca at 10:25 AM on February 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

During a cryogenics test, a pilot frozen in 1939 awakes in 1992 but time is running out, as his body starts to age rapidly. Forever Young with Mel Gibson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Elijah Wood. Huh, written by JJ Abrams. I saw this in the theater as a kid and thought Mel Gibson's 30's-style boxing technique was badass.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:15 AM on February 11, 2021

Yeah, Forever Young has the same basic setup as Idiocracy, but the former is a lot more watchable.
posted by Rash at 11:52 AM on February 11, 2021

The Twilight Zone episode "The Rip Van Winkle Caper."

Also, The Long Morrow.
posted by Rash at 11:54 AM on February 11, 2021

Alastair Reynolds' short Galactic North in the collection of the same name moves far into the future due to relativistic travel.
posted by nickggully at 12:00 PM on February 11, 2021

"A Fire Upon the Deep" and "A Deepness In the Sky" by Vernor Vinge

Also two of his older books, The Peace War and moreso its sequel Marooned in Realtime - both feature a manner of travel to the future which is absolutely integral to the plot.
posted by automatronic at 3:48 PM on February 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness In the Sky are among my favorite books in the world. They're great and worth reading and a good suggestion.

But, it's worth noting that A Fire depends on a model of time that is entirely fictional and really hard to reconcile with what we know about the galaxy from astronomical observations. (If there's one thing we can say with some confidence, it's that the way atoms and molecules behave everywhere in our galaxy is pretty much the same as here.) The book is great. But, it's a stretch to call it theoretically plausible. A Deepness is in the same universe, but doesn't really depend on any of the spacetime stuff. Though, maybe the idea of how sentient beings who periodically hibernate for centuries experience time is of interest in the same way.

(But, everyone should read them both and also Children of the Sky. As speculative time travel that's not consistent with what we believe today goes, they're unusually thoughtful. And Vinge really works hard to make it clear which made-up physics things he's created while leaving the rest of what we know about the universe untouched.)
posted by eotvos at 7:10 PM on February 11, 2021

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