In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Time Travel

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Volumes and Anthologies
  • Fiction Collections (Science Fiction and Fantasy)
  • Utopian Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Literary Genres other than Science Fiction
  • Film and Media
  • Narrative Theory, Essential Groundwork on Theory of Time
  • Narrative Theory, Specifically on Time Travel and Possible Worlds
  • Physics (Primary Sources on Time and Spacetime)
  • Physics (Specific Discussions of Time Travel and Multiple Worlds by Scientists)
  • Analytic Philosophy and Logic

American Literature Time Travel
David Wittenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0212


Time travel is of interest in several academic research fields that overlap and communicate with one another to varying degrees. Primarily, of course, time travel comprises a literary subgenre of science fiction literature and popular film. As a motif or plot type, it is also a frequent element in romance fiction, nongeneric speculative literature, postmodern literature, and experimental cinema. As such, time travel is potentially a focus for practitioners in many branches of criticism and theory, including genre studies, cultural studies, critical theory, film theory, psychoanalytic criticism, and, especially, narrative theory and narratology. Nevertheless, literary and cultural theory on the topic of time travel has been surprisingly sparse, and only a handful of dedicated studies are available at either book or article length. By contrast, in research areas outside literature and popular culture, time travel has received something closer to its due. In analytic philosophy, time travel is a familiar topic of inquiry or debate, usually serving as a thought experiment for logicians and philosophers of language or history, and as a test case for constructing meaningful or consistent claims about objects and events (See the Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy article “Time Travel”). For physicists, time travel has played a similar role as a test for postulates of relativity and quantum mechanics, but it has also sporadically arisen as a real physical possibility within current theory, albeit a possibility that might require as-yet undiscovered theories or exotic materials. In particular, recent multiverse cosmologies and quantum computing models sometimes include time travel or multiple worlds as essential components or entailments. Finally, in historiographical theory, counterfactuals and possible-worlds models have been productive tools for theorizing historical events, creating a potentially rich area of overlap with literary and narrative theory.

General Overviews

Only a handful of full-length monographs are available on time travel in fiction and visual media, although the subject arises sporadically in many other critical texts. This section includes works fully devoted to time travel as a historical, theoretical, or cultural issue. Nahin 1999 and Gleick 2016 concentrate on conceptual and logical connections between science fiction time travel, physics, and analytic philosophy, while Foote 1991 focuses on the inheritance of past-directed time travel within science fiction. Wittenberg 2013 gives a broad theoretical analysis of time travel as a problem for narrative theory and the philosophy of time.

  • Foote, Bud. The Connecticut Yankee in the Twentieth Century: Travel to the Past in Science Fiction. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 1991.

    For a long time, Foote’s monograph was possibly the only full-length critical study of time travel literature, unusual also for its focus on Mark Twain rather than H. G. Wells as the genre’s prime originator. Although it is to some degree superseded by more recent literary-critical work, Foote’s book is still a solid and useful read.

  • Gleick, James. Time Travel: A History. New York: Vintage, 2016.

    A broad-ranging and readable survey of time travel examples in popular literature, film, physics, and some philosophy. Gleick has considerable experience as a popular science writer and usefully discusses how questions about spacetime and the physical possibility of time travel get adapted in popular literature and media.

  • Nahin, Paul J. Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction. New York: Springer Verlag, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4757-3088-3

    A comprehensive study of science fiction time travel and its conceptual and historical connections to physics and philosophy. A thorough and informative book, although Nahin favors time travel stories that are strictly consistent with logic and physical theory, somewhat delimiting his body of research. The book contains an extensive bibliography. This is the revised version of a first edition that appeared in 1993.

  • Wittenberg, David. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

    An extended analysis of both fiction and visual media, proposing time travel as a testing ground for problems in narrative theory and the philosophy of time. So far, this is the only book-length study devoted to time travel as a narrative-theoretical problem.

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