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Time Travel Books that Changed the World
When time travel and alternative universe collide
Time travel is a popular genre in science fiction. If we are not picky in the details, it is possible to identify some recurring themes. There are stories about the paradoxes of time travel, like the short story "All you zombies" by Robert Heinlein. In which the protagonist travels to the past to impregnate him/herself and ensure his/her birth, yeah crazy isn't it? There are stories about policing the time line to make certain that nobody creates havoc with history. Time patrol by Poul Anderson is a good example of this genre. Or people from the future coming to the present to prevent a future catastrophe. Millennium by John Varley comes easily to my mind. And what about if the time line is immutable so you can only change your perception of the events but not the events themselves. Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban sure rings a bell for this kind of stories.
However, here we are going to review stories where time travel is just the excuse to create an alternate history. So the important thing is what happens after the time travelers arrive to the past and not the kind of time travel in itself.
So what kind of stories can we expect to find?
To a large degree these are Robinson Crusoe stories, leaving aside the part about being alone. The time travelers attempt to introduce modern technology into a more primitive society changing it radically. Western culture is inherently superior to other cultures, past and present blah-blah-blah...
So expect alien space bats, Mary Sue characters, certain doses of wish fulfillment, either for the protagonist or for the history, happy endings and of course war.
When I was planning this page I thought about writing about books. However, nobody writes single books anymore. For this reason, with the exception of the venerable L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, all of the others are series instead of standalone books.
Adventures of Conrad Stargard - Leo Frankowski
The books are:
- The Cross-time Engineer
- The High-Tech Knight
- The Radiant Warrior
- The Flying Warlord
- Lord Conrad's Lady
- Conrad Quest for Rubber
- Lord Conrad's Crusade
- Conrad's Last Campaign
There is also a prequel: Conrad's Time Machine only loosely related to the series. The last book Conrad's Last Campaign was finished by Rodger Olsen after Leo Frankowski passed away leaving it unfinished.
The plot is simple. Conrad Schwartz, a Polish twenty century engineer, accidentally travels to middle age Poland. He knows that a Mongol invasion is scheduled to take place in ten years. So he introduces a lot of technical and social changes to thwart the destruction of Poland by the Mongols. As a result, Poland becomes the leading country in the world and Conrad fulfills all his hormonal teenage fantasies.
The work of Leo Frankowski about Conrad Stargart is the flimsiest of the ones reviewed here. According to Wikipedia when Mr. Frankowski was writing The Cross-Time Engineer he made some changes in those early drafts to counter criticism about authorial wish-fulfillment and Mary Sue protagonist. Let me tell you: he was not successful! However the books are easy to read and entertaining, if you are capable of large doses of suspension of disbelief. There are besides several twists along the story to make it interesting and funny. Notably, the twists in the fights and battles are really ingenious. A field where Mr. Frankowski was an specialist.
Kaiserkrieger - Dirk van den Boom
The Books (German edition only):
- Die Ankunft
- Der Verrat
- Der Aufbruch
- Der Aufstand
- Die Flucht
- Der Kaiser
- Aufgehende Sonne
Sorry, no English translation at the time of writing this page. The first six books make the first cycle of the series. I haven't read all of them yet, but I hope that there is some kind of end in the sixth book. Because the plot advances like a turtle in the books that I have already read (at the end of the third book they haven't finished their first gun yet. I know preposterous!) Hence, I believe that Kaiserkrieger is going to be a really long series. I know that there are at least five more books planned.
The plot: The light German cruiser Saarbrücken, just before the first world war, is transported to the Mediterranean in the year of 378. This year marks the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. Once there, the officers decide to help Roman emperor Grazian to build a better empire and avoid the fall.
Lest Darkness Fall - L. Sprague de Camp
The plot: Martin Padway a young archeologist by profession is transported to the late days of the Roman empire. There, he first introduces a little of modern technology in order to survive and make a living. But the turbulent circumstances of the time make him to meddle in the politic and military events of the Ostrogoth kingdom until he achieves to prevent the fall of Europe into the middle ages.
The novel is a fast paced plot-driven adventure, amusing in places, and with a good broad show of the society of the late Roman Empire. The characters are stereotypical, except the protagonist that has a little more depth. To be fair with Mr. de Camp, this is typical of the science fiction of the time. They are mostly portrayed in a farcical manner the same as Padway attempts to introduce new technology. The quality of the writing is up to the standard of the pulp fiction of the period. That means plain, not polished and nowadays a bit dated. All in all, the novel is a fast read. It is not very long after all. You don't have time to become annoyed by some minor flaws.
Nantucket Island Series - S. M. Stirling
- Island in the Sea of Time
- Against the Tide of Years
- On the Oceans of Eternity
There is also a short story in the same universe: "Blood Wolf" published in The First Heroes anthology.
The plot is the same as usual, only in greater scale. Instead of some fellow traveling to the past, in S. M. Stirling novels, is the Island of Nantucket with all its inhabitants that travels to bronze age. At first, they work to survive and adapt. But because a group of renegades leave the island to create an empire. They have to create an empire of their own to fight them.
If you are reading this page, you know by now that I am a sucker for alternative history. However I have mixed feelings about the Nantucket series.
On one hand, Mr. Stirling is a competent writer. His stories are easy to read and this one is not the exception. There is always a lot of detail about the characters with plenty of background. And the depiction of the bronze age societies is convincing. On the other hand, the novels are too long. The first book has an interesting start but in the middle starts to drag out. It give me a feeling of a book artificially expanded to reach some quota. The last two books don't improve this feeling. The characters even with all the detail are kind of stereotypical, some of them even cartoonish.
So, what is happening with these novels? Well, this is my explanation: (Be aware minor spoilers)
According to Less Wrong first Law of fanfiction:
“You can't make Frodo a Jedi unless you give Sauron the Death Star.”
I think that the above law resumes the principal weakness of the Nantucket series. You send the Island of Nantucket to Bronze Age. There is a first period when the people realize what happened and adapt to it (first half of Island in the Sea of Time.) Then, you need some kind of conflict. So where is the danger? where is the conflict to carry out the plot? After all, nobody is going to invade the island. I mean, there are a couple of civilizations out there that by sheer numbers can overwhelm them. But nobody expects the Egyptians or Chinese to go viking on them. So, if external danger is in short supply, the conflict can only come from inside. And the way that Mr. Sterling found this conflict is unfortunately poor. The characters become white or black. You have good characters with very little flaws and bad characters with all the vices you can imagine and some that only Mr. Stirling can find in the little sample provided by the inhabitants of the Island of Nantucket.
1632 Series - Eric Flint et al (AKA Ring of fire or Assiti Shards Series)
The books are:
Too many to mention here, so I am only going to list the principal arc that has Mike Stearns as protagonist:
- 1634: The Baltic War
- 1635: The Eastern Front
- 1636: The Saxon Uprising
Besides the books mentioned above there are at least a dozen more with sideline stories. And that is without counting the Grantville Gazette, an electronic magazine going by the number 55 at the time of writing this page.
The basic plot is simple: Grantville a fictional town located in West Virginia is transported to Thuringia in the year 1631 in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Once there, Mike Stearns, a Union leader of the miners of Grantville, leads the town to initiate the American revolution a little earlier.
To understand the 1632 Universe a little background is necessary. The first book 1632 was planned by Mr. Flint as a standalone novel. His goal was to show how normal people would react and adapt to time travel. Another important goal was to limit the fantasy about the recreation of technology by the time travelers. Because the complexity of the undertaking Mr. flint asked for help in Baen forums. The answer was so positive that rapidly a sequel was in the making with David Weber. And a lot of fanfiction was later canonized converting the universe in a collaborative effort.
I really like this series. In general the quality is irregular. Depending in the author and theme, the stories could be witty, serious, humorous, prosaic or simply boring.
The first book 1632 is unfortunately not the best. The novel doesn't have the weakness of Island in the Sea of Time. There are plenty of danger and conflict around the Ring of Fire and the plot is coherent dealing with them. However, Mr. Flint writing is mediocre at best. The pace is irregular. He presents a lot of characters in the beginning without giving a reason why to care for them. There are lot of awkward situations, some of them ridiculous. Love at first sight, detailed descriptions of battles that don't contribute anything to the story, you name it...
The second book 1633 is better and I like most of the others after that. Some of the stories in the anthologies and in the Gazette are worth reading.
The best of the series is the real effort to make the people normal. No super ninjas, no Navy SEALs that happen to take a walk in Grantville that fateful day, no genius engineer, etc.
The other good point is the honest effort to make the adoption of new technology realistic. No tanks, no assault rifles, no dreadnought battleship, an of course no "Sten Gun Armed, Titanium Armored, Tesla Turbine Powered Dirigibles" the SPSGATATTD will never permit them! Yo have been warned.
Discussion about Tech in the 1632 Universe
Besides the novels listed above It is worth mentioning the series Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen originally by H. Beam Piper, the novel Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove and The novel A Connecticut Yankee in King's Arthur Court by Mark Twain.
These books aren't in the list because:
- Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is not really a time travel, more like a travel to a parallel world that happens to be more primitive than our earth.
- Guns of the South because there is no attempt by the time travelers to develop an industrialization they only provide guns to the south that they bring from the future.
- An Connecticut Yankee because as far as I remember (bear with me I read the novel when I was a teenager) the time traveler couldn't change the timeline and all finish in a dream.