The Time Traveler’s Almanac purports to be “the largest and most definitive collection of time travel stories ever assembled,” and I was unable to find anything capable of disputing this claim. “Literary power couple” Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award their anthology The Weird, have compiled 72 pieces (65 works of fiction and seven essays) by the likes of Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, George R.R. Martin and Gene Wolfe.
I must confess that I am woefully late in publishing this review (a time machine would really come in handy). Part of the delay is personal, as my job and family constantly conspire to prevent me from sitting around all day reading, but the book itself resists the kind of cover-to-cover devouring of a good novel. The Time Traveler’s Almanac weighs in at a hefty 948 pages and aspires to be the kind of text assigned in literature courses. It takes up about as much space on my shelf as a volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and I doubt anyone has ever started with the Venerable Bede and plowed straight through to William Cowper.
But beyond the general structure of a comprehensive anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac is slow going because its subject matter is such heady stuff. These stories generally require a passing familiarity with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and much of modern physics (in a supplemental essay, astronomer Stan Love provides a useful primer). As Rian Johnson notes in his introduction, “ a good time travel story will have an interior logic that encourages and stands up to untangling.” This anthology posits 65 distinct sets internal logic for time travel, and I found myself working to untangle each one.
Although there are ancient stories featuring characters transported into the future, including the Hindu Mahabharata (ca. 700 BCE), Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Clock that Went Backward” (1881) is likely the first to feature a time machine and is the earliest work included here. The anthology also includes an excerpt from The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, but not his earlier “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888). Incidentally, this is the only excerpt in the collection; all of the other works are shorter and reprinted in full.
The VanderMeers have included that most iconic time travel story, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), which gave us the term “the Butterfly Effect.” Another famous story of the same era, “Death Ship” (1953) by Walter Matheson, reads too much like an episode of The Twilight Zone (which it later became), with flat characters, wooden dialog and a bad twist ending, although I can’t fault the editors for including it here.
The anthology is divided into four sections: Experiments; Reactionaries and Revolutionaries; Mazes and Traps; and Communiqués. The Experiments section opens with Matheson’s “Death Ship” and includes The Time Machine and Douglas Adams’ typically-playful “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe” (1986). Robert Silverberg’s “Needle in a Timestack” (1983) takes the existence of time travel technology to its logical conclusion and imagines a world in which the present is constantly changing as a result of meddling with the past. In the section’s strongest piece, “Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” (1994), Ursula K. Le Guin has time travel take a back seat to character (pace Matheson) in a beautiful love story that posits a future society in which marriages take the form of bisexual quartets.
The Reactionaries and Revolutionaries section opens with Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and features time travelers who “are trying to protect the past from change or because they are curious tourists or academicians.” The collection’s lone work in translation, Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud’s “The Gulf of the Years” (published in French in 1987 and in English in 2011), is the bittersweet tale of a man meeting his long-dead mother and himself as a boy. The section’s best story, “Fire Watch” (1982) by Connie Willis, describes a history student who must travel back to London during the Blitz to complete his doctorate.
The Mazes and Traps section opens with Mitchell’s “The Clock That Went Backward” and focuses on “[s]tories in which the paradox of time travel is front-and-center.” In Peter Crowther’s “Palindromic” (1997), humans make contact with an alien race for which time runs backward. In “The Lost Continent” (2008), the best story of this section, Greg Egan imagines a world in which refugees from throughout time must contend with the Kafkaesque nightmare of the American immigration system.
The Communiqués section opens with Isaac Asimov’s “What If” (1952), in which a young couple questions their love after glimpsing a window into alternate realities. A couple of strong, character-driven stories, “Domine” (2007) by Rjurik Davidson and “At Dorado” (2002) by Geoffrey A. Landis, show interstellar travelers (who are also, as Einstein predicted, time travelers) living much as Earth-bound sailors throughout history have, “with a woman in every port.” The collection ends with its lone novella, “Palimpset” (2009) by Charles Stross, which describes the efforts of “the Stasis” to preserve humanity through several extinction events, including the eventual death of the sun.
The Time Traveler’s Almanac includes a good mix of classic and contemporary works. As with any work of this nature, one can quibble about those works excluded. I would have added an excerpt from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), for example. The VanderMeers deserve credit for highlighting a diverse group of exceptional writers, although this diversity is limited (with one exception) to those writing in English. A few more works in translation would have provided additional perspectives to an otherwise comprehensive collection.
I recommend the anthology, but only to those willing to read like a time traveler, ignoring the prescribed order of things and engaging with each individual story whenever the fancy strikes.