In 1941, Heinlein wrote "By His Bootstraps", in which time-travel
allows the main character to travel back in time and interact with himself.
However, he does not change the past. Although viewed from a different perspective,
the scene is played out exactly the same way each time. Obviously, this would
appear to contradict the assumption of free will; what happens if the "later"
(from his personal time-line point of view) incarnation decides to do something
different from his memory of the same scene he observed "earlier"?
When there is close personal interaction, it is hard to get over the feeling
that it is too easy to do something different. While "By His Bootstraps"
is an intriguing story, this is not yet the Heinlein of his peak years –
the style is rather laboured and the plot formal.
In 1957 Heinlein wrote the novel "The Door Into Summer" (Reprinted
1993, Ballantine Books, ISBN 0345330129), which again deals with 'deterministic'
time-travel, but combines this with romantic and mystery elements. Although
"The Door Into Summer" is not particularly ambitious, the basic idea
is executed very skilfully. The plot is that Dan Davis, a brilliant engineer,
is jilted by his fiancée, robbed of his inventions and patents and stuffed
into 'cold sleep' for 30 years. When he revives, he starts a new life but discovers
some documents from 30 years earlier that do not fit in with his memory of past
events. Eventually Dan is able to travel back in time, put right the discrepancies
and gain his revenge on those who cheated him before. He then returns to the
future via cold sleep and finds happiness there. Dan never meets his earlier
self so here the 'free will' objection is much less obtrusive. If one considers
the famous 'grandfather paradox' (what happens if you go back in time and murder
your own grandfather?), I doubt whether anyone would actually want to do this.
Quite apart from the possibility of self-obliteration ('obliteration' is here
used in the sense of 'never existing at all' – this is, of course, quite
different from death), causing the space-time continuum to unravel and other
potential dangers, there doesn't seem much to be gained from murdering your
Building on his earlier efforts, in 1959 Heinlein wrote the short story "All
You Zombies-", which is undoubtedly one of the great classic time-travel
stories. The main character has a sex change, makes love to him/herself, gives
birth to himself, kidnaps himself from the orphanage, recruits himself into
the Time Corps, and so on. Every character who has had a significant impact
on his life turns out to have been himself at different points in his own time-line.
In the end he wonders "I know where I came from – but where did all
you zombies come from?". The story is quite short, and makes its point
with great impact. Heinlein's decision to include the self-copulation element
was quite brave, considering the time that it was written, but there is no doubt
that this adds greatly to the story's effectiveness.
"All You Zombies-" had a considerable impact on other science-fiction
writers, one example being the novel 'The Man Who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold
(1973). This again explored the self-interaction theme of "All You Zombies-",
but without greatly extending it – indeed, the switch to novel length lessened
the impact of the basic theme.
These days, 'deterministic' time-travel seems to be out of fashion. One reason
may be that by its very nature it offers fewer imaginative possibilities than
other time-travel theories; another might be that Heinlein's story said all
that was worth saying on the subject, leaving others few possibilities for further
This list covers science fiction novels I have read recently.
This does not mean that they are necessarily new. Year of publication refers
to year published in the UK and the ISBN numbers refer to editions available
in the UK and may differ from (for example) US editions. Where a book is part
of a series, I have often mentioned the earlier books of the series.
|David Brin: Earth. 1990 (but recently reissued).
| A black hole is discovered inside the Earth and the planet
will be digested in another two years if nothing is done. An unusual mixture
of hard science and environmental concerns. Very good except perhaps for
the slightly mystical ending.
||Doctor's rating: 8
|Charles Sheffield: Cold as Ice. 1992.
|Intriguing story set amongst the moons of Jupiter after disastrous
interplanetary war. Is there life on Europa and what has this to do with
a rumoured secret weapon from the war? The book is enlivened by several
||Doctor's rating: 8
Peter Hamilton: The Reality Dysfunction. 1997.
These three books form the “Night’s Dawn
Trilogy”. This is a very well-written and complex story set hundreds
of years in the future, featuring many interwoven ideas: interstellar
travel using wormholes, antimatter used as a weapon of genocide and new
types of human society based on telepathy. Into this future two new elements
appear: a secret super-weapon capable of destroying stars and a bizarre
plague of possession, apparently the souls of the dead returning to life.
The author has attempted, more or less successfully, a mixture of horror
(10%) and science fiction (90%). There is a moderate violence level, which
is acceptable since it is part of the basic plot. As is often the case
with a series of books written over a period of years, one gains the impression
that the author’s ideas developed as the series progressed, and the
books do not give the impression of having been planned out from the very
beginning. The ending is not entirely satisfactory as it is not an evolution
of the ideas developed earlier.
| Peter Hamilton: The Neutronium Alchemist. 1997. ISBN
| Peter Hamilton: The Naked God. 1999.
| Peter Hamilton: A Quantum Murder. 1994.
High-tech murder mystery set in the near future. Humanity
is recovering from the ecological catastrophe of ‘The Warming’,
but technology has made considerable advances. It is remarkable that a
telepathic investigator has so much trouble solving a crime, but perhaps
telepathy is overrated. Generally satisfying, but the author introduces
a drug which enables one to see the past - clearly this would prove troublesome
in future books of the same series, so the author has this drug destroyed
at the end of the book.
|Doctor's rating: 7
|Peter Hamilton: The Nano Flower. 1995.
|Sequel to ‘A Quantum Murder’, set slightly further
in the future. A mysterious flower appears, containing DNA incompatible
with terrestrial life. This eventually leads to a confrontation with an
alien intelligence. Lots of good ideas, and perhaps rather more satisfying
than the previous book.
||Doctor's rating: 8
| John Barnes: Mother of Storms. 1994.
A nuclear explosion on the sea-bed releases huge quantities
of methane; accelerated global warming then triggers a plague of super-hurricanes.
The book features an intriguing plot spoilt by an excessive level of sex
and violence, apparently introduced gratuitously by the author since it
has nothing whatsoever to do with the basic theme.
|Doctor's rating: 5
|David Brin: Sundiver.
1980. ISBN 1857233700
|The first ‘Uplift’ trilogy, although
the stories are more or less independent. Humanity has made contact with
galactic civilisation, which is ancient but rather ossified. Fundamental
to this civilisation is the process of ‘Uplift’, in which elder
races bring forth intelligence in pre-sapient species. All existing intelligent
races were created in this way, except possibly for humanity and the mythical
‘Progenitors’. Of these three books, perhaps ‘Startide Rising’
is the best.
|David Brin: The Uplift War.
1987 ISBN 1857233719
|David Brin: Startide Rising. 1996.
|David Brin: Brightness Reef. 1996.
|The second ‘Uplift’ trilogy, following
on from the events of ‘Startide Rising’. These three books are
closely linked and really have to be read in sequence. All are extremely
well-written. They start slowly, but the action rapidly gathers pace. The
only real flaw is that the last book of the series is somewhat drawn-out
and repetitious - we go to a white dwarf, then we go to a neutron star,
then we go to a ... you get the idea.
|David Brin: Infinity’s Shore. 1997.
|David Brin: Heaven’s Reach. 1998
|Dan Simmons: Hyperion.
1989. ISBN 0747234825
|These two books are one story and must be read
in sequence. Set in an interstellar society of the future, humanity, the
mysterious ‘Ousters’ and the TechnoCore (descendants of man’s
Silicon Friends) exist in precarious balance. The computing abilities of
the TechnoCore can predict almost everything, except for the influence of
the mysterious ‘Time Tombs’, which are apparently travelling back
in time from an unknown future. Empty and ruined now, it is believed that
in the near future they will open and release their cargo (this sounds odd,
but is logically consistent). Brilliantly written, the book starts slowly
but builds up to a shattering climax as interstellar war breaks out.
|Dan Simmons: The Fall of Hyperion. 1990. 0747236046
|Dan Simmons: Endymion.
1996. ISBN 074723826X
|Set 250 years after the previous pair, these are
even better. I won’t say any more about them, except to add that if
you are fond of the Catholic Church, then you probably shouldn’t read
these. Includes an enemy that makes the Terminator look as harmless as a
|Dan Simmons: The Rise of Endymion. 1997.
|Poul Anderson: Starfarers.
|When SETI astronomers discover evidence of an advanced civilisation,
a manned interstellar mission is mounted to contact them. Thanks to time
dilation, it will be 10,000 years (Earth time) before they return. The book
follows both the mission and the cultural changes on Earth while they are
away. The strength of this book is the believable characters, even if they
sometimes talk so much that the action slows to a snail’s pace. Still,
a good solid hard-SF novel.
||Doctor's rating: 6
|Joe Haldeman: Forever Free.
|This a sequel to Haldeman’s classic The Forever War.
It starts out in promising style, but sadly what could have been a interesting
theme is never developed. Instead, two different races of hitherto unknown
aliens put in a last-minute appearance to ‘explain’ what has happened.
Not only is one of these races totally unnecessary to the plot, but ‘explaining’
events by saying that an omnipotent alien willed them to be so is hardly
satisfying. Moreover, the actions of the alien are so irrational that one
fears the alien is mad as well as omnipotent.
||Doctor's rating: 3
|Gregory Benford: COSM.
|An accident in a high-energy physics lab creates what at first
seems to be a new form of matter, but turns out to be a window into another
universe. A well-written novel, with believable characters, an interesting
plot and a satisfying climax.
||Doctor's rating: 9
|Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio.
|Seemingly unrelated events - an inexplicable archaeological
discovery, a mysterious new disease and a mass murder - all turn out to
be linked. The race to discover the cause of the new disease before disaster
strikes provides a backdrop for the development of main characters. An exciting
genetic thriller, even if the general tone is downbeat and the final resolution
of the mystery is slightly implausible.
||Doctor's rating: 7
|Michael Crichton: Timeline.
1999. ISBN 0099244721
|A technological thriller in the usual Crichton style. A slightly
sinister private corporation discovers ‘time-travel’, but a researcher
disappears in the past and needs rescuing. The historical scenes are well-done,
and the book, as one would expect from Crichton, is well-written and hard
to put down. The main weakness is the confused description of the mechanism
of time-travel, which at one point is explained as travel to a parallel
universe indistinguishable from our past. However, one of the key elements
of the plot is a message written by the missing researcher, which is found
by a contemporary archaeologist. If the researcher is in a parallel universe,
how did the message turn up in ours? H.G.Wells knew better than to try to
explain how a time machine actually works. Since no-one actually knows how
to make a time machine, such an explanation is bound to strike a false note.
I dare say this book will be made into a successful film.
||Doctor's rating: 7
|Larry Niven: Destiny’s Road.
|The days of Ringworld are long gone. Now Larry Niven
tries to write novels with well-developed characters. Unfortunately this
is often at the cost of the real strengths of his writing – believable
aliens and hard science. In this case the result is totally boring and I
admit to not finishing this tale of dietary deficiencies.
||Doctor's rating: 2
|Stephen Baxter: Moonseed.
A good disaster novel. A piece of moon rock stored
from the Apollo missions is found to contain a mysterious nano-organism.
When it escapes and starts to transform the Earth for its own purposes,
humanity’s days appear numbered. P.S. Edinburgh is the first city
to get the chop.
|Doctor's rating: 8
|Stephen Baxter: Time.
|The birth of a group of super-intelligent children and a mysterious
artefact on an asteroid both turn out to be related to events near the heat-death
of the universe, where intelligent beings are struggling to survive on the
last remnants of free energy. A pot-pourri of different ideas and paper-thin
characters which never quite mesh together.
||Doctor's rating: 6
|Orson Scott Card: Children of the Mind.
|The fourth and presumably last of the novels about Ender Wiggin.
Jane, the interstellar computer intelligence, is threatened with death as
a result of the shutting down of her hardware by the Starways Congress.
The race against time to save her makes for an interesting novel, but it
never really grips the reader. The characters apparently have plenty of
time to chat about their personal problems while the clock ticks down.
||Doctor's rating: 5