The best sci-fi and speculative books with multiple timelines

Who am I?

From an early age, I was fascinated by the ways in which past events ripple into the present. It started by looking at my own family; one soldier stationed in the Philippines during the Second World War narrowly survives a severe gunshot wound, and so is able to meet my grandmother, and so my entire family exists. In another timeline, he didn’t make it to the surgeon in time and none of us were ever born. Dual timeline sci-fi not only considers the consequences of history on our present, but pushes this exploration into possible futures. 


I wrote...

Red Hail

By Jamie Killen,

Book cover of Red Hail

What is my book about?

In 1960, sixteen-year-old Anza watches as blood-red hail falls from the sky over Galina, her sleepy Arizona border town. In the weeks that follow, the entire town is consumed by a terrifying outbreak that some see as demonic possession, and others as a plague. In 2020, a sociologist named Colin writes about “The Galina Incident”, a strange series of events that led to the town’s violent destruction in the summer of 1960. Colin believes the Galina Plagues were nothing more than a case of mass hysteria, until the symptoms reappear in the descendants of those who survived. Separated by 60 years, Anza and Colin both search for the truth about the secrets buried in Galina’s history.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cloud Atlas

Jamie Killen Why did I love this book?

No other book could come first on this list, because this was the book that changed my entire perspective on what speculative fiction could be. When I first picked up this book as a high school student, I had never seen anything like it: six loosely connected stories, a clever nesting-doll structure, a unique blend of sci-fi, mystery, and historical fiction. Most importantly, Cloud Atlas is, like all David Mitchell books, full of empathy and hope. Even the bleakest and most brutal storylines offer moments of grace, suggesting that, even if we can’t always save ourselves, we have the ability to save each other.

By David Mitchell,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Cloud Atlas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Six lives. One amazing adventure. The audio publication of one of the most highly acclaimed novels of 2004. 'Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies...' A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified 'dinery server' on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation - the narrators of CLOUD ATLAS hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great…


Book cover of The Actual Star

Jamie Killen Why did I love this book?

In many ways, The Actual Star echoes Cloud Atlas. There are multiple timelines (the ancient Mayan Empire, present-day Belize, and an unrecognizable far future Earth), two souls locked together across lifetimes, and blended genres. But The Actual Star takes a more mystical approach to this story, combining elements of Mesoamerican spirituality with a new far-future belief system inspired by the protagonist of the present-day storyline. Along the way, the book delves into questions of sexuality, gender, belief, and survival in the face of catastrophe, all in Monica Byrne’s gorgeous prose.

By Monica Byrne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Actual Star as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas meets Octavia Butler's Earthseed series, as acclaimed author Monica Byrne (The Girl in the Road) crafts an unforgettable piece of speculative fiction about where humanity came from, where we are now, and where we're going-and how, in every age, the same forces that drive us apart also bind us together.

"A stone-cold masterpiece."-New Scientist

The Actual Star takes readers on a journey over two millennia and six continents-telling three powerful tales a thousand years apart, all of them converging in the same cave in the Belizean jungle.

Braided together are the stories of a pair of…


Book cover of Doomsday Book

Jamie Killen Why did I love this book?

A time-travel classic, this book is also a masterful example of how to juggle two very different tones and timelines without it coming across as jarring to the reader. The two timelines diverge at the start of the story, which begins in near-future Oxford. Time travel has been invented, and a student named Kivrin is going back to the Middle Ages to conduct research. Half of the book follows her story as she navigates the Black Death, while the other half follows the much lighter (and at times very funny) story of her colleagues dealing with the bureaucracy of an unexpected lockdown in response to a flu outbreak.

By Connie Willis,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Doomsday Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A tour de force" - New York Times Book Review

"Ambitious, finely detailed and compulsively readable" - Locus

"It is a book that feels fundamentally true; it is a book to live in" - Washington Post

For Kivrin Engle, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing a bullet-proof backstory. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and…


Book cover of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Jamie Killen Why did I love this book?

Perhaps less multi-timeline than multi-life, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is about an unusual form of reincarnation. Harry August isn’t born into a new body when he dies; instead, he reboots back to his childhood, memories intact, and lives his life all over again. And again. And again.

I recently described this book to someone who hadn’t read it, and it led to hours of conversation about what each of us would do in Harry’s situation, what choices we would make differently, what we would try to keep the same from one life to the next. I challenge anyone to pick up this book and not get swept up in similar debates and thoughts about your own life and past.

By Claire North,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'ONE OF THE FICTION HIGHLIGHTS OF THE DECADE' Judy Finnigan, Richard and Judy Book Club

Featured in the Richard and Judy Book Club, the BBC Radio 2 Book Club and the Waterstones Book Club
Winner of the John W. Campbell Award
Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award

SOME STORIES CANNOT BE TOLD IN JUST ONE LIFETIME

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before.

Nothing ever changes - until now.…


Book cover of Station Eleven

Jamie Killen Why did I love this book?

Post-2020, this book has a plot that might (understandably) turn off many readers: in the present, a devastating pandemic sweeps across the globe. Twenty years into the future, the few survivors eke out a nomadic existence traveling from one place to another. On paper, this sounds bleak and depressing, but the thing that sets this book’s post-apocalyptic future apart from so many others is that it is, at its core, weirdly hopeful. Civilization has collapsed, sure, but art and human connection and happiness remain. 

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Why should I read it?

21 authors picked Station Eleven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Best novel. The big one . . . stands above all the others' - George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones

Now an HBO Max original TV series

The New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
National Book Awards Finalist
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in…


You might also like...

These Tangled Threads: A Novel of Biltmore

By Sarah Loudin Thomas,

Book cover of These Tangled Threads: A Novel of Biltmore

Sarah Loudin Thomas Author Of These Tangled Threads: A Novel of Biltmore

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Appalachian West virginian Dog lover Hiker

Sarah's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Seven years ago, a hidden betrayal scattered three friends living in the shadow of Biltmore Estate. Now, when Biltmore Industries master weaver Lorna Blankenship is commissioned to create an original design for Cornelia Vanderbilt's 1924 wedding, she panics knowing she doesn't have the creativity needed. But there's an elusive artisan in the Blue Ridge Mountains who could save her--if only she can find her.

To track the mysterious weaver down, Lorna must seek out the relationships she abandoned in shame. As she pulls at each tangled thread from her old life, Lorna is forced to confront the wounds of long ago. She'll have to risk the job that shapes her identity as well as the hope of friendship--and love--restored.

These Tangled Threads: A Novel of Biltmore

By Sarah Loudin Thomas,

What is this book about?

Seven years ago, a hidden betrayal scattered three young friends living in the shadow of Biltmore Estate. Now, when Biltmore Industries master weaver Lorna Blankenship is commissioned to create an original design for Cornelia Vanderbilt's 1924 wedding, she panics knowing she doesn't have the creativity needed. But there's an elusive artisan in the Blue Ridge Mountains who could save her--if only she can find her.

To track the mysterious weaver down, Lorna sees no other way but to seek out the relationships she abandoned in shame. As she pulls at each tangled thread from her old life, Lorna is forced…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in reincarnation, time travel, and the Middle Ages?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about reincarnation, time travel, and the Middle Ages.

Reincarnation Explore 64 books about reincarnation
Time Travel Explore 351 books about time travel
The Middle Ages Explore 402 books about the Middle Ages