The best science fiction books about the past

Tristan Palmgren Author Of Quietus
By Tristan Palmgren

The Books I Picked & Why

In the Garden of Iden

By Kage Baker

Book cover of In the Garden of Iden

Why this book?

One of the most compelling parts about time-hopping science fiction is vicariously experienced through the culture clash of past and present. It’s even better if it’s happening in the head of a single character. Mendoza was rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century and thrust into the world of the Company, a civilization-spanning corporate agency operating behind the scenes of history for the profit of far-future shareholders. Time travel in this universe only goes one way, backward, and Mendoza will take the long way to the future: an engaging, sprawling, harrowing journey through centuries.

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All Clear

By Connie Willis

Book cover of All Clear

Why this book?

It’s too easy, in time travel fantasies, to imagine that you would feel a step above the people around you... that you alone know what’s coming, and just, in general, have your advanced-future-person perspective on the world. That’s not how history should feel. The All Clear series’s time-traveling historians arrive to observe the London Blitz and have that comforting certainty ripped out from underneath them. They’re left lost, alone, and isolated in a well-painted portrait of a world on the edge of collapse.

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By Robert Charles Wilson

Book cover of Darwinia

Why this book?

Sometimes history is just as dizzying and alienating as physics, astronomy, and contemplating the end of the universe. Unraveling the chains of could-have-beens and strange possibilities is tempting, but too big for the human imagination. In Darwinia, the Earth of 1912 becomes even more. Europe and large parts of other continents have vanished, replaced by pieces of another, much more hostile planet - and the alternate history only gets stranger from there. It perfectly captures that dazed, giddy feeling of trying to understand just how big our universe really is.

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By Charles Stross

Book cover of Glasshouse

Why this book?

Not all books about the past have to be set in the past. In the far-flung future, deep in interstellar space and surrounded by impossible living technologies, an amnesiac takes part in a sociological experiment to reconstruct twentieth-century middle-class living. Glasshouse is, among other things, a playful, bitter, and funny takedown of both the era and the impossibility of actually reconstructing history. The paranoia engendered by twentieth-century living is only far too justified by the interstellar conspiracy that’s ensnared the study’s participants.

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By Nicola Griffith

Book cover of Ammonite

Why this book?

Ammonite starts in space and lands on an alien world but brings plenty of Earth’s history along with it. Human settlers that lost an age ago, transformed by a virus that only women survive but allows them to reproduce, have spread across this world. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan faces down nomadic horse archers and gets lost in pastoral folkways both new and familiar. She deconstructs her future and rebuilds herself out of the past. Ammonite’s new world shows us how our world might have looked if different paths were taken.

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