The best books that shake fantasy and history up together

The Books I Picked & Why

The Technicolor Time Machine

By Harry Harrison

Book cover of The Technicolor Time Machine

Why this book?

I read this as a teenager and learned that history and science-fiction could be knock-about, silly and hilarious.

A failing film studio gets hold of a time machine and uses it to make a typical Hollywood movie about the Viking colonization of America, complete with gorgeous romantic leads, cast for their looks. It’s shot on location in the 10th Century, with real Viking extras.

But real Vikings aren’t cooperative. They don’t want to sail across the Atlantic.

The ingenious plot makes great use of Time. What if you return before you left and meet yourself? With a script needed in a rush, the writer is sent to the Pre-Cambrian, before life left the oceans, where there are no distractions. “The eyes,” he mutters. “The eyes in the sea.”

I won’t give away the end, but it’s great.

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Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis

Book cover of Doomsday Book

Why this book?

Recommended to me by a good friend, proving what a good friend she is.

It’s set in a future where history students take field trips into the past. Kivrin persuades Professor Dunworthy to risk sending her back further than anyone’s gone before: to the 14th Century.

No sooner has she left than the techie operating the Time-Net falls seriously ill with influenza. The authorities, fearing that the disease has been brought back from the past, close the Time Net, trapping Kivrin in the 1300s.

Her plight worsens when the Black Death reaches her village and all the people she’s befriended start dying…

It’s a cracking read, vividly imagined.

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Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

Book cover of Life After Life

Why this book?

Is this book about Time-Travel or Dimension-Jumping? Or about someone who’s freakishly aware of their rebirth into numerous lives? I don’t know— but I do know that it’s a breathtakingly audacious, witty, intelligent, brilliant book.

It recounts the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. She then lives, well, Life After Life. Some are very short: she is still-born or drowns as a child. Others, as she seems to cycle through almost every life it is possible for her to have lived, involve considerable suffering. She becomes dimly aware of these numerous lives and learns, to an extent, to manipulate them. As she passes through one of her German lives in the 1930s, can she use this awareness to assassinate Hitler?

I am completely in awe of this book.

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The Corridors of Time

By Poul Anderson

Book cover of The Corridors of Time

Why this book?

I read this classic sci-fi way back when I was a teenager and I think, over the years, it has been a quiet, persistent influence on my own writing.

Two groups of time-travellers go back and forth along ‘the corridors of Time,’ fighting to influence history their way. The protagonist is taken from a prison cell to join one group and has to catch up with what’s going on as he’s taken to the future, the seventeenth century, and the Bronze Age.

What stayed with me most vividly was Anderson’s recreation of the Danish Bronze Age and the fact that the main character chooses to give up his own time in order to remain in the Bronze Age with the people he has come to love.

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Night Watch

By Terry Pratchett

Book cover of Night Watch

Why this book?

I love Pratchett’s Discworld books. They’re compassionate, insightful, serious, angry— and hilarious.

Pratchett merrily mixes accurate history and free-wheeling fantasy without giving a damn. And, in mocking fairy tales and fantasy tropes, he makes scathing comments on our time.

In Night Watch, Commander Vimes pursues a murderer across the rooves of Unseen University, a place that throbs with magic, during a thunderstorm. A lightning strike causes ‘a temporal shattering.’ Vimes wakes to find himself in his own past, being arrested by his younger self.

Until he can return to his own time, Vimes poses as his own mentor. Which means that young Sam Vimes was taught to be an exceptional police officer by— Sam Vimes.

As we Pratchett fans say: Night Watch is the best Discworld book of them all. Until you read the next one.

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