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The timestream or time stream is a metaphorical conception of time as a stream, a flowing body of water. In Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the term is more narrowly defined as: "the series of all events from past to future, especially when conceived of as one of many such series". [1] Timestream is the normal passage or flow of time and its historical developments, within a given dimension of reality. The concept of the time stream, and the ability to travel within and around it, are the fundamentals of a genre of science fiction.


This conception has been widely used in mythology and in fiction.

This analogy is useful in several ways:

Science fiction scholar Andrew Sawyer writes, "The paradoxes of timedo we move in time, or does it move by us? Does it exist or is it merely an illusion of our limited perception?are puzzles that exercise both physicists and philosophers..." [3]


Brian Stableford writes of the historical and philosophical concepts of time (and using the terminology of "flow"):

Like space, it is a basic aspect of experience; early philosophical treatments of the idea hesitated in a similar fashion over the question of whether time could be said to exist apart from the objects manifesting its effects. The manner of time's experience is, however, markedly different from that of space; time appears to 'flow' unidirectionally from the past into the future, bearing all existence with it, encapsulated in the momentary present.
The controversy as to whether time's flow is the very essence of reality or a mere allusion was already sharp in Classical times, Heraclitus holding to the former view while Parmenides and Zeno were convinced of the latter. [4]

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was famous for a statement that has been translated in many ways, most commonly as "No man ever steps in the same river twice," which is often called his "flux [flow] doctrine." [5] [6] [7] [8] An essayist for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explained it in this manner: "Everything is in flux (in the sense that 'everything is always flowing in some respects'...) ..." [9]


In fiction, an alternate continuity is sometimes called an alternate timestream. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

Science fiction

The Time Stream , a 1946 science fiction novel by author John Taine (pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell), is the first novel to see time as a flowing stream. [15] It was originally serialized in Wonder Stories , in four parts, from December, 1931, to March, 1932. [16] Science fiction scholar E. F. Bleiler described how Taine employed the metaphor:

The basic concept is that time is a circular stream that runs eternally, with far past blending into far future. It is possible for certain individuals to enter this stream mentally and move in either direction, although this is a dangerous venture, for they may be carried away erratically by the stream. ... In San Francisco nine associates, who have been troubled by occasional memories of [the planet] Eos, band together to explore the time stream. They live out crisis moments in both times. [17]

Another mid-century novel which employed the term in its title was The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream (1965) by G. C. Edmondson (pseudonym of José Mario Garry Ordoñez Edmondson y Cotton). John Clute writes that this "and its sequel, To Sail the Century Sea (1981), are amusingly and graphically told Fantastic-Voyage tales involving a US ship and its inadvertent Time Travels. They remain his most successful books." [18]

Other fiction titles with the term include J. Robert King's 1999 novel Time Streams ( ISBN   0-7869-1344-4), [19] Michael Moorcock's 1993 collection A Nomad of the Time Streams ( ISBN   1-85798-034-4), and Charles M. Saplak's short story "Backwater by the Time Stream" (Manifest Destiny #1, Winter 1993). [20]

Discussing the theme of parallel universes, in an encyclopedia article which can usefully be applied to the concept of timestreams, Brian Stableford and David Langford write,

"A parallel world is another universe situated 'alongside' our own, displaced from it along a spatial fourth Dimension (parallel worlds are often referred to in sf as 'other dimensions'). Although whole universes may lie parallel in this sense, most stories focus on parallel Earths. The parallel-world idea forms a useful framework for the notion of Alternate History, and is often used in this way...
The idea that other worlds lie parallel to our own and occasionally connect with it is one of the oldest speculative ideas in literature and legend; examples range from Fairyland to the 'astral plane' of Spiritualists and mystics. There are two basic folkloristic themes connected with the notion; in one, an ordinary human is translocated into a fantasy land where s/he undergoes adventures and may find the love and fulfilment that remain beyond reach on Earth; in the other, a communication or visitation from the other world affects the life of an individual within this world, often injuring or destroying that person. Both patterns are very evident in modern imaginative fiction, shaping whole subgenres...
A common variant of the theme is that of a multiplicity of almost-identical worlds existing in parallel: alternate worlds in which there has been no significant change." [21]

Fantasy fiction

Rick Sutcliffe provides a definition in a brief essay on his own fiction: "The timestream is an alternate history device used in Rick Sutcliffe's fiction. It is the medium in which the various alternate earths exist, or, if one prefers, it provides the connections among them, in the manner of C. S. Lewis' wood between the worlds -- a place between." [22]

While not discussing the timestream per se, scholar John Grant discusses a related topic, that of the time slip: "Generally protagonists [return] to their starting points but a frequent device is that, after repeated timeslips, the 'traveler' chooses to remain in the other period. Generally there is an emotional or psychological connection of some kind between the character and the earlier time most often love... Unsurprisingly, timeslips are a staple of the subgenre of romance fiction called the Paranormal Romance, exemplified by Diana Gabaldson's Outlander (1991) and its sequels." [23]


Examples of the usage of timestream:

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Historical fantasy is a category of fantasy and genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements into a more "realistic" narrative. There is much crossover with other subgenres of fantasy; those classed as Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages could just as easily be placed in historical fantasy. Stories fitting this classification generally take place prior to the 20th century.

Dark fantasy Subgenre of fantasy

Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literary, artistic, and cinematic works that incorporate disturbing and frightening themes of fantasy. It often combines fantasy with elements of horror or has a gloomy dark tone or a sense of horror and dread.

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Mercury in fiction Depictions of Mercury in fiction

Fictional depictions of Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System, have gone through three distinct phases. Before much was known about the planet, it received scant attention. Later, when it was incorrectly believed that it was tidally locked with the Sun creating a permanent dayside and nightside, stories mainly focused on the conditions of the two sides and the narrow region of permanent twilight between. Finally, since that misconception was dispelled in 1965, the planet has received less attention from fiction writers again and stories have largely concentrated on the harsh environmental conditions that come from the planet's proximity to the Sun.

Saturn has made appearances in fiction since the 1752 novel Micromégas by Voltaire. In many of these works, the planet is inhabited by aliens that are usually portrayed as being more advanced than humans. The planet is occasionally visited by humans and its rings are sometimes mined for resources. The moons of Saturn have been depicted in a large number of stories, especially Titan with its Earth-like environment suggesting the possibility of colonization by humans and alien lifeforms living there.

Asteroids have appeared in fiction since the 1800s, the first one—Ceres—having been discovered in 1801. A theory to explain the existence of the asteroid belt that was popular in the 1800s was that it consists of the remnants of a planet predicted by the Titius–Bode law to exist between Mars and Jupiter that had somehow been destroyed, and this was reflected in early science fiction works such as Robert Cromie's 1895 novel The Crack of Doom; several works of the 1950s reused this idea to warn of the dangers of nuclear weapons. Early works also tended to depict the asteroid belt as a region that must be navigated carefully lest one's spaceship should collide with one of the asteroids, one example being Isaac Asimov's 1939 short story "Marooned off Vesta"; later works mostly recognize that the individual asteroids are very far apart and accordingly pose little danger to spacecraft, the Star Wars films being an exception to this general rule. A concept of more enduring popularity is that of asteroid mining, featured in early works such as Clifford D. Simak's 1932 short story "The Asteroid of Gold"—where asteroids were often the setting of a space version of the Klondike Gold Rush—as well as more modern works like Ben Bova's 2001 novel The Precipice. Another use humans have found for asteroids in fiction is turning them into space stations or habitats, often by hollowing them out, as in Robert A. Heinlein's 1939 short story "Misfit". Impact events or threats thereof are depicted in numerous works such as Arthur C. Clarke's 1993 novel The Hammer of God, and in the 1985 novel Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle they are outright weaponized.

Neptune in fiction

Neptune was discovered in 1846 and has only made occasional appearances in fiction since then. The first time it was mentioned, then called "Leverrier's planet", was in the 1848 novel The Triumphs of Woman by Charles Rowcroft where an inhabitant of the planet visits Earth. The earliest stories where Neptune itself directly appears as a setting, such as the 1930s works "The Monsters of Neptune" by Henrik Dahl Juve and Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, portray it as a rocky planet rather than as having its actual gaseous composition; in the latter, it becomes humanity's refuge in the far future when the Sun expands. Later works rectified this error, with Alexei Panshin's 1969 short story "One Sunday in Neptune" depicting a voyage into Neptune's atmosphere and Alex Irvine's 2003 story "Shepherded by Galatea" featuring resource extraction in the atmosphere. In the 1969 novel Macroscope by Piers Anthony, Neptune is converted to a world ship.

Uranus was discovered in 1781 and has comparatively rarely been featured in fiction since then. The earliest such works, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1935 short story "The Planet of Doubt" and Clifton B. Kruse's 1936 short story "Code of the Spaceways", portray it as having a solid surface; in the former, humans landing on Uranus encounter hostile aliens. Later works depict it more accurately as a gaseous planet; for instance, Cecelia Holland's 1976 novel Floating Worlds depicts floating cities in the Uranian atmosphere. Towards the end of the 20th century, there was a slight uptick in appearances by Uranus in science fiction, including the 1985 short story "Dies Irae" by Charles Sheffield about life in the atmosphere and the 1999 short story "Into the Blue Abyss" by Geoffrey A. Landis where there is life in the ocean below.

Black holes, objects whose gravity is so strong that nothing including light can escape them, have been depicted in fiction since before the term was coined by John Archibald Wheeler in the late 1960s. The earliest stories featuring what would later be called black holes, such as E. E. Smith's 1928 story The Skylark of Space and its "black sun", typically portrayed them as hazards to spacefarers. Later works such as the 1975 Space: 1999 episode "Black Sun" have occasionally done likewise, and a few have even depicted black holes being outright weaponized, one example being the 1982 novel The Space Eater by David Langford.

Immortality in fiction

Immortality is a common theme in fiction. The concept has been depicted since the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of fiction. Originally appearing in the domain of mythology, it has later become a recurring element in the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. For most of literary history, the dominant perspective has been that the desire for immortality is misguided, albeit strong; among the posited drawbacks are ennui, loneliness, and social stagnation. This view was challenged in the 20th century by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Roger Zelazny. Immortality is commonly obtained either from supernatural entities or objects such as the Fountain of Youth or through biological or technological means such as brain transplants.

Supernovae have been featured in works of fiction. While a nova is strictly speaking a different type of astronomical event, science fiction writers often use the terms interchangeably and refer to stars "going nova" without further clarification; this can at least partially be explained by the earliest science fiction works featuring these phenomena predating the introduction of the term "supernova" as a separate class of event in 1934. Since these stellar explosions release enormous amounts of energy, some stories propose using them as a power source for extremely energy-intense processes, such as time travel in the Doctor Who serial The Three Doctors from 1972. For the same reason, inducing them is occasionally portrayed as a potential weapon, for instance in the 1966 novel The Solarians by Norman Spinrad.

<i>Islands of Space</i> 1957 science fiction novel by John W. Campbell Jr.

Islands of Space is a science fiction novel by American writer John W. Campbell Jr. It was first published in book form in 1957 by Fantasy Press in an edition of 1,417 copies. The novel originally appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories Quarterly; the text was "extensively edited" for book publication, with Campbell's approval, by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. A paperback edition was published by Ace Books in 1966. In 1973, Islands was included in a Doubleday omnibus of all three "Arcot, Wade, and Morey" novels. A German translation appeared in 1967 as Kosmische Kreuzfahrt, and an Italian translation was published in 1976 as Isole nello spazio.

Gary Wesley Westfahl is an American scholar of science fiction. He has written reviews for the Los Angeles Times, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and Locus Online. He worked at the University of California, Riverside until 2011 and is now an Adjunct Professor at the University of La Verne.

<i>Amazing Stories Quarterly</i> U.S. science fiction pulp magazine

Amazing Stories Quarterly was a U.S. science fiction pulp magazine that was published between 1928 and 1934. It was launched by Hugo Gernsback as a companion to his Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine, which had begun publishing in April 1926. Amazing Stories had been successful enough for Gernsback to try a single issue of an Amazing Stories Annual in 1927, which had sold well, and he decided to follow it up with a quarterly magazine. The first issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly was dated Winter 1928 and carried a reprint of the 1899 version of H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes. Gernsback's policy of running a novel in each issue was popular with his readership, though the choice of Wells' novel was less so. Over the next five issues, only one more reprint appeared: Gernsback's own novel Ralph 124C 41+, in the Winter 1929 issue. Gernsback went bankrupt in early 1929, and lost control of both Amazing Stories and Amazing Stories Quarterly; associate editor T. O'Conor Sloane then took over as editor. The magazine began to run into financial difficulties in 1932, and the schedule became irregular; the last issue was dated Fall 1934.

<i>Encyclopedia of Science Fiction</i> (1978 book) English language reference work

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Far future in fiction The far future as a theme in fiction

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The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders is an English language reference work on science fiction and fantasy, published in 2005 by Greenwood Press. It was edited by Gary Westfahl and consists of three volumes of 200 entries each. The first two volumes contain entries organized by themes, such as "Aliens in Space", "Asia" or "Rats and Mice", while the third volume lists works such as novels and films which the are considered defining for the science fiction and fantasy genres.


  1. Jeff Prucher, ed. (2007). "Time Stream". Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 242. ISBN   978-0195305678.
  2. Science fiction scholar Paul Kincaid comments, "The time machine allows not movement in time (we already live in time, and a novelist has always been able to set a story in any future or past era), but transposition in time." Kincaid, Paul (2005). "Time travel". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 820. ISBN   0-313-32950-8.
  3. Sawyer, Andy (2005). "Time". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 818. ISBN   0-313-32950-8.
  4. Stableford, Brian M. (2006). "Time". Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia . New York: Routledge. p.  529. ISBN   0415974607.
  5. Graham, Daniel W. "Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 B.C.E.)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . IEP.
  6. Marvin, Chris. "Heraclitus of Ephesus". Trinity College (Connecticut). Archived from the original on January 6, 2015. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  7. Cohen, S. Marc (2006). "Heraclitus". University of Washington . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  8. Beavers, Anthony F. "Heraclitus of Ephesus". University of Evansville . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  9. Graham, Daniel W. (2011). "Heraclitus". Stanford University . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  10. Gerrold, David (1973). The Man Who Folded Himself. New York: Random House. ISBN   039447922X. But every time you make a change in the timestream, no matter how slight, you are actually shifting to an alternate timestream.
  11. Leiber, Fritz (1950). Gather, Darkness!. New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy. No alternate time-stream, no dead come alive, nothing like that.
  12. McIntyre, Vonda N. (1981). The Entropy Effect. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN   0-671-83692-7. As they were now, [neither] had existed in the alternate time-stream.
  13. Dean, William M. (2014). The Space between Thought. Bloomington, IN: Iuniverse. ISBN   9781491752845. Let's say you go back, kill your grandfather, then return, but to an alternate time-stream indistinguishable from your own except that, in this one, your grandfather was killed and one version of you never existed. The obvious intuitive problem with this theory is that it...presumes an infinite number of time-streams are generated spontaneously each moment in order to accommodate all possible divergence.
  14. Hollinger, Veronica (2005). "Science Fiction and Postmodernism". In David Seed (ed.). A Companion to Science Fiction. Series: Blackwell companions to literature and culture, vol. 34. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. p. 235. ISBN   1405112182. ...Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), which presents readers with a violent and pulpish science fiction novel, Lord of the Swastika, penned by a little-known author named Adolf Hitler in an alternative time-stream in which the Second World War never took place.
  15. Chalker, Jack L.; Mark Owings (1998). The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Bibliographic History, 1923-1998. Westminster, MD and Baltimore: Mirage Press, Ltd. p. 125.
  16. Anon. "Bibliography: The Time Stream". Internet Speculative Fiction Database . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  17. Bleiler, Everett Franklin and Richard J. Bleiler (1998). "Story Descriptions". Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years: a Complete Coverage of the Genre Magazines Amazing, Astounding, Wonder, and Others from 1926 through 1936. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. p. 426. ISBN   0873386043.
  18. Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (2014). "Edmondson, G C". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Rev., online ed.). New York: St Martin's Griffin.
  19. Anon. "Publication Listing". Internet Speculative Fiction Database . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  20. Anon. "Bibliography: Backwater by the Time Stream". Internet Speculative Fiction Database . Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  21. Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (2014). "Parallel Worlds". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Rev., online ed.). New York: St Martin's Griffin. ISBN   978-0-312-09618-2.
  22. Sutcliffe, Rick (2013). "Timestream Index". Arjay Enterprises. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
  23. Grant, John (2005). "Timeslips". In Gary Westfahl (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 821. ISBN   0-313-32950-8. A timeslip occurs when a person inadvertently, and acausally, slides from one era into another...
  24. Comic Vine (2014). "The Timestream". CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2014. In the DC Universe, the timestream is a place unaffected by time flows and a place used by the Monitors and time [travelers] in order to travel and correct time fluctuation.
  25. Santella, Andrew (August 20, 2006). "Fiction Chronicle". The New York Times . p. Sunday Book Review. Retrieved December 27, 2014. Powers's latest genre-blending thriller (call it an occult/fantasy/espionage/existential adventure with elements of paranoid rant) concerns shadowy groups of international intriguers racing to locate a lost discovery of Albert Einstein's that could quite literally change history. ... Their predicament is about as dire as can be imagined, but it gives Powers's heroes the opportunity to confront their own pasts.
  26. Wagner, Thomas M. (2006). "Three Days to Never". SFReviews.net. Retrieved December 27, 2014. If one were to glean a message from this story, it could be that, as much as we might dream of going back and changing events in our past that have hurt us to one degree or another, the point of life is to move forward through the pain, and not linger on it, tormenting ourselves by never learning lessons or growing as people.
  27. Wagner, Thomas M. (2006). "The Anubis Gates". SFReviews.net. Retrieved December 27, 2014. [Time travel is] a process involving gates, like holes in the ice over a frozen river...
  28. Wandason, Paul (August 25, 2014). "The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers". Time2timetravel. Retrieved December 27, 2014. Darrow describes time as a river and uses this as a really good counter argument to the butterfly effect (i.e. that a small incident in the past (e.g. the flap of a butterfly's wing) can affect the future on a much larger scale (like causing a hurricane); small disturbances in the river effect the flow downstream (i.e. in the future)...