Name that genre

There’s a type of science fiction story that involves people from the future coming back to the present and changing future history, either by intentional action or accidentally. This seems to be mainly visual rather than verbal sf: The Terminator, Twelve Monkeys, Continuum (though John Birmingham’s alternate World War II novels are sort of an example).

Is there a recognized name for stories with this premise? If not, can anyone suggest one?

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I always associate it with Bradbury’s A sound of thunder, which I think is referred to as a ‘butterfly effect’. Although I think over the years this has been amalgamated with chaos theory?

While that is relevant, I’m not seeing it as providing a name for the genre. Of course it may not have a name, but I’d like to come up with a short way of saying “stories like X and Y about P.”

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This is a really good question, because the more I think about time travel stories, the more I think that the type of story you are trying to define is the default for what a time travel story is. I’m struggling to find examples that don’t follow this pattern. (Other than The Time machine.)

EDIT. I believe Star Trek: Discovery and Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, follow this trope of saviours from the past. But it still seems a sub genre.

They are generally considered to exist under the Alternate History umbrella. Turtledove’s The Guns of the South springs to mind.


I think alternate history/parallel worlds get probably incorrectly mixed in with time travel, do you need to have actually time travelled to be a time travel story?

I’ve never encountered many time travel sub genre with a given name. There are some exceptions to this within film and books but I think the terminator is the most common cultural touchstone.

If I was to invent a name i’d use a terminator reference.

To quote Samuel Beckett, Putting right what once went wrong.

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In response I can only say, “Oh boy!”

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I don’t consider alternate history as such to be a branch of time travel, and in fact I don’t consider it to be science fiction, or even fantastic fiction as such.

On one hand, it’s time travel fiction if you create the AH by traveling into the past, or sending a message there, or if the future sends a message to the present that creates a different future.

On the other hand, it’s science fiction if you can travel to the AH by using a sideways time machine, or a psionic ability, or other things of that sort. (If the alternate worlds don’t originate in a historic divergence, or there isn’t a metric for how far away they are, because they differ qualitatively and not just quantitatively, that’s not AH. If you get to a different world by magic or divine intervention, that’s fantasy rather than SF.)

On the third hand, nearly every work of realistic fiction is set in an alternate reality that implies some measure of AH. This is really obvious with, say, Babbitt, set in the fictitious city of Zenith in the fictitious state of Winnemac, but considered a quintessentially realistic and mundane novel. But the same could be said, on one hand, about Ruritanian novels set in invented small countries with no overtly fantastic elements, and on the other hand, about novels such as Pride and Prejudice set in British country towns that never actually existed. These are asking “what if?” just as much as the essays in J.C. Squires’s collection If It Had Happened Otherwise are doing so.

But with these strictures, I’m asking specifically about the creation of an alternative future by time travel from the future to the present, which IS SF and is at least close kin to AH. I don’t think AF is literally AH, because stories about the future aren’t historical fiction, but it’s something very close. What do you call this?

Maybe “averted prophecy” or “averted future”?


“Temporal paradox” or “future prevention”?

Today’s hard SF is tomorrow’s alternate history story…

Clute and Barnett don’t define a subgenre for this in the SFE.

If one were to taxonomise time travel stories in general, I suppose one could start by dividing the origin and destination into past, present and future (which would give one eight honest time travel possibilities; future to a different bit of future, fair enough if unusual, and ditto past-past, but present to present isn’t really time travel at all).

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Slightly surprising, as it seems to have a fair number of examples. Perhaps they focus more on lit than video?

There is an early literary example, Chronoclasm by “John Wyndham”, of which the title might do as a name for the genre.


They definitely do.

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Well, it has a nice evocative Greek sound, at any rate. Does Wyndham use it to mean this specific thing? Or more broadly for all attempts to change the (relative) past?

In the story an historian from the future explains that one has to be very careful during field work not to cause chronoclasms by accident, which seems to be the main concern.

I recommend the story, if you can find it. It was collected in The Seeds of Time in 1956 (where you will also find Pawley’s Peepholes and others of possible interest).

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I always think of this as “Days of Future Past” after the X-Men arc.

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My point was that it was the other way around, especially with the added factor of changing the future. But, it’s a gray area. Your “averted future/AF” label is a good one. Or maybe “subverted future” (but then that would make it “SF” and would defeat the whole purpose!)

Some interesting terminology on this site:

I do like chronoclasm.

Time travel isn’t always a branch of AH. There are time travel stories where changing history is either incredibly hard (as in Leiber’s Time Wars stories) or simply impossible, because whatever you do after you travel back has already happened and happens again with complete inevitability—see Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” though in fact the idea goes back as far as “Appointment in Samarra.”