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by Hank Davis

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Suppose time travel is possible. And, as long as you’re up, suppose the past can be changed.

Read any good horror stories lately?

Here’s one: if time travel is possible and the past can be changed, then everything in your life, everyone you know, everything you’ve accomplished, is subject not just to change without notice, but to complete obliteration. And you may not even still exist to notice it, may never have existed at all—which might be a kindness, of sorts. While plain old global thermonuclear war could bring everything in your life, including yourself, to a permanent stop, an attack through time would not really bring a stop. Because the past had changed and there never was a start.

No doubt governments would try to suppress it, so maybe we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We all know what a good job governments have done in suppressing booze, gambling, guns in the hands of criminals, pot, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and other such examples of better living through chemistry. And they’ve done such a great job of handling pandemics.

Besides, governments have their own interests to look after. Lost that election? Hmmm, maybe if we sent a few thousand voters back in time . . . (Could that be why elections take so long to decide lately?)

From that, it’s a natural step into military matters. Lost that battle? Hmm, maybe if we sent a division (or two, or three, or . . . ) back in time . . . If no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, then different plans can be brought on board until the brass has one that works.

But then, if the enemy also has time travel, a lot more plans would be required . . . on both sides, which might lead to a diverging series.

It might be simpler, not to mention less messy, instead of sending battalions, or even just platoons, backwards or forwards in time, to use tweezers instead of battering rams. Algis Budrys’s short story “The Skirmisher” (1957) has one man eliminating people, sometimes with a faked phone call, sometimes less subtly, to prevent their having descendants. The story did not spell out whether the agent of change was an agent sent back in time, a lone operator with the power of precognition, or something else. (It’s one story I wish were in this book, but at least you can find it in the highly recommended 1963 Budrys collection, The Furious Future.)

A lone sniper, sent back in time to a crucial moment, might make a profound change by eliminating an indispensable individual; or a time-traveling thief might swipe the plans for the battle to the other side, in time to thwart a surprise attack. If the Germans had known the plans for the invasion of Normandy, D-Day might have come off very differently. If the right people in the U.S. government had known about the plans to attack Pearl Harbor,1 that episode might have happened with different headlines (instead of “Infamy,” maybe “Better Luck Next Time”), many tons of Asian steel underwater, and possibly a cascade effect. Would the U.S. still have declared war on Japan? If not, would Japan’s ally Germany have had a reason to declare war on the U.S., bringing the Yanks into the war, with the results seen in the history books?

But then, with time-traveling meddlers, the history books are only works in progress. Think of our present, seemingly inevitable reality as a multitude of inverted pyramids, all delicately balanced on their apexes, needing just the slight push of a finger to be toppled. Or maybe the mere weight of a pigeon (doves would not be appropriate here) landing on top, near the edge, would lower the boom.

On the other hand, it might be that the reality we know has its own inertia, and is not so sensitive to tiny pushes, but still can be changed if enough force is brought to bear. That brings us back to sending battalions through time. But then, if both sides have time travel, the popular (if misattributed) quip about “getting there firstest with the mostest” might change to everybody getting there simultaneously with everything they’ve got. That would be a mess and I think neither General von Clausewitz nor Doctor Who would approve.

Fortunately, time travel (into the past, at least) so far doesn’t seem to exist (guards, please eject that quantum mechanic over there). Or maybe those aforementioned governments are doing something right for a change. But it’s a fun concept to kick around in science fiction, with no more than on-paper characters ceasing to be, along with their equally evanescent but fictional ancestors, and only ink or printer toner being spilled, at worst, rather than blood.

There is very little that is new in science fiction, and time travel with a military aspect has a long lineage. Almost as far back as fictional time travel itself. I won’t try to be exhaustive (and hope the reader’s patience won’t be exhausted) and point out that Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is both one of the earliest time travel stories, and also has a military aspect, with a war near the novel’s end, fomented by the Catholic clergy to put a stop to the title character’s innovations from the future (for some reason, that part never gets into the movie and TV versions). Since it’s an early piece, the time-traveling troublemaker is sent back through the centuries by a knock on the head and returns to his own time by a spell cast by Merlin, who seemed to be a charlatan up to that point.

Probably Twain had no idea how to get his hero back in time, or back home without resorting to magic, But H. G. Wells used a more modern form of magic, calling it a time machine. As the industrial revolution thundered on, machines were remaking the world, and invoking a device which could move freely in time was more believable than a clout on the noggin, or a wizard’s spell, even if no one, Wells included, had any idea how such a thing could work. He introduced the idea in an unfinished serial titled “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888) in an obscure publication, then, six years after A Connecticut Yankee, redid it in one of his most popular works, the novella, The Time Machine (1895). That enduring classic has no military aspect (in the 1960 movie version, the Time Traveler passes through three world wars, the last nuclear, but they were added by the screenwriter, David Duncan), but Mr. Wells, who later prophetically extended combat into the third dimension in The War in the Air, didn’t neglect the possibility of carrying it into the fourth dimension, and I’ll get back to him shortly.

First, I want to briefly lay some groundwork. With time travel, obviously, you can hop in your trusty time machine and go forward or backward. And with the right sort of time machine, you can go sideways, or as Murray Leinster put it in the title of his classic story, “Sidewise in Time” (1934). That is, travel to parallel time tracks where history came out differently. I think I can get away without explaining that in detail, since parallel universes have been made familiar to many through Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Superboy, and other TV shows; such movies as Parallel and Sliding Doors; and comic books such as DC’s Justice Society and Justice League both existing (with some overlapping characters) in two adjacent parallel universes, plus a third with only super-powered villains.

(Ironically, while accelerated travel into the future is possible according to special relativity, and parallel universes may exist according to some versions of quantum mechanics, such as the many-worlds interpretation—though whether anyone could travel from one to another is another matter—going back in time has no possible basis that I know about and the butterflies in Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” can keep on flitting peacefully among the lumbering dinosaurs. Of course, I’m way behind in my reading of New Scientist and possibly should be more cautious in my dogmatism . . . )

Given those three types (or directions) of time travel, what has science fiction done with the idea?

There’s the realistic approach. Travel near the speed of light and arrive scarcely aged in the future. This might figure in certain long-range types of military action, and my intrepid co-editor has one such in the pages which follow. An earlier example is a novel which should be better known, L. Ron Hubbard’s Return to Tomorrow (1954), originally serialized in Astounding as To the Stars (1950). Though Hubbard makes some howlers about relativity, the story is very effective, particularly when the starship returns to a militarized Earth and must fight their way in to be resupplied. (I think the novel is not as well-known as it should be, but for all I know, hordes of Scientologists may have memorized the text. If so, good for them.) That allows only a one-way trip in time, with no hope of returning to the time the viewpoint character knew, and Hubbard effectively treats the tragic aspect of the situation.

And one of Kenneth Bulmer’s novels made effective use of a military strategy using long-range planning and slower-than-light travel, but I can’t describe the story or even give the title, without possibly spoiling it for future readers.

Another one-way road to the future is the possibility of suspended animation, where life and aging are somehow slowed or even arrested, then resumed in the future. H. G. Wells got there early on, once again, in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), also known as The Sleeper Awakes (1910 revision), though no machine is involved this time, and the title character, after a protracted inability to sleep, simply takes drugs which bring about a long snooze and wakes up in the far future where, through investments made in his name while he was stacking Z’s, he owns most of the world. A revolutionary war ensues. (Also another war precedes the opening of the story, since in some editions, the characters mention the Martian invasion of The War of the Worlds as something in their recent past.)

But a time machine, or medical condition, that can only go forward in time, with no way of returning, is of much less interest than the younger Wells’s more versatile time machine, impossible or not.

Maybe impossible, but great fun are such devices being used and misused in Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol series, collected in one volume by Baen as Time Patrol (2006), plus a novel, The Shield of Time (1990). The function of the Patrol is to be time cops, making sure that time travelers, accidently or purposefully, do not change the past, consequently changing the future. Still they sometimes must mount genuine military operations to achieve that end, as in “Delenda Est” in these pages.

In the absence of some such sort of time cops, opposing sides might tinker with the past to achieve a desirable future, with the opposed sides altering and unaltering, and realtering the past as the “changewar” goes on (or goes back) across the centuries. That’s the situation in Fritz Leiber’s Changewar series. In that fluctuating universe, the opposed sides are the Snakes and Spiders, identified by either a serpentine mark or an asterisk on their foreheads. And in some cases, different versions of the same individual may be fighting on both sides. Considering this aspect, and that the future the two sides are competing to establish is not described, this may be a comment by Leiber, who was a committed pacifist, on the nature of war.

There are not as many Changewar stories as I would wish, just the Hugo-winning novel The Big Time (1958), and a handful of shorter tales, and maybe a Snake or Spider agent could go back to ask Leiber to write additional yarns. Also, the various collections of the stories, such as Changewar (1983), include a couple of tales, “A Deskful of Girls” (1958) and “When the Change-Winds Blow” (1964), which are barely connected to the series, only mentioning the opposed sides briefly. Perhaps the connection was stronger before a time-jaunting agent went back and changed our literary past.

A more recent tale of such a changewar, “This Is How You Lose the Time War” (2019) by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, won the Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA awards in the novella category. As with Leiber’s series, two opposed sides are trying to change the past to achieve an undefined victory in the future, or futures, since parallel universes seem to be involved. As with Leiber, the reader is not moved to root for either side, about which little is shown. Instead, the focus is on Red and Blue, women agents on opposite sides, who begin by exchanging taunting letters, inventively using unorthodox media of transmission, then begin to respect each other, and finally fall in love. The authors have filled the story with striking images wittily described, such as, “Blue approaches the temple in pilgrim’s guise: hair shorn to show the shine of circuitry curling around the ears and up to scalp, eyes goggled, mouth a smear of chrome sheen, eyelids chrome hooded. She wears antique typewriter keys on her fingers in veneration of the great god Hack . . .” and chuckle-worthy lines from their cross-time correspondence, such as “How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored?” If more recent Hugo-winners were this good, I might stop thinking of that once notable literary prize as instead, lately, a burnt-out exercise in triviality.

Turning to a past war which, though tragic, was certainly about something and is still reverberating in this timeline, including recent displays of self-righteous fanaticism (hey, didn’t there used to be a statue over there?), the American Civil War has not lacked for time twisters. One from outside the SF field is James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” (1935). While Thurber’s classic did not involve time travel, General Grant’s beverage of choice also figures in another hilarious yarn, Jack Finney’s “Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands Through the Air” (1951), in which, on the eve of a battle, a Union soldier invents a time machine, goes forward with the narrator to borrow the Wright Brothers’ biplane from the Smithsonian (he returns it later), and, with the first-person narrator at the controls, goes off to spy from the air on the disposition of the Confederate forces. Unfortunately, the narrator and pilot had imbibed some of General Grant’s refreshments (actually, make that a lot of said refreshments) and the results are not as planned. Mark this as another story I wish were in these pages.

Of course, the Union won the war with no help from time travelers (unless that’s what they want us to think), but in Charles L. Harness’s short story “Quarks at Appomattox” (1983), a time traveler goes back to offer Robert E. Lee automatic weapons which could turn the tide of battle, but Lee declines the offer for reasons I will not give here. Harry Turtledove posed a similar situation in his 1992 novel The Guns of the South, and while the rebels win the war, things do not go quite as the meddlers from the future had hoped.

Ward Moore, in his 1953 novel Bring the Jubilee, approached the situation from the other side, showing in inventive detail a world where the rebel states were victorious, until a time traveler goes back to observe history in the making and inadvertently remakes it.

Another subcategory (perhaps needing a couple more “subs” thrown in) of time-traveling military SF has accidental time travelers, who walk around a team of horses, say, and are never more seen in their own world. (Reference both to a line from Charles Fort and an H. Beam Piper story.) Stumbling backwards in time, the involuntary traveler might either change the past, or just happen to cause the past as it was “supposed” to unfold. As for going in the opposite direction, let the future beware! In Philip K. Dick’s novella “The Variable Man” (1953), the title character, an itinerant mender, is plucked from the early twentieth century into a war between Earth and its colonies and throws all their plans out of whack. One of the best stories from the first season of TV’s The Twilight Zone had a First World War ace landing his plane at a future (late 1950s, in his case) military air base and having to fly back into a strange cloud and return to his time and save the fellow pilot he had given up for dead when they were surrounded by enemy planes. The title of that episode was “The Last Flight” (1960), scripted by SF and fantasy master Richard Matheson. According to Wikipedia (which is far from infallibibble) the script was based on a Matheson short story titled “Flight,” and I would have considered that story for inclusion in this book, except that I was unable to find any other mention of a story by Matheson with that title. Oh, well. I recommend that the reader see the TZ episode online or on video.

Flying through time in the other direction, Dean McLaughlin’s “Hawk Among the Sparrows” (1968) has a modern jet pilot hurled back into that same first aerial war with his powerful jet fighter and finds that his superbly engineered modern craft is not really appropriate for jousting with the fragile biplanes of the past.

Harlan Ellison sent a future soldier back to the present day across millennia from a bleak time of perpetual war in his story “Soldier from Tomorrow” (1957, reprinted as “Soldier”). The story is early Ellison and minor, but seven years later the author freely adapted it for TV’s The Outer Limits, one of the high points of that frequently disappointing program. Both the original story and the script are included in Ellison’s story collection From the Land of Fear (1967). There is a slight resemblance to the situation in the first two Terminator movies, but, in my opinion, much too slight for Ellison to have received financial compensation and a belated screen credit after he sued their makers. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m aware of stories similar to “Soldier” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” published earlier than those two stories.

Two final examples of accidental time displacement involve very large ships. In 1959, Jack Sharkey’s “Ship Ahoy” sent an entire aircraft carrier from 1944 back to the Trojan War. Since Sharkey was the most notable writer of humorous SF and fantasy since Robert Sheckley, the situation is played for laughs, as when that early war correspondent, Homer, turns up and the crew are surprised that he is not blind. Turns out he is a heavy drinker and should actually have been known as blind drunk Homer. This is yet another story whose absence from this book I regret, but you can find it in the e-book The Essential Jack Sharkey (2020). The other example is the movie The Final Countdown (1980) involving another aircraft carrier being sent back from, presumably, the late 1970s to 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The movie is well worth seeing, though I can’t help wondering if its makers ever read “Ship Ahoy.”

Getting back to time travel done for military reasons and on purpose, the very prolific and very excellent Andre Norton did a four-novel series beginning with The Time Traders (1958), and continuing with Galactic Derelict (1959, combining time travel and space travel), The Defiant Agents (1962), and Key Out of Time (1963). Book reviewers in the fifties and sixties frequently dismissed Norton for writing juvenile category novels for teenagers (what would now be called “young adult”) but that was their loss. More recently, three more novels in the series have appeared, written with collaborators, which I have not read and cannot comment on, but that may be my loss.

So far, I’ve scarcely touched on the third type of time travel—into alternate worlds, or parallel universes. The previously mentioned novel, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, posited a world in which the South had won the American Civil War (until an unwary time traveler went back and changed it), but the parallel universe concept could have a world in which the Confederacy won the war, and another, existing simultaneously, in which the Union won. No reason to stop there. Suppose Mexico saw an opportunity and made it a three-cornered fracas. Or maybe the Aztecs were still around and had developed gunpowder and joined the party. Or the British saw a chance to take back the rebellious colonies. Or H. G. Wells’s Martians invaded three decades earlier and landed in a larger landmass than the British Isles. Or, or, or . . .

Speaking (once more) of H. G. Wells, a little historical perspective brings us back to that extraordinary SF pioneer. His A Modern Utopia (1905) begins with a duplicate Earth, like ours and complete with duplicated people, but the duplicate Earth is in this universe, though light-years away, so parallel universes are not involved (but don’t give up on the limey yet), and the “novel” is really a lecture and slideshow on how a utopia would work. I understand that at the end, the narrator wakes as if from a dream, but I’m taking the word of others for that, since I’ve never been able to get very far into the book. Besides, utopias don’t have wars (unlike workers’ paradises), so it’s a bit off our theme.

Closer is Wells’s 1923 novel Men Like Gods, and this one is actually a novel, with fewer lectures, in which a bunch of contemporary Londoners are transported to another Earth with a utopian anarchistic society, this one in a different universe. Eventually, the Londoners, one of whom is apparently a caricature of young Winston Churchill (!), decide that the wimpy utopia needs to be set right, and sort of start a sort of war. But one of them, who writes for a “liberal” weekly (read: “socialist,” though the novel includes a critique of Marxism) helps thwart the plan, not that it had much chance in the first place, and the duplicate Earth’s scientists send the upstarts back to their own dismal world.

Men Like Gods gets closer to this anthology’s theme, though the military aspect is slight, if not downright ineffectual, and the two Earths are separated by a fourth spatial dimension, rather than by a time separation. I’ll note that while the novel has sometimes been cited as the first parallel worlds story, it was preceded by Frances Steven’s novel The Heads of Cerberus, serialized in The Thrill Book in 1919. While Ms. Stevens’s story has the transition between worlds accomplished by magical means, her novel has considerably more plot than Wells thought necessary and is much more entertaining.

As I keep returning to Wells, now I’ll return to the almost as prolific Andre Norton. Her 1956 novel The Crossroads of Time has opposing sides scuffling behind the scenes in parallel worlds, and was followed by a YA sequel, Quest Crosstime (1965), which has the agents of the Crosstime Corps jumping through parallel worlds to thwart a would-be dictator’s grand design. The two novels have been combined in Crosstime (Baen, 2008).

Keith Laumer, whose “The Long Remembered Thunder” is included herein, wrote a series of novels with battling parallel worlds, beginning with Worlds of the Imperium (1961), followed by The Other Side of Time (1964), and Assignment in Nowhere (1968). The second in the series is one of Laumer’s best, which is saying something. Much later, after a debilitating stroke, he wrote a fourth Imperium novel, Zone Yellow (1990), which I can’t recommend. Baen books combined the first three novels in the omnibus Imperium (2005), which included the first book appearance of the complete Worlds of the Imperium. Previous book editions had been abridged from the magazine serial in Fantastic, regrettably omitting a striking scene of what one would see crossing changing parallel worlds, all similar, but each slightly different from the other.

Probably the author most noted for parallel world adventures was H. Beam Piper, whose Paratime series assumes that one Earth (not our own) has developed the technology for traveling between the parallel worlds and is secretly exploiting those other Earths (including our own). It has established the Paratime Police to ensure that the exploitation is done benignly and secretly, so that the paratime travel secret remains a monopoly. Paratime cop Verkan Vall figures in most of the stories, as well as the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965), and his duties are usually those of a policeman, but sometimes a serious military operation is in order, and “Time Crime,” included in these pages, demonstrates Vall’s (and Piper’s) talent for that sort of operation.

Piper’s story has a larger canvas than most of the stories in Time Troopers, but then, it is a novella, with more room for razzle-dazzle, and combining military action with time travel yields a wide-ranging concept that benefits from room enough to explore its implications.

That’s certainly true of another novella included here, A. E. Van Vogt’s classic Recruiting Station. Also known as Masters of Time and Earth’s Last Fortress, it originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942 and in the decades since, it has lost none of its fascinating pyrotechnics, but then I’ve been a Van Vogt fan since the second grade and including one of his stories in an anthology brings out the fanboy in me (speaking of time travel . . . ), so the readers should plunge in and see for themselves. Imagination was Van Vogt’s middle name, even if his name wasn’t written as A. I. Van Vogt.

Another highly imaginative story uses novel length to explore its concept, combining swashbuckling action with quantum theory. Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time (1938) assumes that, like Schrödinger’s celebrated cat, sort of dead and alive until you open the box and look, there exist two possible futures, seemingly mutually exclusive, each trying to influence the past so that it will become the actual future after the wave function collapses. Did I write “trying?” Make that battling, one side fighting to kill the present-day man who is pivotal to the struggle, the other intervening to protect him. It gets more complicated, and did I mention that both sides are led by very, ah, attractive ladies? I won’t say more, referring the reader instead to John C. Wright (who has a story in this book, if you haven’t noticed) and his excellent essay on the novel, pointing out that many of the critics who have written about the story are very sloppy readers, who even get the hair colors of the opposing heroine and villainess wrong. Mr. Wright’s essay can be found at:

The essay includes a link to where Williamson’s novel can be found online, which is fortunate, since there was no possibility of including it here.

I can’t ignore two stories which defy categorization, “Time War” and “Time War: Second Front” (2010 and 2011) by Stephen D. Sullivan, both available as e-stories. The second is not a sequel to the first, since they are unfolding simultaneously, showing the same battle seen from two different character’s perspectives, but then it is a big battle involving character types from SF, fantasy, and history. For an example of the last, there are Nazis involved, along with the line, “You can’t have a time war without Nazis.” The whole thing is like an explosion in a comic bookstore, or maybe in a comic-con. One of the narrators is an immortal redheaded woman, which strikes me as an excellent idea, since there are never enough of those to fill the demand. Mr. Sullivan is planning a third story in the setting. Count me in.

If the stories in Time Troopers have stirred your appetite for more such tales, there are a number of novels of military adventures in time in addition to those already mentioned, such as The Corridors of Time (1965) and There Will Be Time (1972), both by Poul Anderson, and John Brunner’s novel Threshold of Eternity (1959), the last showing a strong Van Vogt influence. And if you’ll pardon a plug for the home team, David Weber and Jacob Holo have collaborated on two bestselling novels for Baen in their Gordian Division series, The Gordian Protocol (2019) and The Valkyrie Protocol (2020). Jacob Holo has also contributed a short story set in that series, “Doctor Quiet,” to this book.

Also worth seeking out are the stories which I would have liked to have had between these covers, but which, for various reasons, were not available. I’ve already mentioned the out-of-reach stories by Algis Budrys, Jack Finney, Jack Sharkey, and particularly regrettable was my not being able to include Connie Willis’s “Fire Watch” (1982), dealing with a historian sent back through time to London during the blitz. He is supposed to only observe, then report upon his return, but when he thinks he has discovered a saboteur, he may have difficulty sticking to that rule. The story won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and is part of a series, including the novels Doomsday Book (1992), To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997), and Blackout/All Clear (2010). The reader who has missed “Fire Watch” up ’til now can find it in Ms. Willis’s highly recommended collection, The Best of Connie Willis (2013).

I think the intersection of military science fiction and time travel (in whichever direction) still has untapped potential, but in the meantime a number of gems have been produced, and I hope Christopher Ruocchio and I have captured some of the brightest in this book and given enjoyment to the reader.

—Hank Davis

August 2021

1 I am not going to get involved in the endless controversy as to whether or not Roosevelt knew in advance about the Japanese plans and did nothing for what he thought was the greater good. I already have too many hobbies.

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