One of my favorite themes in science fiction is time travel. This is a trope that is often used and abused in television and film, and even sometimes in books, though books tend to explore the consequences of time travel to greater depths. It seems like there are two kinds of time travel stories: Those that use it as an incidental convenience to put two anachronistic elements together (like putting a modern-day person in medieval times), and those stories that make time travel integral to the plot and deal with the idea and effects of time travel head-on. It's these latter stories that are usually more satisfying.

Time travel is an old trope—Charles Dickens used it in 1843's A Christmas Carol and, more famously for science fiction, H.G. Wells popularized it in 1895 with The Time Machine. You would think that by now it would be out of fashion. Not so. Time travel is still used to good effect, as this look at recent science fiction novels demonstrates.

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

The initial hook of Alan Averill's The Beautiful Land is that there exist multiple, parallel timelines. They are similar, but in each one, the events have unfolded in such a way as to make them different in some way. The protagonist, Takahiro O’Leary, is hired to explorer these timelines by the Axon Corporation. Tak returns from one of these exploration trips with information that will maximize company profits by changing the past, present and future of our world. However, doing so means that the love of Tak's life, Samira, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, will cease to exist. Tak decides to be proactive and use a time travel device he discovered in another timeline to escape with Samira into another timeline. That's not as cut-and-dried as it would seem, however, because the inventor of that time travel device had other plans for it; namely, to find the timeline he calls the Beautiful Land and, once found, destroy all other timelines. Tak realizes that, in order to save himself and Samira, he must save multiple worlds.

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The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

What happens when the power of time travel falls into the hands of a serial killer? That's the premise behind The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a haunting thriller that uses time travel to create a harrowing atmosphere in which the hunter becomes the hunted. Harper Curtis is the serial killer who stumbles upon time's doorway in a Depression-era Chicago. Harper uses his newfound ability to travel to different years and commit his heinous crimes. It's the perfect way to commit a crime: How can you find a killer who has the perfect alibi of not being there? After a series of successful kills, Curtis targets Kirby Mazrachi, one of the young girls he perceives as "Shining."  However, Kirby survives Curtis' attack, physically if not emotionally, and she becomes determined to find her would-be Unburning Alexandriakiller. She gets a job at the Chicago Sun Times, working with the reporter who covered her attack. Together they begin unraveling the clues of Curtis' crimes and discovering the truth behind them.

Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

If you had the ability to travel through time, you could see all of human history and any historical figure whenever you wanted. But, admit it, wouldn't you travel backward and forward in time to visit your younger and older selves? Maybe impart some words of wisdom or learn how to avoid some impending mistakes? The main character of Sean Ferrell's Man in the Empty Suit is a time traveler who not only visits himself in time, but also parties with these versions of himself. Every year, he travels to an abandoned hotel in New York City (the city in which he was born) in the year 2071 (100 years after he was born) to celebrate his birthday with all of his former and future selves. However, things are about to get less celebratory for the 39-year-old version of the traveler when he finds his 40-year-old self dead with a gunshot wound to the head. How can there be older versions of himself at the party if he was shot dead at 40? The Elders aren't talking; it's up to the 39-year-old version to find out, and he has only one year to do so or else they are all goners.

Unburning Alexandria by Paul Levinson 

Unburning Alexandria is the sequel to Paul Levinson's well-plotted time travel adventure The Plot to Save Socrates, which introduced graduate student Sierra Waters and saw her travel back in time to (1) learn the true identity of Heron of Alexandria, and (2) to save the philosopher Socrates from his tragic appointment with a cup of hemlock. Now she's determined to alter history yet again by saving one of the greatest sources of knowledge of all time, the ancient Library of Alexandria, from the fatal fire that destroyed it. In her trip to the past, Sierra will encounter old friends and other historical figures like Hypatia, Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe, Ptolemy the astronomer, and St. Augustine. A lot of time hopping can sometimes become confusing, but Levinson's stories are intricately plotted and avoid the tricky Gordian knots of paradoxes with skill and fun.

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal.