Can anyone tell me the name (and date) of the earliest story that deals with these kinds of journeys through cosmic time?

I love stories that include journeys across incredible gulfs of time. I am looking for the earliest story that deals with journeys/visions/histories spanning hundreds of millions or billions of years. Examples include Stapledon's incredible "Starmaker" (1937), some of Lovecraft's mythos stories ("At the Mountains of Madness", 1931), Hodgson's "The House on the Borderland" (1907) and, of course, parts of Well's "The Time Machine" (1895). These are different from stories that take place entirely in some far distant time (the "Dying Earth" type stories).

(Note: I am not looking for the earliest time travel story, or the earliest story that takes place in another time.)


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    Since you've previously asked a "list" question, and since this question has a list of works in it's body text, I'm erring on the side of caution and voting to close this as a possible list question in disguise. Please don't view this as a slap-down; I'm just putting the possibility on the floor as a means of seeking consensus (I freely admit that I may be wrong here). – user8719 Jan 15 '14 at 19:21
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    May I respectfully disagree? I am not asking for a list, but for the earliest story dealing with journeys across cosmic time frames. I include a short list of titles to convey the kind of book I'm asking about, to differentiate them from the "Dying Earth" and "The Night Land" type of story. I'd appreciate it if you could leave the question up there. – rws Jan 15 '14 at 19:26
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    Isn't this getting just a little pedantic? No, of course it isn't a list question. I am asking for one final answer, not people's opinions or preferences. As to minimum time frame - I am torn between 300,000,001 years, or, to play it safe, 299,999,999 years. It does make a difference. Any thoughts? – rws Jan 15 '14 at 21:12
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    I have another question, but I'm not sure where to post it. It is "Does anyone just enjoy themselves on this site, or is it all bogged down in this kind of adminis-trivia?" Am I actually being dinged because other people might answer in a way that doesn't meet some people's criteria? Is there any joy left in Mudville? – rws Jan 15 '14 at 22:07
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    Have you seen some of the questions here? What is the earliest work considered to be SF? What assurance do we have that we really know the minimal limits of Jeannie's powers in I Dream of Jeannie? Or that we really know why Brad Pitt didn't communicate "better" in WWZ? (these are real questions.) But my question is too vague? Is there a set of site standards I can read? Please. Relax, enjoy yourself; if you don't like my questions, you are completely free not to read or respond to them. Just don't ding me because I'm getting ironic in my responses. – rws Jan 15 '14 at 22:08

H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) seems to be the first published example, given that Wells coined the titular term and is credited with popularizing the topic of time travel in fiction. The cosmic scale in particular is likely unprecedented; according to this list earlier examples of time travel tend to explore human history on the scale of hundreds to thousands of years.

The Time Machine covers tens of millions of years of the narrator's journeys, revealing future species descended from humans and later the decay of earth's orbit and the end of life. It's not quite on the scale we would predict today, but in the context of the story it's shown to be a cosmically significant period of time.

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    Hi, Travis. Thanks for the intelligent and well-reasoned answer. You may be right - Wells's book is the earliest example so far. I'll keep the question open for a little while longer, just in case. But you may well have the final answer. Thanks again. – rws Jan 15 '14 at 22:11

If you're looking for early SF that spans vast amounts of time then I would suggest looking at The Lensman Series.

The series was written by Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith and was a runner-up for the Hugo award for Best All-Time Series, originally serialized in magazines before being collected and reworked into the well-known books which I have listed here:

  • Triplanetary (Originally published in four parts, January–April 1934, in Amazing Stories)
  • First Lensman (The only part of the series first published in book form, 1950 by Fantasy Press)
  • Galactic Patrol (Originally published in six parts, September 1937 – February 1938, in Astounding Stories)
  • Gray Lensman (Originally published in four parts, October 1939 – January 1940, Astounding Stories)
  • Second Stage Lensmen (Originally published in four parts, November 1941 – February 1942, Astounding Stories)
  • Children of the Lens (Originally published in four parts, November 1947 – February 1948, Astounding Stories)

The action begins with Triplanetary TWO BILLION YEARS before the present time (the 1930s). The universe has few life-forms aside from the ancient Arisians. The Eddorians, a power-hungry race, come into our universe from a 'sister galaxy' (know in the series as The Second Galaxy) which ours passes though on it's course though space.

This results in the formation of billions of planets and the development of life upon some of them. Dominance over these life-forms would offer Eddor an opportunity to satisfy its lust for power and control. The Arisians, who have developed vast mental power, are able to foresee a terrible future if the Eddorians continue unchecked.

In order to end this threat to all creation Arisia begins a plan that will take Billions of years to complete involving guiding the races of The First Galaxy (our galaxy) in secret until they are evolved enough to build the Galactic Patrol.

Once the planets of our galaxy have begun working together for the common good, at some unspecified time in the future, the Arisians reveal themselves (though not their plans) and provide the Patrol with the Lens. The Lens gives its wearer a variety of mental capabilities, including those needed to enforce the law on alien planets, and to bridge the communication gap between different life-forms.

It can provide mind-reading and telepathic abilities and if it is worn by anyone other than its owner it will kill that wearer.

The Lensmen books are one of the first SF stories (if not THE first) to be told throughout an actual series of books, not to mention taking place over billions of years. It has influenced just about every Space Opera since and it's even the basis for the DC comic series Green Lantern.

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    Very cool. I feel embarrassed that I've never read them, as famous as they are. And I had no idea they covered that kind of time frame. That is so cool. Thanks for teaching me something new. THey were published after "House On The Borderland" and "The Time Machine," though, so they aren't the earliest example. – rws Jan 16 '14 at 7:35
  • Right, but as the time covered in The Lensmen Series is far vaster than the House On The Borderland, which only movies a 100 Million or so, and you specifically mentioned you weren't looking for TIMETRAVEL stories I thought this might actually be a decent answer for you. – 22nd Century Fza Jan 16 '14 at 12:33
  • The Lafferty yarn I mentioned earlier, "Been a Long, Long Time", is from 1970 but it takes place on a much vaster scale than anything else that has been mentioned. – user14111 Jan 18 '14 at 9:02

Stapledon's Last and First Men was in 1930, so has a fair claim to be at least one of the first.

  • I agree, Stapledon was one of the early ones, but not the earliest. I love his books. Thanks for the answer. – rws Jan 15 '14 at 19:29

My answer here to a question about early fictional works dealing with evolution includes several works whose descriptions suggest they depict vast passages of time--here's the earliest one I found that seems like a good candidate for what you're asking:

The book Encyclopedia of Time discusses Restif de la Bretonne on p. 530, discussing another book he wrote that seems to involve evolutionary ideas: "He exploits a far-future setting with stunning originality, though without complete success, in Les Posthumes (1802). Here Restif portrays several million years of future history ... Biological evolution and vast geological changes, including the appearance of a second moon, are sketched as a backdrop for the life of Duke Multipliandre, a man born in the eighteenth century with the ability to project his mind into the bodies of other people and thus survive through succeeding eras to experience drastic social transformations along with changes in the human form." The book is available online here (in the original French). There seems to be a multi-page plot description of Les Posthumes in the book Origins of Futuristic Fiction by Paul Alkon, but unfortunately the key pages dealing with the far future are not available on google books.


As far as expanse of time, there is time travel (Time Machine), there is epoch history (Foundation series) and there is - for the lack of my imagination - leaving it behind, never to get back to. i.e. Futurama's "Forwards Time Machine" (The Late Philip J. Fry)

The earliest book that I know of that travels a vast expanse of time - where the travelers leave everything they know behind never to return to, is "The Forever War" by Haldeman. The time machine in this instance is space travel and relativity. This was only written in 1974, so there must be a similar theme written before, but I just don't recall having ever read one (which doesn't mean I didn't read one, just don't recall).

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