Sometime in the late 80's/early 90's I read a short story about a group of people (I think they were researchers at a university) who go back in time to change something, and then keep going back again and again to try and undo their changes.

I don't remember why they went back in time in the first place; most (all?) of the action of the story is just the characters discussing what went wrong with their last trip, after they return to the present which gets weirder and weirder each time.

The only details I can positively remember are:

  • One of the time-travelers gets erased from history on one of the trips.
  • At one point, the "present" the travelers return to is almost exactly like the Nunyuninni scene from American Gods--the characters are in a smoky tent and they take turns putting their heads in a mammoth skull to speak.

The scene in "my" story may not be as close as I thought to the Nunyuninni bit in American Gods; the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the characters were using a mask (and not a skull) to speak through.

  • 2
    There was a Simpsons episodes just like this where homer turned the toaster into a time machine!!
    – AidanO
    Nov 15 '12 at 12:56

I managed to find this one myself; "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" by R.A. Lafferty.

From this review:

‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ was first published in Galaxy in 1967 .... a comic exaggeration of a familiar time travel paradox .... Their plan is to change history: ‘We are going to tamper with one small detail in past history and note its effect’ ... Specifically, Epiktistes will send an avatar back in time to kill the man who betrayed Charlemagne at Roncevalles in 778, and who thus effectively caused Christian Europe to be cut off from Islamic and Jewish scholarship. .... As they are preparing for the experiment, Willy McGilly reveals that, when he was a boy, he went back in time and, with a dart made of slippery elm wood, killed: ‘King Wu of the Manchu, Pope Adrian VII, President Hardy of our own country, King Marcel of Auvergne, the philosopher Gabriel Toeplitz. It’s a good thing we got them. They were a bad lot’ (174). When the others protest that they have never heard of any of these people, Epiktistes backs him up: ‘Where do you think I got the idea?’ (174). .... Someone changes history, and no-one can remember how things were before the change.

.... despite their evident satisfaction with the world as it (now) is, they decide to continue with the experiment. Abruptly, the moral underpinning of the story is transformed. Willy McGilly’s initial efforts to change history removed from the record characters who were ‘a bad lot’. The group’s first experiment was designed to improve the world by facilitating the spread of human knowledge and thus eliminating the Dark Ages. Even their target for assassination, a traitor whose actions brought about a massacre, was no innocent and so might be considered worthy of his fate. So far, what has been done can be presented as morally worthy. But the decision to continue with the experiment is not made for the betterment of humankind, but out of the sin of pride, and hang the consequences:

.... Suddenly the group is reduced to four: ‘the three humans and the ghost Epikt, who was a kachenko mask with a speaking tube’ (181), and they are reduced to stone age conditions, ‘nude in the crude’ .... While Epiktistes the AI is here reframed as a cult object: ‘We made his frame out of the best sticks, and we plaited his face out of the finest weeds and grasses. We chanted him full of magic and placed all our special treasures in his cheek pouches’ ....


I think of "The End of Eternity" by Isaac Asimov. It had an organization of time travelers, who travel through time and make fine calculated adjustments.

  • Not the right one, but sounds like a book I'd like to read--thanks!
    – Ash Logan
    Sep 18 '11 at 13:30
  • It's one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever. Jan 8 '19 at 1:53

The closest I can think to that is Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, but only if you are crossing it with something else in your memory (something I do all the time.)

It involves the invention of a past viewing device that eventually leads to a time travel device. It doesn't have them go back and forth, because after changing history they future will not exist (only those who traveled still exist from that alternate future), but one of the things that decided them on traveling was discovering that a PREVIOUS future had already done this once before, but screwed it up, to some degree. So there is a bit of 'Ok.. lets try this again, since our alternates in some other future failed...'

Also, when they travel back, and deal with Central Americans (Incas or Mayas, I think, but it's been a while) at least one of them engages in a somewhat horric act of religious self mutilation..

Don't THINK it's your story.. but it has elements...

  • That's a great book, but it's not the one I was looking for.
    – Ash Logan
    Sep 14 '11 at 22:10

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