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Literature / Time Machine Series

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If you're looking for the classic novel by H. G. Wells, see The Time Machine.

Time Machine is a series of educational Gamebooks, published by Bantam Books in 1984-1989. Unlike many other works of this genre, the books only have one ending, reached usually by trial-and-error, although a lot of major choices let you consult a sheet of clues in the back of the book.

The premise is that the player is tasked by some unknown authority to travel to the past in order to unravel a historical mystery. Following a strict set of time-travel rules, the protagonist finds themself skipping back and forth through several centuries of history, braving dangers and somehow always coming across famous historical figures.

Time Machine provides examples of:

  • Can't Take Anything with You: Leaving items from a future epoch behind is one of the things forbidden by the "time travel rules".
  • Changed My Jumper: The protagonist is always careful to take clothes appropriate for his destination; when he time-travels into different eras entirely, some people may casually comment on his weird clothes.
  • Covers Always Lie: At least in the Polish edition, the back covers sometimes feature a situation from the book and hint that you will have two choices in that situation (and that if you choose wrong, you'll end up stuck in a time loop). Most of the time, it turns out that when this part comes in the book, you don't actually have the choices presented by the cover.
  • Fetch Quest: A few of the books actually require you to bring back a certain item as proof that you completed your mission. For example, in American Revolutionary, you had to bring back the musket of the individual who fired the first shot of the Revolutionary War, and in Last of the Dinosaurs, you had to obtain a dinosaur tooth as proof that you did find the last of the dinosaurs.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: Supposedly, if you break the time travel rules, you risk being trapped in one of these. In practice, an easier way to end up in one is to take the wrong inventory item at the beginning.
    • Since bad choices make you re-read pages you've read already, the protagonist technically falls into a few short loops (with two or three iterations, tops) on his every adventure. (Since some of them involve arduous weeks- or even months-long trips, it's probably not pleasant...)
  • Hint System: The last page contains hints that help you in choosing the right path on some pages.
  • In Spite of a Nail: On one hand, the rules forbid you from changing history; on the other hand, the protagonist tends to save random people's lives without a thought, even if they would die without his being there.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Your time machine apparently has a mind of its own and a thing for depositing you just at the right time and place.
  • Inventory Management Puzzle: So, you can take a tiny compass... a tiny lockpick... OR a huge unwieldy scary mask, but only ONE of these.
    • Strangely, this is often broken by the fact that if you choose the WRONG one, you are stuck when it comes to that point in the book.
  • Kid Hero: The protagonist. The exact age is unclear, but seems to be somewhere around 13, with characters you meet sometimes commenting something like why you're not in class. Which doesn't stop him from people occasionally treating him as someone older for sake of the plot; for instance, he can end up becoming a full-fledged astronaut.
  • Plot Hole: Sometimes, if you take a specific path, the protagonist will end up knowing things he shouldn't.
  • P.O.V. Cam: All the illustrations are from the protagonist's point of view.
  • Present Tense Narrative: As usual in a gamebook.
  • Second-Person Narration: Also usual for a gamebook.
  • Time Machine: Gee, ya think?
  • Time Travel: Why, yes, it tends to come up.
  • Time-Travelers Are Spies: Commonly happens to you, such as being accused of being a Mexican spy in the American-Mexican war when you fail to correctly name the American president and general.
  • Unwinnable by Design: Some books offer you a few items in the beginning, and you have to choose one to take. Usually, choosing the wrong one will get you stuck halfway through.
  • What Year Is This?: Not only that, but the protagonist also tends to be surprisingly oblivious about pretty much everything about the era where he's going. Rarely does this get him anything worse than a weird look.
  • The X of Y: A lot of the titles.

The individual books:

Secret of the Knights (1984)

For six hundred years, the highest honor in England has been to be made a knight of the Order of the Garter. King Edward III began this order sometime in the 1340s. Members wear a blue garter of cloth around their sleeves, on which is written “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” This is the motto of the Order of the Garter. The Protagonist travels back to determine why the best knights in England choose a garter as their symbol and what their motto means.

Search for Dinosaurs (1984)

The protagonist must take a picture of an Archaeopterix, the first bird. Most of the book consists of figuring out where and when the Archaeopterix lived, by hopping back and forwards through the Mesozoic and piecing together information.

Sword of the Samurai (1984)

The protagonist travels to 17th century Japan in search of a sword wielded by Miyamoto Musashi.

Sail with Pirates (1984)

The protagonist accompanies Captain Phips in the seventeenth century in order to find the wreck of Concepcion, a Spanish ship carrying colossal amounts of silver.
  • Fortune Teller: Old, blind, but oddly knowledgeable black woman who gives you cryptic hints (and is one of the few persons to apparently know about your time travel; or at least she knows you're a great traveller.)
  • Futureshadowing: The very beginning of the book has you meet a man who mentions meeting you before, and is talking about things you'll do much later (from your perspective), while time-travelling into the past. Strangely, it's possible to finish the adventure without ever actually doing the things the man mentions you doing...
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: The pilot from Concepcion after being alone for a long time.
  • Jerkass: Jim Teal, a young sailor whose emnity you accidentally earn in the past... late in the book (damn time travel), and who subsequently bullies you the entire time you're his crewmate.
  • The Longitude Problem: The reader gets stranded on a small island in the Caribbean with some sailors. There's an argument when the sailors try to determine their latitude and the reader suggests figuring out their longitude. This is immediately shot down as impossible. Which is decidedly odd, because figuring a longitude of a fixed place, instead of moving ship, is relatively easy, if a somewhat long process. Of course, these are common sailors who may not have the math or astronomical skills necessary to carry out that process.
  • Pirates: Gritty, realistic type. They aren't dashing and romantic.

Civil War Secret Agent (1984)

Set during the Civil War, the protaonist must locate Harriet Tubman and find out what became of a slave named Thomas Dean.

The Rings of Saturn (1985)

An Oddball in the Series, as it sends the protagonist to The Future. This frees the writer from the shackles of historical accuracy, making the book essentially a Troperiffic showcase of pretty much every single Science Fiction trope in the book. The protagonist's mission is finding out the source of mysterious signals coming from Saturn.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Used to escape from the nasty Space Pirates.
  • Cyborgs: Quite a lot of them, and some consider themselves superior to mundane humans.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: You run into one of these when you train to be an astronaut. If you screw up, you end up reassigned to train elsewhere under an intelligent dolphin. Who's even nastier.
  • Fantastic Racism: Humans fear cyborgs. It's meant to be shown as intolerance, but, interestingly, pretty much all cyborgs you meet on your way are in fact evil. They even form a terrorist organization, C.O.W. (Cyborgs Overrunning the World).
  • Mad Scientist: Who transports you into Another Dimension against your will.
  • Psychic Powers: Several mutants with a multitude of powers, living in a wildlife preserve. Their powers range from telepathy through future sight to teleportation.
  • Robot Dog: Protecting the mansion of an important senator. It can be switched from ferocious guard dog mode to a lovable, face-licking pooch mode.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: Telepathic dolphin officers, to boot.
  • Space Pirates: Their crew made up of cyborgs with a secret base on the Moon.
  • Spoiler Cover: The plot of the book is finding out the source of mysterious signals from Saturn. At the end, it turns out it was a crashed alien spaceship. The pilot is still living in suspended animation and the protagonist wakes him up. Except the cover for the book shows the alien in all his glory, though, admittedly, until the end you're likely to not realize that it was something from the actual book and not just a random, sci-fi themed picture.

Ice Age Explorer (1985)

The Mystery of Atlantis (1985)

Travelling through Ancient Greece, the protagonist is trying to find out the mystery of... take a guess.
  • Atlantis: But not really. It's just Crete.
  • Changed My Jumper: Averted here; you can time-travel all over the world and all over history, and nobody ever notices you're a kid in an ancient Greek chiton.
  • Future Imperfect: Though not with the future; it is stated that the tale of Atlantis is an exaggeration of a tale about a destructive volcano explosion near Crete, which caused the downfall of Cretan civilization.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: If you try and tell a suspicious city guard that you are a Scyth, he will promptly quiz you on a piece of Scythian culture (since he is a Scyth himself.) You fail, at which point he decides you're a runaway slave.
  • Slave Galley: You can temporarily become part of this.

Wild West Rider (1985)

The protagonist is sent to the Old West to learn why the Pony Express failed after 18 months.

American Revolutionary (1985)

The protagonist travels to Revolutionary War-era America to determine who fired the first shot of the American Revolution and retrieve the musket.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: Averted. The text specifically instructs you that you are not to steal the musket that is the object of your mission or to otherwise change history to obtain it.

Mission to World War II (1986)

Emanuel Ringleblum was a famous freedom fighter and historian during World War II and the Holocaust. He has hidden several incriminating documents about the Nazis, and the protagonist must to travel back to Warsaw, Poland, and retrieve these documents.

Search for the Nile (1986)

The protagonist heads to the late nineteenth century to accompany Henry Morton Stanley in order to find out what is the source of Nile.
  • Arc Words: "Buala Matari". What's it mean, and why is Stanley called that on his tomb?
  • God Guise: The protagonist, after ending up in a hut in an African village, accidentally ends up wearing a panther skin. The fearful tribesmen take him for a panther-bodied supernatural being. However, as soon as the hero is alone with the tribe's shaman, he takes off his disguise. The shaman has a good laugh, and admits he was fooled for a second. Then he sends the hero on his way, promising not to blow his cover in front of the tribe.
  • Great White Hunter: Sir Mortimer P. Quimby III. Subverted - this particular hunter is content merely to track down the animal and aim his rifle without actually shooting, solely for the satisfaction of outwitting the beast.
  • Insistent Terminology: Do not call Henry Stanley "captain". Or else he will... well... chastise you mildly.

Secret of the Royal Treasure (1986)

The protagonist is sent to Elizabethan England to determine which of Queen Elizabeth's suitors' ring she wore on her deathbed.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Of the deliberate type; early on, you meet a man with a stub where his hand should be. Depending on where you go, you can jump back to an earlier time where the man is revealed to be a wanted cutpurse and one of the constables arresting him mentions that the cutpurse's hand will be cut off as punishment.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: You find a purse full of coins at one point and upon finding a constable to turn the purse over, the owner of the purse mistakenly identifies you as the thief, leading you to flee.

Blade of the Guillotine (1986)

The protagonist finds himself in the times of The French Revolution, seeking a priceless diamond necklace. The objective soon shifts from merely finding the treasure to using it to buy the life of an innocent French girl.
  • Blind Alley: Used to escape an angry royalist blacksmith.
  • Kangaroo Court: Invoked; if you're not carrying the correct item at one point, your character is arrested as an enemy of the French Revolution. You demand a fair trial and your captors respond that you will get a fair one...and then you'll most likely be guillotined.
  • MacGuffin: The necklace, natch.
  • Riddle Me This: Subverted. When given a cryptic answer about the necklace's location, you have to interpret the "riddle" literally. If you try to be smart and go for the metaphorical meaning, you'll just end up in trouble.
  • Time Travel Escape: Specifically happens when you visit Robespierre. While trying to escape, you run right into a closet and jump in time. One of the rules of time travel at the start of each book warns you to not disappear in a way that startles people or makes them suspicious. The text even acknowledges that everyone will be in for a shock when they open the closet.

Flame of the Inquisition (1986)

This mission has the protagonist discover why the famously kind and sensitive Queen Isabella permitted the Spanish Inquisition to take place.
  • Changed My Jumper: Deconstructed. One possible decision has you jump to New England around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Since you're dressed in clothing from around the time of the Spanish Inquisition, you not only stick out like a sore thumb; you also get accused of being a witch.

Quest for the Cities of Gold (1987)

The protagonist heads to America in the sixteenth century in order to investigate the rumors of the supposed "cities of gold" searched for by the conquistadors.
  • Human Sacrifice: Almost done to you by Aztec priests (who else in that era and location?)
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: The protagonist ends up in the Florida swamps at one point, and while exploring along with an Indian boy they end up attacked by alligators. The boy escapes, while the protagonist time-travels his way out of there.
  • Small Reference Pools: Implied in-universe. At one point, you come upon an American soldier who suspects you to be a Mexican spy (this being the Mexican–American War), and demands you correctly name the president and the general of the American army. The protagonist says "Abraham Lincoln" and "Ulysses Grant", the two names any schoolboy vaguely associates with that time period. This gets him into trouble — the correct names are the more obscure James Polk and Zachary Taylor.

Scotland Yard Detective (1987)

The mission is to help Scotland Yard solve a major case with political implications. An Indian prince vanishes, straining tense relations between the British Empire and India.
  • Kid Detective: The protagonist becomes one of these as it is the mission to help Scotland Yard solve the aformentioned case. Later on, you meet another Scotland Yard operative, revealed to be a female and not much older than the protagonist!
  • Look Behind You: Used to escape an Aztec guard to avoid fate of a Human Sacrifice, by persuading him to look outside at a supposed earthquake so that you can time-travel out of your prison. Not that it will help you if you've ended up in that paragraph.
  • Shown Their Work: The text makes mention of new crime solving tools coming into use around that time such as photography and fingerprinting.

Sword of Caesar (1987)

The protagonist must discover the ultimate fate of a battle sword wielded by Julius Caesar.
  • Shown Their Work: Besides famous historical figures of Rome, the text talks a lot about social classes in Rome and other details. In fact, they even get the costuming right; while initially being outfitted at the start with time-appropriate clothes, you are told to avoid wear red footwear which was reserved for members of the Roman Senate.

Death Mask of Pancho Villa (1987)

Bound for Australia (1987)

The protagonist goes with Captain Cook to Australia to find out the identity of the first European settler to live there long term.

Caravan to China (1987)

Last of the Dinosaurs (1988)

The protagonist must find the very last of the dinosaurs prior to their extinction and as proof, bring back a dinosaur tooth.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The solution has you fulfilling the mission by finding a dinosaur tooth from a nearby carcass. However, you see a freshly hatched baby dinosaur nearby poking around its dead mother; the text tells you that it will not survive long.
  • Feathered Fiend: In a Hilarious in Hindsight way for a book published in the late 1980s, the Deinonychus is coated in feathers.
  • Raptor Attack: Deinonychus appears again, and this time, in a surprisingly forward-thinking move for dinosaur media of 1988, it's got a coating of feathers.

Quest for King Arthur (1988)

The protagonist travels through ancient Britain, attempting to find the original inspiration for Arthurian Legend.

World War I Flying Ace (1988)

The protagonist is sent back in time to take a picture of the Red Baron on the morning of his final mission.
  • Red-plica Baron: The last book in the series, World War I Flying Ace, asks the reader to find out who shot down the Red Baron and take a photograph to prove the answer.

Special Edition: World War II Code Breaker (1989)

The protagonist is sent to both theaters of World War II, tasked with picking up a decoded message from each. This "Special Edition" is double in length to others in the series, mainly by having separate individual book-length War in Europe and War in Pacific sections that don't intersect.