I am just as surprised as you are that I’m reading another Doctor Who novel! As I explained when I reviewed Engines of War, media tie-ins are not myI am just as surprised as you are that I’m reading another Doctor Who novel! As I explained when I reviewed Engines of War, media tie-ins are not my thing. Especially for something as iconic as Doctor Who, I need the actors to pull off that characterization. Maybe I should check out the audio plays—I think I would genuinely enjoy those. So what compelled me to pick this up when I spied it in the library stacks? It has been a while since I read anything by Stephen Baxter—his hard SF novels fascinated me as an adolescent, but his flat characterization started to bore me as I grew older. I was curious, then, to see what a Doctor Who story as told by Baxter would bring.
The Wheel of Ice is a Second Doctor story with Jamie and Zoe as companions. The TARDIS takes them to the rings of Saturn, slightly in our future, where humans are preparing to mine the moon Mnemosyme for its abnormally rich deposits of bernalium. The TARDIS has detected a “relative continuum displacement zone” and refuses to take off until the Doctor does something about it. But that means navigating the politics of interstellar profit lines and trying to communicate with a billions-year-old, failing artificial intelligence with tremendous guilt. Oh, and Jamie goes skiing or something.
I love the atmosphere of this story. It definitely feels Doctor Whoish, and it feels Second Doctory, with his penchant for history, science, and generally trying to avoid authority figures as much as possible. There are plenty of subplots and underlying themes about social organization, surveillance states, corporations overreaching themselves, etc.; this is as socially conscious as any other Doctor Who story. And even the threat is that most classic of Doctor Who monsters: an alien being that just wants to go home.
Alas, The Wheel of Ice does not serve up an equally enthralling story. The plot feels like one of those TV serials that got stretched for four twenty-minute episodes when it could have been two (and in the Second Doctor’s day they still sometimes even did six, yikes!). There’s a lot of aimless gadding about and repetitive trips to Mnemosyme; in general, the pacing just feels off. I am also disappointed by the portrayal of the human antagonist, Florian Hart, who transforms from a thorn in the side to a megalomaniac with very little prompting. Doctor Who is at its worst when its human villains are cartoonish, and having a more nuanced antagonist would have done a lot for this book.
One thing that intrigues me about this book: it’s very odd reading a Second Doctor story written in the present day compared to watching a Second Doctor story from the 1960s. The Doctors and their adventures are as much a product of the times as they are a product of the actors and writers involved. Baxter is inevitably influenced by twenty-first century events and ideas, such as the Internet, that shade and otherwise nudge this story into dimensions not necessarily seen in contemporary Second Doctor stories. I do not have the requisite experience in reading tie-ins to know, but I’d be curious if anyone has ever taken a closer look at this phenomenon—that is, has anyone done an analysis comparing contemporary stories with stories written about a previous Doctor decades afterwards?
Largely unremarkable, The Wheel of Ice was a welcome distraction—a cold, wet, March “beach read” if you will. I don’t regret suppressing my urge, as it came up next off my to-read shelf, to put it on the pile of books to return to the library without even cracking the cover. But it’s not how I like to experience my Doctor Who, and I suspect that even regular readers of these novels won’t find this one particular energizing or unique.
So you’re fourteen years old, and you’re on a vision quest. It’ll be another hundred years or so before Europeans show up and tell your people that, aSo you’re fourteen years old, and you’re on a vision quest. It’ll be another hundred years or so before Europeans show up and tell your people that, actually, Turtle Island is going to be called “North America” and was empty before they showed up. But I digress. You want to get a vision so you can become a man, but this stupid turtle just won’t shut up … ohhhhh.
Meanwhile, you’re fourteen years old, and you’re walking along the train tracks, even though your dad told you not to, because who listens to their dad? He’s just a police officer with a totally rational fear of his kid getting hit by a train. You’re just minding your own business, avoiding a bully and saving a train from derailing because one of the tracks is out. You didn’t ask to meet Gathering Cloud and help him fight off a wendigo.
It’s always a pleasure to receive as a gift a good book that you would otherwise probably not know about. My friend Carly gave me Out of Time because she was intrigued by the promise of a time travel novel set on the shores of Lake Superior and including Anishinabe mythology. The lives of two fourteen-year-old boys from very different times and places collide, allowing them to work together to vanquish a monster and learn more about themselves in the process. It’s an adventure combined with an after-school special in that most Canadian of storytelling traditions.
Out of Time succeeds largely because David Laderoute keeps it simple. There’s a contained cast of characters, a clear enemy, and a clear goal. The plot is simple too, the arc almost predictable—but that doesn’t mean it’s unfulfilling. The way Laderoute allows the boys to defeat the wendigo temporarily, only for it to come back stronger and with a vengeance, is pretty clever. While the moments of moral clarity, as I want to call them, are a little heavy-handed, I think this is a common problem in YA (and maybe I’m wrong to call them a problem—maybe they should be this way, and it’s only my overexposure to Star Trek: The Next Generation that makes all this moral stuff look obvious to me).
Time travel gimmicks and cultural allusions aside, this is a novel about courage in the face of selfishness. It’s about being prepared to sacrifice, and about knowing when you need to stand up for others even if you’re going to get hurt in the process. It’s about choosing your battles, knowing when to wait instead of rushing forward, and always respecting and listening to the counsel of others. There is plenty of “message” here, but it’s paired with a fairly slick action-adventure. Moreover, the book generally avoids falling into any of the sundry sub-genres that seem to have sprung up in YA in the past decade: it’s not dystopian, or about gangs, or overly-concerned with high school and dating. There are no vampires, werewolves, angels, or ghosts here. Well maybe ghosts. And I’m not trying to disparage those sub-genres or tropes if they are your thing—but if they aren’t, then you’ll find Out of Time that refreshment you want.
And of course, as a Thunder Bay resident, there’s always the thrill of seeing one’s home turf portrayed in a book. In this case it’s the smaller, fictional community of Stone Harbour. But it feels very Thunder Bay at some moments, and that’s what matters.
Gathering Cloud and Riley are both viable, vivid protagonists. They are similar in a lot of ways, as energetic and inquisitive fourteen-year-old boys are wont to be. Laderoute points out their differences across time and culture but doesn’t belabour the point. Handwaving the magic of the time travel and the language barriers aside, there’s the right amount of confusion when the two first meet, and of course the hilarity of Cloud trying to navigate a world of telephones and trains. I sincerely hope that he didn’t catch any diseases while in our time. It would suck if he went back to the past only to communicate something to his entire tribe. We’re going to be optimistic here and say that didn’t happen…. Similarly, Laderoute doesn’t give us much perspective on whether Riley uses this as an opportunity to continue learning about First Nations beliefs and culture. Again, let’s be optimistic.
Although Out of Time features a creature of aboriginal myth as its antagonist, not to mention several other prominent spirits, it actually doesn’t portray any contemporary indigenous people. Riley attempts to pass Cloud off as “an aboriginal kid, you know, from the reserve up the highway,” a dubious proposition at best. And look, it’s great to increase the visibility of aboriginal culture, beliefs, and ideas in this way, and to show someone like Riley interacting positively with an indigenous person from any time. However, I just want to use this opportunity to point out that what we really need in our contemporary Canadian YA market are more books that feature relationships between white and indigenous youth. Moreover, with this approach Laderoute inadvertently perpetuates a common trope: Indigenous peoples are figures of the past and erased or invisible in our present.
I could have done without the smaller-than-normal font size and the spacing between paragraphs. Conventions exist for a reason; break them at your peril. ’Nuff said!
Out of Time has a good plot and great pacing. Other than the protagonists, the rest of the cast isn’t very remarkable. I enjoyed that Jonah was more than a two-dimensional bully. However, your enjoyment of this book is largely going to come from whether you manage to care about Riley and/or Cloud and their battle against an evil spirit.
I’ll end off by saying that I am always a little more than sceptical when approaching books from small presses and by local authors. This probably isn’t fair of me, but I am only human. I’m trying really hard though to convey the fact that I enjoyed Out of Time. Neither the characters nor the subject matter happens to be what I typically read in YA (or elsewhere), despite the inclusion of stuff like time travel, so it’s hard to say this book excited me or left me tingling. All other things considered, though, it’s pretty good, and I’d recommend it if it sounds like something your speed.
I want to say that I don’t remember these books being as dark as they seem now, but I think that would be a lie. Young!Ben recognized the darkness—butI want to say that I don’t remember these books being as dark as they seem now, but I think that would be a lie. Young!Ben recognized the darkness—but for me, at that age, that wasn’t even the draw. I was more about the adventure and the heroism of these young characters—the science-fictional elements were really the coolest thing. Now when I read Megamorphs #2: In the Time of the Dinosaurs I’m focusing more on how messed up these situations are.
So in this, our second blockbuster-style Animorphs novel, K.A. Applegate is all, “Oh, you want a longer book with a punchier plot so you can sell it for a couple dollars more and market the hell out of it? OK, then. Be careful what you wish for!” The Animorphs go back in time (again), 65 million years to be (more or less) precise. Indeed, they conveniently arrive just before the comet that triggers the extinction of the dinosaurs hits the Earth. (Well, whether the comet would have hit the Earth if the Animorphs hadn’t shown up is another question.)
It’s worth noting that there is not a Yeerk in sight in this book. The Animorphs go play superhero to help rescue people from a sunk nuclear submarine, and that precipitates their temporal incursion. (There is literally no debate about risking exposure by playing superhero like there has been in the past.) Once thrown back in time through that ol’ pal of theirs, the Sario Rip, the Animorphs scrabble to survive amidst dinosaurs and two alien species fighting for dominance of the planet.
Let’s be perfectly clear here: if I were an Animorph, I would not survive in this book. Can we count the ways I would not survive?
I mean, I always talk about how badass Rachel is, and that’s the common refrain among her friends. But she is literally swallowed by a prehistoric sea creature in this book, demorphs into a human, and then morphs into a grizzly bear to fight her way out of the creature’s stomach. While being dissolved by stomach acid.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Animorphs—who are still, let’s remember, kids—are forced to walk through a prehistoric jungle in bare feet, with just leotards and T-shirts and tight shorts, surviving without any technology or survival gear. I would not survive this. Unless you are Bear Grylls, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you would probably not survive this either. These kids are tough. Ford wishes their trucks were built as tough as these kids.
And that’s just the physical trauma. There’s also plenty of psychological trauma to go around in this book.
Tobias almost eats grizzly Rachel when he morphs a deinonychus.
Cassie gets overpowered by a T-rex morph and freaks out, kills a triceratops, and loses her shit.
Oh, and Tobias and Ax sabotage a nuclear bomb in order to preserve the future, even though it makes them all complicit in wiping out a sentient species that was kind enough to help them obtain the bomb in the first place so they could get back to their own time.
I love that whole doublecross and the way Applegate reveals it. The Mercora show up and ask for the bomb, and Jake asks them for time to make a group decision. The group votes to give them the bomb—and then Tobias reveals what he did. It is a betrayal of everyone. Until now the group has been united in how it proceeds—either by vote or by Jake’s leadership. Tobias acted unilaterally (albeit with assistance from Ax) because he felt it was “the right thing to do.” This was a dangerous, perhaps even reckless act, despite being necessary from the perspective of someone who wants to get back to their own time.
But it has such an element of classical tragedy to it. The whole idea of Tobias taking this guilt on his own shoulders, and the fact that the rest of the Animorphs have to live with the burden of this knowledge. There are definite, if unspoken, comparisons to Yeerk behaviour here. Applegate wants her readers to think about how our decisions affect other lives, and how very often we rationalize something as being “noble” or “right” when in reality it’s just preferable for our survival. Marco is more correct than he knows, earlier in the book, when he speaks the harsh truth about this being a struggle for survival.
Damn, these psychological scars are piling on faster than Lindsay Lohan’s court appearances. I sure hope it doesn’t cause one of the Animorphs to want to quit….
Let’s begin with a disclaimer that I read this because my dad gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I don’t, generally, read media tie-in novels—or comicLet’s begin with a disclaimer that I read this because my dad gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I don’t, generally, read media tie-in novels—or comics. Despite my abiding desire to continue Buffy or Farscape, I just can’t do it. I read—and greatly enjoyed—many of the Star Trek novels when I was a child. Nevertheless, I find that the actors bring something to their portrayal of a character that not even the best writer can capture. (The best novels are the ones by writers who manage to come close.) In the physicality of the performance, the way the actors make use of the set and the reactions of other characters, we receive so much more than mere narration and dialogue can convey.
Now, Doctor Who: Engines of War is a War Doctor novel, so that makes things more interesting. With only the one television appearance of the War Doctor, we don’t have much to go on. So George Mann has a little more latitude. That being said, I think John Hurt did an amazing job during the 50th anniversary special. So does Mann manage to capture the way the Doctor’s enthusiasm is constantly bubbling to the surface, even in this, his most serious of incarnations?
I don’t know. I don’t really have any experience to judge this sort of thing. The Doctor in this novel is just not my Doctor (any of them) because he isn’t on TV. It’s more like I’m reading Doctor Who fan-fiction … just officially sanctioned fan-fiction.
Thematically, this is a very strong work. Engines of War leads into The Day of the Doctor, showing us the events that finally galvanized the Doctor into using the Moment. As usual, it’s not the fate of billions that moves the Doctor so much as it is the sacrifice of a single human being. Time and again, we see the Doctor’s companions act as mirrors for his own morality—stopping him when he is going too far, and pushing him on when he hasn’t gone far enough.
For Doctor Who fans, this is a book full of continuity references. The Doctor’s attitude, and the Time War itself, has its origins in his fateful decision not to abort the creation of the Daleks way back in Genesis of the Daleks. That was one of the most tense moments of the entire show, and so much interesting drama has since developed out of that one question of morality.
Now on Moldox we see the Daleks testing a super-weapon that is meant to wipe out Gallifrey and win them the Time War. The Time Lords want to stop that, but with collateral damage of the billions of humans in that system. The Doctor, of course, can’t stand for that. Mann further develops the idea planted in the new series that the Time War changed the Time Lords for the worse, particularly after they resurrected the ruthless Rassilon to lead them.
The plot, by comparison, underwhelms—though I find that’s pretty common, even with the television episodes. Lots of running to and fro, little clever conversations with various characters, and then a bombastic climax in which the Doctor manages to scrape through on his brilliance and—more often than not—his companions’ heroism. It’s an easy read.
That’s about it. If you like Doctor Who, there is a lot you will enjoy in this book. If you like these novels, I suspect you’ll find this a good one. This has not changed my mind about Doctor Who novels or other tie-in novels. It was the palate-cleanser I was looking for, but I don’t feel as enriched by it as I do with most books.
I remember reading the hard copy version of this as a kid and marvelling at how much thicker it was thanSo … yeah. This book made me cry, at the end.
I remember reading the hard copy version of this as a kid and marvelling at how much thicker it was than your typical Animorphs novel. Don’t get me wrong—by that age I was already mainlining The Lord of the Rings and Dune, so I was already acquainted with long novels. Until now, though, Applegate had intentionally been keeping her stories not just short, but brief.
The Andalite Chronicles shook up that format, introducing a subseries of Animorphs that would let Applegate tell stories from the perspectives of non-Animorphs characters. The honour of the first story goes to Elfangor, the guy who kicked off this whole crazy adventure when he crash-lands on Earth and gives the Animorphs their powers in the first place. Now Applegate shows us how he got to that point—and in doing so, reveals that she, much like the Cylons (but not, apparently, Ron Moore), has a plan.
In its departure from Earth for most of the book, The Andalite Chronicles allows Applegate to expand on themes she wants to make universal. For example, Elfangor is a hero; Visser Three is a villain. Applegate wants to show that these archetypes are not localized to the human species but instead apply to a collection of actions and ideals. Lest that become reductive, however, she also points out that the universe is not black and white. Elfangor is a hero, yes, but he both makes mistakes and makes morally questionable decisions. Visser Three is a villain, but he displays an opportunistic pragmatism—and I’m sure that he sees himself as a hero for his people (but this isn’t his book—his book comes later—so we’ll talk more about Elfangor now).
It’s a real treat to see more Andalites in this book. Andalites, in a book called The Andalite Chronicles, you say? Shocking! Until now, though, we’ve only really met a handful of Andalites—and one of them was a Controller. Now we get to see Andalites in action. We learn more about how they live, on ships and back at home, and even some of their history. Applegate once again balances the image of a proud warrior–scientistic culture the Andalites want to project with a backdrop of mistake after mistake caused by that pride. We see this in microcosm through the actions of Arbron and Alloran, both foils to Elfangor’s middle-of-the-road heroism. Arbron’s humour ultimately reveals itself as a mask for nihilism: trapped as a nothlit, he desperately seeks release until he finds a new sense of purpose. In contrast, when Elfangor must confront his bleakest moment, he finds an intrinsic core of strength and morality that allows him to act. But Alloran is too far along that spectrum: through his experiences his sense of morality has grown twisted, amoral, as he decides the ends always justify the means.
The humans in this book are fun too. Young!Chapman is a delight; even though the timeline in which he meets Elfangor is ultimately erased, it allows us to see why he agrees to become a Controller. Similarly, Loren is perhaps a bit of an author avatar for Applegate. She takes no bullshit from anybody, and she backs up Elfangor—sometimes with a softball bat. As the ending of this book implies, and as we learn in the next book, she is also a big deal to the Animorphs themselves….
Of course, it’s when the two cultures—Andalite and human—collide that we get the best moments of all. Elfangor’s observations of the peculiarities of humanity are reminiscent of the best of Ax’s from The Alien. Applegate can’t resist throwing in a few references for the historically-aware reader: Elfangor happens to be around to render some help to “Bill and Steve” to get their operating system working.
But there is, by far, a single crowning moment of awesome in The Andalite Chronicles: the sheer delight of Elfangor driving a yellow mustang across the Taxxon homeworld and through a barrier of Hork-Bajir. Best. Image. Ever.
There are some pretty great books in the series to come, but with The Andalite Chronicles Applegate reaches a pinnacle that proves how great this series can be.
Addison Coleman, or Addie, is a mutantTomorrow Person—damn it, she’s got mind powers, mmkay? But not floaty-move-stuff-with-your-mind powers—that’s TAddison Coleman, or Addie, is a mutantTomorrow Person—damn it, she’s got mind powers, mmkay? But not floaty-move-stuff-with-your-mind powers—that’s Telekinetics—or memory-erasing powers—that’s Erasing—she can see the two possible paths that branch from a choice she has to make—Discerning, or Divergence, or whatever. The names aren’t that important. This is the Tomorrow People if the Tomorrow People were led by adults and not afraid for their lives because they’re all safe in a Compound in Texas. Addie has led a pretty privileged and cushiony life. But that all changes when her parents divorce.
The eponymous Pivot Point is Addie’s choice of who to live with: Dad, who is leaving the Compound to live among the “norms”; or Mom, who is staying in the Compound and trying to keep everything status quo? Naturally Addie uses her power to find out what would happen along either path. Turns out that either way isn’t that good … but Kasie West doesn’t give Addie an easy way out. She has to choose one option.
Each chapter has a definition as an epigraph. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that the chapters where Addie chooses Dad start with words that have norm in them, while the chapters with Mom in the Compound have definitions of words that contain para. I see what you did there! It’s actually helpful, though, especially towards the middle of the book where the worldlines start to converge again.
This dual-worldline narrative is awesome. It’s by far one of the coolest reading experiences I’ve had in a while. West could have made it even more gimmicky, and I think she wisely chose to keep it pretty simple. One question I had early on after Addie embarked on her “Search” was simply, what happens if you Search within a Search? Is it possible to get into some kind of Search infinite regression? Fortunately, West poses and answers this question in the book. (No spoilers!)
As cool as the power sounds, if I’m nitpicking I have to point out how it seems to create false dilemmas. Or can Addie see all possible futures? For example, if she’s going to buy an ice cream cone and can choose chocolate, strawberry, or coconut, can she see all three? Or is this only ever a binary divergence phenomenon?
To be honest it doesn’t bother me too much. Addie’s power doesn’t really affect the plot beyond the macro-level structure it creates for the narrative. And that, as I said, is pretty cool. West alternates between the norm/para futures that Addie envisions. We see Addie make friends at a norm high school, only to drift away from her awesome but somewhat unstable best friend, Laila, back at the Compound. In the para-verse, Addie and Laila stay fast friends, but Addie starts dating the high school quarterback (blech) only to discover there’s something more sinister happening, and she’s getting involved whether she likes it or not.
The dualistic structure of the narrative makes for some fascinating dramatic irony. In both futures, Addie’s dad consults on a murder investigation back at the Compound. The same person of interest, a guy who pretends he’s cool by calling himself Poison, shows up in both worldlines. These larger events—the ones not easily affected by whatever Addie chooses—remain the same, so spotting the ripples from Addie’s choice becomes a fun kind of game. In this way, West explores the butterfly effect in an interesting way.
I’m a bit disappointed the budding romance between Addie and Trevor in one ’verse belies Addie’s contention that yes, indeed, girls and boys can be platonic friends. I want more YA with mixed gender platonic friendships! But I can’t really fault Pivot Point if that was the story that West wanted to tell, because of course, there isn’t anything a priori wrong with Addie seeking a boyfriend in either ’verse.
On the other hand, Addie’s friendship with Laila is a lot of fun. Laila is definitely one of those best friends who isn’t always good for you, if you know what I mean. She pushes Addie, sometimes in directions I (and even Addie) might disagree with. She’s a very outgoing, in-your-face, this-is-in-my-comfort-zone-even-if-it’s-not-in-yours kind of girl. And that’s cool. I appreciate how she acts as a foil for Addie, and how Addie’s friendship with Laila eventually proves to be the true pivot point of this book.
As the story comes to a head, Addie begins to realize that both choices suck. I can’t help but think West is using this as a metaphor for the fact that having to choose a parent in a divorce really does suck. But in Addie’s case, either path leads to rather dark outcomes. So she has to choose the “least dark” future, or at least the one where she and Laila have a fighting chance at rescuing some semblance of their old life afterwards. But West seems to be setting things up for a much deeper conflict in the sequel (which I also happened to borrow from the library!).
Pivot Point is a solid novel. As far as YA goes, it hits on a lot of tropes without belabouring them. I think there’s lots here to keep older readers like myself interested too. West’s take on the mutants-among-us trope, combined with the cool way she spins out the narratives in parallel, makes for an interesting read. There were moments when my interest started to flag, and then we got to the climax. I was reading during the breaks between innings at a baseball game … and suddenly I did not want to put the book down. I was relieved when the game ended so I could go home and plow through the remaining few chapters, because I needed to know how it worked out. That’s how the book made me feel.
(I was definitely annoyed by the summary resolution/sequel tease at the end. But the magnitude of the exhilaration I felt from those last few chapters more than made up for it.)
Animorphs played with time travel once before, in #7: The Stranger, but that was at the hands of the Ellimist. ThisIt’s time … to travel … in time.
Animorphs played with time travel once before, in #7: The Stranger, but that was at the hands of the Ellimist. This time, the Animorphs accidentally create a Sario Rip—technobabble for “hole in space-time,” which is technobabble for … well … you know … stuff—when the Dracon beams they fired from a stolen Bug fighter intersected with the Dracon beams from Visser Three’s Blade ship, and—
—what? Oh, yeah. The Animorphs totally steal a crashed Bug fighter, get it operational (thanks, Ax), and initiate an epic suborbital chase sequence with Visser Three. Sorry I skipped that part.
In terms of just pure awesome action sequences, The Forgotten has to rank up there with the first Megamorphs novel, which was really the Michael Bay of Animorphs novels. In this book, we have the aforementioned spaceship duel, with five kids and an Andalite facing off against the biggest, baddest six-shooter in the galactic west. The fight is so badass it punches a hole in the space–time continuum, and so everyone gets thrown back in time.
To the day before.
(It wasn’t that big a hole.)
Jake is our narrator, so in between more epic chase sequences and monkeying around (literally—they morph monkeys), he worries he’s going crazy. There is a totally legitimate explanation for his crazies (other than, you know, being a child leader of child soldiers in a messed up secret war). But I commend Applegate for broaching this subject. There is a lot of pressure on all the Animorphs, and more so on Jake than any other. Marco, in his trademark lack of subtlety, points this out: Jake is the leader, so he isn’t allowed to go crazy. He can’t have a day off; he can’t mess up. Because everyone follows his lead, so if he makes a mistake, people could die.
Welcome to the big leagues, son.
Applegate uses the big ol’ reset button excuse that is all too common in time travel plots. She can get away with this simply because, as children’s/young adult literature, Animorphs is likely introducing a lot of readers to some of their first science-fiction stories. So what’s cliché to me is going to seem pretty cool and novel to a new reader. And even to someone as jaded as I am now, I’ll concede that the reset button makes sense in the context of what Applegate wants to do here. The Forgotten is precisely that: it’s a pocket adventure for only Jake to remember, one where he learns the important lesson: sometimes being a leader is luck.
This idea kind of flies against the face of the big American Dream that you can get ahead purely by working hard. But it jives entirely with Applegate’s series-long crusade against the glorification of war. I’m pretty sure most veterans will tell you that a large part of why they survived is just luck. They were in the right place at the right time, missed the bomb, the mine, the bullet—or got injured, but just enough to get sent home rather than killed. Similarly, we like to talk up the great strategic victories in the history of warfare and laud the minds of the Alexanders, the Attilas, the Caesars, the Napoleons. We don’t talk nearly as much about how most of the time these people are lucky—or at least, the luck allows them to survive long enough to get good.
This also explains why the Animorphs seem to fail an awful lot. Marco himself lampshades the fact that their hasty plans always fall apart in this book. Applegate is deliberately and carefully trying to delay the power creep that is inevitable in a series about superpowered people. Even though Ax can fly a Bug fighter, things still go wrong, and they crash. The best plans inevitably fall apart on first contact with the enemy.
The Forgotten was not as engaging for me as some of the more recent books. However, I see the appeal, particularly for less experienced and jaded readers. And it’s a good Jake book, if you are Team Jake. In fact, it’s mostly a Jake book, and that’s probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. In addition to Jake being the only one who remembers what happens, the other Animorphs don’t quite come through as distinctly as they do in other books. This is a super-Jake book, in other words. So if you need a Jake dose, Jake yourself up with this Jake. Jake jake jake jake.
Next time, Rachel burps crocodile DNA. Need I say more?
Marco finds the location of the main Yeerk pool. (It’s underneath the Gap, guys! We don’t have a Gap in Thunder Bay any more. But I remember when we hMarco finds the location of the main Yeerk pool. (It’s underneath the Gap, guys! We don’t have a Gap in Thunder Bay any more. But I remember when we had one—in the nineties.) It’s too difficult to destroy the pool, but if they can find the Kandrona that emits the rays the Yeerks need to live, then they can deal a serious blow to the Yeerks. Don’t worry, the Animorphs have a plan … and I’ll let you guess how well that turns out.
I had forgotten how soon the Ellimist becomes involved in the series. As I reflected in the previous review, this demonstrates Applegate’s larger plan for the series beyond “kids fight body-snatching aliens by turning into animals.” As much as I might be inclined to criticize things like the writing style or the length (and that last is mostly because I just want moreAnimorphs!), I can’t fault the way Applegate foreshadows what is to come.
The Ellimist is a gigantic dick in this book. He shows up and claims he’ll transport the Animorphs, some of their family, and a few other humans to an Earth-like planet where humanity can survive. After the Animorphs refuse, it comes back with a whopping possible future in which Rachel is a Controller and the Yeerks have conquered Earth. But even that proves to be more of a gambit on the Ellimist’s part than anything else—sneaky fellow.
I had also forgotten how even the earliest books are very dark and serious when it comes to the psychological effects of war. People often pan the ending of the series, because it really isn’t a very happy one, but it’s not like Applegate ever lied to us. She never made it easy for the Animorphs. I mean, their plans never work out the first time around, and in this case a nearly-omnipotent alien had to save them.
And when they do find the Kandrona and decide a full-frontal assault is the most sensible way to take it out? Dismemberment. Gaping wounds. Not only is it pretty graphic, for what is ostensibly preteen literature, but some of the Animorphs nearly die.
This is Book 7.
We get to see it all from the perspective of gung-ho Rachel! Each Animorph reacts differently to the prospect that losing this war is a foregone conclusion. Rachel, being an Action Girl, needs to lash out: she has to do something, take control. She goes for a flight, finds another fighting morph, anything. Applegate mirrors this in Rachel’s reaction to being invited to move out of state with her father. As with the grim future scenario, Rachel cannot seem to do anything to change her father’s decision to move. She feels powerless, trapped—and that is so not Rachel’s jam.
I just love how Rachel will never, ever give up or settle for less than winning. She revels in the power of her new grizzly morph and its feeling of invincibility, because as a teenaged girl, she feels vulnerable and wants to wrap herself up in that grizzly morph. She wants to charge through all the obstacles in her life, be they of alien or human origin. And she does this with utter conviction and commitment.
Even though so much of The Stranger is serious, however, Applegate still manages to find time for the humorous. Take, for instance, Marco’s approach to getting them into the building that houses the Kandrona:
<Hi.> Marco said in thought-speak. <I just came from a masquerade party, and I was looking for Visser Three.>
And then, once inside and in their fighting morphs, they cram into a freight elevator, and this happens:
<Can you press the button? I sure can’t.> Jake said. He held up one of his huge paws to show me.
It wasn’t easy. Bear paws aren’t exactly subtle tools. But after carefully lining up my first claw, I hit the top button.
Ordinarily I don’t visualize while reading. In this case, though, I couldn’t help but picture a bear, tiger, and gorilla waiting in an elevator, trying to figure out how to punch for the top floor. And then, elevator music playing as they ride. That is the kind of visual gag they should have had in that horrible TV show Nickelodeon made. Oh well.
(Oh, and Rachel also talks about going to see a new Keanu Reeves movie. So nineties!)
In the end, what do we take away from this book? Well, there are far stranger beings out there than the Yeerks or the Andalites. The Ellimist isn’t just going to leave them alone now. And Marco’s quips about Rachel starting to crack aside, even this early in the fight, these experiences are starting to take their toll on the Animorphs.
Next up: the first Megamorphs adventure! And no, that doesn’t involve the Animorphs merging together into a single, formidable morphed being.
So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you…. I never found anybody else and I don’t want anybody else. I don’t care whether you’re ninety years
So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you…. I never found anybody else and I don’t want anybody else. I don’t care whether you’re ninety years old or thirty. If I can’t be your lover, I’ll be your nurse.
Hey kids, you know how people keep using that word allegory, and you’re never really sure what they mean, and they probably aren’t even sure what they mean?
This. This is an allegory.
If there’s a reason we have the phrase “deceptively slim” in our book reviewing vocabulary, it’s for books like The Forever War. This thing won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. No mean feat, that. And for the first little bit, I couldn’t figure out why. Joe Haldeman gets off to a slow start, with a book that is refreshingly familiar in the way it lampoons the gung ho enthusiasm with which an conscript army gets sent off to be slaughtered in the name of politics and the economy. It’s Vietnam, only in space.
Or is it?
I think the quotation I used to open this review shows that The Forever War is actually a love story, where the lovers are not merely starcrossed but starscattered through time and space.
We don’t learn a lot about William Mandella the person prior to the war. We know he was a physics teacher; we meet his “younger” brother and his mother, and that is about it. The start of the war marks an epoch for Mandella, even though by his subjective reckoning, the Forever War lasts less than ten years.
The Mandella we initially meet seems to be a man of few convictions. He was conscripted into the army. He doesn’t put up a fuss. There is a fatalistic quality to Mandella’s actions and remarks—he is seldom happy about what is going on, but he never seems able to stir himself to do anything about the situation. He is, indeed, a terrible leader, as he himself remarks on numerous occasions. Really the only thing that makes him stand out is the charmed life he leads: he hasn’t managed to die yet.
In this way, Haldeman, of course, remarks on the impartiality with which war strikes down officers and enlisted personnel, heroes and cowards alike. War is like the honey badger: it doesn’t give a shit. And for all the fancy technology both UNEF and the Taurans have, neither can alter such a fundamental apathetic constant of the universe.
Haldeman spends little time exploring the motives behind the war. The inciting reason is something along the lines of “Our ship blew up. The Taurans were there. We should do something. War is doing something. We should do war.” It’s like the worst false syllogism ever—but that, of course, is the point. War, as they say, is good for absolutely nothing—except as an economic machine in which human lives are the lubricant.
However, if you’re looking for science fiction with intense ground battles and descriptions of sexy powered mecha suits, then this is not the book for you. There are a few action sequences, but Haldeman opts for a more realistic approach to space combat. He invokes relativistic velocities, logistical computers, acceleration couches, and even probability tables. This is space combat as it probably would be, not the sexy space combat we see in science fantasy shows. And I give mad kudos to Haldeman for spending the time to explore what trying to fight at relativistic speeds might entail. I love the idea that, because of all this relativistic travel, you’re encountering an enemy who is either decades or centuries ahead of or behind you, technologically. Blows my mind.
Where I went wrong at the start of the book, actually, was assuming this would be more about the minutiae of war, the battles and the experience of boots on the ground, than it is. To be fair to me, that’s kind of how Haldeman sets us up at the beginning. Mandella and the new recruits are all training for ground operations by day and having randomized free-lovin’ sex by night. Man, those 1970s….
Fortunately, the rest of The Forever War corrected my interpretation. By the end I started to understand why this book has received so much acclaim.
In addition to the wealth of discussions we can have about warfare, we can also talk about the portrayal of sex and gender here. I suspect by 1970s standards it was fairly avant garde. The way Haldeman posits a fluidity of sexual orientation, including cultural and social shifts normalizing homosexuality over heterosexuality, reminded me a little of Samuel R. Delany’s work. Like Delany, Haldeman is notable not just for mentioning such lifestyles but actually challenging the heteronormativity of the author’s contemporary society.
By our standards today, some of the way Haldeman deals with gender roles remains problematic. Sexual orientation is decisively dichotomous (with the possible exception of Kahn, who, if we can give them any kind of label, might be considered pansexual). And although Haldeman joins Delany in portraying alternative sexualities, he doesn’t go so far as to deconstruct gender identity much—men are still men, women are still women, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between.
Still, I have to give Haldeman credit for the way he handles gender roles. Women in this book are just as capable as men, with just as much diversity in attitude and behaviour. There are weak women and men, strong women and men, thoughtful women and men, and so on. All of Haldeman’s characters are people rather than stereotypes of class, race, and gender, something that is to his credit as a writer.
Despite these elements, however, The Forever War is not so much transgressive as it is expressive of hopes and cautious optimism. After all, as I said earlier, it’s really just a long con culminating in a heteroromance for the ages. Mandella and Potter finally find each other and get a postscript baby in a galaxy. They live on one of several enclave planets with other heterohumans on tap as breeding stock in case the main Man, Kahn, discovers a flaw in its many-and-sundry clones.
This is the part where you might be wondering if, somewhere between page 180 and 210, you nodded off and drowned (because you were reading this in the bathtub like me—you mean you don’t read in the bathtub? How odd). That last development seems like it comes out of left field—but I kind of see it as the logical extreme of the type of progression Haldeman was showing each time Mandella swung back towards Earth. And that’s not the only possible resolution, but it was one way to puncture the cyclic equilibrium of destruction and rebuilding that Earth underwent while UNEF played soldiers with its excess population.
But I digress.
Mandella and Potter’s romance is rather low-key. They start off, like everyone else in their basic training, as randomized sleep partners. Gradually they become a couple. For a little while, as Mandella remarks, it seems like they stay together mostly out of inertia: by being posted to the same assignments and by virtue of, you know, not dying, they happen to be the only people left alive from their time period. Relativity and war have taken care of everyone else. I understand how that could be a powerful bond, more powerful even than physical or emotional attraction.
I swear that the only reason Haldeman hammers us with repetitive explanations of what these relativistic voyages are doing to Mandella and Potter is so that when they get split up, it’s immediately tragic and poignant. Mandella spells it out for us (in case you were nodding off in that bathtub again—stop doing that), but that doesn’t undermine the pathos at all: they will be inextricably separated, forever.
Of course I had peeked at the last page and knew they wouldn’t be….
But that letter from Marygay, the one with the quotation I used above, is probably one of the best things about this book. It just has such a spirit of optimism about it. When William reads it, realizes what it signifies … it’s as if the weight of those centuries that have passed him by lifts from his shoulders, and he becomes a person again rather than a cog in the machine. I would have liked to see his reunion with Marygay in person, rather than an epistolary epilogue—but that might just be me.
The Forever War hasn’t jumped to the top of my list as far as war novels go. But I’m glad I read it. There’s something to be said for classics that are short: if they don’t live up to your expectations, then you haven’t wasted much time—but if they do, then you can re-read them again and again without feeling like you’re reliving every Russian winter Tolstoy spent writing them. The Forever War falls into the latter camp for me. I haven’t decided if I’ll check out the sequels, but I’m sure I’ll come back to this book some years from now, and see what else it has to show me.
I discovered this on my library’s new paperbacks shelf last week and literally squealed aloud. I have a warped perspective of this series’ publicationI discovered this on my library’s new paperbacks shelf last week and literally squealed aloud. I have a warped perspective of this series’ publication structure because I’ve read the first three books in short succession to get caught up, so I had forgotten The Diamond Conspiracy was coming out so “soon” after I read Dawn’s Early Light.
A lot was riding on this book. With the disavowal of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences at the end of the previous book, the series was forging ahead into brand new and exciting territory. Plus, Books and Braun have now consummated their relationship. I was watching carefully how Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris handle these two aspects of what, so far, has been a delightful and engaging series.
Let’s talk about Books and Braun. These people are my favourites. They’re just so much fun. And it has been a while since I discovered a series with a buddy-cop pair of protagonists like this. As much as I like the noir pastiche urban fantasy environment with a lone protagonist partnered only with a large suitcase full of angst, buddy cop stuff is a nice change. And Ballantine and Morris (I am really tempted to shorten that to “BM,” but I don’t think it would be appropriate) manage to make Books and Braun funny even while they deal with deadly serious issues.
I like the way their relationship develops and deepens in this book. Ballantine and Morris don’t introduce an unnecessary vexation, like triangle owing to an old lover or a rival love interest. Books and Braun have some disagreements, like real people would, even as they progress through that head-over-heels, let’s-have-sex-everywhere phase of courtship. The book opens with them bonding over something they can take shared interest in—gadgets (for Books) that make things go boom (for Braun). And we see them having to negotiate the waters of where they might not see eye-to-eye, with both Books and Braun respecting and compromising for each other.
It’s like Ballantine and Morris wanted to portray a healthy relationship between two enthusiastic and consenting adults instead of a creepy, unequal and potentially abusive relationship. What’s up with that?
Of course, Books and Braun face more challenges that might eventually throw kinks—um, I mean, difficulties—into their relationship. Doctor Sound drops a doozy on them in this book, and basically implies that he wants them to be his successors in the event he ever actually kicks the bucket. It will be interesting to see how they survive as a couple while confronting the stress of such a position—not to mention the last-minute revelation about Books’ childhood and origins!
As far as Doctor Sound’s announcement goes, it’s a bold gamechanger for this series. Arguably it’s bolder than the disavowal of the Ministry. Ballantine and Morris demolish any prospect that we could entertain expectations that this is just a steampunk series set in Victorian England. No, now we have H.G. Wells–level of science-fictional technology elevating the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences into a kind of steampunk(ier) version of Warehouse 13. And you know what? I’m down with that. I really am. I love how Ballantine and Morris keep pushing the envelope in all directions (even fourth-dimensional ones).
Where The Diamond Conspiracy lets me down is that pesky third act, where Books and Braun have to save Queen Victoria from herself (and Dr. Jekyll). What starts as a bizarre but acceptable plan falls to tatters at first contact with the enemy—as it really should. But the resulting chaos doesn’t translate well to page. It’s difficult to follow and, in some cases, a little hard to believe. I get the sense that Ballantine and Morris are trying to go for a larger-than-life atmosphere. Yet the succeed mostly in demonstrating that Books and Braun are at their best on a more personal level. The bigger, larger-er than life things get, the harder it is to see them excel in all those areas of expertise.
Still, that goes far from making this book a disappointment. Rather, I’d categorize this book as being a bridge between the start of this series and its second act: the Ministry is back, albeit in a different way; Books and Braun are together; but now Books has a new mystery to investigate that links his father to villains old and new.
It’s clear this series has plenty of life left in it. I am all too glad of that: I want more Books and Braun! Let’s keep this steampunk buddy cop thing going for as long as we can.
I seem to remember reading some or all of Stephen Baxter’s Manifold books when I was much younger. Those also involved a future sentience/intelligenceI seem to remember reading some or all of Stephen Baxter’s Manifold books when I was much younger. Those also involved a future sentience/intelligence at the end of the universe reaching back in the history of the universe to alter events through weird, inexplicable phenomena. So I guess this is a thing for him. Proxima starts its life as a straightforward tale of enforced penal colonization of another planet before gradually sprawling into a parallel tale of solar system politics before eventually becoming something about exploring weird phenomena. Basically, it’s typical Baxter. I would have loved this more when I was younger.
The story gets much better after all the potential settlers, save two, die at the settlement site of interest. The survivors are left with the knowledge that they are no longer trying to establish a self-sustaining colony but are basically just eking out an existence day to day for the rest of their lives. Baxter leaves us thinking that this is the most cockamamie planetary colonization scheme ever dreamed up, until the very end—although the UN is majorly saved by the discovery of The Hatch, because otherwise I still think their colonization plan was a terrible one.
Meanwhile, in the solar system, China has taken over Australia and Mars and the asteroids, but the UN-affiliated countries (read: America) have Mercury and its mysterious kernels that can power interplanetary/interstellar ships. Oh, and there are strong AIs hunkering in subterranean facilities, relics from the Heroic Generation when men were real men, women were real women, and strong AIs created from brain scans and deep learning networks were real strong AIs created from brain scans and deep learning networks. No one trusts these AIs, but hey, they make for great deus ex machinae, hmm?
Weird and wacky hijinks ensue, with babies and twins and sentient robots and exo-geological and exo-biological observations. In one of the more blatant set ups I’ve seen in a while, nothing gets resolved before the end of the book—either this book was originally twice as long and had to get split in two, or else this is a cynical attempt to make people buy Book 2, because literally there is no ending. It’s cliffhanger, epilogue, done. Who are those guys, the lost Ninth Legion? I don’t know. Buy the next book to find out!
I know my sarcasm above makes it sound like I hated this book, and that’s not the case at all. In fact, for the majority of Proxima, I was enamoured to the point of really wanting to keep reading. That’s probably some of the highest praise a book can receive, right? It is a fun story. It’s just that its substance is stretched so thinly across these 400-some pages.
By far the best thing about Proxima is the way Baxter describes life on Proxima c, or Per Ardua. This is a beautiful look at what it might be like to colonize an exoplanet—not just another planet in our solar system, like Mars, but a planet around an entirely different star, one with life like but unlike the life on Earth. Baxter covers the challenges—having to manufacture soil in which to grow crops, adjusting to the different day/year lengths and the increased radiation, the need to carefully select one’s settler groups to avoid what happens here. In his slightly more fanciful but no less impressive depiction of alien, possibly sentient life in the builders, Baxter reminds us how difficult it would be to communicate with a species not of our planet. Basically, Proxima is a potent reminder of the practical challenges awaiting us if we ever attempt to colonize an exoplanet.
For all of the above, however, there were paragraphs of expository description and dialogue. There were extraneous characters and paper-thin politics. And all the characters, major or minor or extraneous, fit into a small number of moulds, from the cartoonishly macho and aggressive people like Gustave Klein to the suave but untrustworthy Michael Kings and Earthshines of the world. There is neither depth nor breadth to these people.
I can’t help but keep comparing Proxima to Red Mars, the other colonization SF novel I recently read. They share many strengths and flaws. Both are very technical, almost pragmatic looks at the difficulties of settling other worlds. Both have somewhat pessimistic ideas about how much humanity can cooperate in these endeavours (but Baxter’s political scenes are a little harder to believe than Kim Stanley Robinson’s). Is it weird that I found Proxima more engaging, but Red Mars overall the better book? Perhaps that’s just my lingering, Singularity-related obsession with weird alien artifacts manipulating space and time.
I’m not going out of my way to recommend this book. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably like Proxima, and there are way worse books you could spend your time on. I can’t even say it’s more ho-hum, nothing-to-see-here, because it definitely has one of the best depictions of exoplanetary settlement we’ll get for a while. Baxter loves to do the research and show off everything he has learned about exoplanets; I can’t fault that love. I just wish it had led, overall, to a more involved story with more interesting people.
Unlike the majority of the other reviews on Goodreads for this book, I did not receive this as a NetGalley preview, so I did read 400 pages of adventuUnlike the majority of the other reviews on Goodreads for this book, I did not receive this as a NetGalley preview, so I did read 400 pages of adventure following the Tenth Doctor and the mysterious adversary the Advocate. As with my recent experience with a tie-in novel, I don’t ordinarily go for tie-in graphic novels. This was, again, a Christmas present.
I enjoyed Winter’s Dawn, Season’s End more than Engines of War. Maybe it’s the fact that, with pictures, we get to see more of the physicality of the Doctor come to life. This is a collection of 16 issues told over 6 chapters, the upshot being that it’s a hodgepodge of artists and writers. I liked a couple of the renditions of David Tennant but not all of them. However, the layout is extremely nice across every issue. The artists and writers make full use of the way the comic medium can draw attention to certain details or minimize others. Each page is carefully balanced; each panel conveys just the right amount of information. At times the speech bubbles struggle to contain the Doctor’s verbosity.
The first three chapters comprise the majority of the book. The Tenth Doctor is fresh from saving all the universes with the help of Donna—and fresh from the pain of losing her. (Donna is one of my favourite companions, and to me her loss is harsher even than death … because it’s like she never even got to travel with the Doctor. I’m still upset with RTD for doing that to her.) He stumbles onto a mysterious device in 1926, ends up on “trial” before the Shadow Proclamation, does lots and lots of running, takes on some companions, and bounces around time and space trying to foil the plans of the Advocate.
As far as Doctor Who stories go, it is fairly standard—almost slavishly so, one might say. The writers seem hellbent on paying tribute to any number of past stories and situations. The Advocate is a manipulator bent on playing mind games with the Doctor in the same vein as the Master or the Black Guardian. Matthew is overtly likened to Turlough numerous times. We get to revisit Martha and UNIT (which is a lot of fun), various weak-willed humans betray their species to sweet-talking aliens only to discover a change of heart and sacrifice themselves for the Doctor, and generally we get reminded that the Doctor inspires a lot of people to get hurt. And he’s very, very sorry about that.
Coming to this now, just as Peter Capaldi is about to start his second season as the Twelfth Doctor, evokes a certain nostalgia. This story is very much Tenth Doctor, in that it has his characteristic softness as well as his characteristic anger at injustice. He delivers some passionate invective against the use of weapons and force, and he shows us that almost irresponsible, joyful appreciation of the chaotic wonders of the cosmos. And underlying it all is the tragedy of the Tenth Doctor’s companions. He just can’t catch a break with them, and it’s really damaging his relationship with people in general.
(Just as I resent the way RTD wrote out Donna, what’s up in general with the way companions in the new series get written out so … dramatically? Martha is the only companion who has really just walked away, and not without considerable psychic baggage of her own. But the whole thing with Amy and Rory was just stupid. Anyway, I digress.)
So as a reader who considers the Tenth Doctor my Doctor, Winter’s Dawn, Season’s End creates all sorts of warm, bubbly feelings inside me. I appreciated and cherished every moment with this book … even though, objectively, the story is derivative and fairly lacklustre. I think this will not be a surprising sentiment to my fellow fans: Doctor Who has had some excellent storytelling, but fandom has never been about appreciating the show for its stories. We have stuck with Doctor Who through good and bad and terrible; we muddle along when the show does because we love the Doctor and the TARDIS and all the amazing companions who make those two even more amazing. The stories, really, are just there to give the characters something to do.
The back end of the collection is the 2010 Annual, which seems to be three very short, somewhat whimsical stories with little in the way of plot. I sped through them, shrugged, and flipped back through the earlier chapters quickly before sitting down to the write this review.
While I’m not going to become a collector or a regular reader of Doctor Who comics or graphic novels, this collection was a nice change of pace from what I usually read, and some welcome time with the Tenth Doctor. It’s more fun than good, if you know what I mean—and if you don’t, just move along. You have plenty other Doctors and adventures to enjoy.
I mean, really. It’s called Time Safari. Do I really have to explain it to you? It’s “A Sound of Thunder” but without the butterfly and with more sexuI mean, really. It’s called Time Safari. Do I really have to explain it to you? It’s “A Sound of Thunder” but without the butterfly and with more sexual tension.
At some point in the future, the Israeli government has developed time travel. With a margin of error plus or minus 5000 years, it is useless for rewriting the recent past, but hunting expeditions to the Cretaceous provide a useful source of funding for the project. Henry Vickers is an experienced guide with the company. With this latest expedition, however, a jealous manbaby of a husband puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy, stranding them in the Cretaceous.
Actually, now that I write the summary out like that, I could see this becoming a compelling full-length novel. It just needs a subplot set “meanwhile, in the future” with Stern and Dr Galli discussing the various machinations of the time travel institute. And the interactions and motivations of the characters in the hunting expedition could be better explored. Most of the characters are mere stock caricatures pasted into the story because they need to be there. Aside from Vickers and Adrienne Salmes, the characters tend to be shallower than a wading pool at low tide.
Time Safari is action-adventure science fiction at its most lush. Drake doesn’t waste any time with any of that paradox temporal logic bullshit; he ignores the entire question of altering the future by hunting dinosaurs because they are hunting fucking dinosaurs. The plot itself could reasonably be set in a hunting expedition in the present; the time-travel conceit merely allows for an increased sense of isolation and more exotic source of danger. Really it’s about a straw person of an “anything you can do I can do better” woman who married a man who “isn’t man enough for her” and deals with this problem by sleeping with other men, who are presumably manlier and therefore more acceptable. Because strong, capable women only want stronger, more capable manly men, amirite? Actually, maybe the best thing about Time Safari is how Drake demonstrates that a man can try to write capable, three-dimensional characters and still fail spectacularly.
If one ignores the gratingly chauvinistic romance subplot, then what’s left is … well, not much. There is a modicum of pleasure to be had in Drake’s descriptions of hunting dinosaurs. Being neither a hunter nor a gun enthusiast myself, these descriptions did very little for me; your mileage my vary. That being said, Drake does a good job when it comes to the more tense action sequences, such as the showdown between the tyrannosaur and the helicopter.
Depending on the scientific explanations one lobs at the respective stories, Time Safari is still probably more believable than Jurassic Park….
The librarians at my school alerted me to this book. I knew Neil Gaiman had written a special short story, “Nothing O’Clock”, for the 50th anniversaryThe librarians at my school alerted me to this book. I knew Neil Gaiman had written a special short story, “Nothing O’Clock”, for the 50th anniversary, but I hadn’t been particularly bothered about finding it. Aside from the fact that I tend not to read fan fiction, the state of ebooks these days is still deplorable enough that finding a non-DRM copy would probably have been tricky.
Luckily, I was clever and made sure I’m on the good side of the librarians, and this is the payoff! Eleven Doctor Who stories by celebrated authors. Given the names on the cover, it’s possible to assume these stories are pitched towards a younger audience. I think that assumption would be a mistake, a mistake similar to assuming that Doctor Who is a children’s show. We’re all children compared to the Doctor.
I’m not going to go through every story and give a play-by-play of what I think worked and didn’t work. Suffice it to say that some of these stories were excellent and some were … not so much. Some authors captured the voice of their Doctor, and some seemed to have trouble recreating the magic of the silver screen through the written word. (Another reason I tend not to read fan fiction of TV shows.)
The first story that really jumped out at me was the Third Doctor’s story, “The Spear of Destiny”, by Marcus Sedgwick. I’m glad I enjoyed it, since I was not fond of the only other work I’ve read by Sedgwick, Midwinterblood. My roommate and I have been watching many of Jon Pertwee’s adventures, and Sedgwick captures the Third Doctor’s voice and mannerisms extremely well. He carries off that stern and slightly smug tone that Jon Pertwee likes to don in the face of danger. Like most of the stories in this book, the plot suffers for being slightly rushed—but let’s be honest, one Doctor Who fan to another: we’re seldom in this for the plot, right? We come for the Doctor …
… and stay for the companion. Most of these stories tend to follow the companion more closely than they do the Doctor. (Notably, the Sixth Doctor’s story is told from the first-person perspective of Peri.) Only the First and Eighth Doctors’ stories follow them in a limited, third-person perspective, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. The former’s is an adventure with … Susan … so the choice of perspective was limited. Likewise, the Eighth Doctor did not have a constant companion in his single television appearance (I know this is not the case in the audio adventures), so again, not much choice.
This focus on the companion’s perspective makes the Ninth Doctor’s story all the more interesting. I like it mainly because of when it’s set, between the split second when Rose refuses the Doctor’s first invitation to travel and he rematerializes and says, “Did I mention it also travels through time?” The Doctor visits the planet Karkinos (that is a hint) to stop a Starman. He impresses a local girl, and she inveigles her way into the TARDIS for his trip to ancient Babylon, where another Starman threatens to destroy Earth. Charlie Higson plays on our humanoid prejudices to create a very interesting companion who eventually persuades the Doctor to try to recruit Rose again.
Just because some of the other stories didn’t work as well for me doesn’t mean that they are unappealing across the board. It’s worth noting that my experience of some of the Doctors is negligible or virtually nil, so that can colour how I enjoyed their stories. And this is a collection for Doctor Who fans; this is not a good place for newcomers to suddenly dive in and say, “Wow, I guess I should probably try Doctor Who, what with it being so popular and all!” Fans will appreciate these stories, even if they don’t enjoy all of them. Every one of these stories is united simply by being a crazy, somewhat nonsensical adventure through time and space.
I don’t often read novels set in my favourite television or cinematic universe any more. I have fond memories of when I was much younger, and I had thI don’t often read novels set in my favourite television or cinematic universe any more. I have fond memories of when I was much younger, and I had the time and freedom to virtually camp out in the library, of borrowing whatever Star Trek novels they happened to have available that day. After I became more comfortable with original SF and fantasy, I started to shy away from media tie-in novels. As I grew up and started to follow those television series with more interest, I found it difficult to enjoy the books, because I couldn’t visualize the actors from the show doing and saying what the characters in the books did and said. And for me, the actors are an integral part of realizing those characters. It’s the same reason I’ve eschewed the Buffy, Angel, and Firefly spin-off comics.
In the case of Doctor Who: Shada, I bought this for my roommate’s birthday, knowing she would enjoy it. This is a curious novel, because it is technically a novelization, but owing to industrial action and other production issues, the script itself never finished shooting. So this novel is all we really have of a story that was originally created for television. It’s set in the era of the Fourth Doctor, as portrayed by Tom Baker, with Romana II and K-9 still gallivanting around the galaxy, ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords and the Black Guardian. I’ve seen a few stories from the Tom Baker era, and maybe this unfamiliarity with the characters helped me get over my apprehension of tie-in books. It also helps that Shada was originally written by Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors. And until I get to watch the Doctor Who stories he wrote, this is the closest I get to seeing Adams’ Doctor Who.
Shada is unmistakably Adamsian in its humour and plotting. Gareth Roberts has done a fantastic job assembling a cogent story from a script, preserving the flavour of Adams’ humour while expanding the plot and characters into something approaching a novel. The Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth in the early 1980s in response to a distress call from a fellow Time Lord, the ancient and befuddled Professor Chronotis (groan at the name), who has retired to Earth and been living at Cambridge University for the past few centuries. Chronotis took a book with him from Gallifrey, a powerful book that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands—which, apparently, is what will happen if the Doctor and Romana don’t act fast. But the book has already found its way into the possession of a young physics graduate student, who is unaware of its alien origins or the fact that a megalomaniacal villain is on his way to steal the book at any cost.
As the plot unfolds, Roberts jumps from character to character, sometimes following the Doctor, Romana, Chris Parsons, etc. Much like in the show, it soon becomes apparent that the Doctor always seems to be teetering between not having a plan and having an incredibly brilliant, complicated plan that will most likely go horribly wrong. It seems like he himself is continuously surprised by his ability to get into (and out of) trouble. The Fourth Doctor is definitely the right Doctor for Douglas Adams, because Tom Baker’s mad, scarf-toting Doctor sounds like something straight out of Hitchhiker’s. They were made for each other, as this story showcases.
Shada also provides some interesting tidbits and insight into Time Lord history and society that might not always be apparent from the TV show. Romana, as another Time Lord, is a very interesting companion and a departure from the Doctor’s previous, human companions. In Shada, it sometimes seems like there are Time Lords running around all over the place. But it was nice to see the Doctor, Romana, and Professor Chronotis discussing and arguing about Gallifreyan history and its relevance to their particular problem. As a fan who came to the show through new Who, and hence as someone who hasn’t spent much time on Gallifrey, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.
The story itself is lovely. The villain is not so much over-the-top as he is capable to the point of absurdity. In fact, aside from his delusions of God-like grandeur, I’d argue Skagra doesn’t truly tip over the brink of insanity until he tangles with the Doctor. It’s not until the Doctor starts undermining Skagra’s vision by taunting him about getting “that mad gleam in your eye” that Skagra finds his atavistic desires to crush the Doctor too strong to resist. That the Doctor proves rather difficult to kill only exacerbates this problem, eventually pushing Skagra over the edge from cool customer to James Bond–like supervillain.
If you like Doctor Who and have some familiarity with the older show, I’d recommend this without reservation. It is, essentially, a “lost”, unmade episode from the Tom Baker era. If you like the show but haven’t seen the Fourth Doctor, haven’t met Romana or K-9 or learned much about the wider world of the Time Lords, then I’d be more hesitant to point you in the direction of Shada. You might like it, but there is also much in here that would be confusing to the newcomer.
I’m not going to be rushing out to buy more Doctor Who novelizations or even original stories; I’ll stick with my DVDs for now. As far as tie-in novels go, though, Shada is an example of how to do it right. Roberts does justice to Adams’ particular brand of storytelling genius, and both of them do a fine job of delivering yet another exciting adventure with the Doctor.
Not that long ago, I sampled another anthology of alternate history, Other Earths. Now I’m dipping into this specialized sub-genre again with RoadsNot that long ago, I sampled another anthology of alternate history, Other Earths. Now I’m dipping into this specialized sub-genre again with Roads Not Taken. The premise is similar, but in this case the stories were all previously published in either Analog or Amazing. Though I’m disappointed that not one of the ten contributors is a woman, the stories themselves are much more thoughtful and interesting than those I encountered in Other Earths.
“Must and Shall” is a Harry Turtledove story. It diverges during the American Civil War, an all-too-popular event in alternate history. In this case, a stray Confederate bullet kills Lincoln in his first term as he peers over the battlements, so his vice president inherits and the Civil War becomes a much bloodier affair. What makes this story stand out against all the other Civil War alternative history is how Turtledove then jumps towards the present day and shows the consequences of this divergence. The South is a much less forgiving place; the United States are not so much united as held together by the iron fist of the North. It’s intriguing, because Turtledove taps into the cultural tension that is still present, to some extent, in the United States today.
Robert Silverberg’s“An Outpost of the Empire” posits that the Roman empire never fell. Instead, it swallows the Byzantine empire in a single, mighty gulp! The protagonist of this story is a rich, single woman in Venice, watching the Romans move in to occupy her city. She becomes a target of affection for the new consul and aims to seduce him, only to discover that foreigners are more complex than they appear. It’s a slow and thoughtful meditation on the conflict between occupier and occupied.
In “We Could Do Worse”, Gregory Benford paints a chilling picture of a United States in which Joe McCarthy becomes president. This is an America where the Constitution is no longer worth the paper it’s printed on, and civil liberties is a dirty phrase. I couldn’t connect personally with this story, since I’m too young to remember McCarthyism, but I can understand the type of dread it’s supposed to instil. It’s not the most gripping story of the collection, though.
“Over There”, by Mike Resnick, sees Teddy Roosevelt blackmail Woodrow Wilson into resurrecting the Rough Riders division and taking them into World War I. It’s a fabulous concept, but as with“We Could Do Worse”, I wasn’t very intrigued. It was obvious from the beginning that Roosevelt could not achieve the glory he sought. There isn’t much depth here.
A.A. Attansio’s “Ink from the New Moon” reminds me of Bridge of Ancient Birds, in that it has the Chinese visiting North America before the Europeans do. In this time they make contact with the indigenous inhabitants and set up a trading network, scooping the Europeans (also known as the “Big Noses"). It’s a cool concept, and Attansio does a good job developing a main character who is flawed but likable.
“Southpaw” is somewhat similar to “Over There” in that it follows a single character’s divergent path through history. Bruce McAllister wonders what would have happened if Fidel Castro came to play baseball in the United States instead of becoming a revolutionary in Cuba. This story is an excellent example of how alternative history can allow introspection. It shines a light on the paradox of immigrating to a nation like the United States, allowing people who are not migrants to sympathize with the conflicting emotions that migrants face on a daily basis.
Greg Costykian’s “The West is Red” takes us to an alternative universe where communism succeeds and capitalism fails. Central planning is all the rage, even in the United States. This story captivated the technophile in me: Costykian posits that because communism is so obsessed with centralization, it would retard the development of personal computers in favour of large, centralized supercomputers accessed through dumb terminals. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but it’s an intriguing thought that allows him to construct a wholly different technological background to that of our society.
“The Forest of Time” is a story about universe-hopping. A man invents a method to travel to different universes. But the act of travelling itself creates different universes, altering the distance between universes. He ends up in a radically different North America, one where the colonies never unified, and the prisoner of a suspicious Pennsylvanian scout. Michael Flynn sets an interesting dilemma for the main characters, who struggle with whether to believe the traveller. I did find that having some of the names begin with the same letter really confused me with this story, for some reason. That’s really the only criticism though. Otherwise, Flynn does a good job highlighting how fascinating this concept of divergent and convergent universes is.
But now we come to “Aristotle and the Gun”, my favourite story of the entire collection. The other stories were all fine, but none of them really stood out for me. I can’t explain why this one seems so much better than the others, but L. Sprague de Camp somehow manages to make me invest in the main character’s struggle. I think it’s just the fascinating relationship we see develop between the main character and Aristotle. That, and a level of sympathy for his desire to advance science more quickly (and the irony that it didn’t quite work out that way). Though de Camp doesn’t depart from the conventions of time travel and alternate history that much, he embraces them and uses them so well that the result is a predictable yet gripping and fun adventure.
Gene Wolfe finishes up with “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion". This is best described as “fun”, in a similar vein to the Fidel Castro story above. The main character and his friend are fans of tabletop strategy games. The two World Wars are just games that they designed in this universe. Instead, the “German invasion” of the title is the threat of German cars surpassing British-made ones. The protagonist helps Churchill avert this eventuality in a devious, underhanded competition.
Roads Not Taken has some good alternative history between its cover. I think I’m done with such anthologies for a good long while now. Binging on alternative history is exhausting and can result in a bit of a headache. I’d rather sample a longer work next. Reading so many short stories in a row just makes it harder to appreciate novelty when it does come around.
Nancy Kress has fast become one of my favourite science fiction authors. Like most authors I’m a fan of, her works don’t always make it on my favouritNancy Kress has fast become one of my favourite science fiction authors. Like most authors I’m a fan of, her works don’t always make it on my favourites list, but they always make me think. Kress often explores how technology affects humanity’s relationship with nature and our own biology. She continues to play with these themes in After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall while adding in an ineffable alien menace and the paradoxes of time travel.
The title explains the structure: this story takes place across three times. In 2035, 26 humans survive in an artificial Shell, protected from the inhospitable Earth. They believe the Earth was ruined (and they were saved) by aliens they call Tesslies. With most of the children and adults too damaged by radiation to produce healthy offspring, the Tesslies have furnished them with machinery that allows them to travel back in time. Since adults can’t go through the portals, however, teenagers like Peter have to go on these Grabs, which seem to occur at random intervals and send them to stores or houses. In the stores, they grab as many supplies as they can before their allotted ten minutes expire. In the houses, they look for the one thing the Shell desperately needs: fresh blood, in the form of babies they can raise as their own.
In 2013/2014, a mathematician has noticed a pattern to a string of FBI kidnappings. She constructs an algorithm for the agency, hoping she can predict when the next kidnapping might occur. Her algorithm is never quite accurate enough, and eventually she leaves the investigation. It’s not until the very end, when Julie is most desperate, that she finally manages to perfect the program and ambush a time-traveller.
Meanwhile, Kress provides omniscient glimpses at mysterious mutations in bacteria and earthquakes beneath the sea floor. The implication is that these events are related, perhaps even artificial, and combine somehow to cause the eponymous Fall. McAllister and the other surviving adults in the Shell have taught Peter and the others that the Tesslies are responsible for both the Fall and the Shell. However, there’s no clear evidence for this, and as Peter learns by the end, it’s possible that humans themselves caused this to happen.
I'll return to that in a moment, but first I need to talk about the post-apocalyptic future Kress has created. I love the idea of the Shell and the way she has implemented it. Granted, it seems like even 26 healthy individuals would be hard-pressed to preserve humanity without some serious genetic issues developing. Nevertheless, they give it the old college try. Kress conveys the desperation and isolation that must develop in this community, when its children are damaged, some of them deformed and sick, and its adults are slowly dying off one-by-one.
The loss of knowledge and experiences is particularly striking. Peter has learned, thanks to his rudimentary education, about things like stars, atoms, and planets. But he has no conception of television or photography. On one Grab, he manages to steal a digital photo frame, and he sits for hours just watching the three pre-loaded promotional pictures, fascinated by this magic. It’s a small thing, but it allows Kress to show us how quickly we can lose something when we don’t have it in front of us: one generation can forget what moving pictures are like if we lose the ability to screen them. Life in the Shell is a bizarre mixture of roughing it, complete with farming, and scavenging, through the unpredictable and dangerous Grabs. There’s very little in the way of culture, leisure, and therefore, I wonder, what of civilization?
It’s not up to Kress to make a realistic attempt at preserving civilization though. That would be the Tesslies’ responsibility; hence, perhaps Kress also means to show that their grand plan (experiment?) is doomed to failure. The ending is ambiguous. Although the Shell dissolves at the end, leaving the survivors on a rehabilitated planet with all they supposedly need to start over, Kress does not provide any closure. Perhaps they succeed; perhaps they die again. The “after the fall” portion of the book is a reminder that there aren’t really endings (aside, maybe, from extinction), just new epochs.
I really like the premise of the story, and I think Kress handles time travel very well. Normally, it bothers me when authors take a “meanwhile, in the past” approach to time travel—that is, treating the past and present/future as if they are happening concurrently. There is usually little reason for this. In this case, however, Kress makes it clear that the time travellers have no control over the Grabs. Either the Tesslies or their machinery determine when the Grabs open for them and the time period to which the Grabs send them. These times/destinations are not random, because Julie recognizes a pattern and exploits her algorithm to eventually meet Pete. Kress never explains if the Tesslies have created this pattern deliberately for some reason, or if it is merely a byproduct of time travel. In general, there is a distinct lack of exposition. We never meet the Tesslies—not truly—and we never learn their motives, beyond what the survivors speculate. We never learn why, if they are interested in helping humans, they don’t use time travel to fix the past (perhaps it’s just not possible). Kress puts the reader in the position of the survivors: full of questions, short of answers. This could have been frustrating, so it’s a testament to her skill that she manages to create a story engaging enough to make you forget your relative ignorance of what’s going on.
The theory behind the Fall that the survivors eventually embrace does not sit well with me. Though they long assume the Tesslies were responsible for humanity’s destruction, Peter’s encounter with Julie suggests humanity is responsible. Eventually they raise the idea of the Gaia hypothesis, that the Earth is itself a living organism created by the interdependency of all the organisms inhabiting it. According to this hypothesis, the Earth is a deliberately self-regulating system. It’s intriguing, but it also feels out of place. The “during the fall” chapters that explain what is happening beneath Julie’s nose present the earthquakes and bacterial mutations as apparently random. And if they aren’t, it seems like a stretch that the Earth can “choose” to wipe out humanity for the greater good. Maybe I’m just not thinking of the system in abstract enough terms—but if that’s the case, I would have liked Kress to put more effort into persuading me.
If Kress has latched on to the Gaia hypothesis as a way to challenge how humanity is stewarding the Earth, then I can still agree with After the Fall’s themes, even if I’m not particularly fond of how Kress establishes it. Sustainability has put in an appearance in many of her other works. Here, Kress emphasizes how humans, despite all our advances in technology, are still at the mercy of nature and natural disasters. (She does cheat a little. Yellowstone and the tsunami from the Canary Islands earthquake do a number on the United States, but she has to cheat and use a resulting nuclear launch to trigger the global apocalypse.) If the Tesslies hadn’t stepped in, humanity would likely have gone extinct. I like it when science fiction encourages us to consider the ecological implications of trends in society.
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall has all the hallmarks I have come to expect from a Kress story. It’s clean, compelling, and its characters have a good balance of vices and virtues. The amount of thought she has put into constructing her futures and the scenarios that have brought them about is obvious from the detail and structure of the book. All this contributes to a fulfilling story, and even if I can’t endorse every aspect, it still deserves that Hugo nomination. This is one for any fan of Kress to check out, and if you are new, this would be a fine place to start.
So we can’t go back in time—but what if we could see back in time? Glimpsing the past is almost as common as stories involving actual time travel. InSo we can’t go back in time—but what if we could see back in time? Glimpsing the past is almost as common as stories involving actual time travel. In The Man Who Ended History, however, Ken Liu puts a very intimate and emotional twist on reliving and remembering the atrocities of war. Coupled with the archaeological premise that these observational trips to the past are always a one-time affair—each act of observation destroys the particles that allow the observation to happen—this allows Liu to explore the ramifications of allowing the past to intrude on the present so vividly.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way we learn history in Ontario high schools. Grade 10 history is compulsory, but it seems like history ends after World War II—we just spend so much time on it. And yeah, it deserves to have a lot of time spent on it; it was a big deal. But so were many things that happened after 1950—things I have only vague ideas of, since we didn’t talk about them in history class. Recently, however, I’ve begun to notice that there is plenty I don’t know about World War II—and I’m not referring to all the details that get glossed over because there isn’t enough time. The entire Sino-Japanese War portion of the war is, as best I can recall, mentioned in nary a footnote in our history texts. Japan was involved, and not in a good way. That’s about all I learned in school.
If it weren’t for reading frivolous things like science fiction, I wouldn’t be aware that the Holocaust and similar ethnic cleansings in Europe were far from the only atrocities happening during that war. It took a novella with shady particle physics and time travel, of a sort, to tell me about Unit 731 and Pingyang. We’re so selective when it comes to “history” and the idea of “historical truth”, and this doesn’t even have to be the result of nefarious intentions. Simply put, humans have terrible memories, and we let our emotions and biases colour those memories. Liu himself makes this point through the unreliability of the people who back to witness the activities at Unit 731.
The device of making each trip a destructive excavation of the past presents an interesting dilemma to the reader. And therein lies my problem with The Man Who Ended History: I couldn’t agree with Wei. Sorry, but Yours Is Not Science if it is not verifiable. The emotional retellings of descendants of victims travelling into the past is not verifiable. Maybe sending trained historians might have worked better, but I doubt it. In the end, observing the past isn’t the magic bullet to historicity. As long as humans are the one compiling the history, we will never be objective.
Liu doesn’t claim we could be, though, and I don’t want to conflate my reactions against his main character with an idea that this story is poorly-written. On the contrary, it’s magnificently done. And it works well at its length—a short story would have been tantalizingly brief, a novel far too plodding. Plus, in its documentary format, it is more of a series of scenes than an actual narrative with any kind of plot. It’s a carefully designed and executed thought experiment, which is a grand tradition within science fiction.
Definitely Hugo material. Perhaps not Hugo-winning—we’ll see what I think of the other nominees in the novella category. But The Man Who Ended History takes real history—somewhat forgotten history, at least for this poor, publicly-schooled Westerner—and asks questions about how new technology might force us to confront our past. That’s what science fiction is all about.
Time travel poses a host of complications, no matter which set of rules one follows. Plus, I mean, as cool as it might be to pop back to ancient EgyptTime travel poses a host of complications, no matter which set of rules one follows. Plus, I mean, as cool as it might be to pop back to ancient Egypt or Rome or Tudor England for afternoon tea, I wouldn’t want to live there. Hello, indoor plumbing much? Flush toilets and high speed Internet? I like my “modern” conveniences, and I can understand why the first employees of the Company didn’t enjoy their duties much. And the Company happened to have a formula for immortality lying around. So, you know, it makes total sense to train contemporary people, make them immortal, and have them do your bidding. Collect genetic samples from extinct plants, rescue lost works of art … the sky is the limit.
Kage Baker has some pretty interesting rules going on in In the Garden of Iden, and she lays them out explicitly at the beginning of the book. So I’m not going to bore you with the details. Mendoza is a little girl languishing in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition until she gets rescued and recruited by the Company. They make her immortal (yay, cyborgs!) and train her in history—past and future. She specializes in botany, which, for the Company, means she will spend most of her time identifying extinct plants and taking samples so they can be resurrected in the future.
Mendoza is rescued when she is about three or four, so she essentially grows up as a ward of the Company—and as an immortal cyborg (yes, there are immortal cyborg teenagers). This has the interesting result of estranging her from ordinary—such as it is in the sixteenth century—human society. She isn’t fond of ordinary humans and specializes in the New World, hoping for an isolated posting somewhere devoid of dense contemporary populations. Instead she gets assigned to a Spanish delegation to England, where she will study the exoticon plants in the garden of Sir Walter Iden. Much to her surprise, she falls in love with a contemporary Protestant at a time when Catholicism was just beginning to come back into vogue in England in a big—Bloody—way.
Mendoza makes for a great protagonist. Her prejudice against her fellow contemporary humans speaks volumes about how the Company operates. It’s kind of like a vast pyramid scheme—throughout the ages they’ve offered these people from the past the chance to transcend history and inherit a promised land in the future, provided they do the Company’s bidding. I’ve only read one novel, but I hope Baker explores this theme more and the ramifications of what happens when all these employees catch up to the Company in “the present”. I can’t help but feel there is going to be … friction. For instance, Mendoza’s counselor is apparently from a Paleolithic tribe—so he’s been on the job for quite some time. Isn’t there going to be a huge seniority issue in the future? Or is there something more sinister happening?
But I digress. Mendoza: she’s smart and opinionated without being too sarcastic for her own good. She is good at what she does but often oversteps or overreacts—quick-tempered is perhaps apt. Again, this is why she’s a good protagonist. She keeps things moving, keeps us in the action, but at the same time she can be meditative when necessary. Baker goes for an intimate portrayal of a (Catholic) English household during the brief Counter-Reformation. The friction between Nicolas and the rest of the household underscores Mendoza’s observations regarding how this conflict over religions and politics is brutal and barbaric, rendering them poignant when they might have been trite or overdone.
I’m not nearly as impressed by the supporting characters. Joseph is an interesting father figure for Mendoza, but ultimately he and Nef are really just foils for her without much in the way of character development for themselves. This is a little disappointing. Likewise, Sir Walter is more plot device than anything. Nicolas is fascinating in that he reminds me why I would hate to be alive during the sixteenth century, but that’s about it.
In the Garden of Iden reminds me of so many other period dramas. It spends a lot of time showing off its setting and focusing on the zeitgeist of the period at the expense of the plot. It’s a testament to Baker’s writing ability, then, that she can distract me long enough not to care about these things. I enjoyed Mendoza’s experience in England, watching her change from feeling superior to humans to sleeping with and loving a stupid human. And this is more of a historical novel than a science-fiction or time-travel story, despite what the trappings might otherwise imply. Baker has essentially swapped time-travel in for prophecy, for its most important contribution to the plot is Mendoza’s awareness of what the future holds—namely, a Protestant queen who becomes one of the most influential people in history. Hence, the science-fictional element of the book is the source of dramatic irony that transforms Mendoza’s romance with Nicolas into a classical tragedy.
This book didn’t quite blow me away like I was hoping it would after what I had read about it. But I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the series. Baker has done something different from the traditional “smash-and-grab” idea of time-travel artifact retrieval, and I’m interested to see where she takes it. Combined with a smart protagonist who has her share of flaws and failings, and you have a successful novel and the start of something good.
I have often lamented our slavery to linear time. It is a peculiar form of universal injustice, this fact that we can never revisit moments once theyI have often lamented our slavery to linear time. It is a peculiar form of universal injustice, this fact that we can never revisit moments once they become “the past”, that the present is continuously slipping through our hands and solidifying into something we cannot change, except through the careful or careless manipulations of memory and history. What would lives be like if we could experience every moment simultaneously? What if we were conscious of time not as a line but as a point, all possibilities raging furiously and brilliantly at once. Well, it would be overwhelming. And probably a little depressing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s depiction of the block time view of the universe, and its implications, is the most intriguing part of the famous and controversial Slaughterhouse-Five for me. Billy Pilgrim’s consciousness is drifting along different points in his personal worldline, effectively making it seem that he is mentally time travelling. This, along with his abduction and temporary imprisonment in a zoo by the Tralfamadorians, happens in such a way that no one could possibly prove Billy is travelling through time—ultimately, we are left to decide for ourselves whether Billy’s experiences are “real” or delusional.
Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative structure works for me. Vonnegut’s prose is simple and so seductive yet extremely difficult, in a sense, because it is so satirical. It is all too easy for me to slip, skim, and start—“Wait, he said what?” Since Billy kept hopping to different points of his life, I did not have to spend any effort paying attention to when he was, only what was happening. Indeed, I think this book has given me a little more respect for novels that jump around in their internal chronology. Although I’m still not happy when novels that do not obviously involve time travel jump from present to past without so much as indicating it with a caption, I will try to be more sensitive to the artistic choice an author conveys with such shifts of reference.
Aside from throwing into question Billy’s very sanity, the major consequence of his time-travelling is a deeply-ingrained sense of fatalism. Billy knows how he is going to die; he has not merely seen his death but lived it. The Tralfamadorians are similar to Billy; they perceive the fourth dimension of time much as we perceive three dimensions of space, and so for them everyone is alive and dead at the same time—dead being slightly less interesting, of course. When they confess to Billy that they know how the universe ends—that they are, in fact, responsible—he asks them why they can’t work to prevent it. And they shrug and say they can’t because they know that’s how it will happen.
This is the betrayal of the non-linear existence, at least in this type of universe. Perceiving existence as a simultaneity of moments necessitates burying any hope of free will: we cannot change what we will do, because we are doing it and have always done it. And this type of fatalism is an invitation to nihilism, to a long, dark tea-time of the soul as one reflects that, if we have no ability to control our actions, then what kind of meaning can existence have? Hence the phrase that permeates this book: so it goes. For a non-linear narrative, those are awfully linear words, evoking an acceptance of the flow of events born out of awareness that those events are inevitable and unchanging.
Billy seems to handle his fatalism rather well, with the possible exception of going crazy. I suppose for a young soldier in World War II, knowing that one survives and goes on to become a successful optometrist could be very comforting. Similarly, while Billy is not particularly in love with the woman he marries, he does so because he has seen most of their marriage and decided it isn’t that bad. Billy is someone who settles, kind of a pushover. Another word might be equanimous. He accepts it all: his involvement in war, the bombing of Dresden, his marriage, his abduction, his death—what other choice does he have?
I suppose I am dancing around the central motif, war. I’m avoiding talking about it because I’m not sure what to say. Slaughterhouse-Five is a work that is both timeless and of its time: when it first came on the scene in 1969, it greeted a generation that was in the middle of the Vietnam War and a generation that had experienced the Second World War. Vonnegut addresses these generations explicitly, going so far as to make this book metafictional by writing himself as a character into the novel and including an introductory chapter explaining the genesis of this work.
This first chapter contains an extremely sensible declaration. Writing about his novel, the author says, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” This is the truth that literature returns to us. It reverses the damage done by statistics. When we say thousands and millions dead, we are being accurate and truthful—but we also have trouble feeling those deaths. My generation’s experience with war is going to be very different from those of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Trench warfare has been superseded by guerrilla warfare, which in turn is being replaced by the warfare of robots, drones, and cyberspace. Our wars are becoming more abstract, and with that abstraction we are at risk of losing sight of the principal product of warfare: dead human bodies.
Slaughterhouse-Five and books like it rescue us from such a grim fate. They take an event so unimaginably unintelligible, like the Dresden bombing, and find a way to reconnect it to our human experiences. Different authors pursue this in different ways. Some opt for visceral descriptions of what it was like to be there; others choose to pursue the fallout of witnessing such a massacre as veterans attempt to move on with their lives. Vonnegut uses his sharp wit to pull back the curtain and wonder at the meaning of it all. It’s interesting to note that despite their different perspective on time, the Tralfamadorians do not have an eternally peaceful society:
“But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as everything you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments….”
I feel like Vonnegut is speaking directly to the future here. This is a declamation of our tendency toward apathy through wilful ignorance. Substitute “on other days” for “in other parts of the world”, and you have a description of our planet today. There isn’t anything we, as individuals, can do about the wars happening elsewhere—so most of the time, we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We look at pleasant moments: videos of cats, funny webcomics, and images of cats with hilarious captions. Because, ultimately, we don’t know how to deal, and we know we don’t know how to deal, so we avoid trying to deal with it at all.
So that’s the timeless aspect of Slaughterhouse-Five. I imagine it’s not the same effect it had in 1969, but this book talks about war in a way that will remain relevant until war itself becomes obsolete (and will that ever happen?). It is a large, literary shrug in the direction of those who go on about war being an inevitable, necessary action in the name of peace.
So after finishing The Time Traveler’s Wife I realized that the next book on my shelf was Family Matters. The last Rohinton Mistry book I read cut mSo after finishing The Time Traveler’s Wife I realized that the next book on my shelf was Family Matters. The last Rohinton Mistry book I read cut me up, so I decided that before I attempted this next one, I would need something I was guaranteed to enjoy. Fortunately, my awesome limited edition of Palimpsest had just arrived from Subterranean Press. I first read Palimpsest when it was a nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. It subsequently won, deservedly, the award, and so when I heard that Subterranean Press was coming out with a hardcover edition, I jumped to pre-order it.
Time travel is weird, confusing, and inconsistent. There is no way to avoid that—and embracing this fact is the key to good time-travel fiction. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Primer, the method and mood of this mad embrace can be quite varied, but the end result is the same: a time travel story, when done properly, should blow your mind.
Where most authors go wrong in their time travel plots is a desire to make sense. So they go to the trouble of establishing various rules that attempt to compel their non-linear story into a linear box, forgetting all the while that once you break causality, there is no going back. Palimpsest is a refreshing change, because Charles Stross doesn’t try to make sense. He acknowledges and works with the utter insanity that would be a universe where time travel is possible. This allows him to accomplish wonderful things, but it also demands a great deal of tolerance from the reader. I can understand why some would reject this book as too confusing and too brief.
The novella opens with Pierce describing, in the second-person narration that Stross uses as an interstitial technique, how he has to kill his own grandfather (TVTropes) as the beginning of his training for the Stasis. The Stasis is a group of time travellers, pledged to manipulate history and reseed humanity each time it goes extinct on Earth. (Humanity, Stross explains, always goes extinct.) They go to incredible lengths to achieve this goal. Stross lyrically describes how they tinker with the ultimate fate of the Earth and solar system on a cosmic scale and literally manipulate the rise and fall of civilization to serve their own ends. Though Stasis’ stated goal is the ultimate good—survival of the human species—they sure do seem authoritarian about it.
As he undergoes his two-decade-long training period, Pierce develops a fascination with palimpsests. These are periods of history that have been rewritten so many times that it becomes very difficult to access any given version of history. (The Stasis has a Library that exists at the end of the Earth, which is protected from all changes to the timeline and therefore records various versions of history. This frustrates new agents who haven’t yet learned that the Library lies.) After Pierce survives an assassination attempt, presumably from someone out to prevent something he will do in his own future, he convalesces in a science empire of the far future, marries a native, and has a family. When he makes a quick trip to the Library to sort out an academic dispute, he discovers that period of history has been turned into a palimpsest, and he might never see his family again.
Pierce eventually becomes drawn into a much larger plot threatening the existence of Stasis itself. We, along with Pierce, are kept in the dark about the nature of this plot until close to the end of the book. But without going into spoilers, I can fairly succinctly describe the nature of the resistance: the name “Stasis” should be a clue. Though Stasis has humanity’s preservation at heart, it enforces this survival in a draconian and single-minded way. There is no room in Stasis’ agenda for extraterrestrial intelligence, space exploration, or indeed any type of development or growth that does not ultimately support Stasis. This meta-social construct has turned into a kind of symbiotic organism relying on the entirety of human history to exist.
Palimpsest isn’t perfect, and if I could wish for one improvement, it would be an extension to novel length. There is just so much going on here, an entire vocabulary and way of life that Stross can only barely explore. The events that take place evoke so many classics of science fiction and of time travel stories—for example, Pierce dies multiple times, even causing his own death at times. What does this mean for the nature of self, for our identity or even, if you believe in such a thing, our souls? These questions all linger in the back of one’s mind, but more so because I am already aware of them and know to apply them to these circumstances. They remain frustratingly unexplored, even somewhat unasked, because there just isn’t enough space.
Similarly, Pierce himself is kind of a lacklustre protagonist. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s an OK kind of guy, though I would have liked to learn more about him. But for most of the novella he gets dragged along with the plot rather than actually showing much initiative—and when he does show initiative, it tends to backfire! So readers who are waiting for Pierce to step up and own the story might be disappointed—or pleasantly surprised. I can’t say…. And to be fair, Stross acknowledges the powerlessness Pierce feels: when Pierce comes face-to-face with the person running the plot against Stasis, he confesses that he feels just as manipulated as when he was collaborating with the Stasis Internal Affairs department. Both sides are manipulating Pierce, and this becomes key to the novella’s final, profound pages.
I won’t deny that this book pushes my buttons in all the right ways, and for that reason, I am more than ready to overlook any flaws. I love Palimpsest so much because I feel like Stross has created a realistic portrayal of time travel, and in so doing demonstrated why time travel shouldn’t be possible. If it were, our universe would be an even crazier place than it already is. Because if it were possible to rewrite history, then everyone would be running around, killing their past selves and grandfathers and Hitler—that, or some form of the Novikov self-consistency principle would result in time travel erasing the timeline where time travel is invented. Confused yet? Good. This is your brain on time travel. Don’t do it!
But if time travel were possible, then it would also present us with staggering choice. The very mutability of the continuum would mean that history would never be constant. Foiled plots one moment could be successful coups the next, and vice versa if you work for the other side. You can join the time agency and then, if you tire of the work, go back in time and prevent yourself from joining—or just erase yourself from history altogether! In short, time travel as Stross portrays it in Palimpsest is the ultimate chaotic vector. This is the final message of Palimpsest, and it is simultaneously invigorating and terrifying.
Contrary to what the title of this book implies to any sensible reader, this book is not about River Song. Disappointing, I know.
I ended up liking thiContrary to what the title of this book implies to any sensible reader, this book is not about River Song. Disappointing, I know.
I ended up liking this book much more than I expected. To be perfectly honest, I did not want to like The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s a popular book, a “pop lit” book that has appropriated something so dear to science fiction and turned it into a gimmick for a romance. I had resolved to read it so I would know what others are talking about, and be armed with reasons why I dislike it. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, I found myself entranced by the way Audrey Niffenegger has ruthlessly pursued this idea of two lovers literally out of sync with each other. She is quick to establish consistent rules about Henry’s time travelling, and there is a singular pleasure to watching the timeline wrap around itself as we see an event Clare witnessed as a young girl from the eyes of the much older, temporally-displaced Henry. In short, Niffenegger takes what could have been a gimmick and, through an obvious effort and maybe even some talent, turns it into a great story.
That’s not to say the time travel in this story is perfect. After all, the reason that Henry travels through time unwillingly is kind of silly—it’s genetic. As if there are certain alleles that somehow cause our bodies to opt out of the space-time continuum. On the surface it’s an intriguing premise, and Niffenegger at least tries to make it sound scientific. Nothing but Henry’s body travels with him, so he always arrives nude—as he remarks, it’s a good thing he doesn’t wear glasses. But how does this phenomenon know what is part of Henry’s body? If it’s anything with the time-travelling DNA, then that would leave behind his hair, not to mention all those lovely bacteria on and inside our bodies that keep us alive and healthy. Any way you slice it, Niffenegger’s explanations for Henry’s condition are implausible—but her attempts at plausibility are sincere enough that I’ll be generous and call this science fiction, not fantasy. It’s such a fine line!
Once we grant Henry his miracle exception to hop through time, we can finely immerse ourselves in the story—or stories. We get to see both Henry and Clare’s perspectives of events, sometimes of the same events; sometimes we even see the perspective from two different Henrys when they meet up. This is particularly fascinating during the first part of the novel, when Henry recounts the first time he can remember time-travelling, and all the times his older self taught him survival tactics: pickpocketing, fighting, etc. (Randomly materializing in the nude is a dangerous hobby.) Niffenegger comes up with all of these interesting consequences of Henry’s singular ability, both for Henry and for the woman he is destined to love.
Clare meets Henry when she is young (six, I think), but he is already in his forties. Henry won’t meet the contemporary Clare until he is 28 and she is 21, so for the first two decades of her life, Clare must content herself with Henry’s sporadic visits to a meadow near her parents’ luxurious home. At the very beginning of the story, Henry’s visits to Clare are a little creepy: naked middle-aged man shows up and begins spending quality time with a young girl. Niffenegger lampshades this concern during their first visit, but there is still something problematic about the way Clare essentially imprints upon Henry. It makes one wonder if either of them had any choice in the matter.
If there is one deeper theme I’d take away from The Time Traveler’s Wife, it has to be the meditation upon free will: act like you have it, even if you (probably) don’t. Henry talks about how he is unable to change the past, how even when he tries, he feels constrained somehow. (I find the description and explanation rather unsatisfying, but again, credit to Niffenegger for establishing ground rules.) This means that if he sees his older self do something, he is bound to repeat that action when he becomes that person, no matter how hard he tries. If that is the case, it seems to me like Henry’s entire life—and by extension, everyone’s lives—are predestined. Niffenegger doesn’t explore this as explicitly as I would like, but it is fairly well-developed through the course of the plot itself.
Henry and Clare’s relationship is in many ways like that of the Doctor and River Song. The older time traveller appears to a young girl and influences her in a big way; she falls in love with him. They continue to meet; he gets younger, and she gets older. They have adventures together out of order. Both The Time Traveler’s Wife and Doctor Who explore how confusing and interesting such a relationship would be, and neither shies away from the fact that it’s very messed up. Henry’s presence during Clare’s formative years essentially means she has little choice but to fall in love with him. Later, she finds the contemporary version of him, showing him her little diary with all the dates of his visits, and tells him they are destined to be together. Sometimes I lament our linear existence, but I have to say, I can see the benefits to having everyone experience events in the same order.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is not quite the sappy romance I feared it would be. Henry and Clare’s relationship is, most of the time, genuinely touching. I suppose one could complain about the way Clare eternally pines for Henry, but I think Niffenegger makes it clear that, however the relationship came about in the first place, both of them love each other unconditionally. Still, if it weren’t for the time travelling, the story would be fairly ho-hum and conventional. It’s the unchronological nature of events that rescues this book—that, and occasionally brilliant moments of writing from Niffenegger. I particularly loved the mood she captures when Henry is meeting Clare’s family for the first time, Christmas 1991. The squabbling and bickering feels very real, even if the supporting characters (the oddly stereotypically-dictioned servants) do not.
There is only one major thorn in this otherwise pleasant surprise: the ending. Specifically, the last two acts of the book. By this time the novelty of Henry’s time-travelling has worn off, and we are fast approaching the point where something has to give. Nevertheless, I was kind of expecting … I don’t know. Something more than what we get. Something deeper, more meaningful. I’m not going to spoil it, but essentially my problem is that there are no surprises in store for us: it does happen exactly the way Henry tells us it will happen. I wasn’t hoping for a last-minute reprieve, but I put the book down without any sense of being changed for it. And that, to me, is unsatisfying.
So I don’t quite think The Time Traveler’s Wife deserves all its accolades, but maybe that’s just me. It’s a good book, one that I enjoyed, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to certain people. What could easily have been a poorly-executed gimmick is actually the core of the book. Yet for all the big issues raised by time travel—like free will—this book remains a stubborn biography of two people rather than slipping loose to become something bigger. I was party to the experience of The Time Traveler’s Wife but not really part of the experience.
… there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them).… So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long…
… all the characters in this book are ninnies … They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily.
Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer.
… time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.
And now, the conclusion to Ben's reviews of Blackout/All Clear:
Time travel to the past inevitably raises the spectre of altering the past, and specifically whether one can change the outcome of events that have "already" happened. This generally depends on the rules the author sets up. Connie Willis doesn't actually explain the rules to us, only hints at them, and determining what "type" of universe our Oxford historians inhabit becomes central to the plot of All Clear. When Mr. Dunworthy joins Polly and Eileen in the past, he has bad news: he fears he has doomed them all, because he altered events on his first trip to the Blitz, when he was only seventeen years old, and now the continuum is trying to repair itself. By killing all the time travellers, and everyone with whom they have had contact. Fortunately for all of our historians, it turns out Mr. Dunworthy is mistaken: they live in a type 1.1 universe instead of type 1.2, and the Novikov self-consistency principle is in effect. Everything that happens has already happened, and they are in a nice and comfortable causality loop.
Now that I have completely spoiled the ending of All Clear (you did take that spoiler warning seriously, didn't you?), it is time to process my feelings. Having finished the book, I have to admit that all the fans of this story are correct: having already read Blackout, reading All Clear is worthwhile. It's a significant investment, but at least I have some closure now. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that way while reading All Clear, particularly during the first half. I remember checking my progress and lamenting, "I still have 300 more pages?" There was some heavy skimming happening at some points too. Blackout/All Clear are definitely a package deal, but it's a package with a long, dull slog in the middle.
Picking up literally where Blackout concludes, All Clear continues its tradition of long and repetitive discussions of how the historians might have altered events. This builds to an egregious climax on December 29, 1940, when Polly, Eileen, and Mike attempt to find John Bartholomew, a historian from their past who has joined the St. Paul's Cathedral Fire Watch for this one night. They want him to take a message back to Oxford for them, but the continuum gets in their way and leads them on a merry chase across London, constantly interfering when they are so close to finding Bartholomew. It gradually becomes clear that these near-misses and coincidences are a result of the continuum's self-consistency and not just exuberance on the part of Willis, and I suppose that is fair enough. Yet there is a vast gulf between justifiable and enjoyable, and All Clear fails to bridge it.
When considered as a whole, Blackout/All Clear is a very clever and well-planned time travel story. It's possible to tell a time travel story in a linear fashion, but I kind of feel like this misses the point. Willis, on the other hand, clearly enjoys and exults in the intricacy time travel affords the structure of her narrative. Characters whose identities were initially unclear—and, indeed, seemingly irrelevant to our main story—turned out to be familiar faces. In hindsight, Willis left plenty of clues scattered for the clever reader to deduce on his or her own, but I am not that smart. (We actually read The Importance of Being Earnest in one of my first-year English classes, and I have it sitting on my shelf, but I honestly didn't remember it enough to recognize the importance of names like Earnest and Lady Bracknell. Shame on me!) Despite my misgivings about her characterization and the conclusion itself, I can't fault Willis for her planning and preparation, and that is one of the two things that saved me from utterly condemning this book. The other reason is that the science-fictional devices are, as always, secondary to the story and its themes.
about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who “did their bit” to save the world from Hitler–Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie–heroes all.
Heroism and the question of what makes someone heroic are central to Blackout/All Clear. Mike originally plans to visit Dover as but one of several trips into the past, each of which will allow him to observe "ordinary people" who get swept up in events and become heroes as a result. Even though his trip to Dover is hasty and he is ill-prepared and everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong, he still thinks he has found such a person in Commander Harold. Yet Mike's ideas about heroism evolve quite a bit as he himself is forced to go undercover, change his identity, and participate directly in the British disinformation campaigns. This complements the heroism demonstrated by civilians during the Blitz, when regular people became ambulance drivers and firefighters and planespotters and rescue workers, when even keeping one's cool became an act of heroism. In this way, Blackout/All Clear is Willis' tribute to everyone who lived through the Blitz, through D-Day, through the war itself: they are all heroes, because as her use of time travel makes explicit, every little action affects history.
I wish this alone were enough to make me love this book. It's enough to make me regret that I did not enjoy it more, but even an appreciation for what Willis is saying cannot improve the black and bored mood that descended upon me as I was reading. Although I hate echoing others, I have to agree with several other reviewers—love it or hate it, there seems to be a general consensus that Blackout/All Clear didn't have to be this long. As it stands, the book suffers from a serious risk of losing its plot through diffusion. There are too many scenes that serve well to depict greater historical detail and further Willis' themes but seem completely redundant to the story itself, and noticing this was sufficient to pull me out of the story and make my inner grumpy critic put on his snooty monocle and sneer—mostly at the characters.
I keep coming back to this, but if I were the head of the Oxford Time Travelling Society (or whatever it's called), I wouldn't let Polly, Mike, and Eileen near the net. And I probably wouldn't let Mr. Dunworthy stay in charge, even if he means well. I'm not sure if Willis is just worried that her readers won't get it, but the historians spend a lot of time speculating why their drops won't open, why the retrieval team hasn't arrived, etc. When Colin—Mr. One Man Retrieval Team himself—finally arrives to take them home, I thought the story would, you know, conclude there. He's back, and now they can go home. But no, I was wrong, and we get another thirty pages in which Colin and Eileen explain to Polly (again) why things are happening the way they are (because they've already happened). I had already clued into Willis' predestination plans before the big reveal, but even for those taken unawares, such a lengthy and repetitive explanation seems more patronizing than helpful. I very much dislike it when authors succumb to the temptation to stop and point at their own clever resolutions, and while I don't think this was Willis' intention by any means, I think that's what the conclusion to All Clear becomes.
Causality loops aren't my favourite type of time travel universe; I much prefer the idea that history can be altered (and that the continuum would inexorably collapse if time travel were possible, so we should be thankful it's not). One of the beautiful things about fiction is its diversity, of course, and so I don't have to like Willis' rules in order to appreciate them. My opinion of Blackout/All Clear as a time travel novel has improved, slightly, because of the obvious care that has gone into working out the tangled chronology of its narrative. And my opinion of this as a work of historical fiction, as a tribute to those who lived through the war and the myriad unsung heroes of the everyday, has only increased as well. Willis works carefully to avoid any actual paradoxes in her novel, but she has managed to create one with me: Blackout/All Clear is obviously deserving praise and acclaim, yet it was also one of my worst experiences reading this year. Somewhere within these two massive volumes is a single, worthwhile story, struggling to escape—and it is the glimpse at that story that I find so alluring and so easy to appreciate, even as the surrounding chaff chokes and cloys.
Time travel is a very broad trope in science fiction. There are so many stories to te**spoiler alert** “The Revisionists” is the name of my next band.
Time travel is a very broad trope in science fiction. There are so many stories to tell using time travel and so many ways of doing it. I love time travel stories (particularly Doctor Who), the nitty-gritty, wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey type of stories that can leave you utterly confused and gasping for breath by the end. For all their intricate potentialities, however, time travel is really only good for two things: observing history, and fucking with history. Everything else is just variations upon the theme.
Since stories always need conflict, and conflict is hard to do when one is an observer, most time travel stories lean toward the latter. (You can still do clever things with an observer premise, but it’s seldom as fun.) When one travels back in time, it’s to change the past—hopefully with an eye of making the present better. In The Revisionists, our protagonist wants to stop people from changing the past. Zed works for the Government, who have taken Leibniz literally and believe they have found the best of all possible worlds. So Zed stops “historical agitators”, or hags, from screwing up that utopia. Except, as he protects various important Events in contemporary Washington, D.C. that lead up to the catastrophic Great Conflagration, Zed begins to learn things make him question his loyalties.
From here, The Revisionists can go one of two ways. Through Zed’s first person (and therefore unreliable) narration and the limited omniscient narration following Tasha, Leo, and Sari, Thomas Mullen presents two possibilities. First, Zed is a time traveller from an undisclosed time in the future, as he claims. Second, Zed is actually his cover identity—Troy Jones—suffering from paranoid delusions brought on by the trauma of losing his ex-wife and daughter in a traffic collision. The time travel trappings are all part of an elaborate conspiracy fantasy Troy has constructed and is now living. True to postmodern form, Mullen declines to collapse the wavefunction and tell us which interpretation is “true”, leaving us to decide for ourselves. This is supposed to be artsy and clever and make the book that much more appealing. Unfortunately, neither interpretation leads to a satisfying experience.
Let’s assume, then, that Zed is actually from the future. Thomas Mullen tells us exactly nothing about how time travel actually works in this universe. Apparently there is a “ritual” of some kind that allows Zed to be recalled to the future (or a future). But we’re spared any of the technobabble infodumps characteristic of most time-travel stories. Mullen is similarly vague about the technology Zed possesses. He appears to have cybernetic enhancements: he can communicate telepathically and wirelessly infilitrate neary computer systems; he has some kind of internal database that he can access using mental commands or eye gestures; and he can detect non-contemporary individuals by scanning for the DNA. He doesn’t carry a lot of futuristic technology on his person—ostensibly to avoid accidental contamination of the timeline—with the most exotic tool being “flashers”, small grenades that appear to disintegrate everything within a limited radius.
None of this is very impressive or satisfying from a science-fiction standpoint. Furthermore, the monolithic and suspect Government that Zed protects is a very vague sort of dystopia. I’m tired of this trend: it’s lazy worldbuilding. There’s something to be said for not specifying the nature of the cataclysm preceding one’s post-apocalyptic society—perhaps it makes the author’s vision of the future more accessible. However, this does not excuse a failure to explain the post-apocalyptic society itself.
All Mullen tells us is that it’s called “the Government” (almost as original as the Capitol, that) and it does not allow its citizens access to much in the way of history. According to Zed, this is for their own good—ignorance, after all, is bliss. Indeed, after his wife and daughter die in an all-too-convenient accident, minions come around to Zed’s abode and eliminate any traces of their persons, from photographs to toys to clothing and scents. This is all very sinister, but it’s still far too vague. We get no sense of who is in charge of the Government, and we meet fewer than five characters aside from Zed.
So, as a time-time travel story, I have to give The Revisionists a failing mark. It’s just so incredibly vague that it’s more the outline of a story than an actual story. This is not good enough to keep me occupied until Doctor Who comes back in the fall. I’ll go watch some episodes of Stargate SG-1 or something.
Then what if we regard Zed as the somewhat deranged Troy Jones? Does this make the book any better? The problem with normalizing The Revisionists and interpreting its science-fictional elements as hallucinatory is that it forces us to view the book as a conspiracy thriller. And, while I admit that I am somewhat of a snob when it comes to thrillers, I suspect that I would not be alone in concluding that this is a fairly lacklustre thriller. The characters are dull. Removed from its trappings of temporal preservation, the plot becomes one of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage, a commentary on the conflict between capitalism’s commitment to globalization and the patriotism expected of the American intelligence ecosystem. There’s never really a sense of impending danger, though. Neither Leo nor Tasha are very good at what they do, and while I suppose they are likeable enough as far as people go, I never became emotionally invested in their stories. I did like Sari and wished she would come to a good end but wasn’t particularly optimistic.
Then there’s the fulcrum of The Revisionists: the tension between the Great Man theory of history and the theory that people are merely the product of their times. I think this issue would be a lot more interesting when explored through the lens of time travel. Attempting to sort through the machinations of Enhanced Awareness, Ltd., or Leo’s employer, Targeted Executive Solutions, doesn’t really provide the same sort of epic scope that such a discussion deserves. As a straight-up thriller, then, there is very little in the way of purpose to The Revisionists.
I take issue neither with Mullen’s writing nor with his ideas, which are themselves pretty good. Rather, he has managed to construct a plot that can be interpreted in two ways yet fails to work on either level. I guess I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to an intense time-travel-themed thriller. Instead, I got a book that wants to pretend to be an intense time-travel-themed thriller and … isn’t quite convincing at it.
Last week, Atlantis lifted off for the final space shuttle mission ever. The space shuttle program is older than I am, and to be honest, it's overdueLast week, Atlantis lifted off for the final space shuttle mission ever. The space shuttle program is older than I am, and to be honest, it's overdue for retirement. The Challenger and Columbia tragedies underscored how cantankerous and dangerous this method of low-Earth orbital delivery can be. The numerous delays in the final flights of Discovery and Atlantis emphasized the fragility of the aging shuttle fleet. So we should not be mourning the loss of the space shuttle program, for it served its purpose and had its day: all good things and whatnot. Rather, we should be mourning the lack of a ready replacement. We should be ashamed that the last time someone walked on the moon was in 1972, almost thirty years ago. Since then, humanity has limited itself to skimming the surface of the Earth's atmosphere.
Troika is a compelling, perhaps even chilling novella set in the near future. The decline of the various national space programs has continued until only the new "Second Soviet" state is capable of mounting a crewed expedition to a Big Dumb Object (TVTropes) that appeared in the solar system in 1995. The Russians dub it the Matryoshka, owing to its nested structure of shells resembling the nested dolls of the same name. During its first two "apparitions" when it is close enough for robotic probes to reach it, the Matroyshka yields enough data to send astronomers and physicists scrambling for answers. Yet it remains tantalizingly inscrutable and … alien.
So far this doesn't sound like anything special. But this is Alastair Reynolds. I've only read two of his novels, one so long ago I barely remember it, and the other one was a great mystery set to the tune of a posthuman future. The Matroyshka is more than just another Big Dumb Object, and Troika, like the Matroyshka itself, comprises several nested levels of nuance that make it one of the best stories I've read this year.
It begins with the story's split into two time frames. First we have the escape of Dimitri Ivanov from an asylum outside Zvezdniy Gorodok (Star City). Dimitri was one of the three cosmonauts aboard the expedition to the Matroyshka, and after their return to Earth, all three were quarantined and held at the asylum. Now that he has escaped, he seeks out a discredited astronomer named Nesha Petrova, purely in order to give her an artifact he smuggled away from the Matroyska: proof that Nesha's theories regarding the object's origin and purpose were completely correct, despite the fact that the Second Soviet suppressed them. Half-mad (and he admits he went insane following his visit to the Matroyshka, claiming his insanity is what saved him) and aware that his escape from the asylum is futile, Dimitri tells Nesha (and us) about what really happened on the expedition.
Dimitri is the last member of the crew left alive. The government quarantined them at the asylum because of radiation posioning. Although their exposure was real enough—and lethal in the case of Ivanov's two comrades—the government had other reasons to want them locked away. Their visit to the Matroyshka altered Dimitri, Yakov, and Galenka on a fundamental level in a way that scared the government. It didn't mutate them into hideous alien monsters or give them superhuman powers, but it affected their identities and individuality in a way that the perfect communist state of the Second Soviet Union could not accept.
Even as he unspools a story about an encounter with something beyond human comprehension, Reynolds provides commentary on the flawed concept of a utopian state, especially such a state as embodied by communism. There are some pointed conversations between Dimitri and Galenka regarding the expectations of their superiors, as well as Dimitri's observations that: "I had been a cosmonaut for much longer and I had seen how our superiors punished failings. The best you could hope for was incarceration. The worst was returning to your office to find a loaded revolver and a bottle of vodka." You get the idea that this is in fact the antithesis of the bright and shining beacon of inspiration and hope that most stories, and most histories, make spaceflight out to be. It's dirty, political, and even a bit dreary.
Dimitri is a textbook unreliable narrator, self-confessed to have been insane at one point, if not still insane, so we can't necessarily take his story at face value. But he is convinced that the Second Soviet will fall within his and Nesha's lifetimes, that the Matroyshka is a sign their nation is "on the wrong track" and that humanity must return to the stars. And of course, a nation that prides itself as having achieved the pinnacle of human governance can't very well entertain the notion that it is merely a step along the way to that pinnacle—that it is, in fact, a wrong turn. So they bury Dimitri and bury his speculations, and Nesha's theories, about the Matroyshka's origin, purpose, and meaning.
There's also a deep connection to music, particularly Russian music. This novella's title refers to the piece of the same name by Prokofiev, itself referring to a three-person Russian folk dance. (If you aren't familiar with it, take a listen. I bet you have heard it or variations used elsewhere.) I don't think it's a coincidence that the expedition to the Matroyshka comprises three people. As much as I love Russian composers, Prokofiev included (Tchaikovsky might be my favourite composer of all time), I'm not familiar enough with the history and the culture to be comfortable speculating about the meaning behind Reynolds' choice here. If I had to take a shot in the dark, though, I'd guess that the piece's upbeat tone is supposed to be ironic in the face of the Second Soviet's oppressive actions and the poor state of spaceflight in general. "Troika" is triumphant and hopeful, symbolic of everything that is to come if Dimitri is, indeed, correct in his beliefs.
Then, at the end of Troika, Reynolds hit me with the TWIST. I didn't see it coming. Maybe I should have done; maybe you, if you read this, will recognize the foreshadowing that eluded me and smile knowingly as Reynolds springs the TWIST upon you. I was not so lucky, and the TWIST devastated me. It was clever, consistent, and utterly mind-blowing. Some TWISTs fail so hard they demolish all the hard work of the author (not to mention the investment of the reader). Not so here. No, with this revelation, the entirety of Troika and its themes crystallized, and the novella truly became something special. It leads into an ending that is so sad—and yet so perfect. Troika moved me profoundly, especially at a time like this, when our commitment to spaceflight and space exploration is wavering. Troika is a warning. It is also an amazing story.
Some might argue that the future of spaceflight is better entrusted to robots, who are more suited to the vagaries of vacuum. And that argument has merit. Yet just as the shuttle program has no clear replacement, the elderly Hubble telescope's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is on the chopping block. This is a project into which billions of dollars have already been sunk, money that will have been spent for nothing if the telescope program is cancelled. But I'm more worried about what will happen when the Hubble goes dark with no new-and-improved replacement. I belong to a generation that has never seen a live television broadcast of someone walking on the Moon. Will the next generation be one that never sees a new image taken by a telescope in space? Will we gradually turn away from space, turn away from the majesty and near-infinite wonders that the wider universe makes available? In the twentieth century, we reached out so far. I would hate for it to have been all for nothing.
There is a myth, or at least a misconception, that this is a result of children being innocent. If you have ever been a child, thChildhood is magical.
There is a myth, or at least a misconception, that this is a result of children being innocent. If you have ever been a child, then if you look deep into your heart, you will recognize this as the lie we tell ourselves to conceal the painful truth. Childhood is magical because it is inaccessible. Once gone, it can never be reclaimed, revisited, redone. It is lost to us except through the unreliable route of memories and mementos. Childhood is almost like a separate, first lifetime—a dream of something we did in the past, before we grew up and entered the world of adults.
As children, our world is timeless. We perceive the passage of time, the measurement of time, quite differently. Summers are almost infinite stretches of warm days and improvised games. Winters are endless opportunities for snowmen and snowball fights. Time is fluid and flexible: friends forever, then enemies the next day. In the worlds we create in our backyards, it can be the day before yesterday just as easily as it can be years into the future: our narratives are seldom linear; we’ve yet to yield to the adult idea that fiction needs to “make sense”. Make-believe is a process, not a product, and best done when not entirely serious.
As adults, we can of course strive to retain some of these qualities. I know many people who possess childlike exuberance, as well as a sense of wonder and imagination that serves them well. I try to keep these qualities too. But unless we take the extreme measure, as Charles Darke does in this book, of opting out of adult society, we can never be children. As adults our lives are relentlessly scheduled: transit, meetings, classes, deadlines, duties, chores. We are, all of us, obsessed with the question, “What time is it?” and have developed ever more accurate and precise ways to measure the passage of time so we always know the answer. One might balk at this characterization, but who doesn’t have to be some place at some particular time sometimes? This necessity to be aware of time is a very adult thing, and it is what separates us from our childhood.
The Child in Time puts childhood under a microscope and peers at what separates us from children. Stephen Lewis’ three-year-old daughter was abducted from a supermarket. Years later, he has separated from his wife and finds himself serving on a government committee drafting a report for a new child-rearing document. The British government of the future Ian McEwan imagines is a somewhat paternalistic, authoritarian one: the government knows best. Lewis seems to be sleepwalking through his life, still unable to move on after losing his daughter. He is peculiarly apathetic toward everything: politics, his relationship with his wife, his career as an “accidental” children’s author.
Indeed, most of my issues with this book stem from its unremarkable narrative. Stephen Lewis seems to stumble from scene to scene, and with the story slipping from his past to the present without much knowledge, it can get confusing. His walk is largely aimless, for he does not seize upon a purpose or a desire until the end of the book. Meanwhile, most of the interesting things around him are told to us rather than shown. Thelma tells us about Charles, with Charles himself only briefly making an appearance. Stephen tells us about his parents; his mom tells us about Stephen’s conception … there is a lot of dialogue and exposition. I had trouble enjoying this book simply because it feels so bland.
But at the same time, there is so much happening! The government wants to release a creepy child-rearing manual that’s supposed to restore the morals of the nation. Beggars can get licenses to beg and must wear badges identifying them as such. Stephen’s best friend, Charles, resigns as a Member of Parliament so he can become a recluse seeking to recapture his lost childhood. (Although Thelma eventually explains the reasons, I didn’t find it entirely satisfactory.)
I guess The Child in Time is a fairly interesting smattering of ideas, all of which have something to do with childhood. There is a sense of regret over the loss of childhood, whether it is through maturity or through abduction. There is the difficulty associated with recovering from that trauma, the tension between Stephen and his wife Julie that finally crystallizes and shatters in the novel’s final pages. The ending of this book is really good—disproportionately so compared to the rest of the story.
Like so many other books, The Child in Time falls into that uncomfortable category of books that have some merit even though, alas, I didn’t really enjoy reading them. I can see why others would, but for reasons related to McEwan’s style and characterization, the greatness of this book eludes me.
(Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about Stephen Lewis as I read this.)
All right, I have recovered from my temporary insanity and am now ready to get down to business. I have never before read anything by Ian R. MacLeod. I have a terrible and impoverishing addiction to purchasing titles from specialty publisher Subterranean Press, and during an all-too-common binge (this time it was Charles Stross titles), I saw this on offer, shrugged, said, "What the hell?" and added it to my cart.
I don't recall hearing much about Ian R. MacLeod either. His name is almost criminally similar to Ian McDonald, however, whose The Dervish House is my pick for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Indeed, their names are so similar that I am afraid I will confuse these two authors. I assume that with a name like MacLeod, Ian R. must be immortal, and therefore I shall refer to him as "the Highlander" for the rest of this review. Wikipedia tells me that he was actually born in Birmingham and not the Scottish highlands, but I am too smart to fall for that small bit of trickery, Highlander.
Journeys is an anthology but not a slapdash one. At nine stories it feels short, but the stories themselves are quite long for short stories. And, for the most part, the stories are good. As someone who much prefers novel-length stories, I took a risk in introducing myself to the Highlander through an anthology. I would do it again though, because Journeys was an enjoyable, even magical experience.
Wikipedia also mentions that another of the Highlander's series is an alternate universe affair where the use of aether has preserved the trade guild structure in England and "has retarded technological progress". In hindsight, then, the common theme running through Journeys makes a lot of sense. Several of these stories are set in a similar (if not the same) universe, an alternate England where magic is much more in evidence. The first story, "The Master Miller's Tale", seems to take place near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nathan watches steam-driven mills slowly supersede his traditional mill, which is held together by song spells. He gets mixed up in a group of Luddite-like terrorists who go around sabotaging steam-driven installations. For Nathan, there is also a personal component: the woman he had an adolescent crush on is now a champion of steam technology. Another story, "Elementals", is set a bit later, toward the Victorian end of the century. Its narrator is acquainted with an amateur scientist who is convinced he can harness elemental beings as an alternative energy source. The truth turns out to be much more complicated—and much more metaphysical.
Most of the stories in Journeys also involve the narrators losing themselves, physically or psychologically, and the above two stories are good examples. Nathan is so attached to his mill that it becomes difficult for him to realize his business is dying. Eventually he becomes obsessed with finding the windseller, a merchant who used to come by and sell bagged winds for him to release and use at his mill. Nathan's own obsessions offer a kind of opening for magic to enter him and consume him, and it's a similar story in "Elementals". The narrator learns that elementals are not tied to one element, that they are not the Other; rather, everything and everyone are elementals in a sense. Everything is powered by belief, his example being that it is more difficult to notice people who are down on their luck when you are at the same parties as them—they sort of fade into the background.
Not all of the stories in this collection fit comfortably into my framework. Two in particular—"The Camping Wainwrights" and "On the Sighting of Other Islands"—are quite different, and another, "Taking Care of Myself", is science fiction rather than fantasy but also deals with questions of identities. That being said, those first two stories certainly fit in with the title: the former is, surprisingly enough, about camping and family tribulations; the latter is told in a collective voice by the inhabitants of one island on a sea of moving islands. All of the stories in Journeys are weird in the sense that they are not quite grokkable the first time around—there are certain twists in the Highlander's narrative style that make the stories feel very original—but those two stories in particular among the weirdest.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that two of the intertwined motifs that seem most prevalent in Journeys—alternative worlds where magic has replaced or remains a rival to technological progress, as well as stories where the use of magic leads to a personal crisis of identity—appeal very much to me. So if the rest of the Highlander's work is like this, I look forward to reading more of it. Looks like this edition is sold out on the Subterranean Press website, so unless they print more or you can pick up a copy used, you'll have to be content with finding these stories elsewhere as you can. Alone, none of them really stand out, but together they form a very unified corpus of works. For a new reader like me, Journeys was a good introduction. Although I obviously can't say for sure, I suspect fans of the Highlander will find it familiar and comfortable.
Time travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chanceTime travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chances are you if you invent one then you'll have invented both) as something that, as far as our current understanding of the universe works, is impossible. There are some fascinating loopholes involving wormholes and general relativity, but in order to get it working you need metric shit-joules of energy and something called exotic matter, and it would probably kill you. Besides, even if you got your cosmic time machine working, you wouldn't be able to travel back to a time before you built the time machine. But once you get beyond the physics of time travel and whether it's possible, then the real fun begins. Because time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.
Connie Willis doesn't go into too much depth regarding how time travel is accomplished in her 2060 version of Oxford, where historians visit the past on research assignments. There's some kind of device that creates a "net", which is probably some kind of fancy space-time fold that wraps around the traveller and sends him or her to different "spatiotemporal coordinates". The location where the traveller arrives is his or her "drop", which the traveller must reach to return to Oxford. Rather than dropping this upon us the moment the story begins, Willis does the right thing and gradually introduces us to her theory of time travel. We get some very intriguing hints and speculation about whether historians can alter the past (the prevailing theory is that they can't, but some theorists beg to differ) and some mutterings about "slippage". This is how Willis gets away with using the "meanwhile, in the future" device (TVTropes alert), which is probably the one thing I hate most about time travel stories. We'll look at whether slippage is enough to mollify me later, but first let me talk about World War II.
Blackout starts at a disadvantage for me personally, because I don't particularly like WWII fiction. I will read it once in a while, but I don't go out of my way to find historical fiction set during that period. So keep that in mind when I endorse the atmosphere that Willis creates in Blackout, which is clearly (sometimes too clearly) (TVTropes alert) the product of meticulous research. Polly, Eileen, and Mike all visit different parts of England in 1940: Polly is in London to observe the beginning of the Blitz; Eileen is a maid at a manor that has taken in evacuees; Mike is at Dover to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk. Eventually they all converge on Polly and the Blitz. I love the details Willis includes in her depiction of the period, from the differences between American and British English idioms to the expectations for dress and the excuses one might need for being out after the sirens go off. Willis successfully conveys that the Blitz, and England in general during wartime when the threat of German invasion loomed, was more than just a different time; it possessed an entirely different mentality, one that I don't think those of us lucky enough never to have lived through a war that threatens one's country can grasp.
Before I read Blackout, I knew in general what the Blitz was and that Londoners would often take shelter in Underground stations. That was about it. I didn't know anything about boarding arrangements, about the effects the Blitz had on department stores, and I knew very little about the rationing that went on during the war (I knew that it existed, and that was about it). It was really refreshing to read a book that didn't focus on the military aspects or the Holocaust but instead on civilian life (and the life of women ambulance drivers in the FANY). During the Blitz, any sort of lapse in communications with loved ones meant that one's mind immediately assumed the worst: they hadn't made it to the shelter in time; they were hit by a bomb or by shrapnel; they were caught in a fire … the Nazis never managed to land on English soil, but they inflicted casualties on London and its citizens all the same. When someone I care about doesn't show up, I just assume he or she got stuck in traffic; the citizens of London in 1940 did not have that luxury. Practically every night involved sheltering underground and listening to bombs going off overhead, wondering if one would return home after the all clear only to find that one no longer has a home. Or a place of employment. The historical fiction parts of Blackout are fascinating and immensely satisfying.
As a time travel novel, Blackout runs into problems about halfway through, once Polly, Mike, and Eileen start worrying that they are stranded in 1940. None of their drops open, so they all have the same idea to find one another and use that person's drop. When they realize they all had the same problem, they wait for a retrieval team from the future to arrive—all the while wondering why the team hasn't already arrived (because it's time travel, so there should be no need to wait). Being stranded in the past begins to test our three historians' nerves, because they are trapped in the middle of the Blitz! Polly memorized the dates of bombings, which buildings were hit, and that sort of thing, but only up until the end of the year—she didn't think she would need to know them for the entire Blitz. So there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them). They are so used to knowing when and where bombs will hit that not knowing is a lot more unusual than it is for the contemps, who never had such foreknowledge. Worse still, even though everything they have ever learned about time travel theory insists historians cannot alter the past, each of them harbours his or her own doubts. Every possible discrepancy becomes a source of concern until it's revealed not to be a discrepancy, and each wonders if he or she has done something that causes the Allies to lose the war.
I can grok their fears. I'd hate to be stranded in the Blitz too, knowing there's some kind of future possible, knowing that I could know the dates and places that were bombed but just didn't have that knowledge on me. So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long, and my mood moved from sympathetic to annoyed to aggravated as my sympathy for the characters diminished. Kemper's review provides an excellent explanation as to why. If your connection is so slow you don't want to load another page (and that is the only excuse for not reading his review right now), allow me to summarize: all the characters in this book are ninnies, or as Kemper puts it:
Almost the entire book is their inner dialogues which consist solely of fretting about stupid trivial crap, wild speculation that turns out to be completely wrong and repeatedly asking, “Oh, when will the retrieval team arrive?”
You’d think that time travelers should be hardy adventurers with the ability to improvise and adapt to problems. These dumbasses can’t complete the simplest of tasks without it becoming a story of epic proportions.
I couldn't agree more. Leaving aside the government-inquiry-level incompetence of the Oxford time travelling history department (or whatever it's called), which apparently can't be bothered to send historians to the past with the proper preparation, none of the three main characters accomplish anything in Blackout. They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily. Seriously? The three of you are time travellers stuck in 1940, and you don't come clean in your very first conversation, say, "I have a deadline; I was here at V-E day and can't cross my own timeline" (Polly)? You know that is only going to lead to trouble, but you do it anyway! I know you guys are only human, and you're flawed and whatnot, but there should be some sort of mandatory certification test for time travel.
But no, Mike, Polly, and Eileen spend the rest of Blackout working "together" even as they work a bit at cross-purposes. This leads to all sorts of close misses and coincidences, the type of events that are funny the first time it happens and then just repetitive each time thereafter. The same goes for their rationalizations as to why the retrieval team hasn't arrived. The only explanation that makes sense in their current theory of time travel is that the "slippage" has increased. Slippage is a phenomenon whereby the time-travel net does not send someone to the precise time and location intended. Instead, for some reason, the net "slips" in space or time (but usually not both), and theorists reason this is the universe's way of preventing historians from protecting "divergence points" and preventing passersby from observing the visual manifestation of the historian and his or her drop. Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer. Of course, I am writing this from a future when I am already halfway through All Clear, and so far that entire book seems unnecessary. But that's another review….
Find out the stunning conclusion to the review begun here!
There is a theory that views all of history as the result of actions by individuals at pivotal moments. These "Great Men" (or, let's be fair, "Great PThere is a theory that views all of history as the result of actions by individuals at pivotal moments. These "Great Men" (or, let's be fair, "Great People") are the movers and shakers of historical periods. Leaders like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Elizabeth II, and Napoleon Bonaparte shaped society. Scientists like Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and yes, Galileo Galilei shaped our perception of the world. These are the people whose mark lasts long on history, or so we think. I do not subscribe to the Great Person Theory. It appeals too much to our individualism and our love of anecdotal explanations. We are creatures who like nothing better than a story, and the episodes from the lives of these Great People make for great stories. Assigning all, or even most of, the responsibility for historical change to these individuals is simplistic.
So whenever someone comes along and proposes that history would be different if, say, Galileo had burnt at the stake, I wonder: aside from the tautological sense, would history truly change if this happened? Of course, we don't know, and we probably can't ever know. Such counterfactual speculation remains just speculative, which is probably why I enjoy it so much.
Kim Stanley Robinson plays a bit to the Great Person Theory in Galileo's Dream. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book propounds it, because Robinson's model of time travel accommodates alternatives. Rather, many of the characters from the 31st century who travel into the past to alter it—commit "analepses" in the book's terminology—subscribe to this theory. Thus, Ganymede tries to ensure science's dominance over religion first by aiding Archimedes; when that does not go well, he moves on to Galileo. However, he does not want to help Galileo. He wants Galileo to burn at the stake, to become a martyr for the cause of science.
It's a profound thought. Galileo's heresy trial is an infamous moment in the history of science and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Often we envision it as a moment of ignorance—or arrogance—triumphing over justice. Galileo was found guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" and forced to recant any belief in the Copernican model of the solar system, a model we have since adopted as the preferred one. We have the advantage of hindsight, however, and Pope Urban VIII did not. He was embroiled in ongoing enmity both within the Catholic Church and between Catholics and Protestants. His enemies, many of whom did not much like Galileo, accused him of being soft on heretics.
Robinson emphasizes the political climate around Rome at the time of Galileo's trial. Galileo's Dream shows how his trial was more than just a matter of science versus religion (although it was that); Galileo's fate was as much a matter of political expediency and political expectations than justice or injustice. In an era where many of the highest-ranking clergy were related by blood, Galileo's trial involves more than testimony. It was an intense episode of intrigue conducted across family lines. Galileo called in favours for services rendered, and his friends marshalled his crumbling support base.
There is more to Galileo than his trial, of course, and the book follows Galileo from Padua to Florence. We share in his hope that the patronage of Duke Cosimo de Medici will give him the freedom to tinker and experiment. We experience his anxiety over the fates of his children: his two daughters have been destined for a convent since birth, but the convent they enter is impoverished and their health suffers as a result; his son is lazy and unaccomplished. And then there's his mother. Apparently insane (or just very mean), Giulia is a thorn in Galileo's side, one that he cannot remove.
Despite such hardships, his continuous illness, and his troubles with Rome, Galileo's life wasn't that bad. He had some money; he had family (no matter how difficult at times); he even got recognition for his ideas as well as scorn. The telescope was a pretty neat invention; his experiments involving incline planes were neater still. I get a sense that Galileo was, like many scientists, a discovery junkie, always hooked on the next big idea.
So far I have mostly just been gushing about Galileo. That's because Galileo's Dream offered me a rich look at his life. Though not without fault, this book's depiction of Galileo was diverse and thoughtful, and it has made me want to learn more about Galileo through other sources (such as non-fiction). I love it when books make me think, question, and want to learn more.
The historical parts of Galileo's Dream, then, are exceptional. What of the science-fictional elements? Time travel! Visits to a far-off future of Jovian colonization! Encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence! Compared to the chapters set in 17th-century Italy, the adventures of Galileo in space are lacking. It seems like I'm notthe onlyreviewer who has noticed this.
The characters and society of 31st century are very vaguely described. We meet only a handful, and they refer to various councils—presumably democratic—who are quite ineffective in the crisis of the moment. Ganymede is the one who begins bringing Galileo into his future, ostensibly as some sort of rallying symbol for his quest to stop the Europans from contacting the intelligence in their ocean. Soon enough the people who initially oppose Ganymede's analepsis begin bringing Galileo forward quite frequently. They educate him in all of mathematics and science since his time, then wipe his memories when they create a debilitating sense of déjà vu. But each time Robinson latches onto a plausible reason for Galileo's visits to the future, such as the intermittent attempts to communicate with this strange intelligence, the story pushes the reason aside and stubbornly returns to a discussion of the philosophy of time travel.
What we have here is, rather than a lack of exposition, misplaced exposition. Robinson spends all of Galileo's time in the future explaining time travel and not enough explaining the 31st-century society. Since we never learn much about the society, it is difficult to care about the politically-motivated action sequences or the attempts to contact the Jovian intelligence. Galileo's visits offered little of interest, and I found myself wishing for a swift return to the past.
As far as Robinson's time travel mythology goes, I'm ambivalent. On one hand, it is confusing, and Robinson resorts to vague, semi-philosophical explanations rather than any solid, say, physics. On the other hand, time travel, if it is even possible, is bound to be confusing, so I don't think I can fault him for that. Yet the time travel in Galileo's Dream disappoints me, because it doesn't change much. As far as I understand it (and maybe I'm wrong), Galileo didn't "originally" (always a dangerous word to use when discussing timelines) burn at the stake, but Ganymede wanted to change his present by ensuring Galileo did. Since the book ends with Galileo not burning (and also burning . . . but that's a couple of chapters of explanation), nothing much has changed. Oh, we've got some time travellers stranded in the past, and then there's the question of whether Galileo would have stumbled upon telescopy without Ganymede's prompting . . . but it's not enough for me.
The narration of the book is odd, because it is seemingly in third person for the entire book—but first-person pronouns occasionally sneak into the text. In the end, we learn that Cartophilus, Galileo's servant from the future, is the author of the text. He refers to himself as "Cartophilus" in the third person because this is just a role he plays, albeit one he has played for a long time. However, like the time travel, this doesn't add much to the book.
Galileo's Dream reads like two books, one historical and one science fiction, united by the mind of a single man, who was a great man if not a Great Man. It contains a fascinating look at Galileo and a . . . not so fascinating possible future. What will stay with me overall is its depiction of the human struggle to discover, as well as the obstacles that one must overcome during the discovery.
Centuries after the events of The Fall of Hyperion, and three and a half years after I read that book, Endymion takes place and I read it. I had actCenturies after the events of The Fall of Hyperion, and three and a half years after I read that book, Endymion takes place and I read it. I had actually forgotten that there was a book between this one and Hyperion; I described this as the second book in a series when friends asked me what I was reading. Oops! And it has been so long since I read the first two that my memories of the series were distant and vague.
That proved not as much of a barrier as I worried it would be. I’m still trying to figure out why I am so ambivalent towards Dan Simmons’ other work but loving the Hyperion Cantos. It isn’t the classical allusions—as much as I love the classics, that doesn’t work so much for me. But the books in this series are just so well constructed, characterized, and compelling in their depth and scope, that I’m happy to claim that this series represents some of the finest far-future space opera of the nineties.
It took me a little while to get a feel for Endymion. I wasn’t enjoying the introduction to Raul, his meeting with Martin Silenus, etc. Once Simmons introduces Father Captain de Soya and the hunt for Aenea, however, things pick up considerably. The way in which he cuts between the two perspectives of hunter and hunted works quite well. Ideally when an author does this, they manage to make you constantly yearn for both perspectives: just as it switches from Raul to de Soya we’re supposed to wonder how the fugitives will get out of their latest cliffhanger. I admit to some preference for de Soya’s story—but that’s mostly because I was so intrigued by the internal affairs of the Pax.
When we last saw the Pax, it was a growing political movement on Pacem—but now it has taken the place of the Hegemony in the former Web worlds. Thanks to the collapse of the fatline and data spheres, the Pax has an information monopoly that allows them to manipulate public perception (e.g., of things like the Ousters). Yet Simmons hints that, despite the piety implicit in Pax life, there are more sinister elements in the upper echelons of the Church. In Father Captain de Soya he creates a great antihero: sincere in his belief and devotion to God and the Church, de Soya nevertheless has enough independent thought to begin questioning when the facts stop adding up. He is an antagonist in the sense that he is working against our protagonists’ ends—but he is not a bad man or a villain by any means.
I didn’t really warm up to Raul. He’s not a bad character, in that he isn’t too whiny. He’s just not the type of main character I want to identify with too much … I never got any grasp on his personality beyond a sense of competence and occasional references to his grandmother. I found that I best enjoyed the chapters with him, Bettik, and Aenea touring the River Tethys if I ignored the overall plot and just focused on the dangers they faced on each planet.
These subplots turn Endymion from what could be a weak-but-sprawling space opera into a fluid-but-lengthy adventure story. The three fugitives face a new challenge on every world, always escaping by the skin of their teeth. Simmons finds the right balance between no exposition and too much as he reveals just enough to keep us guessing about the identities of those who are helping Aenea and their relationship to the Pax, which is so concerned with apprehending her. There are plenty of allusions to the events of the past two books—and I’d recommend reading them before reading this one—but by and large, Endymion is much more about Aenea’s personal development than wider galactic affairs.
She keeps referring to being guided towards an architect who can teach her. Simmons hints that Aenea will be a messiah, someone special with “powers.” Fortunately, he avoids the temptation of turning her into a creepy child who manifests those powers early. Aside from a psychic episode here or there, she has to rely on her own determination and resolve—plus the help from Raul and Bettik—to survive. I loved the moment where she pointed out that, from the moment she stepped from the Time Tombs, it has all been one “very long day” for her.
Endymion is long. But I actually like that about it. My weariness was sympathetic with the weariness the fugitives felt after their long journey, and with the weariness of de Soya and his minions for their constant deaths and resurrections. Simmons underscores how gallivanting through the galaxy is not a game for the merely human: space travel of any kind places demands on us that exceed what our bodies and minds evolved to handle. Though the TechnoCore’s role in this book is greatly reduced, Simmons reminds us that the existence of AI is a thorny existential issue for humanity.
In some ways, this book feels like filler between the conflicts begun in The Fall of Hyperion and what will hopefully be the resolution in The Rise of Endymion. I still enjoyed it, though, and heartily recommend it to those who read the first two books.