“The Future Of Another Timeline” by Annalee Newitz (2019)

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“Drums beat in the distance like an amplified pulse.”

The global conversation is seemingly in unison right now. Everyone is either arguing that they should all have the same rights in whatever country they live in, or they’re somehow holding on to outdated, nasty and horrible views that suggest people should be treated differently based on something like race or gender. It staggers me that we still have men’s rights activists who apparently believe that treating women the same as them is somehow making their life worse. Or white people who complain they’re being maligned by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, missing the point that black people simply want to share the safety that they experience, rather than being gunned down by murdering cops for doing something innocuous like walking down the street. In fiction, these problems can be solved with a time machine, but here in the outstanding The Future of Another Timeline, we see how the technology could also exacerbate the problem.

Tess is a time traveller currently living in 2022 but devoted to rewriting the timeline to give women equal rights to men. She doesn’t quite live in our world – here, abortion is illegal in the USA, and Harriet Tubman was elected to the Senate – but things are not looking good, because every time she and her fellow Daughters of Harriet attempt to change the timeline to improve the lot of women, a group of men’s rights activists are also pouring down the timeline to make everything worse. Tess realises that things need to get a lot better quickly when she meets Morehshin, a woman from the distant future where women have it even worse, with men having taken control of their genetic make up, turning them into nothing more than a glorified queen bee. Tess makes her way downstream to 1893 at a turning point of history where she can bring about the end of the tyranny of men.

Elsewhere, in 1992, Beth is struggling with her teenage years. Her father is intensely changeable and she never knows what she’ll be in trouble for next or why, and her mother doesn’t stand up for her. All that keeps her sane is her best friend Lizzy and her love of punk rock bands, including the overtly feminist Grape Ape. After one concert, however, they witness their friend Heather getting raped, and the girls pile on, killing the rapist. Horrified by what they’ve done, Beth retreats into herself a little and vows it can never happen again. Lizzy, however, seems to have developed a taste for blood, and is prepared to kill any man who wrongs them or any woman. Beth isn’t sure that murder is the best course of action, and must tear herself away from her oldest friend.

And what does any of that have to do with Tess?

I found the time travel here really interesting. It only works from five specific locations in the world – Canada, Indonesia, India, Mali and Jordan – and appears to be something entirely natural, a certain glitch in geology that allows for wormholes to be opened. You can only travel back to previous times and while not everyone is able to access the Machines, time travel is a known technology and is taught in schools. Scientists and philosophers in this universe discuss the nature of time travel, free will, paradoxes and multiverses and are yet to reach a consensus on how history changes – is it down to one individual, or must there be a mass change?

The characters, too, are interesting and good fun. We mostly alternate between Tess and Beth, with occasional interruptions from other characters, who are each female or non-binary. Indeed, if it’s diversity you want, then it’s here and metered out perfectly. One character, C.L., uses gender neutral pronouns, and another of the Daughters of Harriet is a transgender woman. They’re fun characters who are not defined by these traits, and it’s always refreshing to see a queer person whose story does not revolve around the fact they are queer.

One wonders if perhaps the constant shifting in the timeline from the travellers is what is causing Beth’s father to be so changeable. Beth’s transgressions of the rules are often small, such as one day her father insisting that shoes are to be worn in the house at all times, and other days shouting at her that she must never wear shoes inside. Her father is certainly mentally ill, but one wonders if the ever-changing timeline has an effect too. Other things do change, as we see. After loving Grape Ape for years, they are later erased from the timeline, and when Beth undergoes an abortion after unprotected sex with her boyfriend, the story is told to us twice, once in a world where abortion is illegal, and once where it isn’t. Both times she tells the story as if that is what really happened, when we know that it’s just what happened in that timeline. Messing about in time produces a ripple effect, and we can never be sure what will change.

A beautiful, fascinating read about a world so close to ours but wildly different in many ways. One can only hope we are moving towards a better future in reality, too.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman (2007)

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“The story would have been a lot different if Matt’s supervisor had been watching him when the machine first went away.”

The way things are right now, I wouldn’t mind a time machine. Forwards or backwards, I’m not really fussy, just somewhere other than here. If we ever do get around to inventing time travel, I would imagine 2020 will be a no-go area. But let’s not get bogged down in reality – we’re here for the fiction.

It’s the 2050s, and Matt Fuller is working with little to gain in the physics department at MIT. That is, he thinks he has nothing to gain until the calibrator he is using to measure quantum relationships between gravity and light disappears, only to reappear a second later. Indeed, every time Matt presses the button, the machine vanishes for twelve times longer. Matt, it seems, has become the world’s only owner of a functioning time machine. Deciding to test it further, he borrows a car from a friend and catapults himself into the following year, only to find that he’s wanted for the murder of his friend, who died of a heart attack upon seeing the car disappear.

With the police after him, Matt has little choice but to keep leaping forward into an unknown future, each time getting further and further away from the world he is comfortable with. He is desperate to find somewhere he can be safe, but as he leaps through a deeply conservative Christian future, another where everyone is rich from birth, and on to even stranger worlds, he wonders if there is in fact anywhere he will ever be safe again.

Although the pacing is somewhat uneven and some of the later events don’t feel like they’re explained enough, it’s an enjoyable romp anyway and that’s about all you can hope for from a time travel story. The first leaps don’t take him far into the future, so the world is recognisable, but then once he begins leaping hundreds or thousands of years at a time, some changes become more pronounced. I say “some” because even 4000 years into the future, language seems to have changed little. The people of that time say that that’s because they still watch 21st century films, but let’s be honest, if we leapt back 4000 years, language would be entirely different. This is pointed out by some of the characters but we never get a fully satisfactory answer.

Nonetheless, the characters are fun and some of the future technologies and scenarios are interesting, although sometimes feeling like alternate Earths rather than future ones. Two hundred years into the future, Matt meets Martha in a USA that has seen the Second Coming of Jesus, eradicated most science and now operates on mostly medieval technologies and belief systems. For a while, we may even be dragged along in believing that Jesus did return, but we soon see the truth. I also like the idea that wherever he goes, he ends up in trouble with the police, because some things never change. The final chapter, too, is more satisfying than I thought it might be, and brings the story to a decent conclusion. Not everything is tied up, but it works perfectly well enough for me.

A fun exploration of some potential futures for us, and a very pleasing escape.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Before The Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

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“Oh gosh, is that the time?”

I think we all sometimes want to have access to a time machine. We’d like to go back and explore older times, or have one more day with those we’ve lost, or maybe skip ahead a few years and see if things really do get better. It’s a bleak time at the moment on planet Earth, so escapism is key to staying sane during the next couple of months, whether we’re quarantined or not. (Note to readers from the future: This post is being written during the rise of the coronavirus crisis, with Italy and Spain already entirely locked down.) When looking for something charming to read, there are worse places to escape to than Japan.

The small cafe of Funiculi Funicula in Japan has been beset by rumours for years. The urban legend goes that it is possible to travel in time in the cafe, although people say that you can’t change anything in the present by doing so, meaning that the legend eventually recedes as no one can see what the point of going back in time is if things will only stay the same. Nevertheless, Kei, Nagare and Kazu continue to run the cafe for the clientele who want to visit. Once in a blue moon, someone decides to see if the rumours are true, and will often be surprised when they are.

The story follows four people who use the cafe to travel in time. There’s the woman who wants to confront her ex-boyfriend, the woman who wants to get a letter her husband never sent, someone trying to connect with her sister one final time, and the fourth who just wants to spend some time with her daughter. Each gets their wish, but they are held to account by the rules. You can only travel by using one particular chair in the cafe. You may not leave this chair while in the past. And the most important rule of all: the time limit. You only have until your coffee gets cold…

I’m still a relative newcomer to Japanese literature, but from what I’ve learnt so far, they have an impressive skill of creating stories that are equal parts beautiful and weird. The writing is charming and somewhat melodic in places, heavily reliant on repetition which builds up a sense of tradition and protocol that whatever is happening is somehow sacred. Everything is done in a very specific way, and while the owners of the cafe take no responsibility regarding what happens when you’re travelling, sometimes they do have a contingency plan in place to make sure you don’t get stuck in the past.

It’s a small cast of characters and just a single, beautifully described location, but everyone feels real and struggling with their own tragedies and anxieties. Like other magic realism from Japan, such as If Cats Disappeared From The World, you don’t question the oddness and instead just accept that, of course, this is part of the reality. None of it feels frivolous or silly and you become emotionally invested in the stories of these people. The key theme, though, is that we shouldn’t be living in the past and moving on is healthy. Don’t forget the times and people who came before, but do not dwell on things you cannot change or always wondering “What if?”

Well worth the hype. Forgo your lattes for a few days and buy this instead.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Trouble On Titan” by Alan. E Nourse (1954)

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“Telegram! Telegram for Tucker Benedict!”

I picked up this book in one of my favourite London bookshops, Skoob. A paradise of second-hand books, the place is heaving with titles you’d never know about otherwise, and this was one of them. I’ve read very little science fiction of this sort, where it’s all rockets and moon colonies and the like, so adopting their spirit of adventure, I went for this one because of its slightly silly title and decided to expand my horizons.

The novel begins around the year 2200, and Tuck Benedict has been asked to accompany his father to Titan to deal with a reported case of smuggling that is causing problems in the moon’s mining colony. There have always been rumours on Earth about those who work in the mines of Titan, digging up ruthenium that is required to make life on Earth so easy and energy so plentiful. Originally a penal colony, Earthsiders believe that everyone there is an untrustworthy monster. When they arrive, however, things don’t seem to be that simple.

The current leader, Anson Torm, is dealing with the rebel faction led by John Cortell, who is sick of being treated badly by people on Earth and now threatens to blow up the whole colony and stop ruthenium production unless they get what they want. Smuggling is now the least of their worries, and with something going on that is only referred to as “The Big Secret”, whatever Colonel Benedict and Tuck do now could have huge repercussions for everyone back home…

OK, so first, I have to talk about what a product of the time this is. It’s set two hundred years from now but it was written seventy years ago, so a lot of Nourse’s view of the future is hilarious. There’s no Internet (there never is in future-based science fiction written before the late nineties), no mobile phones, no gender equality, and people still seem to use telegrams and letters to communicate. The weirdest moment of this future is when one of the characters is smoking a pipe in a restaurant. This already feels so archaic. None of this is Nourse’s fault, however. He can’t predict what’s going to happen – and actually his guess that humanity first landed on the moon in 1976 isn’t far off – but he’s so tied to his own time and place that he can’t envision these everyday things changing. There is, I think, only one female character with any dialogue, and all the women mentioned are described in terms of how they’re related to the men.

All in all, the story is a bit thin. Granted, there are no real subplots, so we’re just focusing on the main issue, but it really reads like a punchy adventure tale from a boys’ magazine of the time. The plot leaps about, people refuse to talk but others intuit what’s going on immediately. People spend a lot of time with their faces going white with fear, shock or panic. There are some nice touches, such as the reveal that Titan is home to a species of silicon-based “half-living things” called “clordelkus”. They make a couple of appearances and are described as harmless, but it’s more of a throwaway comment and no one seems that impressed at having encountered alien life. Nourse was at least thoughtful enough to make them truly bizarre.

I can’t say I was hugely captivated by the story, but it was interesting enough and a good reminder that sometimes it’s fun to dip into a genre you don’t normally deal with. And since I’ve got a science fiction project on the back burner, I should get learning how to construct them.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Skin” by Liam Brown (2019)

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“It’s hard to think of you as anything other than an egg.”

I’m quite a tactile person. There’s something pleasant about being close to the people you love, and while these days many of my communications with my friends take place via screens, I’m always keen to be able to see them in the flesh again. There is often talk that people are retreating behind their devices, hiding themselves away privately and not wanting to interact with one another in “the real world”. This is nonsense. People, as a general rule, like being with other people. But what if we couldn’t be with other people anymore? What if it was illegal?

Skin opens five years after a pandemic that saw a curious virus sweep the globe and take out most of the population. While the causes were confused at first, it turns out that the virus rendered humans allergic to one another. Standing next to another person could be fatal, a “kiss of death” no longer a metaphorical term. The survivors have now retreated to their homes and apartments, and even families no longer see one another, instead spending their days in individual rooms, only communicating via phones and computers. In some ways, nothing at all has changed.

Angela Allen is struggling with the new world. Distanced from her husband and two children, all of whom become more and more like strangers every day, her sole distraction is her fortnightly jaunts out into the abandoned streets as part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. As long as she keeps to the path and wears her hazmat suit at all times, nothing can go wrong. That is, until on one of her trips she sees a strange man walking through town. She doesn’t know him, but she does know that the fact he’s not wearing so much as a face mask is strange. Is he immune, or insane? Driven on by curiosity, Angela tries to communicate with him and in doing so threatens whatever stability remained in her life as everything she knew is fundamentally rewritten.

Like all the most chilling dystopian visions in fiction, this one is centred around something that humanity can’t control. It’s not a climate disaster, or a political situation, but rather a disease for which there’s no cure. While the cynicism abounds that the future of sitting at home in front of a screen is what humanity has made for themselves anyway, Angela’s frustration and longing to leave is well displayed. If anything, she still seems too calm. After being in this situation for five years, perhaps everyone has just got used to it now and takes it in their stride. Had we joined the story after a year, things might have been very different.

The main plot is interspersed with what happened to Angela and her family in the immediate aftermath, showing them escaping the city and trying to survive. Here, the family learn who they really are when the chips are down, and they don’t necessarily like what they see. I’m always a bit fascinated by how quickly people lose their humanity in situations like this, and I hope that we never have to find out for real as I don’t think the results would be particularly pretty.

Unfortunately, as the book draws to a conclusion, it leaves us with too many unanswered questions to be entirely satisfying. I’m someone who enjoys an open-ended book, as endings are often a bit too artificial, but here we’re left with no resolution on much of anything. Sure, this is fitting in some ways, as Angela isn’t going to be told what’s happened to the other characters given the nature of her world, but as a reader it feels a bit disappointing. The final reveal as well, which we realise was seeded a long time ago and quite cleverly too, is somewhat depressing as well and a little contrived, and you get the impression that whatever happens next, it won’t be good for anyone involved.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Thunderhead” by Neal Shusterman (2018)

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“Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim.”

Last year, fiction conquered death. I’m now back with the sequel. As ever when reviewing a sequel, spoilers are abound so if you haven’t read Scythe or don’t want to know what happens next, look away now. We’re about to dive in. For those who need a refresher, however, recall that this series is set several centuries into the future where natural death has been eradicated, everyone only dies when chosen by a scythe, and the otherwise fairly utopian world is governed by the Thunderhead, a sentient AI that remains neutral and neither can or will interfere.

A year has passed since the events at the end of the last book. Rowan has been off-grid all this time, and has managed to turn himself into an urban legend, using the skills he learnt in his apprenticeship to hunt down corrupt scythes and glean them for good. No one has ever caught him, and for now it seems that no one ever will. Elsewhere, Scythe Anastasia – formerly Citra Terranova – is getting into the swing of her role, and has developed her own way of gleaning. She gives people a month’s notice to get their affairs in order and then lets them choose their own method of death.

Things in government, however, are not so rosy. A schism is forming in the Scythedom, with some believing the old ways are best and others looking for total reform. Worse still, it seems that someone is trying to glean Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Curie, and no one is quite sure who. The Thunderhead might know, but it is forbidden from speaking to the scythes. Instead, it nudges Greyson Tolliver, a neglected young man who was all but raised by Thunderhead into acting on its behalf, but the consequences are severe.

With confusion reigning across the Scythedom, and with High Blade Xenocrates standing down as the leader of the MidMerica region, there is a time for change ahead. But when an old face that everyone thought they’d seen the last of reappears and another lost figure has solved a centuries old puzzle which could save the world, nothing is certain anymore.

The first book in the series very much dealt with the nature of being a scythe, explaining how their government works, how they are trained, and what rules surround their jobs. This time, the focus shifts slightly and we get to learn a lot more about the Thunderhead. As sentient AI systems go, it seems one of the most benevolent. It provides for people and can control most aspects of the world including the weather and unemployment levels, but never interferes with anyone specifically. The Thunderhead and the Scythedom also cannot speak to one another, which feels like a massive oversight in the system, and this comes into play here.

As before, it’s a fascinatingly complex world that Shusterman has designed here. Set far enough into the future for everything to be slightly too weird, it is a world unlike ours in many ways, but humans will always be humans, so their failings continue even if their deaths have ended. The viewpoint jumps around considerably, but that just makes the world richer, as if we were following the action from just one or two places, the story wouldn’t have nearly as much depth. Like Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, it feels like one of those worlds where morality is not tied to the “black and white” philosophy, and where you can see points on both sides. One can imagine how the series will end, but I’m not sure quite how we’re going to get there, as the book ends on a superb cliffhanger, and with several of the characters we’ve grown to know and love, well, if not dead then deadish.

The Toll, the third and final book in the series is out next week, and I will be getting to it sooner rather than later.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

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“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Six of the Best … Time Travel Stories

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Who among us hasn’t dreamed of travelling through time? Not necessarily to change anything, but just to have a look. Many of us would love to leap forward and see the consequences of our actions, or find out what happens to the planet. Maybe we even want to just get a look at the lottery numbers. Similarly, don’t many of us want to head back through time as well, to meet the late, great heroes of history, or maybe just to find out exactly what dinosaurs tasted like. It seems, however, that time travel – particularly into the past – will remain something that we find only in fiction. As Isaac Asimov said, “Time travel is theoretically impossible, but I wouldn’t want to give it up as a plot gimmick.”

Time travel didn’t originate as a science fiction concept, however, and has been around a lot longer than you may realise. In Hindu mythology, there is the story of King Raivata Kakudmi who visits Brahma in heaven, only to return home to find that “many ages have passed”. The Japanese fairy tale Urashima Tarō – first recorded in the eighth century – features a protagonist who spends three days in an undersea palace, but returns home to find himself three hundred years into the future.

When the concept begins to slip into science fiction territory, it at first focuses on characters who fall asleep for great lengths of time, only to wake up in the future. Examples include Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving (20 years into the future), Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (113 years into the future), and The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells (203 years into the future). Wells, of course, changes everything with the writing of The Time Machine in 1895 – see below for more on this – by giving the protagonist some agency in his travelling. He, however, wasn’t the first to produce a time machine. In 1881, the story “The Clock that Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell introduced a clock that, when wound, transported people nearby back in time. The first vessel actually engineered specifically to travel in time, however, appears in El Anacronópete, a Spanish novel by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau. It predates The Time Machine by just eight years. Since then, science fiction has expanded the nature of what makes a time machine hugely, giving us such greats as the TARDIS and the Back to the Future DeLorean, easily two of the coolest time travel vessels in fiction.

So, how does time travel work? Truthfully, we don’t know. We’re trapped in our forward linear progression of one second at a time. Of course, minds greater than mine have explained what happens when we start moving at the speed of light, but I’m not even close to understanding any of it, so instead I’m going to focus on fiction and what happens in other time periods once we get there. Depending on the story you’re reading (or writing) there will be various “laws” of time travel. There are, broadly speaking, five sets of rules and most works fall into one of these categories.

  1. In the first set of rules, it is impossible to change the past, as since the past has already happened, you’d already done anything that you went back to do. (Time travel is also notorious in making tenses incredibly uncomfortable, so bear with me.) An example of this is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry and Hermione go back in time to save Sirius Black from death, and are able to do so only because they already did. History cannot be changed. (The later Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play, however, ignored this entirely.)
  2. Secondly, you’ve got a situation where time can be changed, but there are people or forces in play that ensure it doesn’t happen. A good example is 11/22/63 by Stephen King, where the larger the change one is trying to make in the past, the more the past resists, relying on contrived coincidences to keep the timeline “normal”.
  3. The third idea is that of the “rubber-band theory”. That is, you can change history but it will snap back and undo most of the changes. This is mentioned in Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak as the reason there’s no point in killing Hitler – someone else will just fill that role instead.
  4. The fourth idea is one in which history can be changed but you can also go and play around in it and affect nothing. It seems to run on rules beyond our understanding or any given explanation. This is probably also why it’s the kind that features in the Discworld novel, Night Watch.
  5. Finally, you’ve got the chaos theory version of events, in which even the tiniest changes will have unpredictable, massive effects on the future. The most famous example of this is Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, which I’ll discuss below.

And then what about the changes you made – if you were able to make them at all? Sometimes you’ve overwritten your present (which opens a whole barrel of snakes regarding paradoxes and whether this means you would have been alive to go back in time in the first place),

There’s still so much I could discuss here regarding wormholes, paradoxes, quantum physics and multiverses, but we’ve all got places to be. Suffice to say, there’s always time to mention how time travel works in the Thursday Next series of books by Jasper Fforde. For the first four books of the series, it works in such a way that people can travel freely through time, passing through anomalies and such, and sometimes being entirely wiped from history and never having existed at all, despite their children still surviving. The absolute highlight of what is already a very funny and clever series of books comes in the fifth book when it turns out that time travel has only been being used on the assumption it’ll be invented one day, and when travellers reach the end of the universe and find it was never actually invented, they have to close down the departments and stop it all from happening. Simply genius.

So what are some of the best books about time travel? Let me introduce you to six of the best…

A Sound of Thunder

If you’ve never heard of Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept it birthed – “the butterfly effect”. In 2055, Time Safari Inc. is a company that lets wealthy adventurers head back into the past to hunt extinct creatures. Unsure as to how much they may impact the future, they specifically target creatures that would have died minutes later anyway, trying to change as little as possible. Told to keep to the prescribed path, one traveller panics and as he flees, crushes a butterfly beneath his boot, sending a ripple effect through time that changes the present in ways no one could have comprehended. It’s a brilliant book that explores the nature of causality. It also raises the issue that we seem to worried about making tiny changes in the past, apparently not realising that the things we’re doing right now, in our present, are sending ripples of change down into our future.

Time Salvager

Wesley Chu does wonders with time travel in Time Salvager by drawing attention to some aspects of it that seems to be forgotten. Set in 2511, it follows James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who travels back in time to rescue artefacts and power sources from history so they can be reused in this dying future. He finds himself on the run, however, when he breaks the first law of time travel and brings someone from the past with him into this desiccated new existence. I primarily remember the book for being the only one I’ve ever seen to take location fully into account with time travel and understanding that if you travel back to the exact same spot, the whole planet will be absent, as it is constantly moving in space. Loaded with science fiction tropes of all kinds, the book plays up the fact that humans are the great survivors and will whether whatever storm comes their way.

Man in the Empty Suit

How time travel came to be in Man in the Empty Suit is left unanswered – we simply know that our unnamed protagonist can and does flit around the timeline, only returning every year on his birthday to a hotel in New York in the year 2071 to party with sixty or so versions of himself. Things go wrong, however, when he arrives on his 39th birthday to find his 40-year-old self dead. The versions of him that are older are still present, however, and warn him that he’s got a year to solve his own murder, as by the time the next birthday rolls around, this will be him. Sean Ferrell then weaves a beautiful, dark and very clever time travel murder mystery in which the same man is the victim, investigator and all the suspects. It’s been some years since I read this, but the unique premise has stayed with me ever since.

Making History

One of the most commonly recurring ideas in time travel fiction is that of Hitler’s early demise. It seems that every other writer has contemplated killing off Hitler and stopping World War Two, usually to find the present they return to is radically different. Making History is Stephen Fry’s attempt at the notion and is one of the most intriguing. Here, a male contraceptive pill is sent back in time and put in the well in Braunau am Inn so that Hitler’s father drinks the water, is sterilised and Hitler is never born. The timeline shifts to an alternate future where, in the absence of Hitler, another even more charming, patient and effective leader founded and took control of the Nazi party, using the water from the well to sterilise Jews and wipe them out in a single generation. Utterly chilling, it is a brilliant and spooky alternate universe that maybe makes you realise that things could always be worse.

The Time Machine

The first novel to really popularise the concept of a vehicle that has been specifically designed to travel through time, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is one of the keystones of the genre. Beginning in Victorian England, the Time Traveller (as the protagonist is known) leaps ahead to AD 802,701 where humanity has divided into two species. On the surface live the Eloi, small childlike beings with a fruit-based diet and no curiosity regarding the world around them. Underground and in caves, we find the Morlocks, simian troglodytes that only emerge at night to hunt the Eloi. When the Morlocks steal his time machine, he must seek out a solution in this weird world to get it back again. Broadly speaking, the novel serves as an allegory for the class system, but is enjoyable on its own merits if you don’t feel like having political ideology interrupting your reading.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Perhaps my favourite example of time travel fiction – or at least the one that has made me cry the most – The Time Traveller’s Wife is, in my opinion, a thing of beauty. In it, we meet Henry who has a genetic disorder that displaces him from time, sending him to other points within his life with not even the clothes on his back along for the journey. When he’s 28, he meets Clare for the first time and has no idea who she is. She, however, has known him since childhood. Now their relationship can begin in earnest, if Clare can learn to live with Henry disappearing without warning at any time. Simply, this is one of the most beautiful and powerful love stories I’ve ever come across, and in many ways the time travel is incidental, as if it’s a far more banal disease that Henry suffers from. It doesn’t feel like science fiction, and Niffenegger manages to construct very human and realistic characters and situations from a very unusual premise.

Thanks for joining in and reading the second entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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