“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!

“The Island Of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells (1896)

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“I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”

Some classics really enter the cultural conversation. Most people could probably give a rough summary of what happens in Lord of the Flies or 1984. Others, however, sink a little lower. We know the names, we might be able to pluck out a single detail or two, but the whole plot is only accessible to someone who has gone to the source. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those for me. Not as famous as some of H. G. Wells’s other works, the closest I’d got to it before now was a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Time to set sail to Noble’s Isle.

Edward Prendick has survived the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, and against all odds is rescued by a ship carrying various wild animals and their keeper, Montgomery. The animal keeper nurses Prendick back to health, but after a dispute with the ship’s captain, Prendick is put ashore with Montgomery and all the animals on an island that he’s never heard of.

Here he meets the enigmatic and sinister Doctor Moreau. This name he knows – Moreau was cast out of London society for his controversial experiments and studies in the field of vivisection. Prendick is not welcome on the island and kept as far away from Moreau and Montgomery as possible, but he soon discovers that this island is not all it appears. It holds a dark and terrifying secret – Doctor Moreau has been playing God.

In the 1890s, it seems that Wells had an obsession with beasts and where humans stood in relation to all over animals. Part of this was probably down to the fact he studied under T. H. Huxley, a disciple of Charles Darwin. In several of his books of the time, he explores the differences between man and beast. In The Time Machine, we see humanity evolve into hideous creatures. In The War of the Worlds, he sees humanity destroyed by alien beasts. Here, two become one, as – and I think the statue of spoilers will cover me on a book that was published over 120 years ago – man and animal have been spliced together to create hideous monsters, neither quite one thing or the other.

All told, I was fairly disappointed with the story. I appreciate it’s “of it’s time” and all that, but there was so much more that could’ve been done with it, I felt, and it all ends on a bit of an anticlimax. Moreau is creepy, but I didn’t feel he got enough page time for us to really come to fear or loathe him, and Prendick is a classically blank Victorian hero, his abstinence from alcohol being one of his few notable traits. The Beast Men are creepy, however, with just enough information given for us to conjure up our own images but not so much that we fully understand what we’re seeing. Special mention to the sloth creature, who is unnerving in a whole other way, if not specifically scary.

An interesting tip into Victorian literature, but there is a reason it doesn’t sit at the top table of the classical canon.

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!

“Doctor Who: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories” by Various (2013)

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“The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

Admit it. Even if you’re not a big Doctor Who fan, and even if you’ve never seen an episode, you know at least that it’s about an alien who has a box that can travel anywhere in space and time, and every now and then he picks up some lucky human to go and have adventures with him (or her). Right now, we all need a little escapism, and I wouldn’t mind if any of them crashed into my bedroom to carry me off to far flung times and places.

In 2013, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the show, eleven of the world’s finest authors got together and each penned one new story for each Doctor. Of course, since then we’ve had another two, so you can see how long this has been sitting on my shelf. Nevertheless, here we go. Eleven new stories…

  • “A Big Hand for the Doctor”: The First Doctor and Susan are in 1900, dealing with space pirates who have stolen the Doctor’s hand, meaning he has to not only send them back home, but also find a fitting replacement.
  • “The Nameless City”: The Second Doctor and Jamie find themselves in possession of the Necronomicon and are transported to the edge of the universe to deal with the consequences.
  • “The Spear of Destiny”: The Third Doctor and Jo are on the hunt of the Spear of Destiny, in a journey that takes them to the Viking lands of ancient Sweden to deal with an old foe who is up to his old tricks.
  • “The Roots of Evil”: The Fourth Doctor and Leela climb aboard a moon-sized tree orbiting a barren planet, and while the Doctor is keen as ever to help those on board who are in need, none of the tree’s residents are a fan of his for reasons he can’t understand.
  • “Tip of the Tongue”: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa are tracking down some nastiness in mid-century America where a new toy is seeding discomfort and trouble in an already divided nation.
  • “Something Borrowed”: The Sixth Doctor and Peri are drawn to a planet that looks like Las Vegas dialled up to eleven, where marriage is the most important institute in their society. Someone else has arrived early though, and intends to use this obsession for their own dastardly ends.
  • “The Ripple Effect”: Caught in a Temporal Plexus, the Seventh Doctor and Ace emerge to find themselves in an alternate universe where Daleks are peaceful scholars and no one can imagine them as doing anything evil.
  • “Spore”: The Eighth Doctor travels alone to Roswell in 1947 where a deadly virus is intent on wiping out every living thing on Earth, unless the natives can answer a question that will ensure their society’s survival.
  • “The Beast of Babylon”: Brushed off by Rose, the Ninth Doctor travels alone to deal with a race of horrific monsters in ancient Babylon, and along the way gives a test drive to another potential companion.
  • “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage”: The Tenth Doctor and Martha find themselves inside a literal storybook, and it transpires that this is a tale that might not end happily ever after, unless they can work out who put them there and how they can escape.
  • “Nothing O’Clock”: And finally, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy stumble into a plot of the Kin, a population made up of one member, to buy Earth in a financial takeover so they can live there in peace. The Doctor is, funnily enough, not so keen on the idea and sets about making things right.

It’s at this point in reviewing a short story collection that one is entitled to say, “They’re a bit hit and miss”. But actually, they aren’t. Each author combines their unique voice with the particular style of each Doctor, seeming to understand perfectly well how their eras used them. Even the titles feel like episode titles that each one would have appeared in. Eoin Colfer kicks it off with the First Doctor and knows how to make him perfectly pompous, and even includes a typically Whovian nod to how the Doctor inspired a writer to pen a story. Malorie Blackman takes on prejudice in her Seventh Doctor story, with a tale that shows an alternate world her Noughts and Crosses series, where people take on different roles to the ones in the history we are more familiar with.

Neil Gaiman gives the Eleventh Doctor an outing with plenty of complicated time travel as we’ve got used to in the later series, and Richelle Mead does a grand job with the Sixth Doctor, widely regarded as the least favourite, but giving him a fun story with a unique world. Charlie Higson tackles the Ninth Doctor, giving us the story of what happened at the end of his first televised episode and one of the most surprising twists in the whole book. The worlds they all build are fun and huge, simply because the Doctor Who toybox is, quite literally, infinite. It’s infinite nature is therefore one of the key reasons I’m so annoyed they all spend so much time in twenty-first century London on the show, but on the page you aren’t limited by the budgets of location and costume, so the more alien stories can occur there.

An excellent romp through the Doctor’s many lives and a chance to get one more adventure from each of them.

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!

“The Long War” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“On an alternate world, two million steps from Earth: The troll female was called Mary by her handlers, Monica Jansson read on the rolling caption on the video clip.”

It’s another one of those posts that’s about a sequel. Go and read The Long Earth and then come back here. Done that? Great. Welcome! On we go…

It’s been twenty-five years since Step Day, the fabled day that people learned they could step to parallel Earths where they have access to all the space and resources they could wish for with minimal interference from the governments of home. The Long Earth is flourishing, with people setting up new colonies over a million steps away from home. As people begin to shape the new Earths, the new Earths fight back.

Because it turns out that events are taking their toll on everyone. New societies resent answering to the politicians at home and have no interest in paying taxes when the government give them nothing in return. Humans have also begun to turn on the trolls, a peaceful and musical race of humanoids with a curious hive mind, and the more trolls learn about humans, the fewer of them there seem to be around, which is a problem as they had been serving as a cheap and willing addition to the workforce. It also turns out that trolls aren’t the only other sapient species out there, and soon humans find themselves crossing paths with the sly kobolds and the dog-like beagles.

Joshua Valienté, famous for exploring further than anyone else, has settled down with his wife and son and has no desire to be as famous as he is. However, when news of a war is brewing, he gets summoned to assist, reunited with omnipotent intelligence Lobsang and survivalist Sally Linsay. Elsewhere, Sally has her own mission in mind, the American military is sending out troops to reunite the various Americas, and the Chinese have just launched a mission to get twenty million worlds east from the homeland. As things come to a head, it seems that it’s not just people that are going to change, as a good number of the alternate Yellowstone Parks have begun to show unusual activity…

The concept remains strong, but there are so many threads here that sometimes you have to run to keep up. Each of the individual stories, while they do eventually all sync up right at the end, would work in a book of its own, and while you’re jumping around them all, none of them maintain their momentum. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. The combined imagination of Baxter and Pratchett leads to pure magic, and the worlds we get to see are remarkable. Many of them are pretty much the same as Earth, just with no people and a slightly different evolutionary path for everything else, but some of the more unusual ones are fun. One Earth contains enormous swarms of huge locusts, their existence theorised to be because pterosaurs never evolved here to start eating them. In another, intelligent tortoises rule the planet. One very odd one is as smooth as a cue ball and no one can explain why or how. The sandpit that the authors have unleashed has infinite games to play in it, and I hope that the future books explore more of these. Yes, the people are interesting, but there’s a universe of concepts here, and boy do I love a good concept.

It’s also amazing to see the other sapient species and learn how their culture works. They have entirely different sets of honour systems or languages. The beagles, a race of wolf-like bipeds, communicate mostly by smell and believe that death is a high honour because life is cheap among them. All this really adds to the story, and takes you away from wondering quite how all of the more minor stuff is happening. I’m not complaining about it, but I don’t want to spend too long wondering how new cities are built in the alternate Earths. Just let it be.

A little bit of a slog, but I’ll be stepping on to the next book soon enough.

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!

“The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“In a forest glade: Private Percy woke up to birdsong.”

The multiverse theory has always been an interesting one. It suggests that our universe is not the only one in existence, but that there are other options out there, perhaps an infinite number. It is popularly assumed that they also represent alternate timelines and possibilities for the Earth and its occupants, and if only we could tap into them, we could see how things might have turned out. Because of this, alternate history stories are commonplace and often rich in imagination. However, when the greatest minds of science fiction and fantasy come together, it produces something special.

Step Day changed everything. When a reclusive scientist goes missing, leaving behind only instructions for the creation of a Stepper, the world will never be the same again. Anyone can make a Stepper, and with it pass from this world into alternate Earths, soon discovering that they go on and on. Some people use it to flee from responsibility. Others want to explore. Some still can see this as an opportunity to access resources and riches that they can’t get on what is now called Datum Earth.

Joshua Valienté is, however, one of a rare breed of people called natural steppers. Without the use of a device, he can cross through to the other Earths without any of the side effects of illness that most other people experience. He is hired by the transEarth Institute to travel through the Earths up to the “High Meggers” – the distant Earths – and learn more about these worlds. Accompanied by Lobsang who is either the soul of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman caught in software or a genuinely sentient AI, Joshua begins a journey through thousands of worlds, but with eighty per cent of people on Earth now able to access these worlds and evolution having produced different results elsewhere, he’s soon going to find there are far more questions than answers out there. Where have the worlds come from? Who are the trolls and what are they running from? And why can’t you move iron across a boundary?

I’ve not read much Stephen Baxter, but what I have is always phenomenal. He is truly one of the greatest science fiction writers in history, and the only reason I haven’t read more is that they’re usually very long and hefty tomes. Everything he writes, no matter how impossible it seems at first, comes across as realistic and perfectly probable. Pratchett, I am always more wary of and still can’t fully embrace the Discworld novels. However, as with Good Omens, it seems that, for me at least, Pratchett is best when tempered by someone else, but his imagination and humour come through here for sure, and a lot of the jokes and pop culture references are certainly his doing.

Between them, they have produced a scenario that is fascinating. True consideration has gone in to what would happen in a world like this. Religious factions spring up, crime becomes complicated on Datum Earth but rarely seen anywhere else due to the abundance of resources, and there is a lot of rearranging of economics and philosophy required. I also like the reaction of various nations to the change. The USA, for example, attempts to claim all versions of American soil as their own. Australia’s indigenous people disappear through the worlds in record numbers. The UK is one of the few countries that tries to ban stepping, but most of the population can’t be bothered with it, given Britain is routinely so densely forested it’s hard to get very far.

We meet a lot of characters, all going through different things and showing the different ways people reacted to the aftermath of Step Day, and the timeline jumps back and forth with reckless abandon. The stars of the book for me, however, are the Earths themselves. They are mostly uniform, and generally the further you get from Datum Earth, the warmer they become. Evolution seems to be fairly universal too. Homo sapiens are unique, although hardly the only hominid, but evolution will pretty much always throw up things that (broadly speaking) can be called fish, elephants, pigs, deer and dogs. The truly remarkable worlds are the ones where something very odd has happened, such as being entirely covered in water, lacking a moon, or showing evidence of an intelligent species descended from the dinosaurs. The book passes through well over two million new Earths, and I’d (probably) happily read a guidebook to each and every one of them.

There is so much going on here, and I’m already intrigued to continue the journey with the rest of the series.

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!

“Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (2016)

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“A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods…”

Time travel feels like it’s been a mainstay in popular culture since the dawn of time, but the concept didn’t really get going until the publication of H. G. Wells’ world-changing novel The Time Machine. I’ve covered my favourite books regarding time travel already, but I thought it was high time I did a little more research into the whole thing, which led me to Time Travel: A History.

In this fascinating and fairly comprehensive tome, Jame Gleick pulls back the curtain on time travel and explores it from every angle, studying the stories that have used it and changed the way we think about it, as well as then looking at the philosophy and physics of the concept and how humans have attempted to travel in time already. Gleick attempts to define time and get to grips with what it actually is, as well as taking a look at the problem of paradox (and why you shouldn’t try to kill your grandfather), what happens when you meet yourself, whether or not travelling to the past or future would be better, and what exactly we mean when we say “now”.

The implications of time travel are enormous. While physics still hasn’t been developed enough to allow it, many scientists believe that technically there is nothing in the laws of the universe that forbid it. Philosophers, however, have now spent many years wondering what time travel can tell us about free will – is the future already written and waiting for us to explore, or are we making it up as we go along? From Rip Van Winkle to Doctor Who, Gleick checks in with everyone who had something to say about time, including H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Aristotle and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While the whole book is a cavalcade of trivia and theory, some of it more interesting than others but all of it still mesmerising, the more interesting chapters actually arrive when he discusses things that seem a little unrelated, but are actually spot on. One chapter tries to understand the metaphors we use for time. Is it like money (we do save, waste and spend it, after all) or more like a river (it flows). And if it is a river, what are the banks? Can we get out? Elsewhere, he explores how language simply doesn’t have enough tenses to deal with time travel, or why not every language assumes the future is ahead of us and the past is behind. A particularly intriguing chapter takes a look at time capsules and how humanity has been trying to communicate with an uncertain future for decades.

A must-read for anyone with a science fiction bent, or just anyone who has longed for a TARDIS of their very own.

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!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

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!

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