It’s been a busy week for me. Virtually no writing but a fair bit of reading and meeting people. On Thursday 23rd February my aunt Betty Brown was buried in the cemetery of St Mary’s Church in Charlton Kings, near Cheltenham. Funny things, funerals. My favourite aunt died two weeks ago possibly because she slipped on the steps of a swimming pool and banged the back of her head. She had a headache the next day but didn’t trouble her doctor. She wrote me a congratulations card for being a granddaddy and posted a hilariously garish green cardigan she knitted for my other grandson. She died that night in her sleep of a brain haemorrhage. At her funeral her daughter was naturally tearful – yet had the organisational presence to order me a vegan platter at the wake. I was so impressed. Normally I assume there’d be nothing for me. My aunt’s son, well it hadn’t hit him hard, yet. We talked about my books because my aunt had given him my humorous thriller, Escaping Reality, to him to read. I gave him one of my promo cards. Then others asked for them. I only took one because it never occurred to me to use a family funeral as a promo opportunity. See? I’m not a pro writer as I should be. Yes we grieved at her premature demise but it was good to see again so many other relatives I hardly ever see. Funny things, funerals.
While Aunt Betty’s coffin slid earthwards to rest on top of her husband’s coffin (cigarettes predicted his demise many years ago) and we all admired the gently rolling Cotswold Hills, I had two thoughts. We should have installed a periscope so she could admire those views too, and it would be fine for me to have a cardboard coffin. I discussed with my niece, Shelly, that I have a half-baked notion that the weak electromagnetic field our brains generate might outlive our fleshy bodies. Maybe those magnetic fields relate to ghostly apparitions, or the lost souls, spiritual essences? I’ve a feeling the nearly 2,000 degrees Celsius during cremation might fatally disturb such a field, and the possibility hence of existing beyond our ridiculously short lives. Us atheists have a compulsion to either accept our lot, or clutch at ethereal straws. So, if when a juggernaut has its revenge on my cycling form in the future and you see my recycled card (made from old birthday cards and postcards from Blackpool) coffin in a crematorium, then when the vicar – or preferably the Humanist celebrant – asks the congregation of three or four who care, “is there anyone here who has just cause…” Ah, wrong ceremony.
I arrived back in Chester in time attend the Chester Library Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club. The meeting was scheduled to discuss Romance and Relationships in Science Fiction. There was no set book: the idea being for each of us to select one and review it for the group. It was tricky without recourse to purely sexual acts described in those pulp books of yesterday. Also the sexually explicit was mentioned such as John Norman’s 30 books such as the Chronicles of Gor. We discussed the 1950s books by Robert Heinlein such as Podkayne of Mars and Stranger in a Strange Land – the latter for its teasing of the public with unorthodox ‘marriages’ and the wonderful character of Michael Valentine Smith, the human baby brought up by Martians with his learnt ESP and literal interpretation of what people say. Our leader was disappointed no one had chosen Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination with the relationship there being extreme hate and revenge. I wanted to review a modern SF book that had used romance and relationships in a significant way. I know John Norman’s Gor books are still being published but I haven’t read them. I had read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s wife, and this is my full review.
The time travel theme has fascinated me since HG Wells onwards. Exploration of the Time Travel paradox (a simple one: go back in time, meet yourself as a younger you and chat – maybe make a lasting impression such a tattoo, but as an adult you didn’t have one and have no memory of such a meeting. More complex is the cliché of killing your grandfather so you never existed, step on a butterfly that was crucial in a food chain leading to eventual extinction of humans, etc) makes excellent intelligent fiction as well as non-fiction. But this book explores none of this, probably wisely. Nevertheless, we cannot but be intrigued by the premise of a man carrying a chrono-mutated gene such that he suddenly finds himself naked in his current body-age but in anywhen give or take 50 years, and anywhere. Actually the anywhere tends to be in places he works, lives (past, present and future), in the street or in the garden of a young girl.
Aspects of this plot worry me. The girl is not freaked out nearly as much as one would expect. Sadly for her the man, Henry, manipulates her whole life from six years old, through marriage to him, past his death to when she is in her 80s. He cannot be serious that he has no control over their destinies, or that of others, when he engineers their wealth through lottery and equity predictions. He is also able to change the future as in the experiment changing a signature on a painting. It is a copout not to invoke paradoxes here. And why, sometimes, doesn’t he emerge in a wall, in the air, in someone? Maybe I am too nostalgic for the science logic, but Henry claims not to want to air travel for fear of returning to a place where the airplane was.
I am equally disturbed that the two main characters are not likeable – do we care what happens to them? No. This is partly because of the plot structure device of rapid-switching POV between them. I’m not sure how I would have organised it but the result of this way is that the reader doesn’t build a rapport with either of them.
The whole book depends on an illogicality too. He doesn’t meet, in real time, the woman he often engages with until he is 28, she 20. She remembers him but he doesn’t her. Yet, he can travel back and to, up to 50 years. His going forward must have stumbled over Clare, or the evidence for her. This plot contrivance is ludicrous, sadly, because it has the elements of a rich love story, if only we cared.
There are few very well-written and memorable phrasing. One is where Clare mentions why she has no culinary skills. ‘I walk into the kitchen and I hear this little voice saying, “Go away.” So I do.’
The wedding speech by love/hate friend/enemy Gomez (p267) is very good as is the hilarious whirlwind of Time Travel disappearances on Henry’s wedding day.
The premise is not original. After Michael Moorcock’s vast output of TT tales it would be difficult. But an episode of Quantum Leap (TV series 1989 – 1993) had Scott Bakula (Capn Archer in Star Trek, Next Generation) as Dr Sam Beckett, spontaneously travelled to and fro in time, once, if I remember correctly, to see his future wife as a young girl, and had the dilemma of preventing an accident, but which would bring their timelines together. Preventing the accident could have meant not meeting and so not marrying her later. Also, the premise of an illness inducing time changes is not new. However, very little in any story is brand new, what matters is how this story unfolds and how it is told. There are magic moments, especially for readers unfamiliar with time travel in fiction. There is a love story, albeit with two self-obsessed individuals who make it difficult for the reader to care about them. Nevertheless, it is definitely a romance and a powerful and original relationship. I wish I’d thought of it first.
Next month we discuss SF books using Mars. Quite tricky to find one published recently ie since Voyager spacecraft and telescopes ruled out canals and surface life. After all I am trying to grab a handle on contemporary SF for my own writing – either to do similar or to deliberately avoid modern tropes. I found Alan Baker’s The Martian Ambassador but it seems to be written as if back in 1899. It’s probably a fun read and I might get it later. In the meantime I’ve chosen Philip K Dick’s Martian Time-Slip as it has elements of madness and time travel as well as Mars that all appeal. In the meantime if anyone knows of a contemporary fiction using Mars please let me know.