The Psychology of Time Travel

By Kate Mascarenhas

Rating: 3 stars

In the 1960s, four women invent a time machine, but one of them, Barbara (Bee), has a nervous breakdown live on TV and is banished from the group. In the late 2010s, an inquest for an unexplained death brings Bee and her granddaughter Ruby back into the orbit of time travel.

For a lot of this book, I thought it was more thriller than psychology. It’s got that format: short chapters with terse writing that drives the plot forward; but I did eventually realise that the state of mind of the women involved (and the vast majority of the characters are women) was vital to that plot. The chapters jump around to different perspectives and times as it tells the story and the states in particular of Bee, Ruby and Odette, the woman who found the body and who feels a compulsion to identify her, are all vital. Not to mention Margaret. One of the original four scientists, who takes charge of what becomes the Time Travel Conclave and runs it with an iron fist, and moulds (some would say perverts) it to her will.

I probably found the Conclave more interesting than I was supposed to. I can’t help being distracted by questions of procedure: why is the Conclave allowed to exist as this independent entity; why isn’t the government and military all over it (especially if, as is mentioned early on, other nations won’t catch up with the technology for decades); what exactly do time travellers actually do?

As for the whole idea of the Conclave running its own system of “justice” which involves secret courts, trials by ordeal and the possibility of execution, for an organisation that is supposed to be created out of the mid to late 20th century Britain, it seems positively archaic. I can sort of see that that comes out of the psychology/neurosis of Margaret and how she runs the Conclave, but the idea of time travel being so addictive that almost nobody is willing to give it up voluntarily so they go along with her doesn’t really work for me.

Also, I don’t understand why Ruby was tried for Margaret’s murder. She played Candybox Roulette. The bullets went into the machine, but she didn’t force Margaret to stand in the way of it. It was Angharad who had the device reconstructed and put back in Margaret’s way. I don’t understand why Ruby both felt responsible, and was tried for it.

But despite all this, the plot is engaging, the characters interesting and the time travel even, mostly, makes sense.

Book details

ISBN: 9781788540124

This is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

I read this novella immediately after finishing The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With her Mind and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. From the short, clean prose and breathless action of the former to the leisurely pace and beautifully crafted letters of this, about the only thing the two have in common is the short chapters.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war that rages through time. Against orders and, indeed, common sense, they strike up a correspondence that slowly turns into something more.

The time war is very much a background to the evolving relationship between Red and blue. In the early chapters they taunt each other after after thwarting the other’s plans, but the tone of the letters shifts as the backgrounds do and the reader comes to care for these two extraordinary individuals as they come to care for each other.

I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful and is something to savour. Short as it is, it took a while to read it first time round, partially because of a lack of time, and partially because I was reading it slowly. After finishing it, I went back and read it again, much more quickly, which gave me a stronger overall view of it, and the references which had passed me by the first time (as I’d forgotten the details of the earlier chapter by the time I got to the payoff later).

The two sides in the war are mostly stereotypical views of opposing SF worldviews: the technological Agency vs the Garden of bioengineering. While I would love to know more about them and the war, that’s not this book. This book is all about Red and Blue and paints them as a microcosm for the wider conflict. If you accept that, this is a very rewarding read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529405231
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2019

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Doctor Who And The Cybermen

By Gerry Davis

Rating: 3 stars

Although I read the Target Doctor Who novelisations voraciously as a youngster, I never found this one in the local library. To date, I’ve not watched the TV story that this is based on (although given that the missing episodes of that story have been replaced by animation, I probably should) so can’t compare the two. This is early in the second Doctor’s era, so Jamie has just joined the Tardis crew, but there’s still no excuse for making him as stupid as Davis does. I think Polly also isn’t served well, but I don’t know if that’s Davis or Kit Pedler (who wrote the original story) at fault. Still, it’s workmanlike and entertaining for a couple of hours.

Book details

ISBN: 9780426105756
Publisher: Target Books, Tandem
Year of publication: 1974

The Tourist

By Robert Dickinson

Rating: 2 stars

Another review of this book suggests that to really understand it and get the most from it, it needs at least two reads. I didn’t do this, one was quite enough for me, so I’ve still come away awfully confused. Time travel is generally confusing (although the timeline chart at the front helped – it would have been more useful if the chapters had been numbered to match the chart!) and this book is no different. Trying to keep track of who everyone was, which version of them was present at any given time and also try and figure out the plot was a bit exhausting. And I still don’t think I figured that out properly.

So, in the future, there was a near-extinction event (NEE) after which civilisation had to rebuild itself. Sometime after this, they invented time travel and there’s now a fixed link to the early 21st century, where tourists from the future come to gawk at us “natives”. Oh, and those in the even more distant future reject attempts to reach their era, but sent back a set of records of people from the travellers’ era. The book follows three different people, in the first person for travel rep Shens, who manages to lose one of his tourists on an excursion from the resort; in the second person for Karia, who is from a repressive regime that avoids contact with the rest of the world; and Riemann, who we don’t follow directly, but see through the eyes of the other two. And then there’s a whole timey-wimey plot about free will, a very long-term (if that means anything in time travel) conspiracy and a lot of confusion.

I didn’t really feel that any of the characters were that well developed; I would especially have liked to have seen more delving into Spen’s fellow rep Li, who enjoys the 21st century much more than most of her fellow reps. The presence of the people from the future obviously causes a lot of nervousness and resentment amongst the people of the era, and in this post-Trump, post-Brexit world, it’s entirely conceivable to see how this was stirred by self-serving politicians into a hate movement.

So perhaps this book would make more sense on a reread, but neither the plot nor the characters are enticing me to do so not to mention the grindingly depressing ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356508184
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2016

Doctor Who: Four Doctors

By Paul Cornell

Rating: 3 stars

This is an appropriately timey-wimey multi-Doctor story by the writer of Father’s Day and the novel British Summertime. Clara finds a picture that should be impossible, and sets out to make sure that it doesn’t happen. As you’d expect, the rest of it doesn’t go to plan. It’s a fun story primarily involving the the 10th, 11th and 12th Doctors, although others do make cameos. Clara is travelling with the 12th Doctor, but the companions of the 10th and 11th Doctors are ones that we haven’t seen on TV (Gabby and Alice respectively). I don’t know if they’re been around in the comics for a while, but having just encountered them in this one graphic novel, I can definitely say that they feel like the kind of people that the Doctor would hang out with, so that’s a definite bonus.

The Doctors themselves are mostly written to their own characters although occasionally the 10th and 11th feel a little interchangeable (not something that can be said for Spiky Twelve). I found the art a little inconsistent: at times I wouldn’t have recognised someone if it weren’t for what they were wearing (dunno if it was just me, but the 10th Doctor seemed to suffer from that the most; I don’t know if David Tennant just has a difficult likeness to capture).

I also liked the little mini-comics at the end of each issue (especially the one with the Doctors doing various sketches from British comedy, but then I’m a bit of a fan of Neil Slorance).

So, a fun story, although I did have to read it twice to grok it, what with the time travel, alternate timelines (I particularly liked the Time Lord Victorious) and paradoxes, but it’s definitely satisfying.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785851063
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2015

There Will Be Time

By Poul Anderson

Rating: 4 stars

Jack Havig is a most unusual man. He is a man who can travel through time, without any artificial aid. At first content to just satisfy his own curiosity, he eventually discovers a great threat to Earth’s future and must band together with others of his kind to save the future of civilisation.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The rules of time travel are quite well defined and the author uses them effectively, for example the fact that anything touching the traveller will go with him, but he can only “lift” so much with him through time, so a piece of wire attached to a wall and looped around his ankle is enough to stop him time travelling.

The story is told through a third party, Jack’s family doctor and childhood friend to whom Jack returns every so often to relate the next part of his adventures, and the old sawbones is a likeable narrator and doctor of the Bones McCoy variety.

Jack’s emotional trauma in Constantinople is believable and well-related, making him a very human hero. His relationship with the Eyrie is interesting and the story keeps you guessing where it’s going all the way through.

A fun story of time travel, with some meat on the bones and decent characterisation.

Book details

ISBN: 9780722111482
Publisher: Sphere
Year of publication: 1972


By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this novella that covers some of the more intricate nature of time travel. The Stasis is an organisation that has access to time travel and uses it to shape human history, preserving the human race, and reseeding it on Earth after it goes extinct, as it inevitably does.

Our protagonist is Pierce, someone plucked out of time in the early 21st century after he fulfils the initiation of killing his own grandfather and we follow him as he progresses through his training to a full agent of the Stasis, his loves and lives (yes, lives: time travel, remember). The palimpsest of the title refers to time being overwritten and the creation of unhistories as it is done, something that becomes important later.

The scope of the ideas in this short novella are amazing, as two competing futures are described, each spanning deep time, and the kinds of mega-scale engineering required for both is quite brain-popping and jaw-droppingly impressive. It takes some concentration to keep on top of the timey-wimey stuff but it’s totally worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781596064218
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year of publication: 2009

Rainbow Mars

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

Hanville Svetz travels in time to bring back long-extinct animals to his time period, and so what if they’re somewhat different to those described in the history books: maybe horses did have a single silver horn and maybe snakes did have feathers and wings. But the Secretary General has died and his successor isn’t interested in retrieving animals from history, but in exploring space. This leads to an interesting collaboration between the Institute of Temporal Research and the Bureau of Space which discovers life on Mars in the past, and a beanstalk that is, er, a beanstalk.

This was a rather odd book, and it took me a while to get into its mesh of sci-fi and fantasy, as the human travellers find various mythological Martians, from Burroughs through Bradbury and Heinlein to Wells, but once I got past that I found it quite enjoyable, even if I did need the author’s afterword to recognise all the various Mars references. Time travel usually gives me a headache, but it was handled quite well here and I found the central characters interesting and well-written, people I was quite happy to spend a few hours in the company of.

There are other stories in this “atomic era” universe which detail some of Svetz’s adventures in bringing back historical/mythological animals and I would quite like to read some of those now that I know what to expect from this universe.

Book details

ISBN: 9783404242900
Year of publication: 1999

The Time Machine

By H.G. Wells

Rating: 4 stars

One of the great classics of SF, this remains a gripping and moving novel. The unnamed Time Traveller tells his story of his visit to the far future in a style that still feels eminently readable. The future he visits is, upon first glance, a Utopia, but it hides many secrets. The Eloi who live in what appears to be a Garden of Eden have lost the intelligence and cutting edge that made the Human race masters of the Earth. The Morlocks who live underground, tending the machines have devolved into cannibalistic monsters, the serpent in this Eden.

Wells has extrapolated his (and our) society to the nth degree and yet it’s plausible enough to be uncomfortable. Wells’ musings on the future of society are interesting but never get in the way of the story, which is well-paced and easy to read.

Aside: It’s mildly amusing to think that if someone left the house today with the stuff that the Time Traveller (or indeed, any hero of a book written up to the second half of the last century) carried routinely, matches, pocket knife etc, he’d probably be regarded with great suspicion.

Book details

Publisher: Signet Classics
Year of publication: 1895

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