Book Talk: Science fiction, triple feature

Book Talk columnist Peter Critchley writes about three science fiction titles that take readers through time.

The genesis of science fiction can be traced directly to the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley more than two centuries ago. It grew so popular in the decades that followed to where today the genre  greatly influences modern popular culture through movies, television, books and a myriad of computer games.

It is not every reader’s cup of tea but some science fiction authors are terrific storytellers and their work is easily accessible to readers of other genres, especially when time travel is used as a device to drive the story. Everyone can identify with the thought of travelling time.

Blackout and All Clear (2010), a stunning two-volume work, clearly illustrates multiple prize-winning author Connie Willis well deserves the critical acclaim she’s earned as an incomparable storyteller. The first novel in the series is an enormously entertaining tale of time travel, war and the deeds—great and small—of the ordinary people who shape history.

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-travelling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is preparing to go to Pearl Harbor, Merope Ward is struggling with a group of bratty 1940s evacuees and Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But the time-travel lab is now cancelling assignments for no apparent reason and switching everyone’s schedules.

When Michael, Merope and Polly finally travel to World War II it only grows worse. They face blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history, to say nothing of a growing unease that not only are their assignments but the war and history itself are spinning out of control. The once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches and the three heroes begin to question their most firmly held belief that no historian can possibly change the past.

Blackout and All Clear reveal a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous desperate world where there are no civilians and everybody, from the Queen to the lowliest barmaid, is determined to do what they can to help a beleaguered nation survive.

The Map of Time (2011) by renowned Spanish author Felix Palma is a riveting thriller that explores the impact of time travel in three intersecting narratives. The opening chapter of the story, set in 1896 England, starts out like a tragic Victorian romance. Andrew Harrington plans to take his own life, despondent over the death years earlier of his lover, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Claire Haggerty plots to escape her restrictive role by escaping to the future via Murray’s Time Travel, a new commercial concern that offers such a trip for a hefty fee.

Finally, Colin Garrett of Scotland Yard believes a weapon from the future could only have caused a fatal wound on a murder victim. H.G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine, becomes involved and serves to link all three stories. The Map of Time is a wonderful blend of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, mystery and romance, and will appeal to a wide range of readers even if they seldom read science fiction.

The Accidental Time Machine (2007) by Joe W. Haldeman is an unusually insightful and evocative tale that shines. Matt Fuller, a likeable underachiever stuck in a rut as a lab research assistant at MIT in the near future, is startled when a calibrator he has built begins to disappear and reappear, apparently springing forward in time for progressively longer intervals. The young research assistant eventually develops a time machine but when he claims to have done so it costs him his job, girlfriend and possibly his freedom.

A keen curiosity and a series of unfortunate accidents hurtles Matt through different futures and he gradually becomes more adaptable and resourceful as the experiences hone his character. The young woman he rescues from a techno-religious dictatorship offers him a chance to develop a mature relationship. He also teams up with an AI that intends to press on to the end of time and this forces Matt to decide what he truly wants from life.

The Accidental Time Machine is a brisk cautionary fable that ultimately spins a humorous, provocative tale that in tone is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Ansani Boys, another bewitching tale. It is also easily accessible and well worth the effort.

These three titles are available through your Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.

– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.