All That Time Was, All That Time Will Be.
Two men, lost in time, search with a desperate intensity for each other, mindful of paradox and the outward ripples of cause and effect, across the disparate battlefields of past twentieth century history, in the hope of reuniting with the great love of their life, each other. Carefully traipsing through a conundrum of linear experience, unfolding all about them, trying not to set falling a million dominoes of said cause and effect. Leaving clues for each other along the way, as lovers in passing often do, for this is at heart, like all great stories, a love story. It is a love story loosely clothed in an ill-fitting gown woven in uncertainty. Certainty is generally accepted as a fixed and immutable thing but like so many notions birthed in enlightened times it is beginning to unravel in a post-certainty era, such as the one we are currently trying to live through.
Boy, you really have to know your stuff in order to write convincingly about uncertainty principles, it being so much more satisfying to understand how to knit a jumper before systematically plucking loose a thread and unravelling it. But is that not the very basis for the best of speculative fiction, knowing how things are put together before taking them apart? Doors, once opened after all, may be passed, through in different directions. Paths already taken and mapped by the passage of others with much of the unknown paths remaining just that; something waiting to happen.
The search for the time travellers is undertaken by a hunter, of a kind I think it is fairly safe to suggest who is mostly underrepresented in most forms of fiction; a book dealer. These are men and women from all sorts of backgrounds who spend their time in search of books desired by others which perhaps have acquired meaning beyond the ones they were all initially printed for. Booksellers come in every shape, size, ethnicity and age group. It is also a field with somewhat diminishing returns as the printed page becomes perhaps less represented in the minds of post millennium woke generations. Is it ironic that in an age of mass cultural communication the oldest form of the recorded word has also become its most arcane, given that we also exist in a post-ironic world.
Watch a child trying to swipe the text on a page of a book or a magazine and tell me that the printed word , which has so effortlessly dominated even the fringes of the shared cultural meridians, has not lost its previously tight grip there, in a way even the most prescient of speculative writers never quite envisioned. You cannot see this happen and not feel a tingle of apprehension as you wonder where all this is going. Whatever direction that is, it is probably not backwards, unlike our tale’s two lost travellers. Ian McDonald’s beautiful writing makes us want to go along and find out where, with prose and dialogue flitting along like newly discovered song lyrics for a tune we think we have heard before but cannot quite place. Which is to say with a deceptively familiar ease and a hauntingly evocative aura. It is like a newly spoken word poem based on events we thought we understood but discover it is an entirely new theme.
“Immortals I could have accepted,” our hunter thinks to himself at one point “but time travellers outraged all my theories. If such creatures were actual, then we lived in a world of unscience. Miracles might be true. God might exist.” He ponders this and so much more as his search for the travellers and discovery of the clues they leave in their trail causes his own world to unravel. This unscience breeds uncertainty and severs his links to every aspect of his life which bound him in all earthly possible ways to a life he thought he knew. It is the haunting note in that newly formed theme, the ghost anthem that permeates this novel. Like slowly rising strings in a James Newton Howard movie score it makes one’s heart ache a little.
Lost loves will do that I suppose. I find Ian McDonald’s prose nudges me towards such a passionate response, it is all done with the unclothing skill of a poetic seducer, a Don Juan geophysics of sorts. His writing makes one love science, yet also makes one a little afraid of its implications and the unavoidable truths, a fatal romance when the many subplots and character threads fall into congruence with mathematical and emotional precision.
A queer love story across time is how Tor.com described their forthcoming release for April 2018, and it is all that and more with Ben and Tom finding each other during the dark days of World War Two. I found it a sobering thought when I considered the siege mentality of the two men born into an age when their love for each other was enough to send them to jail. These brave men, in more senses than might be appreciated, who risked so much for their country’s war effort, who would be broken on a wheel of ignorance and ancient desert superstition. Remember how the authorities treated Alan Turing despite his more than significant contribution to the war effort, torturing him with drugs and driving him to heartbreak and madness. Even in the face of Hitler’s war machine they were more preoccupied by how two men might physically demonstrate their love and affection for each other. It is an unscience in its own way. The unscience of an amok age.
Time Was has echoes of The Philadelphia Experiment, one of the great conspiracy yarns about the US military. A reputed attempt to cloak a destroyer escort ship in a field of invisibility from enemy radar ending with horrific results for its crew. The military have always denied such an incident took place which only ever threw more fuel on the bonfire of conspiracy theory. Actually that echo does not resonate any distance before it is overtaken by the complexities of the search for the time travellers and its emotional fallout.
With the death of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1900 his fellowship picked up the refrain God Is Dead and that strident Greek chorus has in turn echoed down the years since, permeating every aspect of the shared cultural experience, through war, through peace, crowning every academic achievement, and demolishing every pantheon of belief. Certainty becomes uncertainty and science becomes unscience. We became the offspring of that that weird marriage, fathered on a mattress stuffed with existential tragedy. As always in such scenarios the lovers are the losers. It is up to us to turn that around.
In this post-God society perhaps we are all lost in time.