The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Kelly Robson

On a future Earth only just recovering from massive ecological disaster and plague, the technologically advanced but environmentally constrained remnants of humanity dwell in overground habs and underground “hells”. Information technology and augmented reality is pervasive. A form of granular capitalism controls the economy, with contracts and debts giving structure. In this context, fluvial restoration specialist Minh is given an opportunity to gather data on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, by traveling back in time to ancient Mesopotamia.

Ms. Robson drops the reader directly into the deep end of a fully realised world. The sensation is rather dizzying at first, perhaps mirroring how young research assistant Kiki feels about coming of age. The story and themes of this novella are well realised, and leave the reader wanting to read more about this fascinating world.

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson

The sublight colony starship Leonora Christine, powered by a Bussard Ramjet, is damaged while passing through a small nebula.  The decelerator mechanism is disabled and cannot be repaired unless a region of empty space is reached. The crew elects to continue accelerating in order to find a refuge. Due to the effects time dilation as the ship claws ever closer to the speed of light, ship time and outside time become increasingly disconnected. As the months and years pass on board, eons pass outside.

Tau Zero is an acknowledged science fiction classic. Some parts have not aged too well, in particular the 1960s social mores and optimistic view of the human races’ collective rationality. Some of the content also feels a bit like padding, most likely because it started out as a short story. However it remains a well executed hard science fiction story which manages to bring home the insignificance of individuals, and even of humanity itself, when confronted with the almost unimaginable vastness of time and space.

A Window into Time – Peter F. Hamilton

awindowintotimeYoung teen Julian has perfect recall. He finds school difficult because “the stupids” like to bully him. He starts having visions about the life of a man, and becomes obsessed with finding him while he mulls the philosophical implications of time travel and mortality.

Told in the first person, this novella is cleverly crafted and flawlessly told.

5Rosbochs

Escape from Earth – Allen Steele

Escape from EarthOur hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…

This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.

2Rosbochs

A Long Time Until Now (Temporal Dispacement #1) – Michael Z. Williamson

TemporalDisplacement1ALongTimeUntilNowWhile in a convoy in Afghanistan, ten soldiers are suddenly transported back in time around 15000 years to the Paleolithic Era. All they have is two vehicles, their weapons and gear. They must survive, ensure their own security and plan for the future. Meanwhile, other groups have been transported back in time, including a tribe from the Neolithic Era and a contingent of Roman soldiers.

As with most books by Michael Z. Williamson, this one is rather longer than other entries in the genre, almost reaching 700 pages. Much of this length is taken up by detailed descriptions of technological things, for example the construction of a forge or a palisade. For anyone interested in technology, it is a fun read. Williamson’s premise of a very small modern unit being stuck with a lack of resources in a hostile environment ensures our heroes cannot just brute force things with more manpower. They must use their skills as force multipliers. It is also interesting that even with all their modern technology, they are often at a disadvantage compared to more primitive peoples when it comes to hunting, forging and primitive construction. These skills are simply lost.

Style-wise, the prose flows easily, and I found this to be a page-turner. However, the shifting strict point of view between characters could be confusing, and it often took me half a page or so before I realized whose eyes I was “seeing” through. A more explicit introduction to each point of view change, ideally with the character’s name as a title, would have made things more clear.

While the story does have a definite conclusion, there are many loose ends. This seems to be the first of a series, and a look forward to any future installments.

4Rosbochs

Outlander (Outlander I) – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander1OutlanderClaire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.

Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.

2Rosbochs

Dinosaurs & a Dirigible – David Drake

Dinosaurs&ADirigibleWhile this is a short story collection, but the first four stories can be thought of as four parts of an episodic novel. The fifth story is a singleton. All five have been published separately before, but I had never read them.  The four connected stories follow Henry Vickers, master hunter and game guide, who becomes hired by the state of Israel to work in their time travel initiative. So he becomes a game guide in the time or early man, and in the Cretaceous when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Wildlife adventure and annoying clients abound. The last story is about a dirigible on its way across America around the turn of the 20th Century.

Henry Vickers is not the most likable character, and that is on purpose. He is interesting, however. These hunting and survival stories with dinosaurs tickled my inner child, who like most boys would very much have wanted to see real dinosaurs. This collection is an easy read with lots of action.

4Rosbochs

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

All You Need Is Kill – Hiroshi Sakurazaka

AllYouNeedIsKillKeiji Kiriya is a draftee in the ongoing war against the alien Mimics. In his first battle, he is killed after only the first few minutes. He finds himself back in his bunk, seemingly transported back in time to the morning before. As the story continues, and no matter what he does, he keeps getting killed about thirty hours into the time loop, and then being returned to his bunk. Stuck in the cycle but with memories of each loop intact, he decides to become a better fighter so he can win the battle.

The first-person perspective lends itself well to the story, as the reader feels empathy for Keiji’s ordeal, both initially as a draftee in a seemingly hopeless war, and later as a victim of the time loops. He does not want to fight at all, almost a stereotypical apathetic young man with “no goals in life”, and he must transform himself from victim to pro-active initiative taker. While the action is excellent, and the story well crafted, the timey-wimey bits unfortunately become ponderous and over-complex as the novel progresses. A somewhat simplified view of the time loops would have kept the pace up.

The novel is the basis for the movie Edge of Tomorrow.

4Rosbochs

11/22/63 – Stephen King

11-22-63In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.

Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”.  Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.

King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.

Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.

4Rosbochs

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

 

TheAnubisGatesLiterature scholar Brendon Doyle is hired to investigate a magical time portal back to 1880. He misses the return trip and must now use his knowledge of the time to survive.

 

This fantasy novel has many science fictional elements, for example the internally consistent time travel. The “stranded in time” theme is very strong, as Doyle struggles to first survive and then to foil his magician adversaries.

4Rosbochs

 

The Apocalypse Troll – David Weber

In the future, mankind is winning the war against the Kangas. But the enemy attempts to send troops back in time to Earth 2007. Only one Kanga unit, a deadly Troll, remains alive in 2007 after mankind tries to stop the plan. But a human from the future also survives… And so it begins.

The idea of only one “future human” surviving is entertaining, and Weber on a bad day is still better than many authors on a good one. However, I did feel that Mr. Weber was treading water here. The plot is predictable and somewhat prosaic. The ending is a bit too syrupy and well tied up. The good guys are a bit too good. A nice way to spend an afternoon or two, but nothing fantastic.

Mammoth – John Varley

A time machine is found next to a preserved mammoth in northern Alaska. A scientist and an elephant keeper are accidentally sent back in time, returning with a few mammoth. There is a a tycoon and there is a troubleshooter.

Into this deceptively simple idea Varley injects his sharp wit, his well rounded and interesting characters, his irreverent prose. The conclusion is perhaps foregone, but the ride is enjoyable. Varley has a way of making you love his characters, for they are imperfect humans like us.

Millennium – John Varley

The premise behind this book is, ahem, simple. Fifty thousand years from now, humanity is dying off as the result of plagues, toxic chemicals and radiation. However, time travel has been discovered and the “Gate Project” is kidnapping people who were going to die anyway in the past. For example passengers from the Titanic, victims of air crashes and so forth. These abductees, who are far more healthy than their short lived and sickly descendants, are put in storage for a future repopulation of the Earth. The story initially revolves around an impending mid-air collision between a 747 and a DC-10 over California. The two protagonists tell their stories in first person format more or less alternately. Bill Smith is the head of the crash investigation in the 20th century, and Louise Baltimore is the head of the “Snatch Team” from the Gate Project in the future.

So far so good. The characters are, as is typical for Varley, deeply flawed and authentic. The story is laid out as logically as possible, although the mechanics of time travel make this tricky. Once Varley has established the premise, the plot is about a developing temporal paradox that threatens the already bleak future with complete annihilation.

The first four fifths of the novel are quite enjoyable. It is clearly laid out where it could easily have been confusing and Varley skillfully ensures that the doomed humanity theme carries over into the characters and the story. The references to old fashioned computers don’t distract since Varley is always about the people, not the technology. The ending did annoy me a bit, since I dislike deus ex machina. But I must admit Varley pulled it off very well, especially by inserting a quite literal meaning in the whole thing.

The Nantucket Series – S.M. Stirling

This alternate history series consists of:

  • Island in the Sea of Time
  • Against the Tide of Years
  • On the Oceans of Eternity

The island of Nantucket and the Coast Guard barque Eagle are mysteriously sent back in time to around 1000 BC. Being too small a society for self-sufficience, the inhabitants (including many seasonal visitors) must go out in the world and survive using technology and cunning. Epic adventure, well researched and well written.

Note: Stirling’s Emberverse series is connected to the Nantucket series since the event that sends Nantucket back in time also triggers the “Change” in Emberverse.

Chronospace – Allen Steele

In this novel, UFOs are actually time traveling craft from our future. A study group goes back in time to witness the crash of the Hindenburg. “Unfortunately”, the airship lands safely. They have altered the past.

As time-travel stories go, this is a pretty good one. Steele avoids getting stuck in the scientific debate and concentrates on delivering a good yarn instead.

The Flight of the Horse – Larry Niven

In this, hilarious short story collection, time traveller from the future Svetz has to go back in time and collect fauna from our time in order to populate the ruler’s zoo. Unfortunately, the time machine has the unexpected side effect of making him chase after mythical creatures. The horse is actually a unicorn and so on. The past is a fantasy version of the real past. Poor Svetz has to contend with quite a few mishaps with dragons and the like. A lot of fun, much of it with Svetz as the punchline.

A World out of Time – Larry Niven

This novel is an expansion of the short story Rammer from the collection A Hole in Space. Jaybee Corbell wakes up after having being cryogenically frozen after death  Now he must repay his debt to society (being cured of his cancer and woken up cost a lot of money) by piloting an exploratory ramship to seed planets around the galaxy, a mission that will take centuries. He rebels and takes his ship on a long tour of the galaxy at relativistic speeds, ending up back on earth millions of years later. Reminded me a little of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, except for the lack of a means for return.

While the short story that formed the basis is fantastic, this novel length expansion, while solid, falls a bit short of the mark.

Time Future, Time Past – Maxine McArthur

Mildly entertaining novels about a space station under siege in the boondocks of space. Narrated in the first person and somewhat confusing in their plots (or lack of plots), I nevertheless found them a decent read because the main character is so well portrayed.

Timeline – Michael Crichton

A corporation has developed a way to send people back in time. Something weird has happened, so a group of scholars is sent back to investigate. Needless to say, Bad Things happen. Well researched and written, and very hard to put down.

Time’s Eye – Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Like 2001 and it’s sequels, “Time’s Eye” is driven by the intervention in human affairs by unknowable and very powerful alien beings. In a flash, the Earth is divided up in chunks from different times. A UN helicopter crew from 2037, a British Colonial detachment in Afghanistan, the armies of Alexander the great and Genghis Khan are all shoved together onto the same Earth, in the same general area. Overlooking these humans and their reactions to the discontinuity are reflecting spheres hovering above the ground, inscrutable and silent.

While there is some focus on attempting to solve the mystery of the events which have brought the protagonists to this, the main thrust of the story is rather typical alternate history fare, much like 1632 or Island in the Sea of Time. Frankly this aspect has been done better. I did find, however, that Clarke and Baxter manage to infuse the characters with a sense of their place in time and space. Unlike many other alternate history stories, this one does not revel in, or lose itself in, the practicalities of the events. Sure, the “modern” humans introduce the stirrup and steam engines, but unlike with Stirling (who, to be fair, I much enjoy reading) the alternate history angle does not seem to be the actual point.

Time’s eye shows hints of what the superhuman beings behind the “Eyes” are actually doing. It is cruel indeed, but seen as necessary. So do the means really justify the ends?