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Fifty-One by Chris Barnham

Filles Vertes Publishing, 2018, 317 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 Fifty-One cover

This novel is centred on the explosion of a V-1 Flying Bomb in Lewisham, London, in 1944 where fifty-one people were killed, hence the book’s title. It also features time travel in a way which has unavoidably noticeable echoes of Connie Willis’s “Oxford” series of tales but is in some respects better plotted and certainly not so prone to the narrative deferral to which Willis seems so wedded. Do not be put off by the book’s cover, which admittedly does have a doodlebug on it, but otherwise conveys a misleading impression of the contents. There is an element of romance here and it drives part of the plot but it is by no means the narrative’s main concern.

In the early 2020s experiments at CERN led by one Axel Darnell showed certain particles to be travelling back in time. Soon (too soon?) this discovery was extended into sending back animals then humans and the OffTime organisation was set up not only to explore the past for historical knowledge but also to monitor and amend any changes in the timeline.

There are two main settings, London in 2040 where the offices of OffTime are located and the same city during the 1940s war years. A prologue set in Koblenz in 1954 does rather give the game away about where we might be headed and we return there for the epilogue.

In the main story Jacob Wesson and his partner (in the romantic sense) Hannah Benedict are part of an OffTime team sent to 1941 to thwart an assassination attempt on Churchill. From the off there are odd aspects to this venture, including why it is even necessary, and of course things do not go smoothly. Jacob’s retrieval to 2040 in the middle of an air-raid is interrupted by a mysterious voice. Instead he jumps to 1943. While in 1941 Jacob (literally) bumped into one Amy Jenkins – about whose life we had been told in a previous chapter – then disturbed her wedding preparations. In implementing the “lost retrieval” protocol he meets up again with Amy (widowed in the same air-raid which disrupted the retrieval), and eventually despairing of being brought back to his own time allows himself to form an attraction to her. When contact is finally made Jacob has no option but to return to 2040, leaving Amy behind. But she follows him to the pick-up point and is projected into her future – against the supposed laws of time travel. Jacob and his team are faced with the dilemma of what to do with her and more importantly, what else have they not been told?

If you examine this in any detail it all vanishes in smoke of course. Any alteration of past events scenario is necessarily prone to that, however – unless it restores the time we know. There are certain pointers, though, that the past into which the team is sent is not our past (the “real” past?) and the 2040 shown here always seems contingent.

There are some problematic aspects to the narrative. Barnham has a tendency to tell the reader things rather than show them. The information dumping is not well integrated into the text and at times too crude. There is a bagginess to the prose, a tendency to repetition of things we already know. The necessity to make a time jump naked in order to avoid temporarily debilitating nausea was also a bit of hand-waving overkill. The dynamics of the relationship between Jacob and Hannah are underplayed and, for a supposed grand passion, that between Jacob and Amy is too restrained.

This is a US publication and so accommodations must be made but putting transatlantic speech patterns* into the mouths of 1940s Londoners can only jar with the British reader. Particularly egregious was the substitution of “Mum” by “Mom” in the wording of a famous wartime poster which consequently totally fails to embody the pun necessary for its effect. And that’s a pity as it immediately hauls said reader out of the story.

For all that, fans of a good time travel romp will enjoy this. The plotting is clever (if transparent, so that the twist in the tail came as not entirely a surprise.) Were Barnham to be more confident in his ability – and in the reader’s – eliminate repetition, tighten up on info-dumping and expand on characterisations sometimes too closely linked to plot necessities, his creations would breathe more freely.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *eg “‘we can go help them’” (go and help them,) “‘will go find’” (go and find.) “Be Like Dad, Keep Mom” (“Keep Mom” makes absolutely no sense. Unlike “keep mum”, which means “don’t say anything”.) “to get back with the program” (not a phraseology appropriate to a 1940s Londoner.)
Otherwise; “probably” appeared twice within the space of one line, “‘Keep out of sight and be ready to get into position right on the dot?’” (isn’t a question so needs no question mark,) “Code One” (really? Nothing more original for an emergency signal?) “The Heinkel bombers” (just “the Heinkels”, bombers is unnecessary,) “and what was doing there” (what was he doing there.) “‘But I finally I have some news’” (drop one of those “I”s ), “or tables, to be precise since she’d pushed” (the comma is misplaced “or tables to be precise, since she’d pushed”.) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) “Amy had never seen a color (sic) photograph” (but coloured cinema films surely?) “the shops on this side of the Thames were closed for the weekend” (for Sunday maybe, but not the whole weekend,) practice (I thought the USian was always practise,) “get ahold” (get a hold,) “within a few days they’d break out and advance south towards Paris” (the D-Day breakout took longer than a few days after D-Day and Paris was east of the landing area, perhaps an indication of this not being “our” past.)

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor, 2018, 138 p.

McDonald has always been a stylist. There has tended, though, to be a pyrotechnic quality to his poetically inclined prose, plus a certain knowingness. Knowingness isn’t entirely absent here, a pitch perfect novella in some contrast to his most recent Luna series (which tends to emphasise violence and power manœuvrings rather than relationships,) but it is always ruthlessly subordinated to the tale he is telling. Here the pyrotechnics have been reined in and the author shows an admirable restraint, total control. Everything is at the service of the story. Though there is still room for his sly allusions, I doubt there’s a spare word in its 138 pages. Before the inevitable deployment of the Science Fictional concepts underpinning the novella, the language used stands in comparison to that of anyone who has ever written fiction, the emotions conjured as poignant. My only caveat is that since it was published in the US it contains USianisms (‘ass’ for ‘arse’, ‘Dumpster’, ‘soccer’, ‘tires’ etc) and for a British reader the first two in particular immediately lift him or her straight out of the narrative. However, this is still the best piece of fiction I have read this year – and possibly for a long time beyond.

It is narrated mainly by Emmett Leigh, a bibliophile and bookseller who finds an odd book in the cast-offs of a bookshop which has gone out of business, inside which is enclosed a letter from one World War 2 soldier to another. A love letter. Other passages are extracts from a memoir by one of the two soldiers of his time in Shingle Street, engaged in a very hush-hush World War 2 project on the English coast.

Intrigued by both the book, Time Was – “A singular book,” which has “no author biography, no foreword, no afterword, no index or notes. No publisher’s address, no publication date. No clue to author,” – and the letter, Emmett sets about finding out more about the pair. This brings him into contact with Thorn Hildreth (who is twice greeted by the phrase, ‘Thorn thirtieth letter of the Icelandic alphabet,’ – I will merely note it is also, like yogh, a former letter in English both now defunct -) whose grandfather’s papers contained a photograph of the soldiers. Emmett contacts Shahrzad, a Persian émigré with the ability to recall not only faces but also where it was she first saw them. She identifies the pair of soldiers, Seligman and Chappell, in photographs taken in Gallipoli in 1915, and Goritsa in the war of the break-up of Yugoslavia. Pictures of Seligman and Chappell are also traced as far back as the Crimean War. By application of the normal distribution curve, Emmett eventually reasons Seligman and Chappell are time travellers, venturing up and down the ages with only the book Time Was – that in Emmet’s time exists solely in the inventories of five bookshops with strict instructions as to its disposal – to enable them to contact each other. Via the extracts we also find the Shingle Street project entailed “The Uncertainty Squad” using quantum superposition in order to achieve displacement of the location of a ship but instead conjured displacement in time.

A hint of McDonald’s background comes with the phrase, “Pagans are worse than Protestants for denominationalism.” We also have the observation, “Emotions have no definition other than themselves….. All written art is an attempt to communicate what it is to feel,” and a comment on the novelist’s and poet’s bane, “the irreducibility of feeling, it can’t be broken down into anything simpler or more explicable.”

While the SF idea In McDonald’s Time Was isn’t quite as outré as in Robert Heinlein’s All You Zombies (the father and mother of all time travel stories) it’s up there with that same author’s By His Bootstraps and, in contrast, a thousand times better written than either.

Pedant’s corner:- thatfirst (is two words, not one,) a new paragraph that was unindented, hadhoped (again, two words.) “‘A hot wind blew in our aces’” (faces,) “ ‘”Not abductees. Immortals.”’ ” (that first double inverted comma in the quote ought to be a start quote mark not an end one,) a missing start quote mark, at “ Mea culpa””, “any simpler: (anything simpler.) “He hops up behind he” (behind me,) “soe time” (some time,) “dedicated to a pastry-cooking” (why the “a”?) “‘I sold this copy one of your bookfinders’” (copy to one of your,) “a new tray or drinks” (of drinks,) “strung out along for half a mile along the street” (has one “along” too many.) “His glee is evident as he cast around” (casts around.) “He beckons me out to the where the bikes” (to where the bikes,) drafhty (draughty,) an extraneous single inverted comma at “ “East Suffolk”’ ” and again at “ ‘I look around’’ ” , the start quote mark for a piece of direct speech given at the end of the previous line (x 2,) withany (again, two words,) “I could be certain that that I lived with Thorn” (only one “that”,) “from the across the shop” (from across the shop.) “I would always been that Englishman” (always have been, or, always be.)

Mathematical Time Travel

According to this post from The Daily Galaxy, time travel is mathematically possible.

Not by a time machine as such but in “a bubble of space-time geometry which carries its contents backward and forwards through space and time as it tours a large circular path.”

Ben Tippett from the University of British Columbia has created a formula that describes the method. Unfortunately that formula the does not figure in the post. The method also requires bending of space-time by exotic matter – which hasn’t been discovered yet/ Might as well be Science Fiction.

The bubble is described as a Traversable Acausal Retrograde Domain in Space-time. The acronym spells TARDIS. Ha very ha.

When Did You Say Again?

Seen on a shop in St Andrews, Fife.

When Did You Say?

Apparently St Andrews will still be there in 198,000 years.
Or else the shop has travelled back in time.

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