Thoughts on travelling through time without a time machine after reading Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows

timequakeI was planning to review Jeff Noon’s latest novel, A Man of Shadows, to tie in with my interview with him here. But the more I thought about it, and I’m a huge ponderer, the more I figured that it’s actually a hard book to review without any spoilers at all. Sure I could comment on the noir-ish plot, of hard-boiled investigator John Nyquist’s latest case, or the seemingly impossible murders committed by Quicksilver (no, not that one Marvel fans), or I could wax lyrical about Noon’s prose style, evoking both place (the city combining Dayzone, Nocturn and Dusk) and more importantly, a person’s sense of time. But in doing so, I would give away the joys of exploration to any given reader. I thoroughly enjoyed A Man of Shadows but it is hard to recommend it without giving away that experience of discovery.

So I thought about time and time travel. And minor spoiler alert…how Jeff Noon’s novelA Man of Shadows tackles time and his characters as they travel through it. But it is not a time travel novel in the traditional sense. There is movement through time at a rate not equivalent to our perceptions of moving at 60 seconds every minute, but there is no time machine at play. What Noon does, however, is describe those feelings of how time seems to pass differently for each of use depending on what we are doing at a given moment of the day or our life. As Matt Haig says: “How to stop time: kiss. How to go back in time: read. How to escape time: listen to music. How to feel time: write. How to KILL time: Twitter”. Time, and travel through it, is all about perception.

Now I’ve read a few traditional time travel novels (The Time Machine, Doomsday Book, Timescape, The Time Ships to name some) but to be honest, they are no really my bag. I enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example, but to me, it is just an excuse to write a historical novel through the eyes of the Twentieth Century reader. But I have read a whole bunch of books that tackle time in a different manner, as Noon has done. No time machine. No timey-wimey science. Just character and story dealing with time; so here are my favourites:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957)

In which Gully Foyle is an uneducated, unskilled, unambitious man lost in space who discovers the ability to jaunt (a form of personal teleportation) through space and time. He is on a revenge mission but locked in a prison, where he learns his trick. By the end of Bester’s classic, it is revealed that it is faith that is the driver of jaunting. Bester uses Foyle to examine society’s prejudices and misogyny. He was very much ahead of his time.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) / Timequake (1997) by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians have the ability to observe time as we observe distance. And so they can see their entire lives ahead and behind them. Death is just a part of what they can see. So it goes. Vonnegut tells his main protagonist’s story – that of Billy Pilgrim – out of order which highlights the idea that time is fluid; more like a river than a dimension. Meanwhile, Timequake sees everyone travelling back in time 10 years to live their lives again, but without the ability to change anything from the first run. In Vonnegut’s eyes, we are all victims of time with no free will. I tend to agree.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

The plot of Replay sees our hero – a 43-year-old man – die and wake up back in 1963 in his 18-year-old body. This happens repeatedly as his life takes different paths but he dies in the same manner on the same date every time. I suspect Grimwood had read some Vonnegut before writing this classic. We can’t escape our fate.

Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (2013)

The Shining GirlsIn which a more traditional time-travel tale is told, but without any obvious mechanism to drive the movement through time. Beukes story is a kind of serial-killer murder mystery, except the murder is collecting the life force from girls who ‘shine’, and the killer moves throughout the 20th Century. Set in Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens doors to other times. However, one of the girls that shine, Kirby Mazrachi, survives the attach on her, and starts investigating. Beukes provides no explanation on how or why time travel works. It is a MacGuffin for chasing a murderer through time.

The First 15 lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)

In which North mirrors Grimwood in a way. Every time Harry dies he returns to where he began, as a child with the knowledge of the life he has already lived a many times before. During his eleventh life, however, something starts to change. North’s story is very different from Replay in that Harry August finds he’s not alone in his ability. Time is something that can be fought?

The Shore by Sara Taylor (2015)

Taylor’s novel reads like a anthology of short stories. On an island group off the coast of the USA, a number of family’s interlocking stories are told over 150 years. Stories of the past, present and future reveal the strength of Taylor’s female characters. She uses time to highlight relationships, and while there is no travelling in time as such, the chapters move back and forth in time, like Vonnegut, suggesting time is a mutable river.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest (2016)

The GradualWhile travelling through Priest’s Dream Archipelago, Alesandro starts to lose time. After returning home from a short concert tour he finds he’s been missing for a few years and his wife has moved on. Alesandro is also searching for his brother who disappeared when he was a child and his brother joined the army. Priest sees time as something that can be taken and given, and travelled through at different speeds. The novel is also about music, which is heavily influenced by moments in time.

The Rift by Nina Allan (2017)

In which Allan uses the separation of time to examine the relationship between sisters. Can close childhood sisters find commonality after 20 years apart, when one thinks the other has been dead for that time? Less a time travel novel, than a time-stands-still novel, the nature of sibling love is tackled alongside delusions. The classic puzzle for the reader to unravel is the question of reality versus all-in-the-mind.

Time travel is better served when there isn’t a machine or a doodad that transports protagonists hither and thither through time. I see time machines as an excuse to tell a story set in another time period through the eyes of the modern reader, but not giving the reader the credit to be smart enough to dive straight in. The novels described above are all interesting, daring, and tackle the subject of how humans relate to time with no holds barred. Spend some time with them…

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The Rift by Nina Allan

The RiftIt’s always exciting to discover a genre voice with a different perspective. I read Nina Allan’s 2014 debut The Race last year which I thought had huge potential. On completion of her new novel The Rift I knew that potential had already been reached. Allan, of course, isn’t new to the scene, being critically acclaimed for her short stories. Indeed, The Race has a short story structure to it. So with The Rift, Allan presents her most complete long form fiction. And boy is it worth the wait.

The Rift begins with an unusually disturbing aside before we’re properly introduced to the life of teenager sisters Selena and Julie. But it’s not long before Julie disappears. And returns again to tell her story. The plot doesn’t go much further than that, but then this isn’t really a story of other planets or the search for missing people, but it’s a story of truths and emotions. Most of the novel is Selena’s story from the third person. The middle section is Julie telling Selena about what happened to her all those years ago, life on the planet she went to, and other details about her life that Selena didn’t know about.

Of course, this is a story about the divide between adolescent sisters and how life diverges when they are no longer close. It is a story about a family coming apart. Selena is sure that the Julie of now is her missing sister. Their mother is not so sure, while their Dad, who suffered from terrible grief and obsessions after that fateful day, is no longer around. Allan uses a wide range of writing styles and story-telling techniques to play with the reader’s perceptions. The story is interspersed with letters, police and newspaper reports, fiction and non-fiction from Julie’s planet (a nice concise way of world-building that doesn’t detract from the human stories), interviews and other devices. All these ideas plant various ideas of what may or may not have happened to Julie.

So, is Julie telling the truth? Is Nina Allan telling the truth? Does it matter? I’m convinced that there are clues laid about, but they may just be coincidences – deliberately so. Mis-directions if you will. Names on the planet and on Earth have similarities (Lila and Lisa for example). Meanwhile, not long after a mention of Marillion’s 1980s hit Kayleigh we learn that there is a place called Marillienseet and a character called Cally. Allan even alludes to her own playfulness: “the written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable…”

There is a term used in psychiatry; confabulation. It is, essentially, the ability to mis-remember or distort our own memories to fit within the truths of our own existence. The Rift could be said to be Julie’s confabulation as a reaction to what really happened to her, or she might have really spent many years on another planet. Allan doesn’t hand you answers on a plate. Or at all. What is reality and does it have any significance other than how we deal with the relationships in our lives?

Allan’s writing is so engaging. With everything that is happening between the characters you come to enjoy spending time with them. With all the puzzles that surround the book, Allan never fails the reader. She uses small details and a plethora of pop culture references to ground the story. There isn’t any requirement for pages of complex world-building. Is The Rift science fiction, or even genre? Each reader will have to be their own judge of that. All the same, this is a book that gives the reader so much to think about and so much to enjoy, it should be read by any audience. Allan’s voice is a triumph of mind and writing and imagination.

This review was originally published on the Geek Syndicate website here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-the-rift-by-nina-allan/

The Race by Nina Allan

The RaceAllan’s debut – The Race – is a brave novel, hard to categorise and in some ways hard to describe. It is, essentially, four short stories from four different characters’ perspectives. It begins in a fairly standard fashion; a science fiction tale from the point of view of Jenna.

Kent, and by extrapolation, England, has been ravaged. Fracking has caused an environmental collapse. Life has reverted back to almost 1970s style existence (shillings are the currency, trams are the main transport), except that the major past-time is smartdog racing; a futuristic version of greyhound racing, where the dogs are connected to human runners. Jenna makes gloves for the runners. The story takes place in Sapphire, on the edge of the future Romney Marshes. Not a lot happens at the outset. Jenna describes her life and her narrow world view. Her brother, who is dodgy, runs a race track. His daughter gets kidnapped and he must win the big race to find the money to pay the kidnappers.

Next up is Christy. Her story is much more contemporary. In fact, it appears she lives in our world. It perturbed me a little early on as her voice and her story seemed a lot like Jenna’s. Christy’s brother is Derek, Jenna’s is Del. They are both wrong’uns. Again, not a lot of plot to talk about, as Christy describes her relationships with the people who come into her life as she heads off to university. One of Derek’s girlfriends is called Lin. She goes missing…Alex is Lin’s ex-boyfriend and is the narrator of the third, and shortest story. He visits Christy in Hastings, where they must confront their pasts. He also ties up a loose end of Christy’s tale.

Back in the future, the final story features the orphan Maree, an empath on a strange journey to a new home across the Atlantic. Some of the places seem to be those of our world, and some seem to be the world of Jenna – smartdogs are a feature too. There’s a lot of mythology in this story, especially about gigantic whales that cause consternation to the travellers. Relationships are the order of the day in this segment, and Maree has plenty of them to negotiate. One of the passengers on her ship discloses that he is an investigator hired to find her. Maree is the kidnapped niece of Jenna. It is revealed that she is to work on a project which is attempting to translating some potential alien languages. There is an appendix too, which is a third person story of Maree, several years later. More about how the stories throughout the novel are interwoven is revealed. I especially enjoyed the link to the mirror scene in an earlier section of the book.

Allan’s voice is strong. Her prose is very readable and her characters very engaging. The style of the first two (Jenna and Christy) is deliberately similar, and once you work it out, is satisfying. Despite the individual sections not having a whole lot of story, the completed work exposes the bigger picture nicely. Not everything works perfectly – such as the narrow focus of the world building in the science fiction tales, and the half made-up, half relatable future. Although I suppose as they are first person tales, the narrow focus is understandable.

The main focus of The Race is not science fiction, or even plot. It is relationships. Especially between brother and sister, but also, and unusually in science fiction, between boyfriends and girlfriends (and same sex couples) in the early stages or short-term partnerships. Not much happy ever after or soul-mates to be found here. People come and go in our lives and Allan describes this with aplomb. I could have done with more plot, personally. I would have liked an explanation of why the gloves where so important. I would have liked more thematic completion, especially around the title – although I guess it might be the human race as opposed to the smartdog race. Alex seems to exist only to solve Christy’s suspicions surrounding the missing Lin.

Allan’s deft touch is nice – when the hints she drops about Christy’s voice is made clear, it is almost casual, as if unimportant. There is an undercurrent about Allan’s view of language and what books generally and stories specifically mean to her, culminating in the terrific passage which includes the memorable line: “what the hell is a fucking squirrel”. There are hints of Allan’s feelings on war, and the science fiction has a nostalgic quality. And so there is a lot going on in The Race, lack of plot notwithstanding, and most of it hugely enjoyable. And you can thank Allan’s brilliant prose style and very likeable characters.

Originally published here: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/09/the-race-by-nina-allan/