LEAPING THROUGH THE CENTURIES: THE OUTCASTS OF TIME

As you know from reading my past posts (and if you’ve ever talked to me at the Circulation Desk), I’m a big fan of time travel books.  And, while there are all kinds of interesting things that can occur in a book about time travel, I have to admit that there are a few tropes that most of the books have in common: someone goes back in time, through mechanical or other means, meets with historical figures (famous or not), and either tries to change the past or tries NOT to change the past.   Every now and then, though, a time travel book comes along that ignores all those conventions and makes its own rules.  Such a book is Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, which just came out this month.

The premise is unique: in Great Britain in 1348, the Black Death is ravaging the country. Two brothers, John and William, are suffering from the Plague and know they’re about to die.  In fact, they have exactly six days to live when they are given a wonderful if dangerous choice: either they can go home and spend their last days waiting to die in their own time, OR they can spread out those last six days, living each one 99 years after the last one, hoping to find a cure before their last day ends.

Now, wouldn’t you want to read this book just on that description alone?  Aren’t you thinking about whether you would take that deal or not?  Consider: each day would take you farther and farther into the future, nearly a century at a time, so you would have more and more trouble understanding what’s going on, what people are doing and saying (consider how much language changes over the centuries), how to navigate the world.  And at the same time, consider how much medicine, for instance, has changed over the centuries, and what the odds are that something that might have been deadly and incurable in your time might well turn into something easily treated a few hundred years from now.

Of course the brothers take the jumping-through-time option, and their experiences as they jump farther and farther into the future are revelations to them, even as they find it more and more difficult just to understand what is happening around them.  Their basic assumptions about life and the universe are irrevocably challenged, and they become more and more outcast in the worlds in which they find themselves. The bigger question for them personally, though, is whether they will in fact find a cure before their last day runs out.

Whether or not you’re a fan of time travel books (and by the way, this would count as a time travel book for the Field Library Reading Challenge), the notion of seeing different eras through the eyes of people from an earlier time is intriguing, and the literal race against time in Outcasts of Time should make for a fascinating read.

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TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND PROFIT

So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time that when I put together The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, one of the categories would have to be time travel.  I am, I freely confess it, a sucker for a good time travel book, and, in addition to the list of time travel books which I have posted on the Challenge page, I would like to provide some personal recommendations for particular books involving time travel which are dear to my heart (and excellent books as well, of course).

Strange as it seems, the Field Library does NOT have a copy of the original time travel book, H. G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine (we do have a children’s retelling of that book, but it’s not quite the same, is it?).  However, don’t be too downhearted, because we have H. G. Wells himself as a character in one of my favorite time travel novels, The Map of Time, by Felix Palma. You don’t have to have read The Time Machine to appreciate Wells’ character in The Map of Time (though of course if you are familiar with his work, this book and its sequels become even more entertaining), because he’s quite an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character in his own right here.  The book involves several supposed time travel schemes, one to make money, one to save a person’s life, and one that involves real actual time travel.  The intertwining plots are surprisingly easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to read. This is in fact the first book in a trilogy, but I have to emphasize that it is a full-fledged and complete story in its own right.  As I was reading it the first time (it bears rereading, to appreciate exactly how Palma put the whole thing together) and I got close to the end of the book, I was afraid that there was no way he was going to make everything work (if I’d known it was the first book of a trilogy I would have been even more worried), but in fact, all the plots are resolved, and brilliantly (I was so delighted when I reached the climax of the book I actually laughed aloud when I was reading it).  You don’t have to read The Map of the Sky or The Map of Chaos, the next two books in the series, in order to love this book, but if you enjoy this one, you will LOVE the next two as well, even if they’re not part of this year’s challenge.

Want something simpler and more madcap?  Try the late great Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and no, even though this is the second in a series, you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy or follow this one, and in fact this was the first book I read in the series (aside from one tiny spoiler which I didn’t grasp when I read this, I had no problems reading the first book after this one).  The first book explains why the earth was made, and the results from one set of characters’ time travel in this book explains what, exactly, the ancestors of human beings were (it also explains who really runs the universe, but a different set of characters discover that).  The restaurant of the title happens to be poised at the very edge of the total destruction of the universe at the end of time, and in the universe of this series, it makes perfect sense that someone would have figured out how to exploit that moment and make a fine dining experience out of it.  If you’re not too bound by logic and reality and if you have a warped sense of humor (this pretty much describes me), then you’re going to enjoy The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the other two books in the trilogy (if you like Adams, I recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this book, and Life, the Universe and Everything; while there are other books ostensibly in the series, the first three are, in my opinion, the best).

The thing about time travel is that it makes for really complicated plots, and I can’t think of another time travel book I’ve read that has a more complicated plot than The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Our protagonist, Henry, has a genetic condition whereby he will suddenly and without warning jump through time, appearing in different places at different ages. He and Claire, his wife, are very much in love despite the difficulties his chrono-displacement causes.  This is a moving, romantic book, and I have recommended it to dozens of people face to face, so I have no problem recommending it highly here as well. You should be warned, though: the plot jumps around in time and place the way Henry himself does.  Pay attention to the headings of each chapter, which tell you where and when you are with each character, and by the time you’ve gotten through the first fifty pages or so, you’ll get the swing of it. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

The opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is : “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in the book, but there’s so much more going on with the plot and with Billy Pilgrim than mere time travel. The book isn’t told sequentially because Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, has been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in four dimensions at once, to whom time is pretty irrelevant (their phrase, which Billy uses himself frequently, is “so it goes”, a fatalistic response to the wrongs of the world); we hop around from Billy’s youth to his early days in World War II to his capture by the Germans and his more or less accidental survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden to his death, then back to his marriage and the birth of his children, then to his experiences on Tralfamadore.  It’s actually easier to follow than the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I personally find it (along with Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night) one of the best books Vonnegut ever wrote.

For more of my thoughts on time travel books, you can check here and here and here.  But please do give the whole time travel genre a try, and not just because it’s one of the categories in this year’s challenge, but because it’s mind boggling and fun.

ROAD TRIP THROUGH TIME WITH PARADOX BOUND

As anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m responsible for buying the new adult fiction at The Field Library.  As such, I buy a lot of books because I know people will want to read them (new books by popular authors, for instance), but sometimes I buy books just because I personally can’t resist them and I want to have them for patrons to read as well.  This explains (partially at least) why there are so many time travel books in our collection.  The newest time travel book The Field Library has acquired is Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines, and it is great fun, a book I’m going to be recommending to patrons for some time (see what I did there?).

Eli Teague is an ordinary guy, living in what seems to him like the most backward small town in Maine, where everything is kind of behind the times and nothing exciting ever happens.  Until something exciting does happen, three times: he meets the same young woman, dressed in Revolutionary War garb (complete with tricorn hat!), and driving a Model A Ford, that happens to run on water rather than gas.  She appears in his life when he’s 8 years old, then when he’s in his teens, and then, when he meets her for the third time when he’s 29, things start getting seriously strange.  There are faceless men chasing this woman, and Eli feels the need to help her or at least warn her, so he heads down to Boston to intercept her, and from there on, he’s caught up in a wild trip with the woman (Harry, short for Harriet), driving across the country and through history, in search of — what else? — the American Dream, which turns out to be an actual thing that has been stolen. The loss of the American Dream is responsible for the strange things happening to the country, and whoever finds it and holds it can shape the future of America.  As you can guess, Harry and Eli aren’t the only people on the road looking for it, with good motives or bad.  

And I’m not going to go into more detail on the plot than that, because it’s the sort of book you’re going to want to discover for yourself.  The faceless men are literally without faces (they wear clear plastic masks which somehow make them even scarier), and they are great villains, implacable because of their certainty and practically indestructible.  Harry and Eli are fun characters as you get to know them, and they interact with a slew of other fascinating people (including John Henry, who has his own special train to travel through history, as opposed to the antique cars many of the other characters use).  There’s even a town called Hourglass where the time travelers meet up at one of three special bars, and since the same person can be there on multiple timelines, there are strict rules about where you can go and with whom you can interact while you’re in Hourglass.  There are, of course, paradoxes, and great plot twists and turns, with some scenes reappearing a couple of times from different perspectives (one of the great pleasures of time travel fiction, in my opinion, is seeing a character in a scene, not knowing who that character is or what he’s doing there, and then later discovering that the mystery character is someone you know, only from a different time; if this sounds confusing, then you haven’t read enough time travel novels).  There’s danger, there’s adventure, and there’s a satisfying ending that you don’t entirely anticipate. It’s wonderful fun, picking you up and taking you on the most amazing road trip through time and space that will make you look at those odd little towns that seem to have been forgotten by time in an entirely different light.

WHICH 2016 DO YOU WANT: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

I admit it, I’m a sucker for time travel books (this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the blog or talking to me on the Circulation Desk), and I’m delighted to announce we have a doozy of a time travel book coming to the Field Library on February 7.

all-our-wrong-todays

It’s called All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai, and it takes place in 2016.  Well, actually, it takes place in two different 2016’s, and thereby hangs a tale.

 

In what our protagonist, Tom Barren, believes to be the “normal” world, 2016 looks a lot like the ideal future people were envisioning in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Flying cars? We have them. Moon bases where people live? Yup. Moving sidewalks?  All over the place.  All that wonderful, optimistic thinking about technology and human progress has come true and the world in 2016 is a fascinating place, except that Tom can’t seem to find his bearings there.  He knows he should be happy but somehow this world just doesn’t seem to work for him.

 

And then comes a time travel accident which sends him into OUR 2016, and throws the whole flow of the universe out of whack.  To someone from Tom’s version of 2016, our world is horrifying, a dystopian wreck, a nightmare.

 

At least at first it seems that way to him. But then Tom discovers what the alternate Tom, the one living in this 2016, is like and how his life is different, and maybe better. His family, his career, maybe even his soul mate, are all wonderfully strange and appealing in this version of reality, and he finds himself liking aspects of our “dystopian” world.

 

Of course the dilemma then is whether he should try to fix reality and bring back the utopian 2016 he came from, or whether he should let the universe alone and try to make a life for himself in this reality.  As dilemmas to carry a novel go, this is one of the more intriguing ones, and I, for one, want to see the other 2016 and see how Tom resolves his dilemma.

 

PASSAGEWAYS THROUGH TIME: LAST YEAR, A NEW TIME TRAVEL NOVEL

last-year-cover

As all readers of this blog must know by now, I love time travel. LOVE it.  All the paradoxes the concept creates, all the possibilities of changing the future and changing the past, the brain-twisting notions of identity and memory and history, all of it fascinates me.  So when I have a chance to get a new and potentially interesting book about time travel, odds are really good that I’ll get it.  Case in point: Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson, which presents a new and bizarre, but fascinating, notion of time travel.

The idea is time travel tourism.  In our modern 21st century world, the technology has been invented to allow people to travel into a particular point in the past. Each of these points represents an alternate past, the same as ours up until the moment the doorway opens. From the moment the first time traveler appears there, that world’s future changes, and no one can predict what will happen in that world from then on. Once a passageway opens to a particular time, that’s the only way that time can be reached, and when it closes, no one can go back to that past.

Admit it, you’re intrigued already.  But that’s just the background.  There’s more.

There’s a little town in late 19th century Ohio which is the terminus of one such passageway, and has been for almost a decade.  The existence of the time travelers is no secret to anyone on either end of the passageway. As a matter of fact, the people in the 19th century town have built a city at the terminus, whose whole function is to accommodate the time travelers from our time. But there’s a cost: as the people in the town become more sophisticated, their town seems much less like the past that people want to visit.  Its popularity is starting to decline. People want the “real” past and not this half and half life. The passageway is going to close soon.

Which would be a real problem for the book’s protagonist, Jessie Cullen, who’s spent his life in that Ohio town and who has fallen in love with a woman from our time. He is not going to let her just disappear from his life forever. No, he’s going to follow her to the future, no matter how hard that is, no matter what he has to risk.

Will he manage?  What will happen if he does succeed?  When the past and future collide, what you have is a heck of a mind-bending story.  Case in point: Last Year.

IF YOU COULD CHANGE THE PAST: TIME TRAVEL BOOKS AT THE LIBRARY

If you had the ability to travel through time, what would you do?

I personally am a sucker for a well-told time travel story, and I don’t think I’m alone in that, judging by the number of time travel books that come out every year (not to mention the ongoing popularity of the Doctor Who television series).  I’ve already written about my love of the Felix Palma series, The Map of Time, The Map of Space, The Map of Chaos, in which time travel is a critical (and brilliantly handled) element, but there are other terrific time travel books available at or through the Field Library to blow your mind.

THE TIME MACHINE COVER

Let’s start with the classic: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.  This is another of those books whose story everybody knows because of the famous movie and all the other cultural references (including a clever reference in an episode of The Big Bang Theory), but it’s more than just a science fiction exploration of a fascinating concept; it’s also H.G. Wells’ critique of Victorian society and can be read both as an adventure story and as a satire.  Not to mention that reading this book will set you up well for The Map of Time, whose plot turns on Wells’ concept of the time machine.

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE COVER

A bestseller from a few years ago, which I recommend to anyone looking for a good read, is Audrey Niffinegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, though I have to add (as I do to everyone I recommend this book to) that it is VERY confusing at the beginning and you have to give yourself fifty pages or so before you get the rhythm of the book and are able to keep track of the characters and the different times in which the book is set. But once you get the hang of it, the interlocking stories of Henry, a librarian who involuntarily travels through time, and Claire, his wife, are both fascinating and deeply moving (have tissues on hand for the end of the book), and, as is always the case when a time travel book is done right, you have the pleasure of seeing how everything comes together and connects.

time and again cover

An intriguing mechanism of time travel is used in Jack Finney’s Time and Again: no machine but the human mind’s ability to erase the present and step out into the past.  This is both a time travel novel and a historical novel, bringing our protagonist, Si Morley, from twentieth century New York back to 1880’s New York, where he tries to solve a mystery and discovers where and when he belongs, and how to stay there.  Paradoxes included at no extra charge!

REPLAY COVER

For a different twist on the question of time travel, there’s always Replay by Ken Grimwood, which turns on the intriguing question of what you would do differently if you had it all to do over again, knowing what you know now.  The main character, Jeff Winston, dies of a heart attack at age 43 at the very beginning of the book — and then wakes up as himself, 18 years old, in his college dorm room, knowing everything that will happen in the next 25 years.  With a chance to change everything, Jeff (along with a fellow repeater, Pamela) takes many different avenues to relive his life and make things different, for him and for the world, and his efforts succeed and fail in unexpected ways, making for a fascinating book all around.

TIME AND TIME AGAIN COVER

If you had the ability to travel through time and change one thing, which one thing would you change?  For Hugh Stanton, the protagonist of Ben Elton’s new book, Time and Time Again, the one thing that will change everything, hopefully for the better, is preventing World War I.  He believes the entire history of the twentieth century will be different if World War I never happened, and since the war began with a single shot (that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand), he’s going to try to prevent it with a single shot, even if that means that everything he knew and loved in his life will no longer exist, or will no longer exist the way he remembers it.  

Once you’ve been bitten by the time travel bug, rest assured there are plenty of ways you can satisfy the craving — just come in and ask!