book reviews by Althea

Time Travel: Recent Trips – Paula Guran, ed.

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An extensive anthology featuring recently-published (within the last decade) short fiction with a time travel theme. No real clunkers here; it’s a grouping of overall strong stories by deservedly-well-respected authors in the genre.

**** “With Fate Conspire,” Vandana Singh
One woman has been plucked from a refugee camp, due to her rare ability, a fluke of the brain, to use a scientific device which allows a viewer to glimpse a past time. The scientists think she’s observing a famous poet. In reality, she’s obsessed with watching a seemingly ordinary housewife. Outside the ivory tower which has become her prison, an apocalyptic world is teeming. What does poetry matter when everything is doomed?
This is impressively good. I would’ve liked maybe just a hint more resolution at the end, though – something to tie in how the use of the machine might affect the future, and why…

**** “Twember,” Steve Rasnic Tem
A strange apocalypse… ‘Icebergs’ of detritus randomly appear and slide across the landscape, leaving mixed-up flotsam of different times in their wake. No one knows why or how this is happening… the changes they leave are dismissed by authorities as ‘cosmetic.’ However, the ‘changes’ have wreaked destruction on one family… A mood piece, full of angst and ennui… I very much liked it.

***** “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu
Ken Liu starts with an idea first, and creates a story around it. Here, as usual, he does a mind-blowingly good job of it.
The point of this story is to draw attention to the atrocities committed by Japan’s ‘Unit 731’ in Pingfang, preceding and during WWII, and uses that era as a jumping-off point to explore the different (and largely avoidant) attitudes that humans take when dealing with almost unimaginable horrors of the past.
The science-fictional premise is that two scientists have made a discovery of particles, that, when captured, and give one witness – and one only, ever – the experience of being transported to a specific time and place. After their experience, he hopes to gain closure for the families of the victims and have their eyewitness testimony shut down denialists.
This is long for a ‘short story’ – over 50 pages. From a ‘fictional narrative’ perspective, some of the middle section gets a bit waterlogged with the inclusion of facts and historical details; feeling more like an essay. However, as a piece of writing, it deserves fully five stars, for its unflinching (and, at times, extremely disturbing) look at the evil that humans are capable of, and how we all are capable of complicity. Unexpected shifts in perspective and insights raise this above many other writings on similar topics.

**** “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park,” Kage Baker
Read previously in, “In the Company of Thieves.” The Company’s immortality process has gone wrong, and the subject has been rendered something very like what, in the 21st century, we call ‘autistic.’ The Company puts their failed agent to work as a kind of camera, recording images of a San Francisco park for interested parties in other times and places. However, although he’s not socially functional, he forms a kind of connection with a woman he sees day after day, who’s obsessed with the small but hopeless cause of restoring the historical flower beds of the park… Set on a much smaller scale that most of Baker’s Company tales, this is a delicate, sensitive and touching story.

*** “Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous,” Dale Bailey
A ‘Jurassic Park’-style excursion may not be the best substitute for marital counseling. I really liked the ending…

*** “Blue Ink,” Yoon Ha Lee
Interesting and rather original idea for fantasy: what if, when the mysterious figure arrives, telling you that in the great and final conflict, everything depends on you… and you just say, “no thanks, not interested”?

** “Two Shots from Fly’s Photo Gallery,” John Shirley
This is a perfectly fine story, and others may enjoy it. Personally, I think I’m just feeling bored with ‘The Gunfight at the OK Corral’ and mixing it in with issues of domestic abuse and depression visited unto the next generations didn’t make it more interesting to me. I also found the issues faced by the time traveller here to be… just fairly ordinary.

*** “The Mists of Time,” Tom Purdom
How much is our view of history affected by our focus? Sometimes, it’s all about what one chooses to look at. Here, we meet a man who wants to go back in time and create a documentary about his heroic ancestor, a ship’s captain renowned for freeing slaves during the time of Napoleon. The award-winning filmmaker hired to direct the project, however, is more interested in the plight of the slaves, and takes a cynical attitude toward their ‘rescuers.’ And the point of view of the captain himself does not align perfectly with either vision…

*** “The King of Where-I-Go,” Howard Waldrop
Bradbury-esque, nostalgic piece about a boy growing up in the 1950’s – and blaming himself for his sister’s polio. Later, he may have the chance to go back in time and do something about it… (view spoiler)

*****“Bespoke,” Genevieve Valentine
A new take on ‘The Butterfly Effect.’
Time travel is a popular entertainment for the wealthy – and of course, they need the perfect, hand-tailored and chronologically appropriate outfits for their jaunts. Thus, the two seamstresses we meet here are employed…
I loved this story – it’s truly, apocalyptically horrific, but all the dreadful things are lurking around the edges.

**** “First Flight,” Mary Robinette Kowal
Sentimental, but effective. An elderly woman travels back in time to document the first flight of the Wright Brothers. (The premise here is that one can’t actually travel further back than the time of your birth; so a centenarian is much in demand…) This particular old lady isn’t quite wh0 these researchers might have picked, had they had their druthers. She’s got a mind of her own, and her own way of doing things. Will her honesty really be the best policy?
A sweet tale, not without humor – and I have to admit I teared up a little bit at the end.

*** “The Time Travel Club,” Charlie Jane Anders
The Time Travel Club is a small group of misfits and fantasists who get together in a church basement after the local AA meeting’s time slot… But how will the club react when a strange woman in an absurd disguise joins them, claiming to have discovered a way to build a real time machine?

*** “The Ghosts of Christmas,” Paul Cornell
Given the opportunity, could you resist the urge to find out how your life will turn out? A time-travel researcher, pregnant with her first child, succumbs to that urge, and sneaks into her empty lab on Christmas night, to go visiting the herself of future years…

*** “The Ile of Dogges,” Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
A bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy… An academic historian goes back in time to rescue the lost Ben Jonson & Thomas Nashe play from the censor who destroyed it. No real surprises her, but a satisfying read.

*** “September at Wall and Broad,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Time travel adventure with a bit of a spy thriller feel…
An agent in the government’s time travel department has discovered an anomaly surrounding the infamous Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920. A couple of other agents’ missions to investigate have already failed – but Phillippa goes in ‘deep’ – posing as a typist employed near the epicenter of the bombing. What she uncovers reveals unexpected layers of political intrigue, and the paradoxical complexities entailed by trying to mess with history through time travel.
The story could work as a good introduction to what I feel could be a very entertaining series featuring Philippa…

*** “Thought Experiment,” Eileen Gunn
One man figures out how to travel through time using only his mind. My why are the people at the market in the public square of the town of Wessex, circa 1440, always so incomprehensibly hostile to him, each time he appears? Cute story, based on an original idea about the ramifications of traveling through time…

*** “Number 73 Glad Avenue,” by Suzanne J. Willis
A rather surreal, psychedelic piece. An enigmatic woman appears to employed as a party entertainer, accompanied by what appears to be her automaton or ventriloquist’s dummy. As part of their show, they serve some very unusual drinks… and extremely unusual events proceed apace. But at one party, someone sees beyond the hallucinogenic veil, and asks questions about what’s really going on. These questions aren’t all answered, but strange revelations are hinted at…

*** “The Lost Canal,” Michael Moorcock
Moorcock weighs in here with a long story with a Golden Age feel. The two toughest people on Mars are a professional thief and a beautiful bounty hunter. An affair involving assassins, insanely valuable jewels, a planet-threatening bomb, and unexpected advice from another time, ensues… Lots of weird alien elements, I found, made the story a little distancing at first, but some fast-paced action and a dose of humor drew me in as it progressed.

One note: while editor Paula Guran can be counted on to select decent work for her anthologies, her introductions really leave something to be desired. The last collection of hers I read; she said something like (I paraphrase), “I’ve got the flu so I can’t be bothered to write a real introduction.” The introduction for this book reads like a high-school essay turned in by an unmotivated student: a bald listing of items and dates, vaguely strung together. I’d’ve been happier, in both cases, with no introduction at all: just let the works speak for themselves. They’re good.

A copy of this book was provided to me through NetGalley. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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