05 September 2005

Excursions in Time

Right, then, yes.

The Time-Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It is, quite honestly, bloody amazing.

It's certainly received it's fair share of hype -- and being nominated by Richard and Judy for their daytime-TV book club is an awful lot for any novel to live down -- but it really is remarkably good.

It's not marketed as S.F., which is one of the things publishers do these days so that S.F. books with not-too-outrageous settings can sold more widely. It is, however, deeply respectful of its basic science-fiction premise (a protagonist whose unusual genetic condition causes him to time-travel involuntarily, apparently under the partial control of his subconscious mind) and follows it through with as much rigorous and careful extrapolation as I've ever found in a work of S.F. (far more than in some). It also works as a "proper" novel, in that the characters are multi-layered, convincing, painfully familiar and shaped by their experiences and relationships even when -- as in the cases of the two protagonists, time-travelling Henry and his lifelong love Clare -- those expeiences are deeply weird and non-realistic in nature.

The book isn't flawless. It is, at times, a little precious, and the passages where Proust and Rilke are quoted in the original languages are frankly pretentious. There's also, tight though the plot-logic is, a papered-over chasm in the book's intellectualism where some philosophical examination of Henry's plight, particularly of the inescapable determinism which his explorations of the past appear to reveal, would seem really to be called for. But, though the romance is one of an unusually cerebral nature, it's clearly the central relationship which the book is truly about.

The core image of the novel comes, in fact, in the epilogue where... [NB: The following has been made invisible to avoid spoiling the book. Highlight the whitespace to read...] ...an elderly woman spends her last years waiting for the promised final visit of her long-dead time-travelling husband. This image alone would have made for a wonderful short story, but that would have lacked the emotional punch which it derives from its novelistic context. Without knowing Clare and Henry as we do by this point in the book, it would have been a clever and reasonably poignant idea, rather than an achingly potent source of longing and grief.

Basically, The Time-Traveler's Wife is the only book I've read in absolute ages which has had me in uncontrollable tears at the end. I could barely see the words to read them, in fact... which was kind of annoying, actually, but still, extremely cathartic.

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman is an altogether different kind of book -- still cerebral, and still about time, but far from being character-focussed. Indeed, it has virtually no named characters: the framing narrative deals with the young Albert Einstein and a colleague of his at the patent office, but that's about it. Instead it's a magic-realist exploration of creatively-imagined worlds where time works differently from our own, the linking idea being that these are the rejected hypotheses, experienced in dreams, which led Einstein to his theory of relativity.

The imagination which has gone into thinking up these worlds is breathtaking in itself. There's a world where the future does not exist and cannot be conceptualised, and a world where there's no such thing as memory; worlds where time cannot be quantified and worlds where it is the ultimate and only absolute; worlds where time works like a stream or like a wheel or like an infinite hall or mirrors; even a determinist world like the one in The Time-Traveler's Wife, where everybody's future is mapped out and where nobody therefore cares about the consequences of their actions.

The really clever thing is the way all of these hypotheticals -- which are treated as springboards for creative thought rather than bases for logical extrapolation -- become metaphors for the real relationship between our human identities and our subjective perceptions of time. The novel as a whole explores disparate imaginative spaces, each with its own rules, and their reciprocal effects upon the human beings who live in them. Comparisons with Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (as luck would have it, the only Calvino I've managed to read, and very fine it is too) are predictable, but worthwhile.

Nameless though the characters are, their internal monologues are often deeply moving -- all the more so since a number of them are clearly altered versions of Einstein's own present, past and future, and his own surroundings in 1905 Berne are generally recognisable, if profoundly changed. (Much of this aspect of the book passed me by, to be honest, as I'm not that clued-up on Einstein's life. I really should read a biography and then reread the novel, as I'm sure it would repay that kind of attention.)

Honestly, this is a fantastically good work of art, which everybody with any interest both in theoretical physics and damn good writing should definitely read.

Meanwhile... I've finished Seven Deadly Sins, which suffers by comparison with the above (but does have a couple of splendid stories by the reliable Paul Magrs and Tara Samms). I've also embarked on Simon Morden's novella Another War, having first reread "A Forgotten Corner of Hell" in the Subway collection Brilliant Things, to which it's a sequel. Where "A Forgotten Corner of Hell" (in which a 1920s country house vanishes to become contiguous with an otherdimensional netherworld) reads rather as if H.P. Lovecraft's been given a rewrite by Agatha Christie, Another War (where the house reappears in present-day Oxfordshire) gives the impression that Tom Clancy's now been allowed to have a go. I'm enjoying it very much so far.

I think I'll hold off commenting on The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction till I've finished it -- I'm a little over halfway through now. It's been a mixture, so far, of nodding along in agreement and disagreeing vociferously, to the bemusement and consternation of my wife and / or colleagues.

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