Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt
Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt is a retelling of a novella under the same name that first appeared in 1996, being nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1997. This raises the obvious question of whether I should just pop back and reread the original to remind myself what it was like, or assume I can vaguely remember it and see whether this is a good novel. Remembering all those stories about temporal paradoxes, I eventually decide not to risk meeting myself and passing on the results of the World Cup held in France in 1998. I didn’t do that or else I would have remembered it. Except, if I haven’t done it yet, there’s nothing for me to remember from the past, is there? Ah, now I remember. That’s why writing time travel novels is difficult. Fortunately, Jack McDevitt’s authorial voice puts off his characters from trying this by telling them the co-inventor of the time machine died of a heart attack when she tried a paradox experiment. The guru who invented the relevant device seems to think there’s a kind of natural automatic system to prevent anyone from disturbing the timeline. This may be death or it may just be that the traveller is deflected somewhere off to one side of events and so cannot interfere.
Well, no matter what the supposed truth of this paradox thing, our two time travellers have a handheld device that can whisk them wherever and whenever they want, so most of the book is an extended travelogue. They spend five minutes here, and ten minutes there, each time with someone whose name you know. But with little more significance than that. Normally, a novel is based on a plot that introduces characters and events to advance the story. In this case, McDevitt is simply describing what they do. These two grown men find themselves addicted to the past, hopping from one place to the next with the attention span of butterflies whose wings might start a tornado (or a paradox) with fatal consequences.
In the midst of all this, we have two subplots. One replicates the pleasingly humorous Timescoop by John Brunner in which, first artefacts and then people, are lifted from the past. There’s just problem with the physical things. What should be “old” are actually newly made. Hence everyone thinks they are crude fakes. McDevitt has our heroes bringing lost manuscripts forward except, of course, no reputable scholar can accept them as anything more than clever fakes. The second question to be resolved is whether one of our two travellers is going to be murdered in his bed. If the timeline is set in concrete and cannot be moved, this will bring the novel to an unfortunate ending.
So what we have here is a distinctly lightweight novel. In the hands of someone like Jack Vance, this could have been entertaining. Sly wit would have enlivened proceedings. There would have been a slew of different colours, features, foods and architectural wonders to divert us. But what we actually have is overly serious with our heroes debating with some of these historical heavyweights and avoiding the introduction of modern ideas before their time. There are also escapes from danger that have our heroes simply disappearing from view in the plain view of reliable witnesses. Except none of this disturbs the timeline. These events are presumably passed off as the work of the Devil and not recorded in a way that would reveal their significance. What’s also intriguing is that no-one from the future seems to replicate the invention and meet up with our heroes. They seem to be unique or the future travellers are keeping a very low profile.
So what’s reasonably entertaining at shorter length becomes really dull when expanded. The means of resolving the death problem is fairly obvious from the outset, and the unresolved question of how the librarian might establish the provenance of the Greek literature is left, well, unresolved. Under the circumstances, I am therefore unable to find anything to justify recommending Time Travelers Never Die to anyone other than a true McDevitt fan who will read everything and walk away contended.
Jacket artwork by Tony Mauro.