The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.
But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).
In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.
A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.
All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.
Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.
So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.
In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.
One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?
In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.
Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.