Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent
Long ago, when I ran a slush pile, there were unfortunate moments when I knew after the first page the book wasn’t going to be good enough to even think about saving. It’s sad to make such snap judgements but, when the command of English is tenuous, the plot is only possible savior and the lack of coherence in the language usually means the plot is not going to stand up. It’s therefore disconcerting to report that I almost didn’t bother to read beyond the first page of this book but eventually read it to the end. In this case, it’s not to much that the words are actually wrongly selected. It’s just that, in context, they don’t make quite the sense the author obviously intended. However, having decided the judgement of the small press should be trusted, I persisted. There are some distinct linguistic oddities in the pages that follow, but the meaning communicated becomes more clear as we progress.
Persistence of Memory by Winona Kent (Fable Press, 2013) offers us a time travel story which, in a sense, parallels Lost in Austen. By one of these magical manipulations of physics, we have an exchange of two women across time. Both are widows and, to the casual observer, physically identical. One explanation of the phenomenon might therefore be that the minds of the two women are exchanged. This would bring the book more in line with classics like Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which deal with time travel as more a mental than a physical process. Naturally, the woman who comes forward is rather confused by the modern world but adapts remarkably quickly, while our doughty modern woman, armed with a little knowledge of what has gone before, finds it relatively easy to fit into the past (once she’s found the privy, of course). Even her mobile phone fits in, readjusting its local time to 1825 — that’s some smart phone, lady! And it also gets a signal from the local landmark tree which persists into the future. This gives her a mechanism for co-ordinating the effort to keep history on its designated path. Or, if you want to get technical about it, the knowledgeable woman from the future must avoid changing history and thus, courtesy of the grandfather paradox, prevent herself from returning. The only problem is to decide what history is to be preserved. As you can imagine, not that much day-to-day detailed has travelled the almost two-hundred years into the future. There’s just the broadest outline and even that’s a little fuzzy around the edges.
We’re therefore invited to see the book as a form of mystery novel in which our sleuth from the future has to understand precisely what’s required in the past and then nudge events in the right direction to get the desired results. Unfortunately, a sequence of crimes is committed including murder, arson (both punishable by the death penalty), robbery, fraud and failing to invent a workable water closet. This range forces the plot to vary quite widely from the need to establish who’s who in the family tree to the alarming prospect that the future has been changed by the murder. At this point, I need to dispel any assumption you might have that the plot works in a strictly logical way. For it all to come out right, there has to be some major cheating (or if you want to be scientific about it, some major anomalies have to be introduced into the tachyon stream). Yes, there’s some cod science floating around which doesn’t particularly impress. The tree as a network broadcast tower is also a really bad idea. As an outsider, I can confidently say the book would have been immeasurably better if events were left as a near-death experience including a major hallucination about time travel. When the poisoned tree fell down, the key document could have turned up to resolve matters and leave everything ambiguous. Having actual time travel with real-time cellphone conversations across two-hundred years denies everything science fiction is supposed to be. It turns the book into a romance-tinged fantasy and denies it any chance of real success.
Putting everything together, Persistence of Memory is a short novel, i.e. slightly more than 76,000 words* and although it’s obviously intended as an SFnal time travel piece, it’s really a fantasy with a romance element and written in rather wooden prose. In my opinion, there’s a good story waiting to be told but the editorial service from the small press let the author down. Anyone with any knowledge of science fiction would have understood the major problems with the plot. The prose should also have been rescued by proper editing.
* I’m indebted to the author for giving me the actual word count. I had estimated this as novella length and have amended the text.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.