Tag Archives: time travel

Review: “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (plus, proof that the Victorians really, really loved their cats)

17 Apr

In the year 2057 — when getting a Ph.D. in history is a high-risk endeavor requiring mental and physical endurance, athleticism, a working knowledge of quantum mechanics and Victorian table manners, and, as always, a firm grasp of the Chicago Manual of Style — Ned Henry is a doctoral candidate on a mission. The stakes? If he fails, the Nazis win World War II. The operation? Return a time-traveling cat back to 19th-century Oxford.

For original article in the CW, click this eerie and vaguely misleading book cover! Because it's definitely not about ghost cats, flaming gothic architecture, or disembodied heads.

“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a classic whodunit — if the “it” were causing an incongruity that could rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe, and the “who” were a snowy-white feline named Princess Juju.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

That’s the premise of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a delightfully bizarre literary commingling of sci-fi and historical fiction. And considering that the Large Hadron Collider didn’t result in black holes or time travel technology last year after all, for a novel written in 1997, the science-y parts of the plot hold up. Besides, since most of the action takes place in 1889, Google wouldn’t have done Ned Henry much good, anyway.

And as tangled as the timelines are, this is, essentially, what’s going on.

In 2057, the aptly named Lady Schrapnell is working on a massive project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid during WWII. And because “God is in the details,” she’s employing scads of time-traveling historians to go back in time and find out exactly what the cathedral looked like the night before its destruction.

All that’s left to replace is the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a hideously ugly Victorian flower vase that, according to an inconveniently waterlogged journal entry, changed the redoubtable aristocrat’s some-odd-great-great-grandmother’s life in the summer of 1889 (and thus absolutely must be reproduced in the new cathedral).

But the unthinkable has happened: It’s missing, along with that great-great-something-great-grandmother’s pet cat, both of whose disappearances might just have a domino effect leading to Hitler taking over the world (if the world survives the breach in the space-time continuum, that is).

To say nothing of our hero — Ned Henry is certainly no Indiana Jones. And when it comes to tracking down lost artifacts (or missing cats), he’s no Sherlock Holmes, either. But wearing his straw boater at a jaunty angle, Ned and his partner-in-historical-crime Verity Kindle (perfect name for a historian, right?) are ready to play croquet, host séances and, of course, save the world.

Hold onto your petticoats, ladies and gentlemen, and pay attention to your Western Civ professors — because some day the fate of the universe may depend upon you knowing your groats from your tuppence.

This here ends the book review.

But Now… More Victorian Cats! (or, the tangential stuff I didn’t put in the newspaper column)

Recently I purchased an item of clothing that unites two of my loves: cats and the long 19th century (yes, I am absolutely going to be a spinster historian animal hoarder when I grow up).  After seeing it, my eldest sister (who you may know from long ago posts as Kate the Lostie), who has already grown up to be something of a cat lady, sent me an article that reveals something Connie Willis must have known–Victorians really, and I mean really, did love their cats.

My Sweatshirt, circa 2012

And more Actual Historical LOLcats, circa 1870s (below)
But there are more! (photos from io9)

Verdict? The Lancaster Rule, by T.K. Toppin

13 Feb

Well, it wasn’t about the War of the Roses after all, but that’s no loss for an avid reader hungering for a new novel to take on classic themes: time travel, new (and frightening) world orders, and the total psychological dislocation of falling asleep in the 21st century and waking up in the 24th.

Like a future Rip van Winkle, our heroine Josie Bettencourt wakes up bewitched and bewildered in a world she doesn’t recognize:

The world loathes Josie Bettencourt’s kind– pod-survivors from the past. When death is certain, an ex-military and friend to the pod-hunters, saves her life. Unfortunately, she is soon arrested and taken straight to the Citadel, the heart of the Lancaster regime where they have ruled tyrannically for over fifty years. Now, young John is in power, hoping to make a change, to erase the wars, famines and unimaginable terror. When Josie meets the frighteningly powerful John Lancaster, she has to ask, is he really the so-called tyrants’ spawn? She soon discovers who the true tyrants are by unraveling a deadly plot to take over the world.  And she realizes that her life in this new future are indelibly linked to the one she left behind.

T.K. Toppin’s lyrical writing style adds a certain elegance to a story that could easily have become as hard and cold as a tyrannical world government, and her characters evolve over the course of the novel, however sudden their awakening may have been at the start.

Recommendation: At $6.00 for the Kindle, The Lancaster Rule’s pricing is a little steep for an indie SF ebook (bestsellers on Amazon are $9.99).  But the writing is high-quality and the story has depth–definite pros tipping this review to a “worth it.”  Also, the cover art’s pretty intense.

Reading time: At a fairly-long 380 pages, I’d give it from 2 to 3 weeks.

The Lancaster Rule is available as an ebook for $6.00 on Amazon.

As I lay me down to sleep… (review The Lancaster Rule)

13 Feb

… I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my body to preserve in a stasis pod deep underground for a couple hundred years to slow cellular degeneration and essentially keep me immortal.  Amen.

I imagine that’s how Dr. Peter Bettencourt taught his daughter to pray, just before he made her a riff on Rip van Winkle.  Open your mouth for the choo-choo train, Josie!  It’s a dangerous chemical cocktail I cooked up in the lab to help you fall asleep for a long, long time.

All right, so maybe the good doctor had better reasons than that for sending his daughter rocketing three centuries into the future in a secret cryogenic chamber buried under her childhood home.  Government oppression’s a pretty good reason.  The Bettencourts were just another happy family (with a mad scientist dad, as is quite normal in science fiction) in 2033, when Dane Lancaster became President of a friggin scary union of Europe and the Americas.  Dane was “maniacal,” a “tyrant,” “corrupted.”  According to Dr. Bettencourt and his Retro Movement, at least–ex-hippies who decided to put themselves to sleep ’til better times.  Bettencourt was assassinated, or something, but he managed to secret his daughter away, and 300 years later Josie finds herself resurrected by a team of “pod hunters” in Anno Lancaster, the reign of John.

Readers paging to the first chapter will find some such snippet of political exposition (something that usually, I admit, sets my teeth on edge).  But if it’s a little shaky, that’s all right–it is considerably made up for by Toppin’s virtuoso descriptive writing.  Here’s a small sample (from the pod hunters’ first look at the ancient stasis specimen):

There she lay, like a sea creature that lives in the deepest caverns of the underworld: nails grown long through the ages, curling inward like obscene tentacles, soft and rubbery from centuries in liquid.  Her dark hair had also grown long and billowy, fanning about her body like a spectral sea fern shroud.  Her body was frail and slack, weightlessly floating in the thick amniotic fluid.  The only sign of life was the low hum the pod emitted, like a chest freezer in the corner of your kitchen, and once every hour the sucking sound of the respirator pumping oxygen in once, and then out.

It’s poetry.

Equally effective is the early scene in which Josie’s consciousness begins to surface from that almost deathlike depth of sleep.  The dreamlike, feverish quality of Josie’s thoughts (via Toppin’s keyboard) is creepy, creepy, so extraordinarily creepy.  She captures the tenuous connections your mind makes as you wake up, the heaviness in the limbs and disconcerting physical weakness, the half-memories and uncertainty of what’s real and what’s imagined, the terror.

One  minute  I  was  saying  goodbye  to  my father,  and  the  next,  awaking  to  a  madness  of incomprehension.

(Time travel: Side-effects may include social upheaval and serious internal turmoil.)

Josie’s particular brand of time travel isn’t really new in the genre–earlier I mentioned Washington Irving’s famous time traveler Rip (although, let’s admit, stasis pods are quite a bit more SF than leprechauns in the Catskills).  What makes The Lancaster Rule compelling is how T.K. Toppin deals with the psychological aspects of waking up in a world that isn’t your own.

We’re all products of our time–shaped by its peculiar culture, prejudices and obsessions.  This isn’t a question of Nature vs. Nurture–it’s a simple fact of historical contingency.  We can go to Western Civ 101 and gaze blankly at powerpoints about the 15th-century, uncomprehending.  Divine Right of Kings?  But that’s ridiculous!  Or the 19th century (what do you mean women are less intelligent than men because menstruations diverts so much blood from the brain?).  Even just decades ago, the culture and values of parents and grandparents.  It all seems absurd to us, and while some people of the time thought it was absurd too, it was perfectly logical to most.  We would be lost in the worlds of the past, but to those who lived in them, it all made perfect sense.

If you move in time, forward or back, it’s not just a spacial-temporal dislocation–it’s a cultural one too.  God Emperor of Dune (fourth in Frank Herbert’s famous series, but first in my heart, and the origin of this blog’s URL) started me thinking along these lines.  In GEoD [spoiler alert], Leto Atreides has become immortal, for various sundry reasons that involve sandworms and space (of course).  And to keep him company through the eons, he resurrects one after the other after the other a series of “gholas” (read clones) of his faithful friend of the old days, Duncan Idaho.  And Duncan has some problems with this:

Leto had a name for this transformation of the Duncans.  He called it “The Since Syndrome.”

The gholas often nurtured suspicions about the secret things which might have been developed over the centuries of oblivion since they last knew awareness.  What had people been doing all that time?  Why could they possibly want me, this relic from their past?  No ego could ever overcome such doubts forever–especially in a doubting man …

“It’s not real,” Idaho said.  “I don’t belong here … I mean here, now!  In this time!”

Idaho swallowed, and then: “You’ve committed a crime against us, Leto, against all of us–the gholas you resurrect without ever asking us if that’s what we want … There’s a time, Leto, a time when you’re alive.  A time when you’re supposed to be alive.  It can have a magic, that time, while you’re living it.  You know you’re never going to see a time like that again.”

Leto blinked, touched by the Duncan’s distress.  The words were evocative.

Idaho raised both hands, palms up, to chest-height, a beggar asking for something he knew he could not receive.

“Then… one day you wake up and you remember dying…and you remember the axolotl tank…and the Tleilaxu nastiness which awakened you…and it’s supposed to start all over again.  But it doesn’t.  It never does, Leto.  That’s a crime!”

“I have taken away the magic?”


In other words, you can never go home again.

This is the kind of psychological distress Josie has to overcome in The Lancaster Rule–the incomprehensibility of total dislocation.  Plot twists and turns aside, this is the most compelling part of the novel for me, and a major aspect of Toppin’s excellent characterization.  T.K. Toppin confronts a classic SF conceit with insight, sensitivity, and a purely poetic writing style.

The Lancaster Rule is available as an ebook from Amazon for $6.0o.

Now Reading: Peace Warrior, by Steven L. Hawk

5 Dec

Now that ABC’s alien invasion drama V is coming back next month (Can I get a “John May Lives!”?), I’m preparing with a military SF novel called Peace Warrior, by indie author Steven L. Hawk.  From the Smashwords book description:

600 years after his death, SFC Grant Justice is re-animated by a team of scientists. Grant awakens to a civilization that has abolished war. A civilization that has outlawed violence and cherishes Peace above all else. A civilization that has been enslaved by an alien race called the Minith. Grant is humankind’s final hope against the alien menace. He must be… the Peace Warrior.

All the classic tropes of science fiction: time travel, alien domination, a really creepy future earth, and a lone renegade with a conveniently-apropos name.  There’s the possibility for cliche here, but also for a thoroughly interesting story: the classic tropes of science fiction, after all, are classic for a reason.

I’ll let you know.

Now Listening: The Shadow in Eternity

24 Nov

I have never seen a full episode of Dr. Who.  But I figured that, if I want to have any sort of SF street cred, I need to learn a little about it.  I did go to Wikipedia first, which showed me some pictures of a TARDIS and a link to the Guinness World Records (Dr. Who, it appears, is the longest-running science fiction show in the history of the world.  Pretty intense).

But it’s my experience that the best way to learn about something new is from an absolutely rabid fan.  Wordpress seems so have such a person in Ben Young, who has been writing a weekly Dr. Who fanfiction podcast called “The Shadow in Eternity.”  Rather than commentary on past or current episodes, Young created an entirely new storyline: one in which The Doctor is a woman.

Since holiday music kind of gets on my nerves (especially since it’s been playing since Halloween), I’ll be plugged into “The Shadow in Eternity” next month: it’s available on Ben Young’s blog, as well as on iTunes.

If you remember, last semester I took a class called “Twilight Zone Culture.” The basic premise of the course was that The Twilight Zone–in terms of popularity and reputation as a “classic” of science fiction, I see it as the American answer to Dr. Who–was ignored by censors because it wasn’t “serious.”  Thus, fantasy and SF slipped under the radar in the McCarthy era–allowing Rod Serling to make serious social commentary in the 1960s.  Young’s podcast interested me because he said something very similar about Dr. Who:

Doctor Who is also a great example of science fiction being able to make social and political comment because institutional censors dismiss it as insignificant (the Daily Mail recently noticed this; though it may have been a publicity stunt for the new series). The 2005 anti-Iraq war episode, for example, broadcast to millions the week before the UK General Election, was amazing.

Oh – and the OTHER reason is that I wanted to try to save what I loved about Doctor Who from the terrible writers and managers behind the current show. Arg!

With a female Time Lord and a pacifist “renegade alien” hero, let’s see what Dr. Who‘s all about.

“The Shadow in Eternity” podcast can be listened to on its website, downloaded from there, or found on itunes.  All links are on the home page.

Cheers to Moral Relativism

19 Oct

A sinister man in black sets fire to an abandoned doll factory, leaving behind as evidence a charred cell phone and a chess piece—a white queen.  And while the title “White to Play,” is itself a play on this chess reference, not much else is so clear in the second episode of ABC’s new series FlashForward.

In episode 3, Agent Janis Hawk raises her glass (sarcastically) to Benford’s bizarre standards of morality in dealing with an ex-Nazi informant, but episode 1.02 is probably a better place to start looking at legal/philosophical issues:

First of all, who’s playing white, and who’s playing black?  Chess is a game of strategy that hinges on a set of precise rules and pre-determined moves, and while there’s definitely something to the idea of determinism as it applies to supposed “visions” of the future, the post-vision/pre-April 29th world ofFlashForward is definitely a messy one.  And in terms of moral ambiguity, FBI agent Mark Benford is probably neither black nor white: just gray.

Mark has a big problem: in his vision, he’s working late in his office on an investigation involving these very visions.  He’s also drinking.  That’s definitely an issue for a man enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, with a wife who would leave him if he fell off the wagon again, and who herself had a vision of being with another man, in their home.  Messy?  Yes.  And it puts Benford in a difficult spot in regard to his own actions—

“At work I’m making moves,” he tells his wife Olivia (another chess reference there), “Betting the future’s gonna happen.  But here at home, with you, I’m praying it doesn’t.”

Olivia’s vision is clearly eating him up inside, no less because his own flash forward (which he hasn’t, by the way, told her about), if it comes true, could be a contributing factor to the events of hers, if they come true.

The constant caveats here are necessary—after all, nobody knows what the visions really were: pre-determined events? a possible future? a warning?  There really is no way of knowing until April 29, 2010 rolls around.  Olivia, for her part, considers her vision a warning—but Mark responds to her protestations that she’d never be unfaithful to him with a blunt: “The future’s happening.”

That leaves poor Mrs. Benford in the bizarre situation of being assumed to have no control over her own actions in the future, and yet still being held accountable for them.  “That’s not fair,” she insists, “You can’t punish me for something I haven’t done!”

And while this sort of logic might be just “unfair” in a domestic dispute, it could be downright illegal when used in a federal investigation—something that hasn’t yet occurred to Benford, his partner Demetri, or their superiors.

Can you investigate someone for a crime they haven’t committed—and might never commit?  (Benford: “We don’t know what ‘never’ means anymore.”)

In his vision, Benford saw a corkboard in his office filled with pictures, index cards, names, and other as-yet unidentifiable information.  One picture was of a charred doll among debris.  When on a stakeout for a suspect related to another piece of psychic evidence (the name “D. Gibbon”), Benford and Demetri spot an abandoned doll factory; besides the fact that an abandoned doll factor would probably be a rather creepy setting in general, the two agents have no reason to investigate—except, of course, Benford’s vision.  The debate over the legality of breaking and entering goes exactly like this:

Benford: “Do you think this [the vision] qualifies for probable cause?”

Keegan (local sheriff): “The county judge will.  He’s my father-in-law.”

Talk about circumstantial evidence.

The only person who truly raises the specter of illegality is Anastasia Markham, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.  But when she questions the validity of the investigation, she backs down after Benford comments: “If there’s another agency or office that had a vision of this investigation and has more information than we do, let me know.”

What amazes me, but doesn’t seem to shock many of the characters yet, is that there is no information.  The only “information” (such as it is) is Benford’s vision, and even that may come into existence onlybecause he’s seen it.  Throughout the episode, there’s a lingering question as to why exactly Benford’s vision keeps coming true.

He operates on the assumption that the future either will or will not happen (which is true), but he doesn’t question why.  Perhaps the very act of assuming it will happen and acting on those assumptionsmakes the future occur as he saw it.  Take the picture of the doll:

If Benford hadn’t seen the photograph in his vision, he wouldn’t expect to come into contact with a picture of a singed plastic toy, and so he wouldn’t have asked the crime scene photographer if he could look at the pictures, and wouldn’t end up with the picture on his corkboard.

By actively pursuing the “clues” in his vision, is Benford manufacturing evidence?

In the words of the sinister man in black (who, we learn, is also investigating causes of the blackouts)—“He who forsees calamity suffers them twice over.”

Is the white queen left behind by FlashForward’s computer-hacking Bobby Fisher his chess piece?  Is he the more ethical of the two investigators?  Or, if it’s “white to play,” are Benford and co. the good guys?  Because if they are—and that seems to be what the title implies—then it also means that black has already made the first move, and as any chess player knows, that ignores a basic chess convention.  It only goes to show—all rules are off.

This article was previously published (with some changes) on The Best Shows You’re Not Watching (dot com).  By me.  See the What’s On TV? tab for more television reviews and commentary.

Things to keep in mind while traveling backwards in Time:

1 Jun

Humanities majors are about to become indispensable.

Now I know that, especially in this economy, Humanities majors out there might be getting a lot of flak for studying subject matter that “isn’t going to get you a job” – and that’s probably among the kinder, more sensitive comments.  But just think: when time travel moves from the realm of science fiction to reality, historic and cultural experts are going to be just as important as scientists and engineers: after all, who would you most trust to get you out of an altercation with the Vandals in AD 455 Rome? (There’s a reason we call certain things vandalism, you know…)

If you’re doubting, time travel into the future is theoretically fairly straightforward (forgive me).  Consider:  An object traveling at high speeds ages more slowly than a stationary object. This means that if you were to travel into outer space and return, moving close to light speed, you could travel thousands of years into the Earth’s future.  And don’t forget some other famous doubters, like 1943 chairman of IBM Thomas Watson, who said:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”


In any case, going back in time gets more complicated– which is why I’ve prepared this guide to time paradoxes we travelers will inevitably face.  After all, you don’t want to accidentally kill one of your grandparents and prevent your own birth.

1. Grandfather Paradox

Actually, that (above) fear is really little more than a common misconception.  Assuming you go back in time and somehow kill one of your grandparents (before your parents or yourself can be born), you’ll probably still turn out all right in the future.  If you were never born, who went back in time and killed your grandfather?

But don’t go trying that just to prove me wrong– because you won’t be around to do so.

2. Ontological Paradox (Lost Season 5 spoilers!)

In philosophy, ontology is the study of the nature of existence, and this problem deals with how objects or ideas come into existence.  This clip from the brilliant, awe-inspiring, brilliant (I can’t say that enough) television show Lost provides a perfect example:

Basically– if George Lucas produces a script in 1977 which was written by Hurley from memory, then neither Lucas not Hurley actually originated the script or ideas contained therein.  So, the creator of “The Empire Strikes Back” does not actually exist.

3. Retrocausality

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s treatment of time travel provides an example of another paradox.  (for this clip, start at 3:00 and watch about a minute in from that point)

In this example, a cause from the future (the thrown pebble) leads to an effect in the past (the Golden Trio, as they say, leaving Hagrid’s hut).  So, Cause and Effect have been reversed.

4. Predestination Paradox  (Lost Season 5 spoilers!)

For the proponents of free will, this may be the most disturbing:

Everything in 1977 (“the past”) has already happened, even if Miles and Hurley can’t remember it (1977 is their “present”).  As the title makes clear– “Whatever Happened, Happened.)  So, nothing can alter the timeline.  In a word: determinism.

Although, Daniel Faraday might disagree…