Book Review: ChronoSpace – by Allen Steele

ChronoSpace is a gripping, entertaining, captivating time-travel science fiction novel.

Steele wrote and published this novel in 2001. I bought the book then, and somehow I managed to read some way into it before putting it aside, perhaps to make time for something else that was more important at the time. I recognized some of the early passages, so I knew I had read the book, but I could not remember much of the plot. Little did I know that I had such a good time-travel book, unread, in my boxes of paperbacks in the garage!

Dr. David Zachary Murphy works for NASA in Washington, D.C. in 1998. He is a life-long science fiction aficionado, and an aspiring science fiction writer, but he is not good enough at fiction to pull it off. Instead, he writes speculative articles on scientific topics in magazines. When he one day speculates that flying saucers might actually be time ships, filled with human time travelers, the gets more attention than he bargained for.

The story moves around between 1937 on the famous doomed Hindenburg Nazi airship, 1998 when Murphy writes his story, 2024 and 2314, from where humans are leaving for time travel excursions. We get to go on time trips with the travelers and see them from the perspective of the locals. We watch as the smallest mistake causes a paradox, which causes a larger paradox, which results in a massive change of the entire chain of world events, affecting every human being.

How to  fix that if you’re the one who made the mistake?

Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: The Door into Summer – by Robert A. Heinlein

Here is a classic misleading book cover. Yes, there is a cat central to the plot in this book. There are also several women, one villain, Belle, and one heroine, Ricky. I don’t know who the woman on the cover art is supposed to be.

Heinlein lived from 1907 to 1988 and is widely recognized as the most influential science fiction writer of the 20th century. His classic Stranger in a Strange Land is probably his most famous work, but there are many others, and I have read most of them. His science fiction always focused on character development, and he is one of the few authors who, besides creating engaging and intriguing science fiction plots, also got into the human side of life. His characters kiss, get naked and have sex. There seem to be nudists in many of his plots, and there are some key nudist characters in The Door into Summer.

The story starts in 1970. Dan Davis is a genius engineer involved in robotics. He loves his cat Pete. Dan starts a successful and revolutionary robotics company named Hired Girl. The company specializes in household robots. He is vastly successful. Then he decides to take the Cold Sleep, which is a cryogenic sleep, allowing the person to arrest all body functions and wake up at some time in the future. He decides to sleep until the year 2000.  But before he does, he sets his affairs in order. What he does not realize soon enough is that his fiancée Belle and his buddy Miles are screwing him out of his company. And so the plot runs.

I don’t know how I missed reading this book during my heyday of reading Heinlein in the 1980-ies, but I did. It’s a time travel story, and a great one at that. I enjoyed it for that alone.

But more of a crack-up was the fact that Heinlein wrote The Door into Summer in 1957. So when he made it play initially in 1970, he basically put the story into the near future, assuming some improvements in science and engineering, resulting in Dan being an engineer in robotics. So we see what Heinlein thought the near future would bring by 1970.

But then, he had Dan sleep for 30 years until 2000. For Heinlein, 2000 from the perspective of 1957 was 43 years in the future – utopia for all practical purposes. To have Dan travel into the year 2000 was going into a fantastic future.

This is particularly enjoyable to watch for me from 2011 – a full eleven years after 2000, when 2000 is actually a long time ago already.

You’ll have to read The Door into Summer to find out what Heinlein thought 2000 would be like, but I’ll make a few observations that don’t spoil the story. Here is one segment in chapter IX:

I could have saved time by hiring a cab to jump me to Riverside, but I was handicapped by lack of cash. I was living in West Hollywood; the nearest twenty-four-hour bank was downtown and the Grand Circle of the Ways. So first I rode the Ways downtown and went to the bank for cash. One real improvement I had not appreciated up to then was the universal checkbook system; with a single cybernet as clearinghouse for the whole city and radioactive coding on my checkbook, I got cash laid in my palm as quickly there as I could have gotten it at my home bank across from Hired Girl, Inc.

Obviously, there were no automatic teller machines in 1957, so Heinlein could not predict them. His view of the banking system in 2000 is hilarious. In his 2000, there are still typewriters, but electric ones. He misses cell phones entirely. People still have to walk to pay phones to make calls. There is no Internet or anything like it, except perhaps the cybernet above for banks. There are no personal computers, and there are few computers at all. Research is still being done at the library and by going through archives.

Dan is inventing robots that do housework. But the robots can only understand rudimentary English in 2000, like: Go, No, Yes, Give Me, etc. They cannot understand spoken language, and when they have a problem, they hand a card with a printed error message to the user. No screens. He is also inventing a drafting machine, some mechanical apparatus that does engineering drawings. No Autocad, no screens, no mouse, no computers.

Cars have not changed that much. Clothes have. People wear synthetic material called Sticktite which appears to be some thin material that is stuck to the body. This apparently does not leave much to the imagination in terms of sexuality. But I wonder how the less attractive people deal with it.

There is a Great Los Angeles, a Great Asia Republic, and England is a province of Canada!

Finally, to make the plot work, a physicist has discovered rudimentary time travel, with some pitfalls built-in. But you have to find out for yourself how that works.

Overall, the story was pure Heinlein, the science fiction engaging, but the most fun was to see how one of our great science fiction writers saw the far distant future of 2000, from the vantage point of 1957.

Rating: ***

Time and Again – by Jack Finney

Another time travel story, this time set in New York City. Finney published this book in 1970, so the present is pre-personal computers, although the first moon-landing had already occurred. The New York City of Finney’s present time is one I recognize at the New York City of my own youth. His story, of course, does not reference the twin towers of the World Trade Center, since they were not completed until 1973.

Similar to the way Christopher Reeve traveled back in time in the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time” by setting up an exact surrounding and setting his mind to the target time using hypnotic techniques, Si Morley, the protagonist of this story manages to travel back to New York of January 1882. Central to the story is also “The Dakota,” an apartment building on the west border of Central Park. Interestingly, the Dakota is today an exclusive apartment home. In 1980, John Lennon lived there when he was murdered outside of the front door. This is another fact that Finney could not have referenced, of course.

This is a different time travel story, insofar as there is no time machine at all, no technology to make it all happen. We get an in-depth view of life in New York in 1882, with some shocking imagery of poverty, brutally hard work, and the endless struggle to put food on the table, by the vast armies of the poor, as well as the privileged few in upper society.

For instance, a “driver” of a bus was a person that stood on the front platform of a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The passengers are in the bus, shielded somewhat from the elements. But the poor driver is outside, 14 hours a day, standing, driving horses, earning $1.90 a day.

Time and Again is full of descriptions of life in the 19th century in New York City, in rich detail, enough, you’d think, that you could time-travel there yourself.

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife – by Audrey Niffenegger

time-travelers-wifeThis book was the most delightful novel I have read in a long time. I give it four stars without hesitation. It is the kind of book where you are sad when it is over, because you miss the characters, the story and the world that it created for you. There aren’t many such books. Perhaps “The World According to Garp” was one of them; or “The Brothers Karamazov.”

It’s a true time traveling story, and I have an affinity for those. When I am in a bookstore and I pick up a book on time travel, whether it’s a science fiction novel or a non-fiction book about the subject, I usually do not have the strength to put it down. I buy it and I read it. Time travel has always fascinated me.

A few books of the genre I can recommend are Spider Robinson’s “Time Pressure” and Michael Crichton’s “Timeline.” Spider Robinson’s book inspired me to try my own pen at writing a book on the subject of time travel. For at least ten years I wrestled with the subject, searched for angles that would work for a novel, but never arrived at one I thought I could pull off. And here comes Niffenegger, with the perfect idea and flawless execution of the subject. Incidentally, Michael Crichton’s book is also a classic. Unfortunately, the popular movie with the same title, based on the book, did not turn out so successful, and if you saw it, it might color your perception of the book. Do not allow that to happen. Crichton did a wonderful job with Timeline. I highly recommend the novel.

But back to “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” There are two protagonists, Henry, the time traveler, and Clare, his wife. The story plays in the here and now, approximately the time of our lives, starting in the sixties, ending around 2007. The two main characters alternately narrate the story in the first person in the present tense. This is usually a difficult format for a novel to pull off successfully, but Niffenegger does it marvelously. When I think about it, the subject matter of time travel, where past, present and future are mixed, where it is difficult to maintain the chronology of a story line, if that is even possible, the present tense is about the only way to make it work.

Henry is seven years older than Clare. We know their year of birth. The narrative chapters always start out with the name of the narrator, the date and the respective ages of Henry and Clare. For instance, a chapter may start out as: Clare, November 15, 1995 (Clare is 25, Henry is 32). This shows us that they are living in their respective present times. Another chapter may start out as: Clare, July 1, 1985 (Clare is 15, Henry is 41). This shows that Henry is visiting Clare from 19 years in the future, since in the present he is only 22 when Clare is 15.

Through the book, we follow Clare through her life chronologically, but Henry shows up all over the place. He first appears in Clare’s life when she is a little girl of five years of age and he is a middle-aged man. This may all sound confusing, but Niffenegger does a wonderful job making it all plausible and within a very short time you get used to the strange perspective, time travel becomes commonplace and you follow the story for what it is, a neat extrapolation of the question: What would happen if time travel were possible?

There are some priceless concepts and scenes to elaborate on  them. I do not want to give away too many of them, but let me try one. Before I can explain, you need to understand that if a person can travel in time, there is nothing to stop him from visiting himself in the past or the future, for that matter. So he can be in one location two or more times. This happens quite frequently in this story.

When Henry is a teenager of age 16, he visits himself occasionally from just a few weeks or a few months in the future. So imagine two 16 year old Henrys with hormones raging. Since both Henrys are one and the same person, just a few weeks apart, they quickly figure out that they can partake in a unique form of masturbation by nonchalantly taking care of each other’s needs. Henry even states that this is quite convenient, and he is not homosexual in any way. It’s just a nice side benefit of time travel.

I could list many more such implausible situations that become completely acceptable once you start with the possibility of time travel, but I don’t want to spoil your reading experience. Niffenegger does a much better job in the book than I could ever do here.

So I recommend you buy this book and read it soon. It will also make a great present. A wonderful read, all the way from the first page to the last.

Rating - Four Stars