Friday, September 03, 2010

Book Review: No Enemy But Time

Michael Bishop
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I do so love a good time-travel story.

In this one, a top-secret 1980s U.S. Air Force experiment sends the main character, Joshua Kampa, back to Paleolithic East Africa – the time and place of his lifelong recurring dreams.

The book is told in two alternating streams. One stream is Joshua’s back story, which fills you in on his birth in Spain, abandonment by his birth mother, adoption by USAF personnel, and education in the United States, right up to the point where he gets chosen for his time-traveling mission. The other stream is the story of Joshua’s present, in which he is sent two million years back in time, meets up with a group of Homo habilis and lives with them for almost two years.

To get the negatives out of the way first: I did find the last part of the novel a little unsatisfying (from the time Joshua decides he wants to leave the Paleolithic on through to the end of the book). It suddenly picks up tremendous speed and then stops with a whump. I was expecting either more resolution of outstanding issues or fewer new outstanding issues raised so close to the end. But this end section is a very small portion of the book.

The ending also has a little bit of deus ex machina to it. But, to Bishop’s credit, he comes right out and admits as much to the reader.

I also had a little bit of a problem buying Bishop’s mechanism for time travel. The idea is that a tiny number of people in the world have the gift (or curse) of extremely visceral recurring dreams about a single particular place and time, like pre-Columbian South Dakota or Dachau in the 1940s. Often they have had this dream “attunement” since childhood. A scientist in the Air Force has developed a machine that will tap into the unconscious of these dreamers and allow them to physically appear in the place and time of their vision. I realize that time travelling is thin in and of itself, but having the vehicle be driven by the chrononaut's dreaming ability seemed a bit thinner than thin.

If you can get over these drawbacks, which really are minor, you’re in for a very good read. The way Bishop writes it, life in the African savannah two million years ago was scary and brutal but also beautiful. The details of early hominid group behavior were completely believable to me. I liked how Joshua changed as he learned more about the individual "habilines" in his group, was accepted by them, and grew to love them. As with the characters in The Doomsday Book, I grew to have a lot of respect for Joshua’s Paleolithic friends and the way they dealt with the world without 21st-century knowledge and technology. By the end I felt like his present-day family and co-workers were less sympathetic, less sensitive, and less interesting than the prehistoric ones (which I think Joshua would have agreed with).

And the aforementioned dreamer-as-pilot setup did provide an excellent way around the Grandfather Paradox – the chance that you could change something in the past that would royally screw up the present. Because the Earth moves around the sun, and our solar system moves within its galaxy, and our galaxy moves within the universe, the location of Earth as it was in the past is somewhere far, far away in space. With Bishop’s mode of time-travel, the chrononaut is sent back to the time and geographical location of his attunement, but not back to its spatial location. So Joshua is sent back in time to the paleolithic but remains in the same spatial location as his present Earth – making it technically a different past, a “simulacrum” of the actual Paleolithic. That way, there is no danger of him going back in time and stepping on a butterfly or killing his own grandfather or any of the other innumerable paradoxes one could imagine.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails