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Spicing traditional realism with enchantments of popular page-turners
September 4, 2014 6:33 PM   Subscribe

"The weakness underlines the biggest trap of time machine fiction: with its emphasis on patterns and symbols, it's always in danger of devolving into a kind of interpretative game, a lit-crit mystery whose meanings must be decrypted rather than naturally perceived. Authors unbounded by time are susceptible to the allures of omniscience, which can turn their characters into puppets and snuff out the lifelike vitality of the realist tradition." Sam Sacks at Prospect Magazine writes about the rise of time machine fiction.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (36 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Get to the time capsule, Virginia Woolf - we've got to go save *a party*."

/a Morlok sinks it's fangs into the Time Traveller's boot, Woolf batters it with a brick from her pocket.
posted by Artw at 6:59 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Oooh, timely intervention of science: Principles of Quantum Mechanics could resolve the Grandfather Paradox. Don't worry fiction writers, your protagonists can time travel as long as you write them as a superposition of probabilistic states (a fez would probably help too).
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:30 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Woolf batters it with a brick from her pocket.

TOO SOON
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:38 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


So, this isn't an article about time travelers in novels, but an article about novels that use a broad expanse of time to interweave stories that somehow comment on each other.

That's an important distinction.
posted by hippybear at 7:51 PM on September 4 [9 favorites]


Aw man. And I was all set to come in here and stump for Pirate Freedom as my favorite late Wolfe novel.
posted by Iridic at 8:29 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Does Ken Grimwood's Replay count as a time travel novel? Discuss.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:51 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


That's an important distinction.

"It's a literary device - I don't know tech stuff, something about convergence and divergence. All I know is we need to get back to 1935 and stop a sweary letter being sent."
posted by Artw at 9:01 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Does Ken Grimwood's Replay count as a time travel novel? Discuss.

I have a lot of love for Replay. I haven't read it in a while, and I probably should re-read it with (my now admittedly) more mature eyes. It's a pretty fascinating exploration of the subject of choices in life.

And no, I don't think it counts as the kind of novel which is being mentioned in this essay, which is about novels which use several stories in parallel across various time periods and interweaves them in a way which ties them together in a way that the reader can puzzle out and draw deeper meaning from.

I also don't think it counts as a time travel novel.
posted by hippybear at 9:14 PM on September 4


Aw man. And I was all set to come in here and stump for Pirate Freedom as my favorite late Wolfe novel.

Mine is Soldier of Sidon.
posted by grobstein at 9:20 PM on September 4


time is just nature's way of preventing everything from happening all at once.
posted by bruce at 9:45 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Mine is Soldier of Sidon.

Do the Latro books count as late? I guess, given that literary time is nonlinear, the view is valid.

I actually came in here to make a crack about how the introduction of time travel elements into post TNG Trek undermined character growth and development, but um... never mind.
posted by mwhybark at 10:22 PM on September 4


"I'm Woolf, Sergeant, Tech-Com, DN38416. Assigned to protect you, Julia Child. Do you know what a 'blog' is?"
posted by Artw at 10:53 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Soldier of Sidon is recent(ish) - 2006. The first two are much earlier. TBH, I reluctantly gave up on Wolfe after the Wizard Knight books but should I make an exception for Pirate Freedom?
posted by crocomancer at 4:25 AM on September 5


I'm afraid.
posted by sammyo at 5:19 AM on September 5


I would personally date "late Wolfe" as starting with the Short Sun novels, although I could see an argument for The Wizard Knight novels.

Unfortunately, I don't think he's very good anymore. There were earlier Wolfe novels I didn't much care for - Free Live Free, for example - but they were well crafted. I think he is losing his craft.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:44 AM on September 5


Do you mean to include the Short Sun books? I found them to be intricate and beautiful like the earlier work. Sidon too. I also read Home Fires, which was written in a much plainer style (although I think there was still a lot there).

Wolfe has said that he has started aiming for easier reading, which is a little disappointing given what he's capable of. But I have enjoyed the recent work a lot.
posted by grobstein at 5:49 AM on September 5


I'm on the edge about the Short Sun books - on the one hand I think there is still a lot in them, but I felt they got quite preachy and relied too much on funny accents for characterisation. When I re-read the *-Sun books I stopped after Exodus.
posted by crocomancer at 6:09 AM on September 5


I did mean to, yes. I find the New Sun amazing and wonderful, Long Sun lesser but still very interesting, Short Sun very meh.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:21 AM on September 5


> Authors unbounded by time are susceptible to the allures of omniscience, which can turn their characters into puppets and snuff out the lifelike vitality of the realist tradition.

Anyone interested in this stuff (outside the confines of sf) would do well to get hold of Gary Saul Morson's Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which I've just started but is one of the most fascinating things I've seen on how literature deals with fate, determinism vs. free will, etc.—Morson considers Russian authors particularly resistant to the deterministic implications of authorial control over their characters' fates.
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


...but should I make an exception for Pirate Freedom?

I think it's the most successful of his late attempts at putting shiny surface appeal over arcane Wolfean mechanics.

On that surface, Pirate Freedom is just a cracking adventure novel with a seemingly gratuitous time travel element. But there are little ambiguities and unanswered questions here and there; intrusions from below of a second, deeper story. The time travel proves to be very relevant, both as plot engine and as metaphor for the nature and influence of evil.
posted by Iridic at 8:03 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


(Also, there are no submissive Japanese fox-girls in Pirate Freedom, which raises it seven thousand heads-and-shoulders over The Sorcerer's House.)
posted by Iridic at 8:07 AM on September 5


Can I just say that I was reading this thread as some kind of alternate reality riff on possible Virginia Woolf SF novels, based on the first comment, until I realized that the spelling of the other author's last name was different?
posted by hippybear at 8:24 AM on September 5 [8 favorites]


Someone should write a time machine novel (per the OP's definition) with four interleaved narratives following the careers of Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Woolf, Gene Wolfe, and Tom Wolfe. You could call it Wolfe Haul.
posted by Iridic at 8:29 AM on September 5 [6 favorites]


Main protagonist is Wolf Blitzer.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:34 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


I hope it will include the bit where Wolfe (G) invents the machine for making Pringles.
posted by crocomancer at 8:34 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


It would be sort of like Peace I think.
posted by grobstein at 8:41 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Does Ken Grimwood's Replay count as a time travel novel? Discuss.

Yes. Is this a trick question?

Back to TFA: The author's description of these books as "time machine novels" is confusing. Something like "parallel storylines" might make more sense. I'm surprised he didn't mention Cunningham's The Hours, which seems like a pretty popular paradigm case for this sort of book.

I'm also not sure I would put Possession in the same category. Possession, while one of my favorite books, seems to fit into a genre of books that you might call "really cold case mysteries" or something -- books in which modern protagonists solve hundred-year-old mysteries. Seems like these sorts of books are ubiquitous nowadays. Something like Katherine Neville's The Eight is an excellent example.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:56 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Yeah, there is (to my mind) no way in which Possession involves time travel. It has plot strands in both past and present, but no one actually goes back to Victorian England.

Yes. Is this a trick question?

No, it's not a trick question. I see Replay as an edge case - the protagonist relives his life from earlier points, but in an idiosyncratic way that's more like "re-set the clock" than "travel back to different place." I'd be open to it be classified either way.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:10 AM on September 5


Fair enough. It's not literally a time travel novel in the sense that the mechanism of time travel is not overt or explained. But I think it's a time travel novel in the sense that the protagonist's consciousness (or whatever) does in fact travel in time, which is enough for me.

Either way, it's a great friggin' book.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:15 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Does Ken Grimwood's Replay count as a time travel novel?

OK, I'm game for this derail, this is a favorite novel of mine: yes, yes it does. Because the protagonist's experience is linear even though his objective time is just looping. He is time traveling, even if his body is not.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:20 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm just literal-minded, but I don't think "time machine fiction" is a good name for fiction that does not include time machines.
posted by ckape at 9:37 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


You could call it Wolfe Haul.

Or a literary tontine-based timebender called A Pact of Wolfes.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:38 AM on September 5


I don't think "time machine fiction" is a good name for fiction that does not include time machines.

True, but I've never heard the genre referred to that way (outside of this post). It's customarily called "time travel fiction," isn't it? Sometimes the mechanism is a literal machine, sometimes not, but the salient part of the stories is mostly the time travel rather than the means.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:49 AM on September 5


The fiction itself is the time machine, like it's all Grant Morrison and shit.
posted by Artw at 10:00 AM on September 5


LooseFilter, it's not time travel fiction either, because no one is actually traveling in time (literally or figuratively). It's just fiction with multiple storylines happening at different periods of time, right?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:57 AM on September 5


See also New relativistic paradoxes and open questions by Florentin Smarandache.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:55 PM on September 6


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