Friday, 4 April 2008

Triangulation: End of Time, ed. Pete Butler

It’s often said that there are no new ideas left for science fiction writers to explore. It’s a problem raised by D.K. Latta in his story “Conversation in an English Pub”. The solution he offers is oddly brutal: travel back in time and murder pioneers like Wells and Shelley so that later aspiring authors can discover time travel and reanimated corpses for themselves.

Certainly the time travel concept is a well-trodden path for speculative writers, but that has not stopped the authors of the anthology Triangulation: End of Time from setting out along its muddied ruts in search of original conceits.

Beneath a slightly over-cooked cover (it resembles the inelegant design of a scientific textbook – from a distance you might mistake it for a exam revision guide aimed at students enrolled on a BSc in Time Travel), we find repeated attempts to wring some original speculative thrills from the well-squeezed notion of time travel.

A man conducts an affair with his wife when she was a younger, more attractive woman. There are extravagant, baffling worlds where jumping backwards and forwards in time has become as convenient as setting your iPod to shuffle, and which are in danger of collapsing under the weight of their own time-paradoxes. The contradictions inherent in the notion of time-travelling are dealt with lightly or exuberantly dismissed.

Not all the stories plump for time-travel. The stated theme is “End of Time”, so there are millenarian stories too, with apocalypses to suit all tastes, the most memorable being “America is Coming!”, in which the entire continent of North America breaks loose from its moorings and careers around the globe, destroying all in its path. Two Italian chancers attempt to hitch a ride on the errant landmass, only to discover that the US population have entered suspended animation for reasons that are never made clear.

If this is a metaphor for US Foreign Policy disasters (a blindly destructive nation populated by the somnolent), it’s a weak one, but perhaps I’m reading too much into this. What really makes the story stand out is the genuine sense of drama in the protagonists’ struggle to ground their boat on a moving shoreline. I’d be very surprised if author Dario Ciriello had not navigated some rough seas himself. What surprises me more is that I found the account genuinely gripping: I usually abhor tales of seafaring derring-do. For some reason the moment an author mentions jibs and yardarms, my eyelids grow heavy. Patrick O’Brian will never find a place on my bookshelf. Is that such a terrible shame? Possibly.

Then again, nor can I ever normally bring myself to read novels by authors who are still alive, or abridged versions, or books with movie tie-in covers, or books with notes scrawled in the margins, although books with the names of previous owners written inside the front cover are good. Once I found an invitation to a cocktail party in a second-hand copy of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. The party had taken place in Brighton in 1965. I think that if I could go back in time, I would attend that cocktail party, and find out whose book that was, and what they thought of it. I wonder what they would say if I told them that in the future, the same Colin Wilson would pen a series of novels about giant spiders taking over the world. Perhaps that would make a good short story.

Triangulation: End of Time, ed. Pete Butler, PARSEC Ink, pb, 155pp, ISBN 978-0-6151-5280-6.