Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: March 2007

Review: Time and Again

Time and Again, by Jack Finney
7.5/10, a slow-starting but ultimately engaging time travel tale

Despite logical and scientific testaments to the impossibility of time travel, we continue to be fascinated by the idea that we can see the future and change the past. Wells’s original novel looked forward, not back, the product of a dawning age of science in which people were excited to see where the new technologies being developed would take us. Wells had a famously dystopian take on the new future, which is still tens of thousands of years away in the New York of 1970, where Finney’s Simon “Si” Morley begins his story.

Finney, like most modern time travel stories, looks back rather than forward. In 1970, the Industrial Revolution and Atomic Age in our past and the Information Age just a glimmer in the eye of a young future Senator from Tennessee, the country was mostly obsessed with the recent war in Vietnam. Finney, to his credit, doesn’t spend much time bemoaning the state of the world, but dives right into the introduction to the government project. The beginning is great cloak-and-dagger stuff, as Rube Prien comes to Si with a proposition: participate in a secret government project about which he can’t reveal any details. It’s a credit to Prien (and Finney) that he manages to believably convince Si to join the project.

The project is, of course, time travel. In keeping with the disillusionment with industry, time travel here is not accomplished by stepping into a machine, but is literally all in the time traveler’s head. Of course, it helps to have surroundings that exactly mimic the time and place he’s aiming for, so that he can get into the frame of mind that allows him to travel, but it is the traveler himself who makes the jump simply through hypnotic suggestion, believing he has traveled back to that time.

Si goes back to New York in 1882 with the aim of seeing a letter mailed, a letter which eventually led to the suicide of Andrew Carmody, a relative of his current girlfriend Kate. Witnessing the mailing leads to more questions, and Si soon finds himself enmeshed in an 1882-style web of blackmail, corrupt police, and murder.

Not soon enough, though. Finney pays great and meticulous detail to the features of 1882-era New York; indeed, this book would almost have read better as a historical account of that time and place. I suspect that residents of the Big Apple will be more interested in what’s become of Madison Park, or the Ladies’ Mile, than I was. There are a couple great moments where he emphasizes that the real essence of the time lies in its people, and several points where I was surprised at some of the things encountered in old New York.

The real beauty of this book, in fact, is its historical accuracy. I never doubted, in reading about the plots of farmland that Si sees on the island of Manhattan, that they were really there in our own past as well. Even so, there’s only so long I can be enthralled by a walking tour of old New York. When Si goes back again and becomes enamored of a young lady named Julia Charbonneau, I wondered what would become of Kate, but in fact Si gives almost no thought to her until he returns to the present.

The plot does get rolling eventually, and when it does, the book becomes much more engaging. The 1970 plot is looser than the 1882 plot, but even the wrenches thrown in at the end make sense, if only to drive the book to its inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, despite his misadventures in the past, Si comes to love 1882 much more than 1970, and that feeling is the heart of the book. Finney doesn’t gloss over the hardships of the late 19th century, but he does gloss over the benefits of 1970 life, dwelling more (in the short period when he does) on world wars, nuclear weapons, and the horrors of Vietnam.

For the theory of time travel alone, this would be a worthwhile book. The story is also well done, even if you end it from our perspective wanting to yell at Si, “Just stick around another twenty years.” Bear with it through the long description and you’ll be rewarded, amply.

Keep Reaching for that Ring

David Louis Edelman, an author I was unfamiliar with until today, writes about Five Things That Don’t Happen When You Become A Published Author. Good reading (and read his companion piece, Five Things That Do Happen).

Also, bonus link: the writing in this online comic Wondermark is brutally funny.

Multiplicity

I often have several projects going at once. That way, when I’m stalled on one, I can flip over to another and get something done without that feeling of frustration. The danger is that it may also be harder to make real progress on any of them, as I never accumulate that momentum that leads to seven or eight pages at a time just spilling out onto the page. But slow and steady wins the race, they say, and the key is to let one project take over when it wants to. Currently I’m working on a New Tibet story, as well as my next novel and a couple side projects, including a collaboration with a friend (the use of Google Docs is the subject of a whole other post).
I’m also cleaning up a couple stories for submission to small markets. One story went off this week to Omnidawn, the people who published the fabulist collection Paraspheres, which I discovered when it was reviewed next to Sofawolf Press’s Volle. I met the editors at a book reading and they are very nice people. We promised to keep in touch and I promised to send them a story. Finally, six months later, I kept that promise.
The other story went off a couple weeks ago to Amazon Shorts, a market that’s been very receptive to my stories. So hopefully those will amount to something.

Website recommendation: Wyrdsmiths. Some cool people there, and they talk about writing in much the same way that I’m trying to. Eleanor Arnason, of Ring of Swords, which I loved, is a contributor. I’ll add them to the blogroll at some point.

A Good Sign

Early on in Jack Finney’s novel “Time and Again“:

Our hero has been approached by a stranger who knows some things about him, like his birthday:

“So you know that, do you? Well, goody goody gumshoes.”
“It’s in your army record, of course. But we know some things that aren’t; we know you were divorced two years ago, and why.”
“Would you mind telling me? I never did figure out why.”
“You wouldn’t understand. […]”

Sometimes you just know a book is going to be good.

A Bi-Annual Tradition Coming To An End

This will be the last time I read the entire Harry Potter series with the wonderful anticipation of another installment coming at the end of it. Ever since “Goblet of Fire” came out in 2000, I’ve prepared for each new release in the series by reading all the preceding books, to be completely caught up.

It’s not just completism, though. The journey of rediscovery is such a joy with these books that I actually look forward to reading them all again, and I’m certain that even after book 7 comes out, I will do so from time to time. The excitement I felt at embarking back on book 1, and rediscovering the world of wizardry along with Harry for the first time, really surprised me this time around. I popped in the first CD of book 1 yesterday and couldn’t help but grin.

That’s what we’re all working towards, isn’t it? That’s what we’re aspiring to: a story that people will think of fondly, will perhaps re-read to recapture the same excitement it gave them last time they read it, a story that will bring a smile to people’s faces, or perhaps a tear to their eye, that will do it in such a genuine, heartfelt way that they will spend billions of dollars making you the richest woman in England. Whoops. Sorry, lost sight for a moment. But you get the idea: I want to write a book about which someone will write, ten years down the road, “I still pull it down and read it, and when I open the cover and turn to the first page, I’m already smiling.”

If I do that, I will be happy with my work. Thanks, and congratulations, Ms. Rowling. I’m off to rediscover your world.