Saturday, January 26, 2019

saving history

1912, Atlantic Ocean

'Anyone left here on deck E?' cried Liam O'Connor. His voice echoed down the narrow passageway, bouncing off the metal walls. 'Anyone down here?'

It was silent save for the muffled cries and clatter of hasty footsteps coming from the deck above and the deep mournful creak of the ship's hull, stressing and stretching as the bow end of the ship slowly dipped below the ocean's surface.


That's how it starts. Three teenagers from various places and times come together in New York/2001. Time travel technology was invented in 2056, but the effects are disastrous. The TimeRiders' mission is to police time, to detect attempts to interfere with it and to counteract them. To save history. They must do this even though by 2026 (Sal comes from Mumbai/2026) it's apparent that the world is in steep decline, its environment poisoned.

It's Kramer, the villain of volume 1 who tries to change this history of decline, by gifting 21st century technology to the Nazis in 1941 so that they win the war and impose an authoritarian world order, with the intention of reining in human self-harm. But of course the villain's hubris and paranoia undoes him, and in 1957 (now himself Fuhrer) he changes his mind and decides it's best to destroy the world instead.

Much of the book takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland peopled only by starving cannibals, while against all odds the TimeRiders seek a way to regroup and resurrect enough technology to travel to 1941 and roll back to History 1.0 .


I can't review TimeRiders. I've read hardly any other science fiction and hardly any other books aimed at teenage readers. But I did enjoy it and I have a lot of admiration for Alex Scarrow's creation.

These books are material-greedy and he draws it from a vast array of popular sources.  Some of them were recognizable even to me, for instance Cormac McCarthy's The Road in those post-apocalyptic cannibals. And in that opening scene, too, what's evoked isn't so much the historical as the cinematic Titanic. Scarrow is fascinated by the potential of time-travel into the past to utterly transform the present, a theme developed in Ray Bradbury's 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder".

Scarrow's aims require breakneck functional writing for the most part, but every so often he stuns us with a graphic image, in the best traditions of noir and Marvel comics.

(A winter evening in Nazi Washington DC/1957) Dull vanilla lights flickered beyond drawn curtains... a wet handful of mushed cardboard...soft pattering of sleet...

(After an attack) Then silence except for the rasping sound of her and Maddy's breath, the distant repetitive drip of moisture from somewhere above and the sound of an enamel mug rolling back and forth across the floor. 'Oh my God,' exhaled Maddy...

(About to be liberated from prison camp) A row of jagged holes suddenly stitched its way across the thin plywood walls of his hut, sending a shower of wood splinters on to the floor and leaving a line of pale sunbeams lancing through the air.


Teenage fiction seeks both to represent and to engage in the debates of its readers. From the fresh perspective of adolescence this is usually a debate about values.

The values of TimeRiders are a mix. Anyone who reads it will be confronted with an eye-opening global perspective on global problems. It's right-minded in a progressive sense, so far as it promotes gender and race equality and laments environmental loss (though of course poisoned dystopias make great settings for action). Nationalism and religion are viewed as somewhat comical preoccupations that are strange to our heroes.

Yet TimeRiders is profoundly anti-revolutionary. It's the villain, not the heroes, who wants radical change, and the message is clear that such idealistic people are unconsciously driven by their own egos and display an inhuman lack of respect for the lives, opinions and cultures of other individuals.

 In contrast, the TimeRiders respect what is. There's a strong emotional pull towards the comforting normality of double cheeseburger and fries in New York (even Liam doesn't take long to adapt to this normality, though its details are new to him).

Of course it makes a difference that the TimeRiders are children while Kramer is a forty-ish adult. In this first volume the TimeRiders have their own adult sage/lore-giver/teacher (Foster) who is passing on the baton to them [an idea that goes at least as far back as the vampire-hunters in Bram Stoker's Dracula]. The team are notably compliant, even though Foster is refreshingly pictured as a quite fallible leader. At some level the TimeRiders have an emotional need for a parent and for a narrative that gives meaning to their existence. (Although, as usual in adventure stories, the heroes are liberated from the encumbrance of real families.)

And it's no surprise that self-realizing local emotional attachment (loyalty, love) is presented as the deepest value of all. I haven't so far mentioned that the team also includes a "meat robot" called Bob. Bob's brain is an AI supercomputer and is meant to be rigorously logical. The result is often comic. Bob, recalling Spock in Star Trek, has a small human component and occasionally observes mysterious influences on his thinking: "Is this what they call friendship?"  But of course it's usually the human heroes who, at crucial stages of the plot, stand up for emotional attachment in preference to logic and its utilitarian weighing of probabilities ("I'm not leaving without him!"). And this stand on attachment is always validated in the end. Abstract considerations are always trumped by human warmth, by the conviction that your mates come first.

It's a conviction that has been key to the marvellous and terrible success of our species, even though it often leads us to kill other humans who are not our mates. It may yet lead to us drowning in our own sludge.



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