Time Travel: Dos and Don’ts

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Katie Khan’s second novel, The Light Between Us, has a number of intriguing premises. First, there’s the postgraduate theoretical physicist, Thea, who’s just been kicked out of Oxford for trying to prove that time travel exists – but not before plunging the university into darkness. Second, there’s her friend Rosy, who’s gone missing in time – and given that Thea doesn’t know where on earth she could be, it makes sense to see if she can find any trace of her in the historical records. Third, there’s Isaac, who hooked up with Thea when they were undergraduates, and might now be falling in love with her. But when they discover they are crossing through two parallel timelines, is he in love with the Thea he first knew or another version of her altogether?

Any one of these premises could make for a very good novel. The most obvious problem with The Light Between Us is that it tries to deal with all three of them – meaning that none of them are satisfactory. The biggest casualty of this overstuffed novel is Rosy. A few throwaway lines about friendship throughout the course of The Light Between Us indicate that it’s meant to be a central theme, but Rosy barely gets to appear in this book before she disappears again. And given that we’re told that Thea cares about Rosy so deeply, why does she seem to forget that she’s missing for great swathes of the story? This is partly due to the plotting, which feels rushed and incoherent. Thea’s idea to pursue Rosy through history is simply forgotten about when she finds an old painting that looks like her, which supposedly proves that she’s travelled through time. This then leads Thea to try and trace the painting, but this plot thread is also dropped as quickly as it began.

The way time travel is handled in this novel is also deeply problematic. Basically, I think you can write time travel fiction in one of two ways – make it clear that you don’t care and it’s all for fun, and so introduce lots of paradoxes and logical holes for the sake of the plot (Back to the Future, Doctor Who) – or make it coherent and consistent (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The Light Between Us wants its time travel to be coherent, but it doesn’t make sense at all. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail about all the things that are wrong with it, but in short, it’s a jumble of random explanations and obviously bolted-on fixes for any reasonable questions that characters ask.

The sad thing is that, even if all the time travel material had been utterly logical – or if Khan had decided to make it deliberately illogical – The Light Between Us still fails on its own terms. The novel is so stuffed with these hasty explanations of why everything happened that the characters have no time to breathe. The relationship between Thea and Isaac seems to consist almost entirely of her info-dumping stuff in his direction. Khan clearly wanted to go for something like her far superior Hold Back the Stars, which centred emotion, rather than science, but The Light Between Us lacks heart.

[Minor nitpickiness. The writing also feels sloppy because of Khan’s neglect of small details. For brevity, I’ll just give one example. At one point, Thea and Isaac start researching portraits of Lady Margaret Beaufort. They don’t know who she is, and find out that she founded Christ’s and St John’s at Cambridge. Both characters comment that if they had been to Cambridge, rather than Oxford, they would know who she was instantly, and so it’s a shame they didn’t go to Cambridge. This struck me as… unlikely as nobody at Cambridge knows that Lady Margaret Beaufort founded Christ’s and John’s, but at Oxford she actually has a college named after her… Lady Margaret Hall… where her portrait hangs in the dining hall… This did make me lose patience with the book a bit.]

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 9th.

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Kate Mascarenhas’s exhilarating debut, The Psychology of Time Travel, also wants to make its time travel coherent and consistent. The difference here is that Mascarenhas knows what she’s talking about. It’s rare to come across a time travel novel that handles its chronological jumps so carefully and yet is so relatively simple to follow chapter-by-chapter (while I loved the machinations of Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earthat a certain point I just had to admit I couldn’t follow the plot), especially one aimed, as this is, at a more mainstream audience. Four female pioneers – Grace, Estelle, Barbara and Margaret – invent time travel in 1967. After the first set of experimental trips, Barbara has a mental breakdown, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and banned from the project. Meanwhile, in 2017, Barbara’s granddaughter Ruby receives a newspaper clipping about the death of an elderly woman, while in 2018, Odette, a museum cleaner, discovers the woman’s unidentified body.

As the title suggests, much of the originality of this novel lies in Mascarenhas’s take on what time travel could do to the way people think. In this world, time travel is confined to the select few who work for the ‘Conclave’, and not only formal psychological tests, but informal and vicious hazings, are required to gain admittance to the programme. Once a candidate is selected to become a time traveller, their life takes on a very different shape. Their ‘green’ or younger selves and ‘silver’ or older selves constantly criss-cross through their timeline, and, Mascarenhas suggests, death ceases to have much meaning for them as they are able to visit those who have died whenever they want to. As one time traveller beautifully puts it near the end of the novel: ‘Whenever I visit my father, the trees in his garden are young again, and so is heI will never take that for granted.‘ On the other hand, this corporate culture can lead to callousness and brutality towards ordinary people, or ’emus’, those who have to trek through time in a straight line. Mascarenhas is also interested in how mental illness manifests itself in this discontinuous world, with one minor character suffering from an eating disorder where she can only bring herself to eat by travelling back to the exact time of her birth.

The Psychology of Time Travel is consistently engaging, packed with interesting, thought-provoking ideas about time, mental health and love. However, I found that the novel was more intellectually absorbing than emotionally moving, despite the poignancy of the subject-matter. Mascarenhas wants to fit so much in that we constantly jump from character to character; her cast doesn’t seem shallow at all, but we just don’t have enough time to spend with the main protagonists to get to know them in the way we might like. Unlike The Light Between Us, I was never confused by the story, despite the multiple, intersecting plot lines, which speaks to Mascarenhas’s skill as a writer, but it all seemed to happen too fast. I wanted to know more about life in the laboratory with the early pioneers, about Margaret’s hold over the Conclave, more about Grace and the significant romantic relationship that she develops with another female character, more about Estelle full stop. Indeed, I’d love to read a related novel set in this world. Whether or not that’s something Mascarenhas wants to write, I’ll definitely be reading her next book.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s also out in the UK on August 9th.

5 thoughts on “Time Travel: Dos and Don’ts

  1. I found Katie Khan’s first novel exasperating and dull, so this just makes me think I was right in that (LOL at the Lady Margaret stuff, LMH is literally the first thing I think of). Mascarenhas’s was one I tried to read in proof and just couldn’t get into. Partly, I think, the material about the Conclave’s hazing culture was introduced in a way that seemed awfully heavy-handed; partly it was what you say about the lack of time we spend with each character. It wasn’t a book I desperately wanted to put down, but it wasn’t a book I desperately wanted to keep reading either

    Liked by 1 person

    • Khan was unlucky with LMH – I worked there for two years and ate lunch regularly underneath said portrait – but yes, this confirms my instinct that anyone who went to Oxford would at least be aware of its existence! I liked her first novel more than you did, but there were definitely lots of inconsistencies and things that didn’t add up there as well.

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  2. Pingback: The Literary Fiction Book Tag | Laura Tisdall

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