19 May 2022

#Review - Someone in Time (ed Jonathan Strahan)

Someone in Time
Edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris, 12 May 2022
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786185099

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Someone in Time to consider for review.

This is a collection of stories of time-crossed lovers, by some major names in contemporary SFF - there are stories here by Alix E. Harrow, Carrie Vaughn, Catherynne M. Valente, Elizabeth Hand, Ellen Klages, Jeffrey Ford, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Margo Lanagan, Nina Allan, Rowan Coleman, Sam J. Miller, Sameem Siddiqui, Sarah Gailey, Seanan McGuire, Theodora Goss and Zen Cho.

As with any such collection, part of the fun was reading pieces by authors I hadn't encountered before, as well as recognising the styles and approach of some I was more familiar with, and seeing how those addressed the overall theme of the anthology. Blending time travel and romance sounds straightforward, but it's not just a matter of two time travellers (or a time traveller and a citizen of the past or future) falling for one another, is it? With the possibilities of forbidden knowledge from another timeline, or of losing a lover in the multiverse, or, with whole futures at stake, having to do the Right Thing, there is much to explore.

Among my favourites were Allan's story The Lichens, in which future time-adventurer Joe (Josephine) falls for Helen, a woman living at the time of Culloden. It has a sense familiar in her writings of taking part in a wider universe with various mysteries alluded to but left unresolved. I enjoyed Joe's and Helen's delicate dance around each other, expressed by each separately in the idioms of their own times which combine to create a narrative with emotional depth. 

Or there's Sam J Miller's Unabashed, or: Jackson, Whose Cowardice Tore a Hole in the Chronoverse, which is a story of a lost love, a young man who's lost his just-met boyfriend and sees through a whole life all the ways that things could have gone differently. More, he inhabits a myriad of possible worlds of regret and self-blame - a vivid way to bring to life those times when the multiverse tips and it's impossible inability to fix it. This reminded me of themes in Miller's forthcoming collection Boys, Beasts and Men

And in Ellen Klages' Time Gypsy, there's a glimpse of California in the bad old days as time travel enables a moment heroine to travel back to the 50s to unravel an issue of scientific attribution. It's so vividly imagined - both the casual sexism and homophobia, and the human connections that route around it. I simply love Klages' writing.

But really, all of the stories here are excellent. In Alix E Harrow's Roadside Attraction, I loved the idea that a working time "machine" - actually, a sandstone obelisk in a remote rural community in the US - could become one of those local attractions that brings in a trickle of tourists and has an extensively stocked gift shop. Such is the fate of the object here, which attracts Floyd Butler - heart not really broken by Candace Stillwater - to seek out adventure. The presence of time travel is almost incidental, simply providing a means of escape as Butler runs into increasing levels of danger rather than face what his heart is telling him. A beatifully imagined story, all the more so for the balance between the personal and the cosmic.

In a slightly different conception of time travel,  Zen Cho's The Past Life Reconstruction Service imagines a service that can immerse the subject in their own previous incarnations. It's time travel, but then again, it's not. Setting the scene, perhaps, for self-discovery rather than messing with the timeline (an issue many of the stories here have to navigate) we see Rui, a brilliant film director who is stymied creatively after the poor reception of his most recent film, distract himself by exploring past iterations of himself, taking in different genders, different periods of history, and even different species - in one iteration, he has the life of a cow. Each time, a perplexing presence appears - can that be telling him something?

Seanan McGuire's First Aid takes Taylor back in time for research purposes. It's a strictly one-way trip, intended to immerse the subject in her era so that she can bury notes for the future, and the prep is extreme - including surgery to help her blend in with the folk of Elizabethan England. You can't prepare for every eventuality, though, and surgery can't anticipate matters of the heart. This was a sweet story juxtaposing the grim near-future financial necessity which drives Taylor to do what she does and the possibility of fining something - someone - that can redeem her from it.

Moving from time exploration to the "Time Police" idea which had to feature here, Sarah Gailey's I Remember Satellites features a young woman being sent back for a "short straw" operation. You'll recognise the setting, though the names have been changed. It's a sacrificial assignment to change the the past - or, perhaps, prevent it being changed, but the reality of what's going on is less important than the dilemma here: the pull of love against duty as two young women, far away from home, weigh their passion against world-changing consequences.

The Golden Hour, by Jeffrey Ford, introduces its time traveller in the first sentence. Our narrator's encounter with him is slightly beguiling, allusive, taking place in a quiet town that seems to be nowhere in particular or perhaps, everywhere at once. It's a story of quite observation and the working out of a puzzle, whose nature isn't actually revealed until almost the end. 

Also among my favourites here, Elizabeth Hand's Kronia takes this sense of wonder, of having no firm ground, even further. It's a story that, read closely, seems to contradict itself, presenting alternatives and crossings over, enhanced by being written in the second person and therefore posing the question, is this being told to the Other or is it somehow hypothetical? Sometimes I thought it was one, sometimes the other, but the sense of possibility seems very apt for the story of a romance, or a potential one.

If I had to name an absolute favourite in this book it might well be Bergamot and Vetiver by Latanya Lakshminarayan. This none has it all. There is a hopeless quest for a lost love, a burning injustice to be resolved and a massive, irredeemable tragedy. We see a traveller from the - a - future visit a past, a past which, unknowing, she is bound to affect. Positing the advanced technology and knowledge advantage of the future as a potential source of exploitation, Bergamot and Vetiver is I think the story here that seems to question the whole ethical basis of time travel, not just point up its potential unintended consequences.

Catherynne M Valente's  The Difference Between Love and Time is very difficult to sum up. Of all the stories here, it's perhaps the most distinct, introducing us to "THE SPACE/ TIME CONTINUUM" as a character ('It is, as you have probably always expected, non-linear, non-anthropic, non-Euclidean, and wholly non-sensical'). It is also dangerous to fall in love with, or dangerous not to fall in love with, depending - in this surreal, Cubist painting of a narrative, all truths are true and all untruths as well, the beginning is the middle and the end, the beginning. 

Romance: Historical by Rowan Coleman was always going to delight me, because it's a story about a bookshop. Beth, a young assistant who wants nothing more than to disappear into the bookshelves, finds that something else got there first. You'll find no time machines or paradoxes here (well, not exactly any paradoxes) but instead rather a sweet romance, the more so for being clearly, hopelessly, doomed. Really enjoyable.

The Place of All the Souls by Margo Lanagan takes us both to a near future bless with longevity but perhaps cursed by infertility, and a Victorian past, linked by time travel, and is one of the few stories here that examines infidelity and jealousy as a daughter learns some truths about her mother. It rather splendidly illustrates the theme of love finding its way, as does Timed Obsolescence by Sameem Siddiqui which imagines a future where one can employ a time-traveller to go back and record a Significant Moment featuring an ancestor. But where there are employees there will be office romances, whether the employees are desk bound or ferreting back through the timelines.

In A Letter to Merlin, Theadora Goss gives us the real background to The Matter of Britain as a dying woman form the future endlessly revisits one corner of history - or mythology - seeking to change the timeline. But that aspect is actually almost incidental, what really impressed me here was what is only hinted at, an interior view of the whole fantastical tale of Arthur, Guinevere and Merlin which would make a cracking novel, I think. 

Carrie Vaughan's Dead Poets features one of the most inventive methods of time travel I can recall, although in a sense it's of a piece with several stories in this book that portray it as a mental exercise, rather than the creation of elaborate physics. That's in keeping with the theme of the story: 'The study of literature is the process of continually falling in love with dead people'. And how. The protagonist here follows her heart and in return, receives a wholly unexpected insight into one of the darkest love stories of history. Creepy, beautiful and entrancing, this one is simply glorious.

So - time travel as accident, as profession, as mental exercise; alternate timelines precious and to be preserved (until forbidden love says otherwise) or the subjects of manipulation and exploitation, love both attained and deferred, its object gloriously present or lost in a myriad of dimensions, realities and alternatives - they're all here, and much more. A collection that will get the pulse racing in place, or evoke a sigh in others. But always fun, readable and heartfelt.

For more information about Someone in Time, see the publisher's website here.

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