The Time Traveler’s Wife – Recap

And that was May. May’s book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the second (but not the last) book from 2003 we’re reading this year as part of a chronological exploration of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade which we are reading here at Torque Control over the course of 2011.

I looked at three of the book’s major elements: its wonderful inhabitation of the landscape of the greater Chicago area; the way in which the central couple strive for as much of a “normal” life as they are able to; and the book’s uneasy, if necessary, dabbling in the degree to which free will exists.

Thank you to all who joined in reading or re-reading this book.

Discussion: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Normality), and Part 3 (The Decline of Free Will).

Some other recent reviews
Beckah Cubed
Sherry Helms at Print Asia
Ellen Stodola on The Celebrity Café
Highlight of my Day
The Pegster
In My Books
 

The Time Traveler’s Wife – The Decline of Free Will

The role of free will is a challenge which any good time travel story at least acknowledges.  In some stories, the effect of time travel leaves ripples of effect on the future, radically altering that future. In others, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, a sliver of the future or the whole of the past has already been experienced. It will happen as it was always going to have happened, but the only way to make sure it does is to fail to give major spoilers.

Really, there are two major time travelers in this book. Henry, whose chronology is scattered across the past and future, but is primarily in the progressing present; and Clare, whose chronology is sequential, and who therefore knows about aspects of Henry’s future because they already happened in her past. Each is capable of, and generally avoids, giving away what the other’s future holds. But they regularly warn each other, or themselves, anyways, as when a future Henry tells Claire, “[I]t’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996. You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”(157)

The book also notes moments, such as New Year’s Eve parties, in which they, in effect, time travel together (in that case, from one year to the next), but Henry never really focuses on them as a normal human kind of time travel because his experience of it is so radically different.

(Henry) “Such decadence. It’s only 9:15.”

(Clare) “Well, in a couple minutes, it’ll be 10:15.”

(Henry) “Oh, right, Michigan’s an hour ahead. How surreal.”(161)

Henry is only so self-aware once, when he gets a haircut: “I’ve become the me of my future”, he thinks. (253)

As a sop to inevitability, a few parts of the book are spent debating free will. They must voluntarily choose to do what they have always already done. Henry wonders if it’s more specific than that:

“I was just talking about that with a self from 1992. He said something interesting: he said that he thinks there is only free will when you are in time, in the present. He says in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.”

“But whenever I am, that’s my present. Shouldn’t I be able to decide—”

“No. Apparently not.”(58)

And yet, having occasionally already seen himself do things in the future, he is also bound there to do them, or have them happen to him. That apparent free will cannot contradict the end of his story.

His likely ending is a gently looming element through much of the book which means, as he knows more about the how, why, and when, it loses much of the impact it might have had in some other book. We, following Henry, had not yet experienced his death directly, but it is a resolution so dependent on the natural of his time traveling such that it could never have happened that way to anyone else. It feels quick, cruel, arbitrary, and inevitable. And arbitrary and inevitable are, as concepts, uneasy together. His letter to Clare moved me in a way his ending could not.

I admire so much about The Time Traveler’s Wife and am absolutely delighted that I finally read it, thanks to this project.  It has wit, affection, an extraordinary love story, and a meticulously-constructed intersection of two complicated, rich timelines. It used its cultural references lightly but evocatively. There are subplots whose purpose I did feel were wholly integrated (Ingrid, Alicia), and an ending too telegraphed to bring home the impact it ought to have had. The journey, not the destination, was the masterful accomplishment.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Normality

The back of my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife tells me it’s about “Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives”. I don’t often find insight through blurbs, but the more I think about this one, the more true it is.

Normal, everyday life as a dominant theme and setting for a book is, in my experience, a very rare beast in science fiction. Disruption, change, alteration of status – that’s the plot motivator for most of the genre; indeed, that’s the basic model for what a plot is. In contrast, this is a book where disruption is the constant and the attempts at normalization is the adventure, not just in an end-goal kind of way, but in all the little interactions along the way.

Looking over my shelves, I can’t see any other book quite like it, structurally. Lifelode comes close, in the way it treasures normality (and features ghosts from other times and places), but even that builds its crises around external intrusions.

The Time Traveler’s Wife begins when Henry meets Clare. Not vice versa, for she has known him, talked to him, learned from him all her life; at least, older, time traveling instances of him. Then we see her meeting him for the first time; again, he knows exactly who she is because he is from the future when he meets her for her first time. The story is not usually so scattered: it generally follows Clare’s timeline, her encounters with Henry and her waiting for him, getting on with the tasks of life.

The fragmentation of their timelines means that each of them must keep major secrets from the other in order to allow the other as much normality as possible. Each knows elements of the other’s future that they do their best to allow the other to discover through living, not telling, when that future becomes the present. Degrees of estrangement,  both literal and metaphorical, lie at their relationship’s heart.

Time travel is a kind of genetic defect for Henry, a physical impetus in his life akin to epilepsy, and to a large extent, they can deal with it as a disability. He looks after himself, running, fast and for miles, every  day. It’s self-defense training since he never knows when he’ll suddenly end up somewhere else in place and time,  naked and in danger. (Time travel is involuntary, and he can bring nothing with him, not even a filling.) Eventually, he has regular appointments with a doctor, trying to help him regularize his timeline or at least reduce triggers. Specific stresses or flickering lights are most likely to trigger an episode. Henry mostly manages to hold down a regular job, but his co-workers know there’s something not quite usual about him, a psychosis which drives him to nakedness in the book stacks apparently.

Normality, or at least the semblance of it, is hard work.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Chicago

What is it about Chicago and oddball science fiction genetics? This month, it was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Last month, for me, it was Richard Powers’ Generosity.

Generosity posits a bleak Chicago, full of the deep, dreary, grey wells formed by towering buildings, autumnal greyness, dysfunctional winter. When a winter storm brings the city to a halt, the joy of experiencing its midwinter glitter is abbreviated by the drudgery of dealing with iced-up reality. Mostly, however, Generosity bears its sense of place as backdrop. The city itself is not, in effect, a character in the book. Not the way the woman with the covetable genes is.

Niffenegger, on the other hand, clearly holds deep affection for Chicago, even if it is bitterly cold in the winters of the Windy City. Winter, in her Chicago, is more lethal, in its way, but leavened by parties, meetings, adventures.  Life goes on amidst the cold outside in the dark of the year and the air-conditioning of its heat.

Clare, the titular time traveler’s wife, yearns for the big metropolis from her rural upbringing across the lake in Michigan, not so far from Kalamazoo. She moves to it for art college, for the vibrancy of its art scene,  and to find her time traveler,  Henry. Together and apart, their lives unfurl in place. Drives are measured in specific, real streets and the changing of neighborhoods. As Henry observes of it,

Chicago has so much excellent architecture that they feel obliged to tear some of it down now and then and erect terrible buildings just to help us all appreciate the good stuff. (332)

Characters spend time in some of the city’s most significant destinations: the Field Museum; the Art Institute; the Lyrica Opera House; the Newberry Library. They live in recognizable neighborhoods, go to specific restaurants; I haven’t spent all that long in Chicago, but I have eaten at one of the restaurant eaten at in the book. Most, whether or not all, the others seem to be real places too, based on this map of city places from the book.

Niffenegger’s is a vibrant portrait of a lively city, a lived-in city, which I found so successful because of the way place suffused the story. Geography, in this book, is not just background, it’s landmark, the pin-points of orientation the characters, especially, but not only, the time traveler  himself, use to understand the nature of the moments in their lives. Place, time, and people are his means of orientation, which is why a briefer summary of one of his time traveling moments might comprise “I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989.” (275)

The city develops and changes with and around its characters, beginning – literally beginning – with long-standing cultural havens, the Newberry Library and the Field Museum, and moving outward:

I think about Chicago in the next century. More people, many more. Ridiculous traffic, but fewer potholes. There will be a hideous building that looks like an exploding Coke can in Grant Park; the West Side will slowly rise out of poverty and the South Side will continue to decay. They will finally tear down Wrigley Field and build an ugly megastadium, but for now it stands blazing with light in the Northeast. (332)

I suspect that anyone who grew up around South Haven, Michigan, that town across the lake near to which Clare grew up, would recognize their town too. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Chicago, but in the pages of this book, it came alive for me again, cohesively and expansively.

What was the sense of place in The Time Traveler’s Wife like for those of you who have never been to any of these locations?

London Meeting: Sarah Pinborough interviewed by Donna Scott

May’s London meeting will feature of Sarah Pinborough (author of The Language of Dying and The Dog-Faced Gods), who will be interviewed by Donna Scott (BSFA Awards Administrator).

Date: Wednesday 25th May 2011

Venue: The Upstairs room at the Antelope Tavern. 22, Eaton Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8EZ. The nearest tube station is Sloane Square (District/Circle) A map of the location is here.

All are welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.) The Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5). There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Future London Meetings

4th June 2011 – BSFA/SFF AGM: BSFA Guest TRICIA SULLIVAN, SFF Guest MIKE ASHLEY
30th June 2011 * – GILLIAN POLACK interviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
27th July 2011 SOPHIA MCDOUGALL interviewed by Roz Kaveney
24th August 2011  KIM LAKIN-SMITH interviewed by Paul Skevington

* Note that this meeting is on the fifth Thursday of the month.

Reminder: The Time Traveler’s Wife

A week from today, I will start posting discussion of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Please read along if you have time for it!

Another Short Story Club

Just a quick post from me to say that those of you who enjoyed the last couple of years of short story clubs here might enjoy a project that Karen is kicking off over at the Locus Roundtable blog: a club to read some of this year’s award-nominated stories, on the following schedule:

  • May 22: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, Aliette de Bodard [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • May 29: “Ponies”, Kij Johnson [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 5: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, Eric James Stone [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 12: “The Things”, Peter Watts [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a Shirley Jackson]
  • June 19: “Plus or Minus”, James Patrick Kelly [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, and a Nebula]

So the first discussion is this Sunday. See you over there?

(Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also point out the ongoing Tiptree Award book club, which is working its way through some work from recent honor lists; they’ve discussed “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lifelode by Jo Walton, and are currently considering “Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim.)

Guessing the winner of the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award

We have a winner, not “just” of the Clarke Award itself, but of a certain contest too.

In the weeks leading up to the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, we ran a contest here on Torque Control to guess the winner of this year’s award, in conjunction with the Clarke Award itself and NewCon Press.

The winner will be receiving two prizes, both generously donated by NewCon Press.

The first is Fables from the Fountain, the recently-published anthology edited by Ian Whates from NewCon press. Fables is a collection of all-original stories written as homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart and published in honour of the Clarke Award’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The volume includes new stories by Stephen Baxter, Ian Watson, Paul Graham Raven, James Lovegrove, Neil Gaiman, Colin Bruce, Liz Williams, Charles Stross, Eric Brown, Steve Longworth, Henry Gee, Andy West, David Langford, Andrew J Wilson, Peter Crowther, Tom Hunter, Adam Roberts, and Ian Whates. You can order a copy of Fables here (if you haven’t already done so!), with a share of profits going directly to support the Clarke Award’s current fund raising efforts. (A good cause!)

The second part of the prize is Celebration, an anthology of all-original stories published in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the BSFA (which publishes Vector, of course), also edited by Ian Whates. It includes stories, original to this volume, by Ken MacLeod, Kim Lakin-Smith, Ian Watson, Tricia Sullivan, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, M. John Harrison, Molly Brown, Brian Stableford, Dave Hutchison, Liz Williams, Brian Aldiss, Martin Sketchley, Alastair Reynolds, Ian R. MacLeod, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, and Stephen Baxter.

The book which won the Clarke Award was, of course, Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, which means that the eleven people who chose that book off the shortlist as their entry, complete with reason why it should win, were all eligible to win this contest.

In order to choose the contest winner, our judge, Tom Hunter, put all eleven eligible names into the “ceremonial Clarke Award hat”*, from which the winning name was drawn by independent witness Kat Havelock.

And the winner is… Adam Christopher!

Congratulations to Adam! Tom Hunter will contact you shortly about getting the prizes to you, if he has not already done so.

* Intriguing! Is the hat photogenic?

Why Zoo City won the Clarke Award in 2011

Why did Zoo City win this year’s Clarke Award?

The jury isn’t allowed to tell us, but the entrants into the contest to guess the winner of this year’s Clark Award can.

David Rowe:

Zoo City because if it doesn’t win then the judges are wrong.

Weirdmage:

I haven’t read any of the books, but that is the one I keep hearing the most positive things about. Also, she’s the most active on Twitter.

Adam Christopher:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. One of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in the last ten years or so. Hopefully the Clarke Award is just a stop-off point on the way to the Hugos.

Chris:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – any book recommended by William Gibson as a favourite stands a very good chance!

Laurian Gridinoc:

Because [it] made me realise how much I missed devouring a book.

theforgottengeek:

Zoo City by Lauren Beakes – like nothing you’ve read before. A true original.

Yagiz [Between Two Books]:

I haven’t read it yet but many people speak very highly of it and it’s been on my TBR pile. So I think it’s going to win the award and this will make me read it soon after.

adamjkeeper:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, because its a shoe-in.

Yidya:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes because it’s as good a guess as any, seeing as I haven’t read any of these.

Emil:

For it’s originality and true grit, countermanding old-school cyberpunk without puerile braggadocio

Not Cas:

Zoo City. I like the cover and the title.

Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

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