Saturday, September 5, 2009

Time Keeps Slippin'

I didn't get much reading done on vacation but a few months ago AndiF lent me a sack of Brit Lit.  I intended to take it with me on vacation but actually ended up reading quite a few of the books before vacation time even arrived.  I just never got around to writing about it in the rush to get all my work finished so I could get out of town.

Falling, by Debbie Moon, is the story of Jude, a woman living in some future version of London, who is a "Retracer".  Through a freak of genetic code she is able to jump backwards in time to any point in her life and change things.  "Rarely enough to change history, but sometimes enough to shift the details of a conversation, change the routine of a working day."

It is an odd concept, time traveling without the body moving through time.  The body moves forward through time but the essential person can move back to inhabit itself at an earlier time and change little things that might then change where the body is at a later time.  Jude, at the beginning of the novel, is falling, apparently pushed off a building and before she hits ground (and to prevent that) she retraces to try to change things enough so that this incident never occurs. 

It is an interesting novel full of all kinds of other futuristic questions that arise not only from Jude but from the futuristic world that Moon has created.  In a reality where genetic modification can take place in the same way that plastic surgery takes place today, what is the essential person?  Does gender matter in a world where gender can be changed at will?   Is being able to change your exterior image at will a good thing (no more deformed people) or a bad thing (everyone is even more homogenous and body conscious).  How do all these changes affect a person's sanity.  And where does sanity end and insanity begin?

I don't read much science fiction.  I like it but I don't read it.  As I read this novel I realized this is partly because of my failure to be able to picture things in my mind.  When I read a novel I can hear the sound of a character's voice and catch tiny inflection changes but I don't actually see a vivid picture of a scene.  So I tend to like my science fiction to come from the movies and television where someone literally draws me a picture.  But I liked this novel.  Debbie Moon is a screenwriter and one of the things that fascinated me was trying to figure out if it would be possible to film this novel.  I don't think so.

Almost immediately after reading Falling I read a novel that I picked up on my own.  Michael Gruber's The Forgery of Venus is the story of Chaz Wilmot, a painter.  It seemed, I thought at first, as far removed from Falling as any novel could be. But I was wrong.  Supporting himself as a a commercial artist, Wilmot suddenly starts painting one day in the style of the great master Velasquez. In fact he paints not just in the style of Velasquez but with the actual brushstrokes of Velasquez.  Wilmot is having out of body experiences in which he is becoming Velasquez and living Velasquez'  life hundreds of years ago.  Or is he?   Maybe it's just the creativity enhancing drugs he's been taking as part of an experimental program.  Or not.

It seemed odd that I would immediately choose a novel that dealt with a similar theme that Falling did - time travel where you don't leave your body, as well as the edges of sanity.  But I'm growing used to serendipitous reading experiences. Unlike Debbie Moon, Gruber is a best seller and his style is totally different from Moon's.  Moon writes in a spare, modern style while Gruber writes in a more traditional style that paints vivid pictures.   And yet partly because Gruber painted such a realistic picture for me I found it harder to buy into his story than I did with Debbie Moon's.  His Chaz Wilmot inhabits a world that I live in and so the idea that he could be experiencing these time travelish moments just seemed a bit outlandish whereas in Moon's outlandish futuristic London anything was possible.  And of course Moon fully invested herself in her basic premise that retracing was possible whereas Gruber somewhat hedged his bets.

Gruber kept me turning the pages and I thought his plot was creative but I also was slightly disinterested in the actual main character.  I find it distracting when it is so apparent that the narrator is unreliable. I did, however, like all of the discussion about art.  It would be a good vacation book but maybe just slightly too heavy for the beach.  If you can find Moon's book it would be a better pick.

The whole concept of time travel fascinates me. I used to love that old TV series Time Tunnel that was on when I was a kid.  And Quantam Leap.   I'm not sure I believe time travel is possible.  But assuming that it is, would it be a good thing?  Would I want to do it?  I don't think I would want to actually travel backwards or forwards in time unless I was in a position just to observe and not to influence.   But if I could be a fly on the wall it would be fun to visit the Pharoahs, the ancient Romans, Tudor England ...