Killing Time, Caleb Carr

Warner, 2000, 335 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61095-X

We hard-core Science-Fiction geeks have a favorite past-time whenever an author best-known in another genre decides to write a genre novel; it’s called “trashing the book.” The rationale for indulging in such an immature pursuit goes a little like this: Despite decades of excellent stories, the mainstream “establishment” still poo-poohs SF. Occasionally, a member of the “establishment” decides that s/he wants to write a science-fiction story, but -ah-ha!- it’s “much too good to be called SF”. The problem is that in most cases, these authors don’t have any of the intellectual rigor expected of SF writers and make atrocious mistakes in logic, science and plausibility. Then they usually answer any criticism by saying “So what? It’s sci-fi.”

So fans usually strike back by tearing apart the novel. It’s good fun, it’s a group-affirming past-time at conventions and as long as nobody else has to listen to us, it hurts no one. So feel free to skip to the next review if you feel like it.

Caleb Carr’s main claim to fame (so far) is a pair of historical crime fiction novels set in late 19th-century New York. The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness have been justifiably lauded by critics for a certain originality (applying modern criminal procedural knowledge at the earliest possible time where it was possible to do so, not unlike Foucault’s The Name of the Rose) and a definite storytelling competence. Carr -a trained historian- has no SF background, nor has he ever attended a science-fiction convention. In short, he is Not One Of Us, and as such is a perfect mainstream target for SF geeks. Killing Time itself was published by the general fiction arm of Warner publishing (not the SF “Aspect” imprint) and the blurbs included in front of the paperback edition are all from mainstream publications (George, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, etc.)

Certainly, Carr doesn’t do himself any favor by writing a novel in which the first two pages are a broad denunciation of the Information Age, complete with the catchphrase “Information is not Knowledge”. If there’s one viewpoint certain to infuriate a whole generation of SF addicts weaned on cyberpunk’s “Information wants to be free” and the anti-Frankenstein “There are no things humankind isn’t meant to know”, well, I can’t think of a better one.

So Killing Time begins. From a straight-SF viewpoint, it doesn’t get much better; Carr’s first-person narration details how one Gideon Wolfe (presumably a criminalist/psychologist, though his talents don’t play much role in the following story) is taken away from his comfortable 2023 upper-class lifestyle by a band of traveling anarchists who have vowed to destroy the Information Age. Curious echoes of “funny SF” tales such as Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric resonate here, but Carr seems intent on playing it completely straight. Alas, even the characters seem stenciled from SF’s worst stock clichés: the disabled mad scientist, the beautiful female assassin, the sex-starved geek, etc.

It’s not as if there aren’t any ideas at all, mind you. Carr’s novel is an extrapolation on the means at our disposal now for faking the truth. The problem here is that these ideas don’t mesh in a coherent whole, nor do they seem organic to the plot. We are eventually asked to believe in a genius who can single-handedly build machines defying our conception of space and time. We are also asked to believe in a future where no one double-checks information against multiple established sources.

It’s not as if the novel doesn’t have substantial non-SF flaws either; Killing Time‘s pace is firmly set at “breakneck”, almost as if Carr was afraid of us asking too many questions. The protagonist seems content to be a passive onlooker throughout most of the book, being hijacked and led from one situation to another. Even for such a short book (less than 350 pages in large typeface), there isn’t much of a story here.

But, even then, Killing Time isn’t a complete disaster. Carr’s attitude is different from the usual SF assumptions, and that may be a welcome diversion for some. The speed at which the book can be read ensures that not many readers will waste too much time on it. Plus, whoever does read Killing Time will have a lot of fun at the next SF convention, whenever the subject of mainstream authors barging in the genre eventually comes up. Everyone wins!

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