Chronospace, Allen Steele

Ace, 2001, 320 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00906-9

The beauty of time-travel stories is that they’re purely intellectual games. Despite tantalizing speculations from time to time, there is little factual evidence that time-travel is scientifically possible, making the entire concept indifferent to new discoveries. Unlike other types of Science Fiction, the time-travel sub-genre is essentially feeding upon itself in sort of a game in which authors bring their best ideas to the table. It’s one of the purest example of the kind of conversation that can be found in literary genres. Sort of the SF equivalent to closed-room mysteries: every writer’s got to do one at some point. So when Allen Steele tackles time-travel in Chronospace, he better both acknowledge the ongoing state of the genre and bring something new to the discussion.

Steele being a proud and acknowledged hard-SF genre writer, he doesn’t miss a trick to show that he’s done his homework in the time-travelling genre: he name-checks not only Analog magazine (in which one of his protagonists publishes a thought experiment with far-reaching consequences), but also gives SF writer Gregory “Timescape” Benford a small walk-on cameo. References to past concepts and stories make it clear that Steele is riffing off familiar tunes and playing by genre rules. A bibliography of sources (historical, scientific and science-fictional) completes the book. It helps, in some strange sense, that the novel is an expansion of a previous short story published in Analog, “Where angels fear to tread”: you really can’t hammer down Chronospace more firmly in the genre playground if you tried.

But what does Steele himself bring to the discussion? In some ways, the genre references are part of it: Chronospace is in part a reflexion on the power of Science Fiction in potentially altering our future (and, positing time-travel technology, our past as well). The title of the third section, “Free Will” alludes to the other big subject of contemplation that’s become one of the central paradoxes of time-travel as a dramatic concept: What if the malleability of history removes the assumption that free will exists? Steele, as he travels between past, present and future, mulls over such issues and has some fun with the established conventions of time-travel as it inevitably leads to alternate history. For confirmed SF fans, it’s like hearing a good cover of a music piece we particularly enjoy, with a number of extra twangs and zings to make it different.

On the other hand, Chronospace (like many of Steele’s novels) doesn’t venture all that far away from comfy familiarity. As familiar as it seems, it’s also a bit dull in the way so characteristic of mid-list SF fillers, lacking either the intellectual inferno of first-grade Science Fiction or the top-notch writing of superior fiction. It’s readable and interesting enough, mind you, and there’s a public for that type of thing. (A public that even includes me most sunny days of the week.) But if Steele does a fine job a contextualizing where Chronospace takes place in the SF discourse, he doesn’t do much to advance the discussion. In convention panel terms, Chronospace is the guy who summarizes well the discussion so far, but is timid in venturing any further.

Even in historical terms, Steele’s carefully-researched details fail to convince. The Hindenburg as a crucial piece of Nazi resolve? Allow me my doubts as I point to an entire geopolitical framework. On a smaller scale, the characters make stupid mistakes that seriously belies their putative professionalism at the whole time-travel business. Meh. Welcome to by-the-numbers plotting.

But I’m being too harsh. Not every book has to change the genre as we know it: As a certified genre SF geek, I should be happy that someone is stoking over the coals of time-travel and throwing another log on the fire: It keeps the conversation going and it gives us something to do during lazy Sunday afternoons. For a type of discussion that’s been feeding upon itself since H.G. Wells, a competent recap really isn’t all that bad.

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