The Chinese Time Machine by Ian Watson (book review)

The new short story collection from Ian Watson is titled ‘The Chinese Time Machine’ and 160 of its 260 pages are taken up with four stories featuring that device. Broken by Brexit, England now relies on wealthy, velvet-gloved China, so Oxford scholars David Mason and Rajit Sharma work for the Time Institute of Beijing, though still based at home. On some missions they are accompanied by the beautiful Maggie Mo, a high ranking official in that organisation with a taste for adventure.

In ‘Brave New World By Oscar Wilde’, the pair go back to fetch Oscar into a future where he is revered and can produce more great works. They return to 1897 to recover him from Berneval-le-Grand on the north coast of France, cleverly plotting his disappearance so it will pass without too many questions. In fiction, we can let dear old Oscar, Van Gogh, Lovecraft and others who died at a low point know how they came to be loved. Alas, in life, we can’t.

‘The Kidnap Of Fibonacci’ involves them in a trip to 12th century Algeria to abduct the mathematician as part of a plot to prevent the growth of rapacious western capitalism which leads to habitat collapse and will cause the extinction of humanity. Finding Fibonacci is a complicated conundrum as he was never known by that name in his own era.

The longest story in the book, ‘The Emperor’s New Wallpaper’, a novella really, involves rescuing Napoleon Bonaparte from death by wallpaper poisoning in his second exile to the island of Saint Helena. This gets very involved with surprising twists. Watson has clearly researched history for these tales or knows it well already. The future Chinese authorities are credited with benign aims that are rather at odds with their current behaviour but perhaps things will turn out that way. After all, it’s only 150 years since the height of the British Empire and all its evils.

The final time machine adventure, ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Butterfly Effect’, is pure fun involving Sherlock Holmes. Ian Watson has a surprising revelation about Watson. Maggie Mo seems surprisingly enchanted by powerful, intelligent men with the potential to change history. She had the hots for Napoleon, too.

Another story, ‘Heinrich Himmler In The Barcelona Hallucination Cell’ is set in the past but doesn’t involve the Chinese time machine. I can’t say much about it without giving away the plot but suffice to say it was smart and the historical background was accurate as far as I can tell, which is quite far as I’ve read ‘The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich’ by William L. Shirer twice and recommend it to you.

The rest of the collection features far out fiction on a variety of themes. ‘Monkey Business’ is set in ‘the city of Scribe where thirty-seven robot monkeys type in the Templum daily from dawn till dusk. An adventurous lass named Betty sets off to see the city, meeting a playful person called Orlando on the way. The entire economy of the surrounding area is dedicated to keeping those robot monkeys typing so that one day, perhaps, they will produce a copy of a play by the Bard. Hints about its true nature are dropped near the end.

‘When The Aliens Stop To Bottle’ is a dark tale of irresistible creatures from another world who have conquered humanity far too easily and sometimes collect sample specimens to study. Trapped on a train, Toby and Jen hope to avoid abduction.

‘Clickbeetle’ is a good idea. A clickbeetle, constantly clicking, is put into the ear of people who concentrate too much on their own consciousness, posting all about themselves on social media. Posting at least three times a day is obligatory to be part of society but Suzan nearly always used the word ‘I’ in posts. The clickbeetle, which soon becomes like the legendary Chinese water torture, is her punishment.

Isaac Asimov, not famous for his aliens, won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in the early seventies with ‘The Gods Themselves’ for inventing the most alien aliens anyone could imagine. Bah! In ‘Journey To The Anomaly’ (translated from PanLang by Ian Watson), the author comes up with five of the weirdest lifeforms ever. Fluffle, Crusty, Wedgy, Boomboomba and our narrator, Ten-tacles, are journeying from their starclump to an odd planetary system where all the worlds appear to have almost circular orbits! This could not be natural! The trip isn’t easy and there may be mutiny on board.

I haven’t read any of Ian Watson’s novels but his philosophy with short stories and it’s a good one, is clearly to have fun. Fun with characters, history, language, science and plot. He seems to ‘enjoy it as a lark or as a fascinating adventure’ as Berenson wrote to Bradbury. ‘How different from the workers in the heavy industry that professional writing has become.’ That suits me fine. Mark you, there are serious considerations about economics, politics and history underpinning some stories and Himmler isn’t anyone’s idea of a laugh but, in general, this is meant to entertain and does. At the risk of getting a clickbeetle for using yet another perpendicular pronoun, I recommend it.

Eamonn Murphy

April 2023

(pub: NewCon Press, 2023. 274 page enlarged paperback. Price: £13.77 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91495-347-7. Ebook price: £ 4.99 (UK))

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