The Time Traveller’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (book review).

January 30, 2016 | By | Reply More

The husband and wife team of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are well known for editing interesting anthologies, so when I heard that they had produced an anthology of time travel stories, I was keen to see the result. ‘The Time Traveller’s Almanac’ is a huge book, weighing in at 948 pages in length and containing 65 stories. The cover describes it as ‘the ultimate treasury of time travel stories’. Does it live up to this tagline?

TimeTravellersAlmanac

The editors have chosen to divide the book into four sections, each focused on one type of time travel story and introduced by a short non-fictional essay.

The first section is called ‘Experiments’, which seems fairly self-explanatory. It includes a four page extract from the most famous time travel story of them all, H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella ‘The Time Machine’. The extract consists of the whole of chapter three, in which the time traveller makes his first journey in the machine, travelling forwards in time to the year 802,701AD, where he sees for the first time the small, delicate Eloi, one of the two species descended from present day humans. For those who haven’t previously read ‘The Time Machine’, this interesting extract should provide them with sufficient reason to seek out the full work, as it demonstrates Wells’ style and invention to excellent effect.

Other highlights for me in this section were Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Another Story Or A Fisherman Of The Inland Sea’, one of her Hainish stories, set in the same universe as ‘The Left Hand Of Darkness’ and ‘The Dispossessed’ and sharing all the intelligence and thoughtfulness of those novels.

Alice Sola Kim’s bittersweet 2010 comedy story ‘Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters’, in which Hwang’s first experiment with a time machine goes wrong, leaving him in the tricky position that every time he goes to sleep, he wakes up having jumped forward in time by a random period of days, months or years, a situation that he responds to with remarkable good humour. This section also includes stories from such luminaries as Richard Matheson, Robert Silverberg, C.J. Cherryh, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson and Douglas Adams so, all in all, it provides an impressive start to the anthology.

‘Reactionaries And Revolutionaries’ is the title of the second section. This focuses on stories where either someone is trying to stop the past from being altered or they are trying to record past or future history accurately. It starts with Ray Bradbury’s much-anthologised 1952 story ‘A Sound Of Thunder’ in which hunters go back to the age of the dinosaurs for the ultimate safari, with unexpected results. The term ‘the butterfly effect’, made famous in the 1980s when catastrophe theory made mathematics briefly sexy, originates from this enjoyable and evergreen story.

Striking a very different tone, ‘The Gulf Of The Years’ by George-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the original French by Edward Gauvin, is a tragic story from 2011 which follows a man as he revisits his childhood during World War Two. Perfectly paced, this story builds to a shocking climax which stayed with me for a long time after reading.

Another highlight was Rosaleen Love’s humorous 1986 story ‘Alexia And Graham Bell’, in which the Australian great-grandchildren of Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone, since he emigrated to that country rather than Canada in 1870 by mistake and didn’t become an inventor. However, their new invention has strange and surprising effects on their world. This story combines a whimsical sense of humour with some interesting passing comments on privacy and censorship that seem remarkably relevant to today. Other notable authors in this section are Connie Willis, George R.R. Martin, Kage Baker and Harry Turtledove.

‘Mazes And Traps’, the third section, contains stories focused on the paradoxes that can be created by travelling in time. It opens with the earliest story in the anthology, Edward Page Mitchell’s 1881 tale ‘The Clock That Went Backward’. In this story, two cousins inherit a broken Dutch grandfather clock when their ancient aunt dies. They take it with them when they emigrate from America to the Netherlands to go to university and it turns out to have a central role in a key moment from Dutch history. This is an entertaining tale which apparently holds the honour of being the first time travel story ever published.

Regardless of that distinction, it’s worth reading. ‘Augusta Prima’, by Swedish author Karen Tidbeck, is one of a small number of non-SF stories in the anthology. This one is a surreal fantasy in which the title character finds a pocket watch on a bloated corpse that appears near the boundary of the timeless croquet lawn where she amuses herself and her mistress, Lady Mnemosyne. When Augusta tries to find out more about the watch, including asking about the nature of time, she gets more than she expected. Tidbeck gives an unusual take on time travel here and her story provides an interesting contrast to the SF stories that surround it.

I also enjoyed Kim Newman’s ‘Is There Anybody There?’ in which a 1920s medium comes into contact with an internet stalker living in the same house as her but eighty years later and each of them tries to outwit the other. This is time travel in the guise of supernatural horror and Newman sets out his stall with great aplomb. This section also includes stories from Gene Wolfe, Vandana Singh, Greg Egan and Adrian Tchaikovsky, amongst others.

The fourth and final section is called ‘Communiqués’ and the stories in this section focus on the idea of trying to send a message from the present to the past or future. It includes the shortest story in the entire anthology, Gene Wolfe’s touching three page tale from 1972, ‘Against The Lafayette Escadrille’, in which an aviation buff has a close encounter with his hobby’s past.

I loved Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘Red Letter Day’, which considers the potential consequences of a future where the only time travel allowed is the option at the age of fifty, to send a single letter to your teen-age self, just before high school graduation. The story explores the implications of this idea with great warmth and humanity and really made me think.

The final story in this section and the entire anthology is Charles Stross’ novella ‘Palimpsest’, which follows the career of Pierce, apprentice agent to Stasis, an organisation dedicated to ensuring the continuity of humanity throughout all the ages. This deservedly won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2010 and provides an excellent way to close the anthology. This section also includes interesting stories from Isaac Asimov, Tanith Lee, Adam Roberts and Carrie Vaughn.

Each of the four sections of the anthology starts with a short non-fictional essay. I found these a bit of a mixed bag. Charles Yu’s ‘Top Ten Tips For Time Travellers’ is a rather slight piece that’s too self-referential for its own good. Stan Love’s ‘Time Travel In Theory And Practice’ is a good summary of the real and invented physics that has been prayed in aid of time travel stories. Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Trousseau: Fashion For Time Travellers’ is an informative and humorous look at the question of what to wear when you travel in time, so that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Finally, Jason Heller’s ‘Music For Time Travellers’ is a rather dense essay on the role of time travel in popular music of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The main question for me, after reading all four essays, is what purpose they serve in the anthology? They are not, in any direct sense, introductions to the sections that they precede, so their function within the book rather escapes me.

The main complaint I would make about this anthology is that it fails to live up to the marketing hype on the cover. Describing a book as the ‘ultimate treasury of time travel stories’ strongly suggests to me that the contents will comprise a comprehensive cross-section of the time-travel sub-genre, including all of the most well-regarded stories. Even in a book stretching to nearly one thousand pages this would be a tall order and the VanderMeers make their task that much more difficult by including two stories from several authors (Gene Wolfe, Kage Baker, Geoffrey Landis and Harry Turtledove), while failing to include anything from such authors as Robert Heinlein (eg ‘All You Zombies’ or ‘By His Bootstraps’) or Poul Anderson (eg one of his ‘Time Patrol’ series) to name two examples that spring immediately to mind. Equally, although the story includes a reasonable selection of stories from countries other than the USA, these are largely restricted to authors from Western Europe and the English-speaking former Commonwealth countries. I would really have welcomed one or two examples of time travel tales from the former Soviet bloc or from Africa.

On the other hand, this book collects together sixty-five diverse stories, exploring many aspects of the time travel concept in all sorts of different ways, including through the lenses of fantasy and horror, in addition to the more usual SF approach. In addition, one particular feature of the anthology that I found particularly helpful was the short biographical introduction at the head of each story, putting the author and story into some sort of context.

‘The Time Traveller’s Almanac’ doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin and if you’re looking for a single, definitive anthology of all the most well-known time travel short stories ever published then you probably need to look elsewhere. However, if you’d like to own a wide-ranging collection of old and recent short fiction in the time travel sub-genre that will keep you busy for a long time, ‘The Time Traveller’s Almanac’ is an enjoyable and worthwhile choice.

Patrick Mahon

January 2016

(pub: Head Of Zeus, 213. 948 page hardback. Price: £25.00. ISBN: 978-1-78185-390-0

Pub: TOR/Forge, 2014. 848 page enlarged paperback. Price: $25.99, $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-7424-0)

check out websites: www.headofzeus.com and www.tor-forge.com

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