Novella · Review · Science Fiction

Review: Time Was, by Ian McDonald

The novella format is my new favorite. I grew up reading novels, big novels: more science fiction than fantasy, even though the latter is well-known for its doorstoppers. A few remarkable ones include Eon, Neverness, DuneThe Boat of a Million Years, HyperionStranger in a Strange Land  – it’s a long list, the most recent one being Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, which I reviewed here.

And yet, huge novels can be tiring now and then. Shorter formats, then, might come in handy to cleanse the palate between two novels. Or that’s what I used to do until recently. Not quite so anymore.

Under mostly the auspices of Tor.com, novellas now are big – and deservedly so. I’ve been reading lots of them since last year, all of them so good that somewhere along the way expectations were reversed – I started reading big novels to cleanse the palate between two novellas.

One of the best novellas I read so far in 2018 is Ian McDonald’s Time Was. After reading many good novels taking places in other countries such as India and Brazil (I should add that I translated Brasyl to Brazilian Portuguese a few years ago), Time Was was a very nice change of gear, both in space and in time.

The story starts in a dumpster behind a recently closed bookstore in Spitalfields, where the narrator, Emmett, is scavenging for rare editions. He finds out a small poetry chapbook titled Time Was, by an unknown author whose initials are E.L.

Dated from May 1937, the book has a letter hidden among its pages. The letter introduces us to Ben Seligman and Tom Chappell, two scientists who fall in love in the first years of World War II. The story will then alternate between other fragments of lovers’s discourse and the search of the now-obsessed Emmett for anything that can shed some light to these two starcrossed lovers and the poetry book.

One of these fragments is a letter from an Indian-Australian soldier, Amal, mentioning Tom and Ben. The things is, the letter was written from Gallipoli, during World War I.

Emmett will spend years in search of an answer to this mystery. Their plight might be related to alien abduction? Immortality, maybe? He will find further fragments from stranger places: Tom and Ben appear in a documentary on the war on Bosnia in the 1990s, for instance.

But the answer might be in other, more SFnal probability: time travel, of course. Ben is working with other boffins in a machine based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and its results may not be what they are expecting (after all, we’re talking uncertainty here).

I’m not revealing any big spoilers here: all of this happen until halfway through the story. The ending is not totally unexpected, but I loved the apparently simplicity of the final twist and how the clues were in the story since the beginning.

That’s why novellas should be more and more read and reviewed: for the sheer amount of information the author can put in the narrative and leaving plenty of space for building suspense and expectation. In other words, cutting the extra fat without the reader barely noticing it.

But a thing is certain: Time Was left me wanting more – but I was glad the book ended the way it did. It was a pleasing read and I couldn’t recommend it more.

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