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Journeys through time
Three Canadian literary novels use a traditional science-fiction device to examine age-old themes of love, loss, homecoming and the recuperative power of story

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Saturday, October 13, 2018 – Page P20

There's something fraudulent in insisting humans need a mechanized device to travel through time. Humans are creatures buffeted by memory, transported to the past often against our will. We are equally captivated by our visions of the future, our plans and speculative fantasies, even past their sell-by date.

H.G. Wells coined the term "time machine" with his novel of the same name in 1895, but two decades later, Proust insisted one required no gadget to lose or regain time. Put another way, a madeleine can also be a time machine.

Three recent Canadian literary novels, including one shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize, are largely unconcerned with the how of time travel, yet each uses this traditionally sci-fi device to examine age-old themes of love, loss, homecoming and the recuperative power of story. Sometimes, such coincidences happen in publishing and you wonder: Is it coincidence or is it the zeitgeist? While such a question is likely unanswerable, together these novels speak of a prevailing interest in memory and memorialization. In this way, they owe as much to In Search of Lost Time as they do The Time Machine.

Wells wrote The Time Machine from an earlier story called The Chronic Argonauts that, at least in its title, compared the time traveller to the sailor heroes of Greek myth. Alex Boyd's Army of the Brave and Accidental takes this comparison further in his close, modern retelling of The Odyssey.

Odysseus becomes Oliver, cast adrift in an ocean of time; his patron goddess, Athena, is a scientist at Olympus Labs, which manages time travel; Poseidon, god of oceans, becomes Dr. Waters, Athena's superior.

Where the Odyssey is the tale of Odysseus's journey home after the Trojan War, Army of the Brave and Accidental has an added dimension as a parable about the anxiety of becoming a father. To Oliver, his wife Penelope's pregnancy represents the prospect of no longer having the free time to watch old films and read books.

Oliver's doubts about his capacity as a parent become shooting pains in his limbs, which turn out to be a form of inoperable cancer that can be treated only by travelling back in time. Oliver gets the free time he wants but he immediately misses his young family. Famously, Odysseus took 10 years to reach Ithaca after the Trojan War, a war that also lasted a decade. The geography of The Odyssey isn't vast - the issue is that Odysseus wanders. Oliver realizes, too late, that his journey to his wife and son will also span decades.

Illness is the reason for time travel in the alternate history of Thea Lim's Giller-shortlisted An Ocean of Minutes as well. In 1981 a deadly flu pandemic breaks out in the U.S. South. When Polly's boyfriend, Frank, gets sick, his only chance at survival is for Polly to enter debt bondage through TimeRaiser, an organization from the future that owns the virus's cure. Polly is supposed to travel to 1993 and she makes plans to meet Frank then, but instead TimeRaiser transports her to 1998. Polly arrives in a drastically different America from the one she left, separated from Frank by time, political events and her status as an indentured labourer.

Of these three novels, the premise Lim sets up here allows for the most multifaceted examination of time's value. Time is Polly and Frank's shared past and the promise of a shared future.

More time is what Polly's bond buys Frank. Time is the currency of Polly's debt, measured in months.

Army of the Brave and Accidental and An Ocean of Minutes are both, like The Odyssey before them, stories of home-going. In both, too, the ocean is a metaphor for time. Thinks Oliver: "I knew Penelope and Tomas waited for me across a period of time as wide as any bright ocean."

Liz Harmer's novel The Amateurs could also be read this way, as a story of failed home-going. It is also a cautionary tale about the cult-like atmosphere that emerges at fictional tech monopoly PINA. Imagine combining Apple, Google and Tesla: PINA is internet search, e-mail, satellite mapping, phones and electric cars. PINA has plans to colonize Mars. Or, PINA used to do these things before the company's founder, Albrecht Doors, invented "Port," an all-too-successful time-travel device.

The problem with Port is nearly everyone has taken off for other parts of the multiverse and no one has returned. At the novel's outset, the world is empty of people. Marie is one of the 40odd stragglers left of a former Canadian steel town (never named, but obviously Hamilton). Unlike in other end-of-the world narratives, these survivors aren't the fittest. They have few applicable skills when the grid goes down, let alone when society collapses. Their defining characteristic is that they stayed. Marie and her cohort of amateurs are Penelopes, perpetually waiting for someone to return through Port. There's that nautical language again. A man in The Amateurs finds himself in Second World War-era France, a card in his pocket reading "Remember port and the place you come from. Come back. Come back."

Is it because we are conscious we exist in time - that we love, lose and grieve while the seconds tick by - that humans tell stories?

This is the question I was left with after reading these novels.

Time acts on mortals in a way it does not affect the gods. In Army of the Brave and Accidental, Oliver can escape his (possibly phantom?) illness by travelling into the past, but he cannot escape mortality. Oliver will one day die because he is unlike Athena who lives "among the lonely gods, the exclusive manipulators." When Oliver passes, what of him will carry forward into the future? It will be a story told by his son, Tomas.

How do we memorialize what we have lost? In An Ocean of Minutes, even before Polly signs her agreement with TimeRaiser, she and Frank have conflicting anxieties around time, resulting in one blowout, nearly relationship-ending fight on a visit to see the cherry blossoms in Washington. The argument isn't really about the flowers but about how to acknowledge their fleeting existence. Frank obsessively archives his own history, "as if otherwise everything will disappear, a phobia of forgetting." Frank looks at the cherry blossoms and already grieves their future loss.

But Polly knows such desire to keep the past alive can become a terrible burden. "When Polly's mother died, a parade of adults told her that her mother would live on, always, in her heart," Lim writes. "It was an overwhelming responsibility to be the single safeguard of another's continued existence on earth." Polly wants to tell Frank that what's done is done: the past is safe. This philosophy works for Polly when she's on holiday in Washington, but it falls apart when she arrives in 1998. As her future employer tells her: "When someone dies, there's no one to share your memories any more. They become like secrets. A secret life. No one knows you lived it, but you."

Those left behind in The Amateurs have each lost hundreds of people, but they keep the memories that haunt them to themselves. This lack of storytelling marks the way falling out of time is different from death: The Ports have in effect massacred billions, but there's little room for the rituals of grief when there are no bodies. Instead, the group loops through the same conversations over and over. Exiting this limbo requires the remainers find a new story to fit their situation.

We can stop time, jump time, fall back in a river of time, these novels say, but we can't escape our desire to make sense of our own mortality. The tragedy that the people we love don't get to live forever is the subject of some of our oldest stories. And also, it seems, our stories of the future.

Army of the Brave and Accidental BY ALEX BOYD NIGHTWOOD EDITIONS, 192 PAGES An Ocean of Minutes BY THEA LIM VIKING, 336 PAGES The Amateurs BY LIZ HARMER KNOPF CANADA, 336 PAGES

Associated Graphic

A scene from the 1960 film The Time Machine starring Rod Taylor. GETTY IMAGES

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