Short takes: ‘The Heavens,’ ‘The Psychology of Time Travel’ and ‘The Outpost’

November 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 5, 2019

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is classified by the digital media service from which I borrowed it in audiobook form as horror. That’s not particularly accurate; although this 2019 novel has some touches of horror, it also incorporates elements of romance, historical dramas and science fiction.

The variability is fitting, because the main character, Kate, lives multiple lives. In what the people around her very sensibly call reality, Kate is a sweet but feckless twentysomething American artist with Iranian roots. In her dreams, however, she is Emilia, a married young musician of Jewish and Italian extraction with ties to the royal court of a strange preindustrial land called Albion. But she — “she” being both Kate and Emilia — also has dreadful visions of a post-apocalyptic city where nothing stirs but the air. Gradually, the two-faced protagonist comes to feel that her actions may play a role in preventing this augury from occurring.

This is no easy burden to assume, not least because Kate and Emilia don’t know just which actions might stave off disaster. With Albion’s capital stricken by plague, Emilia embarks upon a peripatetic excursion across the land, where she encounters her disaffected former patron, an obscure but aspiring poet and a handsome young lord.

Meanwhile, in a version of New York City in the summer of 2000, Kate launches an affair with a charismatic doctoral student. Her lover, Ben, is drawn into Kate’s odd social circle, led by Sabine, a wealthy heiress with progressive political views who’s simultaneously generous and cynical. Sabine’s immense apartment is a sort of free hostel for politicians, activists and former mail-order brides — not to mention Kate, who lives on the roof.

“The Heavens” by Sandra Newman.

Newman (I’m obliged to note that the author and I follow each other on Twitter) has a gift for making the emotional and existential predicaments her characters face seem entirely relatable, even when the dilemmas are fantastic or the people in the story are acting churlishly. This is a thoroughly enjoyable story that ought to have tremendous crossover appeal to fans of romance, historical drama and speculative fiction alike.

The Psychology of Time Travel, the 2019 work by debut novelist Kate Mascarenhas, is a murder mystery set in an England in which four women invented time travel in the late 1960s. The two main characters are Odette Sophola, an archaeology student (on the verge of graduating from college, if I understood correctly) who discovers a body in the boiler room of a museum on Jan. 6, 2018; and Ruby Rebello, the granddaughter of Barbara Hereford, one of the quartet of scientist-inventors, and potentially the woman whose body Sophola found/finds/will find.

Time travel is strictly administered by a quasi-governmental British agency called the Conclave. This in turn is headed for a matter of decades by Margaret Norton, a member of the quartet whose aristocratic heritage and controlling nature have fostered a rather toxic work culture. By way of example, Norton successfully instructed Lucille Waters and Grace Taylor, two of her other fellow inventors, to cut off the remaining member of the group entirely after Hereford gave a deranged live television interview while suffering from the time-travel equivalent of jet lag.

After serving as a witness at an inconclusive coroner’s inquest, Sophola becomes determined to learn the identity and cause of death of the corpse she discovered. In doing so, she applies for a position with the Conclave and learns about the strange hazards and terminology of the agency’s employees.

A major component of the hazards involves radiation; a similarly significant part of the vocabulary revolves around love, sex and death. A time traveler’s younger self is referred to as green me or (for instance) green Grace, while her older counterpart is a silver; those who don’t travel in time are sometimes called emus, because the birds are unable to walk backwards.

“The Psychology of Time Travel” by Kate Mascarenhas.

Sophola’s story is paralleled by that of Rebello, who is prompted to begin studying time travel by her grandmother’s renewed interest in the topic after decades of having disavowed any involvement in the field. Rebello also finds herself developing a fascination with Taylor, with whom she begins to intersect in strange and unexpected ways.

Mascarenhas, a licensed psychologist of Irish and Seychellois heritage, focuses on how time travel affects individuals and relationships. She conjures some poignant moments, such as when the non-time-traveling lover of one of the main characters learns from hints dropped by one of her children, who is a time traveler, that her strained and loveless marriage will last until one of the spouses dies an early death.

I enjoyed reading a novel written by a woman that is primarily about women (male characters are almost incidental to The Psychology of Time Travel). And Sophola, who grew up in the Seychelles, is a clever and appealing underdog. Ultimately, however, I found that the book left me feeling a little cold. Perhaps it was because Rebello’s personal troubles seemed a bit pedestrian and the main antagonist emerges as a rather two-dimensional character.

Mike Resnick’s 2001 science fiction novel The Outpost is set at the titular settlement in the Inner Frontier — the area surrounding the galaxy’s center. Most of the book is narrated by one Thomas Aloysius Hawke, a.k.a. Tomahawk, the proprietor of the drinking establishment that is essentially the only point of the interest at the Outpost.

Resnick assembles a variety of characters — I use the word to mean both literary devices and broadly drawn personalities — and has them shoot the breeze and relate different woolly stories about their various adventures. A new tale generally starts every few pages beneath titles such as “Catastrophe Baker and the Siren of Silverstrike,” “The Pirate Queen with the Big Bazooms” and “The Short, Star-Crossed Career of Magic Abdul-Jordan.”

Adventure is abundant in the galaxy wherein Resnick sets his tale, but depth is at a premium. Heroes, who tend to be men, are generally muscular, brave and crack shots. Women default into a few different categories, notably drool-inducingly beautiful sexpots, plump opera singers or nurses. The best artist in the galaxy, Little Mike, is formally named Michelangelo Gauguin Rembrandt van Gogh Rockwell Picasso. The smartest man around, a mute fellow who communicates only by computer, is known as Einstein. The cleverest gambler is called Bet-a-World O’Grady — no points if you can guess why he has that nickname. For every clever or amusing invention in the book (and there are some), there seem to be at least two or three very tired clichés.

About two-thirds of the way into the narrative, Resnick dispatches his characters to thwart a galactic invasion by a powerful and unnamed alien race. Things pick up here a bit: Not only do some characters react to the threat in unexpected ways, we get to see (some of) them reunited at the Outpost, where they recount their exploits with various degrees of fidelity.

Resnick is talented at sketching characters and situations, and the book moves along rather briskly, but the exercise as a whole tried my patience; I considered abandoning the volume multiple times. This is fiction for adolescent male readers afflicted with extremely short attention spans, and yet I wonder how many such teenagers who fit that description would really enjoy The Outpost.

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