There’s a certain romanticism attached to the idea of time travel.
While stories as diverse as Back to the Future and H G Well’s The Time Machine have offered some darkly cautionary tales, and the idea of time paradoxes have caused anyone outside of pure physics a major headache trying to accommodate all the many contradictions inherent in the concept, we have clung doggedly (aided no doubt by Doctor Who which, though bleak at times, is also jolly good fun) to the notion that travelling through time travel is full of wonder and possibility.
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, herself a psychologist, does its best, in the midst of hugely-entertaining and deeply-thoughtful murder mystery that stretches across multiple time periods, to disabuse us of the idea that there is magic in that there time machine.
Taking as inspiration the fact that even the most wonderful of inventions can fall prey to the corruption of human nature, Macarenhas takes us from the mid-1960s when four good friends – Bee, Brace, Margaret and Lucille, all brilliant and driven in their own ways – invent time travel through to the present day, and of course, beyond, where time travel is an accepted part of everyone’s lived experience.
That’s not to say that everyone is blinking in and out of the here and now racing hither and yon through epochs close and distant; time travel remains the preserve of the handpicked, rigorously psychologically-profiled select few, people who not only have the temporal wanderlust needed to race across time – one constraint is that you can back in time beyond when the machine itself was invented which sadly rules out wandering among the Brachiosaurs a la Jurassic Park – but who can survive the many privations it exacts on the psyche.
“She picked up a sun-bleached photo. There was Bee, her rosy face still recognisable; Lucille, who looked so full of wisdom and mischief; Grace, exuding all the cool of a French New Wave actress; and Margaret, her face already showing the determination that would make her one of the most powerful women in Britain. Such different women, and yet their laughter and uniforms suggested camaraderie. Bee didn’t look mad. She looked like she belonged.” (P. 18)
You see, time travel does strange and altogether amoral things to people.
Unmoored from the ticking of the clock, and free to visit anyone in any period, living or dead, the usual things we value start to lose relevance, value, and time travellers end up becoming cavalier about the most sacred of ideas.
Take death, for instance, a rather relevant example given that a murder mystery lies at the heart of the beguilingly engaging narrative.
Odette, a student at Cambridge University and a volunteer at a toy museum with a link to Margaret, the most hard-nosed and edged of the four women who rises to become the cruel, autocratic head of The Conclave, the body which polices time travel, finds a body one day in a locked museum room, with no trace of a murderer and no normal explanation for how the person died.
It sets her on a path that leads her into direct contact with the inner workings of The Conclave, an organisation where wonder and curiosity have long given to cruelty and weird indifference, where life is seen as less a thing for magical endeavour and rather a play thing for people who can subvert the very bonds of time, ordinarily something that holds people back.
At The Conclave it frees them to go forth and explore without restraint – while there is a legal system separate from the British courts, an almost medieval-esque system that relies more on fate than established principle, time travellers can pretty much come and go as they please – leaving their humanity corrupted and corroded.
If this all sounds bleak and suffocatingly dark, Mascarenhas beautifully leavens her cautionary tale with a celebration of women at the forefront of science, of the possibility of love and connection even where you might think none could exist, and of the idea that even in the most corrupt of places that a commitment to truth, justice and doing the right thing can prevail.
The Psychology of Time Travel seamlessly brings the dark and the light together, ultimately settling on the idea that the better angels of our nature will triumph or at least prevail sufficiently over the darker denizens of our psyche, and marrying some fairly profound insights together with real emotional intimacy and a sense that it is possible to make a difference even against the most implacable of edifices and people.
It’s a rare thing to hold that kind of a balance in a novel.
Too often the scales fall either way with a vengeance, giving us a story that is too light and simplistic or so impenetrably terrible that the idea of anything good escaping its toxic grasp seems impossible to imagine, but Mascarenhas does it with aplomb, in the process including a number of people of colour in her tale, a welcome change from the overwhelming whiteness of much of literature, and a more realistic of the multicultural world in which we live.
“Odette watched her own reflection in the kitchen window. What was she frightened of? She was comfortable enough with lying, to find out if the time travellers were murderers. But Fay’s ritual had made it clear that blending in might also mean doing unpleasant things to innocent people. This time Odette had resisted. Could she keep resisting, and yet evade detection? Could she keep resisting while earning the time travellers’ trust? Odette feared they might contaminate her. She wasn’t sure you could work in a rotten system and keep your hands clean.” (P. 226-227)
The author’s willingness to add much-needed diversity to her tale and to have these characters (Odette and psychologist Ruby) be the drivers of much of not just the narrative momentum but its morality and rightness provides a refreshing perspective to some trenchant societal issues.
Time travel itself might be rotten to the core, but not all the people in its orbit are, and Mascarenhas is at pains to make sure we understand that it’s not the technology itself that is flawed so much as the people using it.
A tale as old as time yes?
The Psychology of Time Travel is a remarkable book – weighty, insightful, deeply human, uplifting and demoralising, cautionary and hopeful, written in such a way that the substance sits easily with its lighter, love-strewn moments when all the bad we have witnessed finds its redemptive salvation in the goodness that sits in all of us, a perspective which, even in an age when time travel has changed all the usual rules of mortality and chronology, should fill us with some optimism that we may yet not be the victims of our own flawed brilliance.