Pros: Fantastic world building. Interesting Dominican Republican setting complete with sea anemones and pirates. Rich prose. Excellent portrayals of unpleasant people in desperate circumstances.
Cons: Unlikeable characters who don’t grow. Disappointing ending.
Time travel by sea anemone powered by Olokun, the great spirit who knows the bottom of the ocean: what’s not to like about a novel based on this premise? And initially, I was quite excited to read Tentacleby Rita Indiana. Because young Achilde is more than a transsexual maid living in a plague ridden Dominican Republic surrounded by a sludge-brown sea. He’s the chosen one, heir to oceanic power, the only one able to harness the power of a sea anemone electroencephalogram and travel back in time to save his homeland.
But what Achilde really wants is a sex-change operation, not a problem in of itself, but part of the problem with this novel; the principal characters are too busy chasing self-interest (drugs, desire, public acclaim) to take right action. And they don’t grow during the novel. I’d even categorise the other main character, failed artist Argenis, as a passive-aggressive narcissist, brilliantly portrayed, but being inside his mind while he self-destructs becomes a chore. Sure, both these characters haven’t had the best lives, even so, a touch more selflessness while they skate back and forth in time. would have been appreciated. Admittedly, the author convincingly conveys her character’s humanity but the type of humanity that will drive us to extinction. And I’m still hoping we’ll redeem ourselves.
The book ends very abruptly and on a multilevel betrayal. Hoping for more, I flipped the page, only to encountered an advertisement. Disoriented, I thought, “how strange, the publisher inserting an advertisement into a book mid-chapter.” But sadly, our time tripping protagonist wouldn’t be reconsidering his choices. I would be reading an advertisement.
The ad, however, was of interest. Tentacle’s publisher, And Other Stories, sells subscriptions to offset the cost of releasing innovative literature. And while Tentacle may not tick all my literary boxes, I’d love to read more wildly creative literature from all over the world. If you agree, check out the And Other Stories website. Hopefully, this group will navigate COVID and continue to produce mind-blowing weirdness like time travel by sea anemone.
The Example of Hyperion, Blackfish City and Children of Time
In science fiction, the author must describe the special features of the story’s world to the reader. At worst, the information is laid out in a long didactic paragraph, the dreaded “info dump.” And sometimes, an info dump includes details not relevant to the story: the alien societies sewage system or philosophy of early childhood education, for instance. The info dump often sounds like a mini-history lesson.
“The world of Adelia had always been a place of strife. Over the centuries, a multitude of kings had vied for ultimate control. Now the rivers ran dry and vast deserts spewed dust into the heavens…5 pages later…But today, Crystoline must fetch the water.”
And who’s giving the history lesson? The author, of course. A large block of information not connected to a character or the plot inserts the author between the reader and the story, slowing the story down.
So how does an author successfully convey an imaginary world? Hopefully not in direct dialogue. A character wouldn’t blab on about recent events any more than you’d go on about the origin of COVID19 while standing in the grocery store check out. They live in the fictional world. Everything occurring is their normal, usually not worthy of comment. Attempts to insert information into dialogue at worst might sound like:
“As you know captain, when the revolutionaries jumped the line and destroyed Ilagra, Thagros eliminated our transponders.”
Usually, authors try to weave background information subtly into the character’s dialog, observations or thought.
“Crystoline rolled the water barrel to the spring, desert sand catching in her throat and triggering that irritating dry cough. She wiped a gritty sleeve across her mouth. A drink would do nicely, not that it’d taste right. Not after the contamination. Damn kings and their greed.”
But some science fiction celebrates the info dump, taking large chunks of bone dry information and converting it into a special feature of the story. And sometimes this strategy works incredibly well, usually when the information being conveyed is so interesting that it keeps the reader’s attention.
Take for example Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos. This book mirrors the Canterbury tales: a collection of aspirants travels to a shrine, and during their travels, each pilgrim tells their tale.
Each tale is basically a massive info dump; however, each story is so interesting that the reader “listens” with rapt attention to each traveller. (Although I’m still annoyed the book ended right at the climax, and the climax was drawn out over a much padded second book.)
Then consider Blackfish City, a novel I reviewed some months back. The action occurs on a post-disaster floating city with an interesting history and culture beautifully presented through episodes of a mysterious broadcast entitled,”City without a Map”. Excerpt from this poetic and subversive text are sprinkled throughout the book; the ultimate source remains mysterious until late in the story. The device wore somewhat thin as the book progressed, but overall it served well to explain Blackfish City’s unique features and describe its inhabitants while adding ambience.
Children of Timeby Adrian Tchaikovsky also uses bulky info dumps with success. Didactic chapters detail the history of a spider civilisation, following the spiders from pre-sentience through to a spider space age. (Really how can you go wrong with spiders in space?)
The spider sequences are highly “told.”
Her attention is fixed on another spider at home in its web.
The subject spider is planning to hunt down the spider in the web, but note the passive construction, the spider’s behaviour reported as if by an observing scientist. A “shown” version, as experienced by a spider might read like:
“The other spider hung succulent and juicy, seemingly oblivious in its web.”
But do we know a spider can detect succulence? How do we know a spider can create a mental image of another insect’s mind? This shown spider reads very much like a human with our more or less shared theory of mind and body language. A nervous human can be shown pacing and chewing their nails without the author needing to state, “she was nervous.” However, nervous spiders might tap on their webs or rub their legs together. How’s a human supposed to recognise a nervous spider without being told, “the spider was nervous?” Unless the spider is anthropomorphised, stating the spider’s emotional state is required.
So I can’t fault the author of Children of Time for choosing a didactic style. And Children of Time toggles between chapters detailing the spider’s world, and more conventionally written chapters featuring humans trying to survive a desperate space odyssey. I particularly enjoyed the human protagonist, an introverted scholarly old man, an atypical choice for a space adventure. The human chapters relieve the reports from the spider world. Also as the spiders evolve, and as the reader gains familiarity with the arachnid world, the spider chapters become increasingly immediate.
I have a fair bit of tolerance for the creative info dump; although some readers will claim “boring, nothing happens, brutal slog or repetitive.” For those readers, I recommend The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, an old-fashioned adventure story I reviewed some months ago. Raidships takes place in a vibrant imaginary world, but the world unfolds during a fast-paced plot.
“A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves.” From Children of Time by Adrian Tschaikovsky
Humorous and philosophical species-jumping time-travel.
Cubical dwelling everyman, Tom Robinson, has a problem. He’s been hit by a bus, but fortunately a crystal shop purveyor has just provided him with the secret to remembering past lives. Now Tom will wake into a new life with the memory of his old life intact. Sounds great! Doesn’t it?
Problem is Tom immediately messes up because, like most of us, he’s morally average: a bit cowardly, an occasional liar and self-interested. He spends several lives popping back and forth in time, sampling different animal species and genders, while trying to game karma into reuniting him with an unrequited love. Naturally, Tom runs afoul of the reincarnation system and his fellow “reincarnation remembers” and various unfortunate events ensue.
This book raises many of the classic time travel questions, such “should one kill Hitler?” While addressing classic karma issues, such as “is being a vegetarian that necessary, especially when one has been reincarnated as a tiger?” And the answers to these questions are interspersed with nuggets of humour and wisdom. But sadly Tom never quite learns to stop meddling and go with the flow. In fact, Tom seems to be at his best as a tree.
The writing is excellent throughout, and I appreciated the exceptional proof-reading. The Reincarnation of Tom appears to be the second book from a talented, young self-publisher. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author.
Time travel fiction encompasses many subcategories, and Them Bones by Howard Waldrop fits into a couple. The novel has an anthropological survival angle and an archaeological subplot, but also falls into the hail-Mary-backward-pass-last-ditch attempt to fix an untenable present.
The author presents three story threads; the most fleshed out relays the tale of Madison Yazoo Leake who hails from a “bombed-out time in which everybody would eventually die from radiation, from disease, from chemicals.” Continue reading Them Bones by Howard Waldrop, a Review
In R.L. Jackson’s novel, The Ages of Entanglement, Samson, an aged man, strives to protect himself from the intrusion of others as he wanders a near future Southeast nearly depopulated by a technological blunder. He fears entanglement with others, because entanglement precedes loss, and he’s already suffered enough loss for several lifetimes. But when he encounters the solemn and capable girl, Selene, and a handful of other travellers Samson is drawn back into the web of human relationships. Continue reading The Ages of Entanglement by Robert L. Jackson, a Review
Pros: Action packed plot. Vivid, cinematic prose. Possible Cons: High graphic index (violence). Low to medium graphic index (sex) but much unpleasantness implied, including non-consensual and abusive gay relationships.
iROMANCE When mild mannered accountant Otis receives a stray text from an old friend, he’s pulled into a world of technological and industrial intrigue. Turns out, the old friend has been brutally murdered, and conveniently, just as he receives this mysterious text, he encounters the highly competent and well informed Cynthia. Continue reading iRomance by Darrell B. Nelson, a Review
Pros: Lovely prose. Fabulous world building. Engaging plot with mystery, peril and hope. Deep themes including population control, religious hypocrisy and societal constraints, the human-animal connection. Fine characterizations including a portrayal of a failed marriage, and an intriguing protagonist. Characters act from in response to well-depicted psychological motivations. Possible cons: Anti-organized religion theme may trouble some readers. Third act drags and occasionally becomes preachy. Fair bit of emotional tell. Continue reading Grass by Sheri Tepper, a Review