By Jared Kavanagh
If you had one chance to change history, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you kill?
Those questions can be found on the cover of Ben Elton’s time travel/ alternate history novel Time and Time Again. I know his name principally from his role as a scriptwriter for Blackadder. He has written a variety of books, but I’d never before read one. I discovered this book entirely by chance, and bought it simply because I liked the premise on the cover.
I’m glad I picked up this book.
The story opens with a character standing on a bridge in Constantinople in June 1914. Hugh Stanton, former British soldier from the early twenty-first century, has travelled back in time with a mission. Given the date and what’s on the cover of the book, readers can probably hazard a guess about the nature of his mission.
The next few chapters switch regularly in setting between showing Constantinople of 1914 and showing the events which led up to Stanton taking his journey back into the past. Most of those events are set in Britain of 2024/5, with one important flashback to eighteenth-century Cambridge. These early chapters confirm that Stanton is, indeed, on a mission to change history.
So far, this story of time travel was one which felt like it had been told many times before. Time travel novels of going back to change history are commonplace. I found it refreshing that in this case the mission did not involve going back in time to kill Adolf Hitler. Otherwise, this story appeared to be re-using some well-worn tropes.
Fortunately, Elton was not telling such a familiar tale. At its heart, Time and Time Again is a novel which uses the device of time travel to explore themes of how we perceive history, and of the competing perspectives of “Great Man” history and historical determinism. The concepts which it deals with are not original, but they are well-presented and feel natural within the story. The novel’s conclusion was of the type where I needed to think about it for a few days afterward before I wrote this review.
The story itself is usually quite fast-paced as it goes through the leadup to the protagonist’s mission, how he attempts to carry out that mission, and the consequences which flow from that. Except for one or two clunky scenes, the rest of the book flows smoothly. This novel could be adapted into a script for a miniseries or movie with minimal work; quite understandable given Elton’s experience as a scriptwriter. (Maybe he had that prospect in mind.)
The plot goes through quite a few twists along the way. The book contains enough hints and foreshadowing that none of these twists felt unjustified in themselves, although one of them was significant enough that I could understand if some readers find it off-putting. There is an abrupt shift in tone in the later stages, with the rest of the novel taking quite a different direction to where it appeared to be heading for most of the tale.
Elton has done some decent historical research for this book, which shows up in the details he depicts of the world of 1914. Some of the interplay between the characters was also interesting, particularly the interactions between the protagonist and an Irish suffragette character who is the closest thing the book has to a heroine. There was an entertaining series of scenes with the protagonist repeatedly using twenty-first century phrases, and the mixed impressions they made with a character from an earlier century.
In terms of what genre this book belongs in, it is primarily a time travel story rather than one focused on plausibility in alternate history. Even setting aside the time travel plot device, the alternate history part of the novel is not the most plausible. For readers who are interested in strongly plausible alternate histories, this may not be the book for you. That said, for the themes which this novel was exploring, I thought that this aspect worked fine.
Time and Time Again did have some less satisfying elements, too. The protagonist spends a fair amount of time moping about his past. I understood the necessity of having a main character who had some sorrow in their backstory. After all, a well-adjusted, happy person in the twenty-first century is unlikely to want to travel back a century in time, forever forsaking everyone and everything from the world that they know. However, this was the kind of character trait which could have been shown in one or two scenes earlier on, rather than the protagonist keeping up a litany of occasional whines throughout much of the book. In one sense it was realistic – people don’t always move on from their past that quickly – but it was far from interesting to read about so much of it.
Another aspect was that the protagonist came off as too much of an action hero, and thus did not really feel in danger for most of the book. Some of this was justifiable in-story, in that the main character was meant to be an ex-special forces type with experience in combat. The downside was that the way this was portrayed in the book, most of the action scenes did not have any tension because it always felt like the main character would accomplish everything he set out to do. Conversely, when he was in danger, it was usually through basic, stupid mistakes which someone of his military background shouldn’t make.
The novel also had one feature in common with most action hero stories and alternate history stories, namely its depiction of sex scenes. Recently Alexander Wallace wrote an article for the SLP e-zine entitled “On The One Good Sex Scene In Alternate History.” Suffice it to say that Elton’s book did not double that number.
There were also a couple of logical inconsistencies with the way time travel worked in the story, which made the climax illogical if you think too closely about it. This is often the case with time travel stories, and personally I can forgive this in stories (like this one) where the overall journey is interesting. However, I mention it since if that kind of thing annoys you too much, this may not be the book for you.
While the book had shortcomings, the fast pace of the story meant that it was easy to move on from them. The positives of the book more than outweighed these elements, and I enjoyed how the ending still had me processing it days later. It interested me enough in Elton as a writer to start checking out some other novels he’s written.
Jared Kavanagh has written multiple short stories published in SLP collections and is the author of the epic Lands of Red and Gold about aboriginal Australia, the first volume of which is available from Sea Lion press.