The Far Time Incident
by Neve Maslakovic
As an administrative assistant, Julia Olsen is used to handling student crises and hysterics with equanimity. However, when a graduate student rushes into her room and tells her that one of the professors has been scattered across time, Julia knows that this isn’t a situation that can be solved with a jar of cookies and a little diplomacy. Two professors at Julia’s university have invented the first time-travel machine, bringing fame and possible fortune to the Time Travel Engineering department of St. Sunniva. But now one of the inventors has gone missing, apparently vanished into one of the deadly “ghost zones” of the past. And Julia is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
I really loved Julia as a character. She’s level-headed, practical, and has an amusing tendency to think in lists. I love her descriptions of the school. When the story starts, it’s winter at the school, and Julia has a lot to say about character-building cold. As she tells a visitor to the school:
“We encourage walking and biking at St. Sunniva,” I explained, sitting down across from her.
“I’ve always thought of walking and biking as summer activities.”
“In the winter we encourage bundled-up walking and biking.”
“Of course you do.”
One of the reasons I picked up The Far Time Incident was that the author had a PhD in the Stanford STAR lab, and I was interested to see what someone with a background in physics and electrical engineering would do with time travel. A little disappointingly, the time travel concept is a little on the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey side. In Maslakovic’s version, travellers in history can only go into the past, only into times before their birth, and only where History allows. They can’t influence important figures; in fact, whenever they try to get near them, History brings up invisible walls that freeze the time travellers in their steps. The idea of a sentient and self-guarding History certainly solves a lot of problems, but I admit I find it a bit disappointing. And even with this rather heavy-handed worldbuilding, the book still suffers from internal contradictions.(show spoiler)
All the same, the idea of History protecting itself by casting time travellers into “ghost zones” is an interesting idea, as is the concept of murder via unintended time travel.
Although the lack of technical detail in the time travel aspect may have been a little disappointing, my expectations were fully satisfied by the book’s portrayal of academic life. Maslakovic does a wonderful job capturing the petty politics and bizarre little details of academia. As Julia puts it,
“Think of academia as a fleet of fishing boats bobbing on Sunniva Lake, each boat captained by a professor, manned by graduate students, and producing a steady catch of scientific finds and journal papers. Most of the catch is little fish but the fishermen bump into each other’s boats as they compete for the big fish--funds, grants, lab space, publicity, Nobel Prizes. It’s a rare person who can keep a level head and not get pulled into the fray.”
With all the possible uses of time travel, the major interest is solving the Big Important Questions: for example, did Cleopatra really have a big nose? Even the time machine, which is dubbed "STEWie" (for “Space TimE Warper”) got a laugh out of me. There’s a grand tradition of performing alphabetic acrobatics to come up with cute names for academic inventions. (In my field, we call it “backronymning.”)
If you have any background in academia, you’re sure to find The Far Time Incident’s portrayal of college life both accurate and amusing. The rules of time travel left me a bit sceptical, but they are definitely original. If you’re looking for a cozy near-time scifi story with a lot of historical novel thrown in, then The Far TIme Incident is definitely worth a look.
~~I received this an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, 47North, in exchange for my honest review.~~