The Silver Wind, Nina Allan (Titan 978-1789091694, $14.95, 368pp, trade paperback) September 2019
There’s a certain kind of SF that no one does better than the British. Eerie, ambiguous, sly, multivalent, sensitive to the nuanced emotional weather of the protagonists, highly naturalistic despite the weirdness…. If I mention the names Christopher Priest, Brian Aldiss, D.G. Compton and, on the horror end of the spectrum, Robert Aickman, I think you’ll have some sense of the type of book I am attempting to educe. In America, perhaps only Gene Wolfe, David Mitchell, and John Crowley match their UK peers in this manner.
Nina Allan belongs inextricably to this fellowship. Her books exhibit the patented blend of mimetic fidelity with cognitive estrangement. I first encountered her work when I was a judge for the Campbell Memorial Award and her debut novel, The Race, was under consideration. Highly impressed, I and the other judges made sure it gained a spot on the final ballot, although she eventually lost out to Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Regrettably, I did not have a chance to peruse Allan’s next two novels, The Rift and The Dollmaker. Those pleasures await. But now I get to enjoy her fourth book, a fixup of sorts, assembled out of interlocking short stories.
In a Foreword, Allan kindly and illuminatingly shares the genesis of these stories, and her esthetic goals in yoking them together, and categorizes them as well. “These are stories of a time in my life as a writer, a collation of memory. Time is strange, and so are memories. If these stories are about anything, they are about that.” Do the texts bear this out? Let’s see.
But first I should mention that although the various portions of the tale all possess narrative vigor and allure, as well as stirring speculative novums and precision-machined characters, the major thrills of the book lie in the patterning effects. That is, the way the mosaic pieces in each section are counterbalanced, offset, skewed and reflected in the funhouse mirrors of all the other sections. But to itemize all those effects would be to spoil the reader’s sense of delighted recognition when he or she encounters them out of the blue, and so I won’t do more than hint at the mutating riffs.
Our first tale is “The Hurricane”, and it’s set in the 1920s—although whether the timeline is identical to ours is dubious. Owen Andrews is our protagonist. He’s a journeyman watchmaker—in love with a woman named Dora Newland, who does not reciprocate—who apprentices himself to a master named Morton. (Note that Owen has a clubfoot, but is otherwise hale and hearty.) Fascinated with a horological mechanism called the “tourbillon,” Owen begins to suspect that he might have invented literal time travel. But his excitement is shattered by an untimely death, and Owen must flee his old familiar settings.
Next up is “Time’s Chariot”, narrated by Martin Newland, Dora’s brother. The central engine of this tale is their incestuous love affair, but it’s inflected by Martin’s decision to become a “connoisseur of time” when he is gifted with a magical Longines watch. One incident of childhood is emblematic of the fix that these characters will find themselves in:
Henry had an old-fashioned slide-viewer, an oblong plastic box with a slit in the top. When you put in a slide a light came on, projecting the transparency against a white background. The photographs showed groups of people: at the seaside or on board an aeroplane, seated around a table in paper hats. They seemed frozen in time. I had no idea who any of them were but that didn’t matter to me. Their world seemed magical, softly-lit and private, poised somehow between our own world and the past.
I used to imagine that in a world like that anything would become possible. I would lie on my back in the middle of Henry’s living room floor, one eye pressed to the viewfinder of the slide projector and wondering how I could arrange to be transported inside it. I wanted to be like those strangers, moving through the half-light at one remove.
When I told Dora this she was angry. “That’s horrible,” she said. “What if you got in and then couldn’t get out?”
The star-crossed tale of Martin and Dora ends sadly, launching us into “My Brother’s Keeper”. Now, with Dora nonexistent, Martin has a dead brother Stephen who continues to communicate with Martin in ghostly fashion. This go-round, the powerful time talisman is a Smith watch. “The Smith made me feel different, powerful. It made me feel as if I owned time, as if my relationship to time had somehow been changed.” Martin encounters an eccentric figure dubbed the “Circus Man,” who helps him with his watch, and he concludes his memoir with a new understanding of both death and time.
“The Silver Wind” is the real core and omphalos of the whole sequence. We inhabit a vivid quasi-dystopian future England. Martin, once married to a woman named Miranda, who died in an accident, is an antiques dealer gifted with an Owen Andrews clock. (Dora, now merely an unrelated friend, is married to a fellow named Ray.) He tracks down the clock’s maker, and finds that Owen, in this iteration a literal dwarf, is a retired scientist responsible for the “Silver Wind” time travel project. Owen explains the Moorcockian nature of the multiverse.
“Well, if you did you would know that what you are asking is impossible. For one thing, the time sciences are in their infancy. We have about as much control over the time stream as a Neanderthal over a steam train. But mainly it is just not possible. A layman such as yourself tends to think of time as a single thread, an unbroken continuum linking all past events together like the beads on a necklace. We are discovering that time isn’t like that. It’s an amorphous mass, a ragbag if you like, a ragbag of history. The Time Stasis might grant you access to what you think of as the past, but it wouldn’t be the past that you remember. You wouldn’t be the same and nor would your wife. There’s a good chance you wouldn’t even recognise each other, and even if you did it’s unlikely that you would have any sense of a shared history together. It would be like that feeling you get when you meet someone at a party and can’t remember their name. You know you know them from somewhere, but you can’t for the life of you think where. It would be an alternative scenario, not a straight rewind. And Miranda would still probably end up dying in that car crash. We’ve found that the pivotal events in history still recur, even if the cause and effect are subtly different. It’s as if the basic template, the temporal pattern if you like, is to some extent indelible.”
But Martins persists in asking for Miranda’s rebirth, and eventually manages to leave behind his sad universe for another.
In “Rewind”, we see that Martin and a woman named Miranda Coles are workmates with a superficial relationship. But a mystery draws them together, and they make a joint journey to investigate the puzzling phenomenon of people displaced across eras. And they are vouchsafed an answer by the Circus Man himself. The story ends in a touching clock-centric eucastrophe.
She saw the second hand begin to move. It was a centre seconds, finely honed and tapering, like a needle. Her fingertips, pressed tight to the glass, felt a faint pulse, as if a tiny mechanical heart were beating away.
For a moment time seemed to hesitate, the minutest of gasps, a silently indrawn breath as if at the sight of something wonderful. Then, all by itself, the world started turning again.
Following what is essentially the true conclusion of the sequence—if such an indeterminate narrative can possess such a definitive stopping point—we get three pendant items: “Timelines: An Afterword”, “Darkroom”, and “Ten Days”, which cast worthwhile shadows on events without making radical revelations.
Allan’s prose is consistently ultra-lucid; unsentimental yet capable of evoking deep emotions; and simultaneously full of gravitas and the quotidian muck and mire of life. The characters in all their permutations are totally believable, and a sense of life’s multifarious possibilities—traps and evasions—radiates off them. Of course, the very architecture of the book brilliantly embodies and reflects the physics and metaphysics of her conception of time as well.
Readers who cherish Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus for its insidiously thrilling mind games now finally have a volume to stand proudly alongside that classic.
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