Switch, A.S. King (Dutton 978-0-525-55551-3, $17.99, 225pp, hc) May 2021.
Award-winning author A.S. King excels at surrealist explorations of society, and her latest novel, Switch, is no exception. For Tru Becker and everyone else on Earth, time stopped on June 23, 2020. Every day is like every day, and in this ‘‘fold in time and space’’ the planet keeps spinning but nothing changes. To stave the fear such a turn of events has inspired, everyone has turned to ‘‘Solution Time’’ and N3WCLOCK. The clock, available at n3wclock.com, keeps time for the world as it should be, and Solution Time involves curricula for every classroom in every state in the US to try and solve the problem. Students are occupied! Adults know when it should be! Everyone can now stop panic-buying toilet paper and resume regular lives! You get used to it, everyone says. But Tru is refusing to do that. She wants to figure out why time stopped, and she knows exactly where to start, with the switch in the center of her house that no one touches and that her father is protecting as if his life depends on it.
First things first: King has written this novel in a unique staccato style that takes a bit of getting used to but fits perfectly with the dreamlike world she has created. Here’s a description of what it was like for Tru’s father to install mall kiosks before the fold in time which provides a perfect example of the author’s style:
He wouldn’t get home until five in the morning. His boss, high on stress and coffee forgot time / forgot sleep / made the guys come in again at seven to make more kiosks / install / make / install. Daddy / no sleep for weeks / wife then gone from his bed / finally said no.
What Tru’s father does after quitting his job is build a series of plywood boxes in their home that both protect the switch and isolate her and her older brother Richard. The construction soon overwhelms every room of the house, which has become a sad shell of itself anyway since her mother left (right before time stopped). There is also an older sister, someone who lies incessantly and contributed heavily to the family breaking apart, who is mentioned throughout the novel but never present. Overall, the stoppage of time is the least of the things the Beckers have to deal with. As the plot unfolds,, the house begins to physically rotate and soon they are going to the bathroom in buckets in the backyard and walking on the walls and ceiling.
I mentioned that King excels at writing the surreal, didn’t I?
Tru still gets up and goes to school every day, because Solution Times means you don’t quit. She is part of a group of classmates who are trying to understand the emotions behind what is happening and how it is affecting all of them. This ‘‘Psych Team’’ delves deep into Joy, Fear, Trust, etc. and tries to come with ways to not just survive but live and maybe even find a solution. Tru believes the time problem was caused by humanity not caring enough about each other – we have all been wasting so much time that time has abandoned us.
On top of everything else, Tru has become a star athlete and is throwing the javelin world-record distances, which no one can believe is happening even when they see it happen. Her struggle to deal with sudden fame while still trying to put her family back together is straightforward teen drama material, but it plays out much differently in the framework of this particular novel. King plays all the chaos and contradictions to the hilt, giving Tru plenty to think about as she watches the increasingly ridiculous behavior of everyone around her. ‘‘I am surrounded by skeptics while time has stopped and there is no solution,’’ Tru thinks. ‘‘The same people will go to church on Sunday and pray to an invisible man…. They will go to the smorgasbord afterward and eat maple syrup that is not actually maple syrup, but artificially-flavored sugar liquid on their not-real-pancakes.’’
Tru throws the javelin again, breaks another record, and still the judges do not believe it has happened. (If all of this is making you think Switch is the most on-point novel ever written, you would not be alone.)
As she always does, King gives readers a lot to think about in Switch. She’s brilliant and subversive and wicked in the best sort of way. There are no sacred cows for King, and she calls everyone on the carpet, from educators to the media. Readers will likely cheer with glee as Tru turns her baleful eye on many of the most absurd culprits around her. But there are some problems in Switch, and they cannot be ignored. The unnamed sister is all too easily dismissed as pure evil, an aberration born into this perfectly lovely family who spent all of her energy bent on destroying them just for fun. Tru insists that what people need to do is ‘‘give a shit about each other,’’ but her sister is never more than a cardboard villain, created as an excuse for why the family fell apart. Readers never hear from her directly, and the lurking possibility that there was something really wrong with this character and her family didn’t do a thing to help her is impossible to ignore.
The other issue is with the author’s dismissal of time as something that matters. King makes some solid points about how much time is wasted, and everyone would agree that there is something wrong with an education experience that ignores the biggest issues in the world while making sure, as Tru notes, that students can all multiply fractions. But I would caution readers from fully embracing the final words in King’s Acknowledgements. The author writes ‘‘To anyone who needs to hear it: Time means nothing. Money means little. Love means everything.’’ And yet for those of us who have seen the clock punched to keep the world’s crucial systems functioning, and know all too well that tracking hours is critical for the dispensing of life-saving medicine, well, those statements will ring more than a bit hollow. Tru’s life, even without time, is a life of privilege. She has a home. She has parents who love her. Her cruel sister is long gone. Switch is about someone who has the means and opportunity to save the people she loves, even the world. King does a masterful job, as always, of crafting Tru’s story, but never doubt for a second that, as strange her world is, she is still a lucky girl heading toward a very happy ending.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2021 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.