Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance by Jonathan Strahan, ed.

Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris 978-1-78618-509-9, $18.99, 420pp, tp) June 2022.

In his introduction to Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance, Jonathan Strahan (who is both my podcast co-host and this magazine’s reviews editor) echoes an observation that ought to be self-evident, but that is often overlooked by readers and writers who get caught up in the theoretical mechanics of time travel – namely, that it’s simply “a great narrative device.” Fortunately, just about all his contributors already know this. Unlike other classic SF notions, time travel has never really been based on projections of existing technology or social trends, and it was popular long before Wells set out to science-fictionize it in 1895 with The Time Machine – think of Dickens’s earlier A Christmas Carol or Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. This may be one reason why SF has never fully owned the idea, and why authors from Robert Nathan to Audrey Niffenegger have found it just as useful a device for fantasy romance as for speculation. Nathan’s 1940 novel Portrait of Jenny probably established the wistful, sentimental tone of the time-travel or time-slip romance, later picked up by Jack Finney and Richard Matheson and reflected most directly here in Rowan Coleman’s “Romance: Historical”, a charming haunted-bookshop tale with a classic Twilight Zone ending. But as other selections make clear, love stories can easily inform many different sorts of SFF. It may even be that some of the grand SF time-crossed romances have been overlooked because they seemed overshadowed by the tale’s more traditional SF themes – think of Mandella and Potter in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, for example, separated by relativistic time-shifts. Among Strahan’s SF selections, however, it’s those more traditional elements that remain in the background – a Mars colony in Sameem Sid­diqui’s “Timed Obsolescence”, for example, or an ancient Earth-Moon war in Theodora Goss’s “Letter to Merlin”, which also leads to a pretty bleak vision of the final days of humanity.

Goss’s story is one of several that make effec­tive use of another aspect of the time romance: the opportunity to explore various historical settings (thus bringing yet another genre into play). Cast in the form of a letter from Guinevere to Merlin, it begins with the not-entirely-new idea that Merlin might have been a time traveler (as is Guinevere) but quickly opens into an almost mournful nar­rative that turns the Arthur/Guinevere tale into what has sometimes been called an entropic romance. In Carrie Vaughan’s “Dead Poets”, a poet and literary scholar hoping to meet Sappho instead lands in Tudor England with the poet Thomas Wyatt, credited with having introduced the sonnet to England but now grieving over the execution of Anne Boleyn, who may have been his lover. Through a similar misfire, the protagonist of Seanan McGuire’s “First Aid”, who has made elaborate preparations for visit­ing Elizabethan England, instead finds herself in a tacky Renaissance Faire in 1996 (the story isn’t quite as comic as it sounds, once we learn the protagonist’s personal motives). Josephine, the time traveler in Nina Allan’s moving “The Lichens”, meets an aspiring woman scientist named Helen in 18th century England, seeking her help in unearthing what may be a long-buried alien spacecraft and developing a relationship that echoes through many subsequent decades – though it can’t quite save Helen from dying in obscurity. Sarah Gailey’s “I Remember Satel­lites” essentially re-imagines the story of Wallace Simpson and Edward VIII from the point of view of a time traveler whose assignment is to prevent the fascist sympathizer Prince Henry from ascend­ing to the throne, even though her real love is a fellow time traveler. And the 25th-century time traveler in Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s “Berga­mot and Vetive”, one of the more sensual tales, travels all the way back to the little-understood Indus Valley civilization in 2501 BCE, initially to study water conservation but inevitably getting involved in romance.

It’s not too surprising that, in tales focused on romance, the mechanics of time travel are hardly addressed at all. The most traditional SF approach appears in one of the anthology’s two reprints, Ellen Klages’s now-classic “Time Gypsy”, which combines a forbidden same-sex romance in 1950s San Francisco with an ingenious revenge visited upon an arrogant scientist who has claimed credit for another physicist’s work. But in Alix E. Har­row’s “Roadside Attraction”, the time portal is simply a pillar of sandstone located in a failed theme park, where a recently-jilted visitor seeks his passion in the past, only to find it closer to home (a version of a fairly common romance plot). Some stories invoke supernatural or even religious concepts; “The Past Life Reconstruction Service” of Zen Cho’s tale offers visits to earlier incarnations, though the middle-aged protagonist finds that even in past lives he can’t quite escape versions of his much younger boyfriend. The idea of the bardo, or “that timeless place between now and what’s to come,” figures prominently in Margo Lanagan’s “The Place of All the Souls”, and she makes brilliant use of it. The shortest and saddest selection, Sam J. Miller’s “Unabashed, or: Jackson, Whose Cowardice Tore a Hole in the Chronoverse”, is largely a meditation on the possible alternate lives lost after the narrator’s boyfriend dies from a homophobic beating.

From a purely literary point of view, Someone in Time is simply an outstanding collection, with none of the contributors phoning in the sort of facile time-twisting jokes that once were a pulp magazine staple. Almost every contributor seeks out a surprisingly original angle for approaching romance, and, rather refreshingly, more than half those romances involve LGBTQIA+ relation­ ships. Some of the tales are especially notable simply for the grace of their prose. I’ve already mentioned Nina Allan’s elegant “Lichens”, but Jeffrey Ford’s “The Golden Hour”, with its tragic time traveler trapped in a small town in a world just slightly off-kilter from our own, is as beautiful as we’ve come to expect from him. But the most adventurous experiments with the notion are two tales that gain considerable power from the very fragmentation reflected in their structure: Eliza­beth Hand’s “Kronia” (the one other reprint), which imagines various iterations of a relationship dislodged by the 9/11 attacks, and Catherynne M. Valente’ s often very funny “The Difference Between Love and Time”. Valente’s narrator chronicles a lifelong, and vividly nonlinear, affair with “the space/time continuum”, which takes on many personae; the tale remarkably retains its intimate focus by returning to memories of vacations in a seedy Washington state resort. It may be the most unusual tale here, but there’s hardly a story in Someone in Time that could be described as “usual.” Sometimes a theme anthol­ogy leaves you with the feeling that only the finest contributors rose to the challenge. Here you get the sense that all the contributors welcomed the opportunity, and they pretty much all delivered. The result, despite some sad outcomes for the characters, feels downright celebratory.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the June 2022 issue of Locus.

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