Someone in Time ed by Jonathon Strahan
Solaris, pb, £8.79
Reviewed by Rym Kechacha
The thing about time travel is that it can be anything you want. You can go forwards in time, backwards, one-way or return. You can imagine time like a thread you travel along in either direction or like a branching tree with infinite possibilities. You can change the past or be scrupulous about not interfering. You can invent any rules because no one understands the physics of it. You can even make it vaguely plausible because no one has definitively proved that it doesn’t and cannot exist. It’s got a long pedigree; time travel makes an appearance in ancient Hindu mythology, a Japanese fairytale called Urashima Tarō, Buddhist and Jewish stories, as well as being an element of Arthurian legends and folktales about the Fae. It’s become a staple of science-fictional inquiry into other worlds, fate and the nature of reality, and you can throw some historical resonance in there, too, playing with the particular pleasure your reader derives from matching up the story with their historical knowledge to tap into a delicious dramatic irony.
Add to this the perennial favourite topic of love stories, and you’ve got a gift of a concept to writers, a gift that veteran editor, critic and anthologist Jonathan Strahan has given to sixteen writers to form the anthology of romantic time-travel stories, Someone in Time. It’s hard not to envy him a little, getting to assemble teams of brilliant writers over and over again to ask them to let their imaginations fly. The result is a gorgeous, diverse quilt of stories that give voice to queer protagonists from many different times and places, featuring the many different kinds of romantic love that plague and delight humans at any and all times.
Stand-out stories for me were Catherynne M Valente’s The Difference Between Love and Time, where we witness a messy relationship between our protagonist and the space-time continuum itself; and Unbashed by Sam J Miller, which holds its multiple timelines and realities lightly, yet you feel every single heartbreaking option so keenly. I also loved Past Life Reconstruction Service by Zen Cho, where two souls find each other over and over again, perfectly conveying a cyclical sense of time; and Roadside Attraction by Alix E Harrow, a gently comic queer love story where we root for each of the characters all the way. This is the exquisite pleasure of an anthology; there will be something here that speaks to and for everyone.
The only problem is that, given the specificity of the constraint, the stories can feel quite similar to each other. Opinions differ on whether short story collections and anthologies are best read front to back like a novel or if they can act a little like a book of divination, flicking through the pages and diving in where chance has you stop, but certainly, if you read from front to back, as I did, it can feel as though you’re in your own kind of time machine sending you perpetually fifteen minutes back in time to read another, similar, story.
But perhaps this isn’t really a problem. The constraint of subject exposes fascinating differences in voice and tone, showing how a writer gets into the nuts and bolts of their story, how they build their characters, where they choose to direct the reader’s gaze and when they pull the rug away. The calibre of the writers in this volume makes that kind of close reading a joy, though if you did read this anthology by dipping into a story here and there, I have a hunch that you’d find it an even richer reading experience.
I’m reminded of something I once heard about the genesis of a cache of Latin American novels from the seventies and eighties. The story goes that the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa were sitting in a pub in Hampstead in 1967 and came up with an idea for a series of novels and novellas with the theme of the Latin American dictator. They invited several writers to take part and got a publisher on board, but the project never happened. However, three of the books they commissioned were eventually published; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State and Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme. (Fuentes’ own The Death of Artemio Cruz, though published in 1962, might also be considered to be in this club.)
Someone in Time makes me want to read more of the authors I have read and seek out those I haven’t to see all the other themes and modes they work in. It makes me want to read some of those stories, again and again, to share and recommend them. And it makes me want to read more of Jonathan Strahan’s anthologies, to discover more ways different authors have riffed on the other imaginatively fruitful concepts that preoccupy speculative fiction writers.