Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Great Work Of Time by John Crowley

At the end of this novella is a brief editor’s note in which John Crowley lists the history book Pax Brittanica as a reference, and thanks its author, Jan Morris, for ‘many hours spent dawdling in a world more fantastical than any he could himself invent.’ It’s a quote that reminds how much the British Empire is a perfect setting for sci-fi. With that in mind, I’ll delve into The Great Work of Time.

The narrator is unsure exactly when to begin his tale, being that in this convoluted universe, everything he describes has both already happened and is yet to happen. He finally settles on one Caspar Last, a quirky American genius who discovers time travel in 1983. Little interested in the practical applications of what is, to him, an idea only interesting for its theory, Last concocts a scheme to make himself rich after only a single use of the machine. He travels to British Guyana in 1851, and returns to the present carrying a stamp that is now worth millions. He then destroys the machine, hoping that his trip will have had no other consequences.

But Last’s venture into the Empire’s past has unwittingly caught the attention of the Otherhood, a secret organization created by Cecil Rhodes. Their goal is to ensure the stability of the Empire by whatever means possible, and in Last’s Apparatus, they have found their most powerful tool yet…

The Great Work of Time is a deeply strange piece. It’s a time travel story that really rises to the challenge of presenting a complex but consistent set of rules for its chronological meddling. It’s a warning about the nature of chaos and stability. But for me, its most powerful attribute is its affecting description of longing for a world now lost. This is most clearly expressed through the character of Denys Winterset. Winterset has lived in a peaceful world shaped by the Otherhood- a world in which the Empire never fell and the world wars never occurred- but he has also lived in a world much closer to our own.

The contrasts between the two are constant yet subtle. When Caspar Last travels to Guyana in 1983, he does so by a suffocating and cheap package-tour flight full of noisy tourists. Arriving at his destination, he finds it a rotting tropical backwater kept afloat only by the shoddily-built American facilities that cater to tourists.

When Denys Winterset travels to Khartoum in the alternate 1954, he does so on the luxurious Cape-to-Cairo railway. Designed by Rhodes to pass right through the spray of Victoria Falls, it is magnificent, efficient and proud. It turns out that in a 20th Century without world wars or a powerful America, the development of technology has been somewhat slowed by the dominant British Empire-

-a great beast without predators, and naturally conservative; it clung to proven techniques and could impose them on the rest of the world by its weight.

This is a little whimsical fantasy on Crowley’s part- in real life, the British Empire greatly hastened the modernization of the world throughout its time by spreading steam power, electricity and the telegraph everywhere it went. The fact that the Empire happened to be on the way out just as the motor cars and telephones became ubiquitous is, I believe, slightly off the point. I guess Crowley is thinking of a world without a dominant USA and its drive towards a world of Model T’s and assembly lines. It’s a fantasy that allows Crowley to make his alternate Empire one in which airships and trains still dominate transport by the 20th Century- a common enough trope in Empire-themed science-fiction.

It’s also part of what makes the alternate 1954 so pleasant. Everything is more laid back than in our own world. People who work for the Empire have pride and purpose. It’s all fantasy of course- little is said of how native peoples feel about this Empire, for example- but some throw-away lines indicate that the English have become more enlightened about their inherent ‘superiority’ than they were in the 19th Century.

Ultimately, it is slightly frustrating that, having created this fascinating world, it is not explored in much detail. The novella is short, and much time is spent on other worlds. Some of them are interesting, such as a well-researched section on Cecil Rhodes. Others are so distracting that it feels as if they belong in a different book, such as a future London that is inhabited by several non-human species. The ultimate result of all the Otherhood’s meddling is a far future that is puzzling but visually memorable.

The writing throughout is great, and there are plenty of treats for fans of sci-fi and Empire alike. The tortured logistics of Caspar Last's attempt to enrich himself using his machine are hilarious and thought-provoking- in Crowley's time-traveling universe, it's much harder than it sounds. Recommended.

(photo by Isabelle Grosjean)

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