BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A pair of time travelers, Shel and Dave, travel to past eras looking for Shel’s father.
PROS: Skillful storytelling; engaging story; showcases cool uses of a time travel device.
CONS: The tendency of the characters to show advanced technology in past centuries undermines the respect they’re supposed to have for the Golden Rule of Time Travel (which conveniently avoids paradoxes).
BOTTOM LINE: Every bit as enjoyable as the shorter version on which it is based.
Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Time Travelers Never Die, is an extension of his 1996 Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella (reviewed here). I re-read the novella version of the story a few weeks before reading the novel as an exercise in witnessing how an author might extend a short story to novel length. Would it pick up where the original left off? Would it simply be a padded version of the original story? Would the story change at all?
The novella was about two friends, Adrian “Shel” Shelborne and Dave Dryden, who became time travelers thanks to a watch-like device left behind by Shel’s father, who disappeared. It began as a murder mystery – it’s no spoiler to say that Shel dies since that is divulged on page 1 — and included Dave jumping to the past with Helen (the third side of a love triangle) to resolve a paradox.
The novel contains those same elements (and starts with same murder-mystery hook), though some of them are downplayed in favor of new elements: specifically, a large portion of the book focuses on the disappearance of Shel’s father, Michael, and Shel’s and Dave’s attempts to locate him. This involves several trips to locations in the past that Michael, a lover of history, is known to have studied. Thus we see Shel and Dave on an altruistic mission to the library at Alexandria, and making an unexpectedly harrowing visit to witness the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, and visiting Renaissance Italy and several other locales, etc. That’s not all that’s been changed; the device they use to travel through time has been updated from a watch to a near-future version of an iPod (a “Q-pod”).
One thing does remain the same: the Golden Rule of Time Travel is that if someone tries to change history, or something that is otherwise known to occur, then some higher force will intervene and — as seen in the one and only attempt — stop the heart of the person trying to violate causality. (This is affectionately known as “The Cardiac Principle”.) Although this is a convenient plot device to avoid paradoxes, it does not prohibit McDevitt from playing with themes of free will vs. determinism. As dramatic license would have it, the pair of travelers do have a habit of getting involved in past events (Bradbury’s butterfly be damned), including showing their advanced technology to people in previous centuries. This creates some interesting conflicts, but also undermines the respect they’re supposed to have for the The Cardiac Principle. Yet at the same time, McDevitt uses these situations to deftly show readers how much thought he put into the cool uses of time travel as the pair use the technology to overcome seemingly unsolvable predicaments.
Structurally, the bulk of the novella occurs as the last act of the novel. But enough has changed in the update to make it — if not surprising — more meaningful to the overall story. What has not changed is McDevitt’s confident prose which elicits a sense of comfort in the reader. You feel as if you’re in the hands of a capable storyteller.
In the end, the novel version of Time Travelers Never Die is every bit as enjoyable as the shorter version for much the same reasons, despite the additions and changes. These updates are significant enough to make this a worthwhile read for fans of the novella, and it also works as an accessible standalone novel for other sf fans, particularly fans of time travel.