BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Time travel agent Reggie Bellows travels back in time to the 1972 Watergate scandal in order to prevent World War III.
PROS: Excellent premise; solid plotting; swift-moving story with lots of unexpected turns and surprises; crisp, clear, confident writing.
CONS: Some plot holes begin to appear if you ask too many questions.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best debut novels I’ve read, and a damn fine time travel story, too.
There are two kinds of time travel stories. The first kind uses travel through time as a convenient, throwaway plot device to create a “fish out of water” scenario. In other words, the time travel is incidental to the plot and can effectively be pulled from the story without changing much else. The second kind takes the opposite approach; it embraces the idea of time travel and plunges readers headfirst into seemingly impossible situations. The better stories tend to be the latter kind because they offer mind-bending scenarios that are more rewarding to sf readers. Claire Willett’s debut novel The Rewind Files is one of the better time travel stories I’ve read because it’s not afraid to embrace the trickiness of time travel. That said, don’t expect the conventional go-to plot device of many a time travel story that has some character meeting a younger version of themselves or their parents. The trickiness I refer to has more to do with the landscape of time travel than the oft-used paradox.
The Rewind Files begins a century and a half in the future. Time Travel is possible, but regulated and policed by the U.S. Time Travel Bureau. Regina “Reggie” Bellows is a twenty five year-old Junior Agent with the Bureau, quite inexperienced and with a lot to live up to: her parents are Bureau legends. Her mother, in particular, who is the current Deputy Director of the Bureau, is one tough cookie. But Reggie is a Chronologist, not a field agent, meaning she mostly searches the time stream for so-called Chronomalies — things that aren’t supposed to happen — so that they can be cleaned up by other Agents. Late one night, Reggie stumbles on a Chronomaly that puts a field agent in immediate danger, so she takes it upon herself to rescue him. There are consequences of her actions — not only with the Bureau itself for breaking some rules, but also in the fact that she gets involved in an even larger Chronomaly in 1972 — a massive conspiracy that ultimately started World War III.
To be clearer, in this future, WWIII has not only happened, it happened in the 1980s. The Rewind Files presents readers with an alternate history/future where things noticeably went wonky around the time of the Watergate scandal. Here, Ronald Regan was a four-term president that succeeded Nixon (Gerald who?), and China and the U.S. engaged in a war that killed fifty six million people. The main thrust of the novel is that Reggie travels back in time to the Watergate era of Washington, D.C. to set things right. The ultimate goal is ensuring that history plays out according to the General Timeline, or the way it’s supposed to play out (that is, the history that the Omniscient Reader knows to be true).
This may seem like an overly complex plot, but it’s beautifully handled by Willett’s straightforward and confident writing. It’s a fruitful plot as well, allowing for multiple ways in which to enjoy the novel. For starters, readers know what version of history our hero is trying to achieve. The real world facts of Watergate are well-known or easily researched, so we know where and how the timeline is broken. The premise also provides a welcome opportunity to portray the cultural mores of the time period regarding race and gender (as do other time periods readers get to visit). Then there are the excellent, nail-biting scenes like the one about gathering intelligence at the Watergate offices. Willett somehow manages to outdo many spy thrillers by keeping the story moving forward even while she ratchets up the tension. The first-person narrative puts you in Reggie’s shoes as she poses as a White House Secretary for John Dean by day, and eavesdrops at the Watergate hotel by night. (She has help from Calliope, a wise-cracking tech wiz from Reggie’s time, and from Carter, a seasoned Bureau operative who resides in 1972.) As the scheme begins to unfold and secrets are revealed, the drama is amped up yet again when conspiracy rears its head. There are few who can be trusted and some late-story reveals are genuinely shocking, yet perfectly plausible by reviewing earlier clues — evidence of solid plotting. Finally, because of the very nature of time travel, changing the past means there are lots of consequences. Willett does a great job of laying out those consequences in a way that’s mind-bending and fun.
Where The Rewind Files falters slightly is in the myriad twists and turns of time travel itself, which is ironically the same source of its enjoyment. You’re not supposed to ask questions about why there is such a sense of urgency when time travel affords the traveler literally all the time in the world in which to react. (How, for example, can a time travel agent be in immediate danger?) You’re not supposed to ask why an incongruity would erase the current timeline yet leave the omniscient narrator (Reggie) unchanged. Some of those things are eventually explained, but much like the mechanics of time travel itself, it’s all very hand-wavy. Which is just fine. The Rewind Files is not only a story in which readers are just supposed to go with the flow, it’s also written in a way that makes it quite easy to do so. The story moves much too quickly and in such interesting ways that you don’t want to miss the ride by asking too many questions.