A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
As the calendar flips over to a brand new year, and we hurtle ever deeper into a future that still doesn’t have hovercars, it seems thematically appropriate to talk about time travel stories.
First up, my recommended starting place for Rasheedah Phillips’ work is Recurrence Plot, a collection of interconnected stories, intricately looped into each other. The collection opens with the story of a young woman whose mother committed suicide on her seventh birthday. Now, a mother herself, she is preparing to celebrate her 21st birthday by opening a box her mother left to her. Inside the box she finds a bracelet set with gemstones corresponding to the astrological signs, and a card claiming the bracelet can be used to travel through time. The woman dons the bracelet, kisses her daughter goodbye, and it’s left to the reader’s imagination whether she actually travels through time or repeats the pattern of her own mother’s life by committing suicide. The next story picks up with the woman’s daughter, Khepri, celebrating her birthday with one of her favorite activities, a trip to a local thrift store. There, she finds a strange book that purports to be a manual for time travel. Khepri’s story takes up the bulk of the collection, but there are other fragments and stories woven in within as well. A mysterious and sinister program run by a professor, which involves experimenting on black youth, causing violent behavior; a woman attending a conference on experimental time travel and seeing herself entering the building while she’s still sitting in her car; a far future point where you the reader are asked to choose your path of resurrection with a choose your own adventure style ending. Phillips’ conception of time travel is tied to memory, psychology, quantum theory, and spirituality. Traditional narrative is interspersed with diagrams, excerpts from the manual on time travel, quotations, and footnotes. Phillips delivers satisfying characters and mysteries, but leaves the stories open ended. Recurrence Plot is a slim volume, but one that’s densely packed. Its intertwined nature is truly fascinating, and makes the book an excellent place to start with Phillips’ work.
Next up is “Makeisha in Time” by Rachel K. Jones, originally published in Crossed Genres in August 2014, and since produced in audio form by both PodCastle and Cast of Wonders. The story centers on Makeisha, an accidental time traveler who fearlessly embraces her trips into the past. She has been a ruler, a warrior, a pirate, a troubadour, a poet, and many other things. She is infinitely adaptable and resourceful, living dozens of lifetimes, but always returning to her present ‘real’ life when she dies in the past. Although she loves the adventure, Makeisha begins to regret always leaving her friends and family behind. She vows to be more present, killing herself in the past to bring herself back to the future and stay in the moment. She settles down, but a trip to a museum shows her the way history has forgotten her and erased her achievements. Over and over, she sees women, especially black women such as herself, wiped from the narratives of the past. She refuses to stand for it, taking up time travel again to ensure that stories about white men aren’t the only ones history remembers. I particularly appreciate that Jones’ time traveler is a woman of color. Too often women are left waiting at home as men gallivant through time. Or they’re companions taken along for the ride, but not the instigators. Makeisha in Time gives us a female time traveler who fully embraces her role and makes the best of every situation she finds herself in, she is fierce and fearless, and fights for the voices and rights of other women as well. Overall, it’s an excellent starting place for Jones’ work.
“The House That Made Sixteen Loops of Time” by Tamsyn Muir is a quieter kind of time travel story. It originally appeared in Fantasy Magazine, and was reprinted in The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Anne and Jeff VanderMeer. Dr. Rosamund Tilly lives in a magical house. Sometimes water avoids her as it runs from the taps, occasionally coffee cups explode, and one of the chinchillas she owns is now permanently purple. Usually the house acts up when it’s mad at her. One day, it decides to take it’s annoyance out on her by creating a small loop of time as she’s sitting on the couch with her long-time best friend Danny. Danny isn’t aware of the time loop, and retains no memories from inside the loop. Only Rosamund remembers, and the reset appears to be triggered any time she speaks. She furiously writes notes to Danny, trying to figure out how to escape. In the enforced silence, Rosamund beings to reflect on her life – what she has, what she really wants, whether she might be lonely, and if the house is trying to teach her a lesson of a different kind this time around. It’s an effective story, compactly told, but one that leaves room for the reader to imagine the ongoing (mis)adventures Rosamund might have with her house in the future.
To Say Nothing of the Dog was my first introduction to Connie Willis’ work, so it seems natural to recommend it as a starting place for her work. The novel is set in a future where time travel has been invented, but where there are strict rules and safeguards in place to prevent anyone from misusing it. There is a whole bureau dedicated to time travel, but mostly for research purposes. However, accidents do happen, and an agent unwittingly brings a cat back with her from the 19th century. Ned Henry, another agent, is sent to return it. His contact in the 19th century is Verity Kindle, who is there trying to uncover the whereabouts of an object called the bishop’s bird stump. Lady Schrapnell wants it found as an ancestor of hers wrote about in her diary as being connected to a life changing event, one that led to her eloping to America. What ensues is part comedy of errors, part mystery, and part tense adventure, as an air raid bombing of the Cathedral where the missing bird stump is believed to be is imminent. There’s something almost Shakespearean about the novel at times, with various lovers, missed connections, and missed communications. The title is drawn from British author Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and those influences are evident as well. It’s funny without being slapstick or silly, and also just plain fun. Willis’ take on time travel is unique, as are the mechanisms in place to prevent paradoxes, such as the time machine gently placing the traveler down thirty miles from their intended destination, or getting the location right, but conveniently getting the year wrong. It strikes me as a very British way of dealing with the problem. I almost imagine the time machine as a prototypical butler, coughing politely and saying, ‘Oh dear me, did you mean to go to 1945? Terribly sorry. I seem to have sent to you 1345. My mistake. Just sit tight and we’ll have you all sorted out soon enough.’ Perhaps that’s just me. Regardless, it’s a highly enjoyable read, and if the time travel isn’t enough for you, as the title implies, there are indeed also dogs.
I’ll be back in February with more women to read. In the meantime, celebrate the new year by tossing out suggestions of your own in the comments.