by Robert Weibezahl
Machinations of time
H.G. Wells was not the first writer to imagine time travel, but his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, captured the Victorian imagination and still endures as a canonical work of speculative fiction. Now Spanish writer Félix J. Palma has appropriated the visionary writer as the central character of his own novel, The Map of Time, a brawny, genre-bending historical entertainment.
In three interlocking episodes, the fictionalized Wells is immersed in adventures that involve smashing the constraints of time, or at least our perception of them. The story begins with a thwarted suicide. A young, well-heeled Englishman, Andrew Harrison, is bereft over the death of his true love eight years before, and plans to kill himself in the very room where she was murdered. We come to learn that the girl, Marie Kelly, was the final victim of Jack the Ripper. After Andrew’s cousin stops his recklessness, they visit a time travel emporium run by Gilliam Murphy, who has capitalized on the runaway success of Wells’ novel by offering excursions into the future. Murphy’s purported method of time travel, though, can only take people forward, and to one date—May 20, 2000, the day of a fateful battle when humankind wrests control from its automaton overlords. Murphy suggests that Andrew visit Wells himself, who is rumored to have an actual time machine in his attic. With Wells’ help, Andrew seemingly travels back to 1888 and the night Marie was killed in order to change her fate. But can history be altered without damaging the fabric of time?
Spanish author Félix J. Palma raises intriguing questions about parallel layers of time in his genre-bending novel.
That question permeates the novel as another forward-thinking Victorian, this one a woman, travels on one of Gilliam Murphy’s trips with the intention of staying in the future. Her plan doesn’t work out, but has unforeseen consequences involving someone she meets in what she believes is the year 2000. In the final section of the novel, Wells finds himself the victim of a mysterious time traveler who wishes to steal the novelist’s work as his own—as well as that of Bram Stoker and Henry James—erasing all memory of these writers from history. Murphy returns in each of the episodes, a villainous, opportunistic counterpoint to the more romantic time-bending dreamers who populate the novel.
Repeatedly in The Map of Time, Palma plays tricks on his characters’—and the reader’s—perception of temporal reality, although at times this literary sleight of hand, once revealed, can prove mundane. Whether due to choices made by translator Nick Caistor, or the failings of the original Spanish from which he was working, some of the writing is rather pedestrian, especially given the “world of wonder” nature of the story. Rambling in spots, and unnecessarily repetitive in details, the writing is best when Palma adopts the archaic 19th-century literary tone of the omniscient narrator, reminding us that this is indeed a work of fiction meant to pay loving homage to the overwrought potboilers of that age.
Still, by the novel’s close, the disparate threads of the stories have entwined, and Palma has raised some intriguing questions about parallel layers of time and our possible relationship to the fourth dimension. A languorous, cunning mélange of historical science, science fiction, fantasy and mystery, The Map of Time is agreeable escapist fare, well-timed for summer reading.