The book is by Ben Elton: comedian, stage, screen and TV writer as well as author. I have read all of his books and generally enjoyed them, particularly the one before this one: Two Brothers. This new book is entitled Time And Time Again.
The book is based on the idea that Sir Isaac Newton calculated how time and space worked and also that there would be a flaw in time that, if exploited, could take a person back to a particular point in history, namely Constantinople (Istanbul) on 1st June 1914 – 28 days before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the shot that started World War I.
You don’t have to be a fan of Sci-Fi to enjoy this book. The time travel element is important but the rest of the story works just as well in its own right.
So, Sir Isaac Newton entrusts a box of unpublished documents to the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (where he had studied) with a sealed letter that must be passed down through successive generations of Masters to the one who holds the office in 2024. On reading the note the Master sets up a group of the greatest academics of the day, calling itself the Order of Chronos, to study Newton’s papers. They conclude that time travel is not only possible but that they should use it to avert World War I and change the course of 20th and 21st century history.
Selected as the instrument of the Order of Chronos is Hugh Stanton, history graduate, former member of the SAS and recently bereaved, his family having been killed in a hit and run accident. The flaw in time is a one-way door which makes a return to the future impossible, so the selected agent must have no emotional ties to the 21st century. Although Stanton is sceptical of the idea of time travel he goes along for the ride and eventually finds himself in a cellar in Istanbul in 1914.
I don’t want to spoil this book for others, so I won’t say too much about the rest of the plot, however I don’t think it gives too much away to say that Stanton changes history. In fact he starts to make small changes early in his mission by saving the lives of a Turkish family who might otherwise have suffered the same fate as his own family. It is a basis of many time travel plots that even a minor change can have dramatic consequences and this is a concept that Ben Elton explores throughout the book.
Having changed the course of history this is where the paradoxes start. Stanton’s changes to history have unforeseen and tragic consequences, which worry him and place moral dilemmas in his path. The greater prize of avoiding World War I still stands, but the cost isn’t as low as the Order of Chronos thought it would be.
Newton’s papers are created before 1914, so they will still exist in all alternative futures unless they are destroyed by the hand of man or by natural disaster. Stanton works out that even if the course of the 20th/21st century is changed the new Master of Trinity (assuming it survives the historical changes) will eventually read the papers and be able to initiate the same journey that Stanton made, perhaps with the objective of undoing the damage that he himself has caused. What doesn’t occur to Stanton is that he might not be the first to have undertaken the journey and that the consequence of an earlier visitation might have been World War I. Stanton does eventually realise this omission, but very late in the story.
Stanton decides to return to Istanbul to leave a note for any future time travellers to read before they step into the time travel flaw, regarding the unforeseen consequences that they might unleash. It is then that he realises he another time traveller has joined him in 1914.
The second paradox is that the Order of Chronos were the best brains available in 2024, so they would surely have foreseen that even in a changed history the Newton papers would still exist, so better to arrange for Stanton to find and destroy them in 1914 to prevent them being read again. Ben Elton’s academics are sufficiently vain to conclude that their new version of history would be the best one and so they would surely also conclude that the papers would never be needed again.
Given the skills that Stanton possesses it would have been quite a minor challenge to destroy the papers; a little bit of light burglary would hardly have had him breaking sweat. But it would have created an even greater moral dilemma for Stanton. Should he prevent someone else from changing history again? Maybe prevent them creating a better future than he has managed to create? Or does he decide that the new history that he has set in motion must be the final, definitive version?
Perhaps Stanton would have destroyed the papers before he undertook the rest of his mission. He had four weeks available to him before he had to be in Sarajevo, which would give him time to do the job. The result would be that he wouldn’t be able to resolve his moral dilemmas, only regret his actions.
Would this have made for a better ending? I don’t know as I can’t change history to see how Ben Elton might have written that version, but they are intriguing questions.
Throughout the book I wondered why Ben Elton had chosen to set the future element of the story in 2024. I thought the book would work just as well if it had started out in 2014, the year the book was actually published. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised why this was. I’m not going to reveal the particular plot point that made it necessary. You can work that out for yourself. If after reading the book you haven’t spotted it then feel free to drop me an e-mail and I’ll explain it. Hint: Its not just the historical details that Ben Elton includes that are important, its also the ones he omits.
There are some lighter moments scattered through the book. Stanton is prone to dropping 21st century idioms into his conversation (though he does resist “text speak”) which cause some eyebrows to be raised. He also expresses some very 21st century views with regards to feminism and homosexuality that are very out of place in 1914 and again causes raised eyebrows. These are amusing observations on the pitfalls that must be avoided when travelling in time. Stanton also realises that some of the social change that comes out of the First World War (votes for women, the rise of socialism) will be delayed as a result of there being no war, but that is a price that must be paid in order to save millions of lives and, hopefully, create a utopian society.
Stanton is a believable flawed hero. The death of his family gives him more than his fair share of emotional baggage (a 20th century idiom that he uses later which confuses a suffragette), however he was trained by the SAS and therefore the mission always comes first. The other characters also provide believable foils to Stanton’s hero.
There are a number of plot twists that left me saying “I didn’t see that coming” and the ending is sudden and unexpected. Well, actually, you can probably work out how the story will end, but, like the alternatives versions of the future that are created, it is only one of several possible ways of ending the story.
Is there a moral to the story? Probably. "Be careful what you wish for" is the most obvious one. There is certainly a strong message that if you really could change history it doesn't mean that the new version would be any better than the last and indeed it might even be much worse.
Overall this was a very entertaining book and I recommend it to anyone who likes a good old fashioned action adventure (with a bit of time travel thrown in).
PS. The graphic used to illustrate this review is a tangled slinky, the metaphor used by the Order of Chronos to explain Newton’s theory of time and space.