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The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, $24.
Sway, by Zachary Lazar, Little, Brown, 2008, $23.99.
TIME TRAVEL is so stressful. For starters, you have to keep track of blackout dates. No Hawaiian vacations in late 1941; forget about London during autumn 1666; and unless your plague vaccinations are up to date, the entire 14th century is out. Once you reach your destination, there's so much to remember. Don't step on any wildlife. Don't kill your grandfather. Don't sleep with your grandmother. Packing is a nightmare—what do you bring for the Later Cretaceous? Were bustles in or out in 1873?
And don't even think about bringing back any souvenirs.
On the page, of course, time travel has its rewards, in particular for writers. Historical research itself is a form of time travel. Total immersion in the books and ephemera of a period; visiting sites where major events occurred or interesting people lived; fingering the clothing and everyday objects of another time—this kind of work is magical, intoxicating. When done well, it results in alternate timelines that challenge us to reexamine the history of our own world: books like Bruce Sterling's and William Gibson's The Difference Engine; James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder; Lisa Goldstein's The Dream Years; John Crowley's Aegypt sequence and The Evening Land; Christopher Priest's superb, minatory The Prestige and The Separations. Time travel and alternate history work especially well as fictional or cinematic early-warning systems, sounding the tocsin for human hubris (and stupidity) and technological peril: witness H. G. Wells's The Time Machine; Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"; Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; Chris Marker's influential short film La Jetée and its homage, Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. In a more personal vein, temporal adjustment allows us to indulge all our best and worst what-if scenarios, as in Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol;" Jack Finney's "The Third Level" and Time And Again; Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife; Groundhog Day and the Back to the Future franchise, among myriad others. The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt's disappointing new novel, juggles many of these elements—time-out-of-joint romance; fascinating historical figures; a homemade time machine—and manages to drop every single one of them.
Its quirky setup sounds appealing enough. In 1943 Manhattan, Louisa, a young chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker, meets the eighty-six-year-old Nikola Tesla, the hotel's longterm and impecunious resident oddball, and the two bond over a shared affection for homing pigeons. If he were around today, the Serbian-born Tesla would totally make it to the final cut on World's Top Genius Inventor. His theories contributed to the development of modern electricity, radio, magnetic induction, X-ray machines, tasers, and spark plugs, to name a few. He also anticipated a means of displaying brain imagery (not unlike PET scans and their more recent iterations); a remote-operated, fuelless aircraft; and a no-nonsense, euphemism-free method of mass destruction termed "the death ray." (You might want to vote Tesla off the island, but then there'd be no island.)
Despite patenting various inventions, Tesla was tragically done in by a devastating combination of hubris and naiveté and good old-fashioned bad luck. After immigrating to the U.S. (he became a citizen in 1891), he worked for Thomas Edison, who fought to deliver electricity by means of direct current (DC) rather than by Tesla's alternating current (AC). Edison famously screwed Tesla out of a huge bonus he'd been promised, an incident Hunt covers in her novel. The notorious "War of the Currents" between Edison and Westinghouse/Tesla is only referred to en passant in The Invention of Everything Else—just as well, since it's a central theme in Priest's far superior The Prestige. If history is written by the winners, the also-rans often get the better roles in fiction—in addition to Priest's novel, Tesla has also made appearances in books by Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon, among others.
Hunt's Tesla is a melancholy, dreamy old man who talks to pigeons. His room at the Hotel New Yorker is a "sort of curiosity cabinet, a mad scientist's dollhouse" filled with electrical coils, notebooks, magnets, clothing from the old country. It's catnip for Louisa, a prying chambermaid who likes to rifle suitcases and bureau drawers but doesn't steal anything. Louisa lives alone with her widowed father, Walter, the night watchman at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. On the morning of the same day she first encounters Tesla, she meets a young man named Arthur, who claims to be a long-forgotten schoolmate; he wins Louisa's affection by fondly recalling her childhood fascination with homing pigeons. Later that same week (the novel's main action begins on New Year's Day and ends on January 7, the day of Tesla's death), Louisa, Walter, and Arthur discover that Walter's childhood friend Azor, missing and presumed dead for several years, is in fact alive.
Azor claims to have invented a time machine. This was a relief to me, because an alarming number of minor but annoying anachronisms in the book's opening chapters made me grind my teeth over what seemed to be egregiously sloppy efforts on the author's part to evoke another time. To wit: references to "polyester slips" in 1943. Polyester wasn't in common use as a fabric in the U.S. till the early 1950s, and Louisa would certainly have assumed a petticoat was made of nylon or silk. Another passing reference to foam rubber in the late 1800s (it wasn't developed until 1936). Workers in Edison's office in 1884 use Royal typewriters, but the Royal company wasn't established until 1906. A 1943 hotel worker refers to a power outage as being caused by a "power surge," a phrase that (while historically possible) sounds blaringly wrong for its period.
Okay, I thought, it's an alternate history—all those things are in there on purpose.
But no alternate history is truly developed in The Invention of Everything Else, no rationale given for Royal typewriters making an appearance twenty-odd years before they were invented (Tesla did theorize a voice-activated typewriter, but if that's mentioned in Hunt's book, I missed it). Instead of a carefully constructed alternate world, Hunt gives us a clumsily executed deus ex machina, Azor's homemade time machine, which functions primarily to shuttle Walter back to see Freddie, his beloved dead wife, but kills him in the process, a death that conveniently takes place offstage. Maybe the machine also brought Arthur from the future to hook up with Louisa, and maybe Tesla used it to dodge his own death. But I'm still not sure of those plot elements. I'm not sure how it works, either—it seems to be made of scrap metal and hope—or why it kills Walter. I am sure that the "Sam" who befriends Tesla is Samuel Clemens, who as Mark Twain wrote a famous time travel book, and really was friends with Tesla; but I'm not sure what he's doing in this story, except wandering around in period dress to provide some commentary that is supposed to be ironic. The same goes for Robert Underwood Johnson, the real-life editor of The Century magazine, and his wife, Katherine, who were also friends of the scientist but appear to be here as historical window-dressing. Hunt's Tesla is supposed to be in love with Katherine, but his passion registers as little more than a schoolboy crush on his best friend's wife. Where's that death ray when you need it?
More troublesome even than the bungled time travel element is Hunt's fuzzy characterizations. Both Arthur and Tesla are described as vampiric in appearance. But as neither is a vampire, and I don't think that Arthur and Tesla are intended to be related, or the same person (which could happen in a time loop), the use of the word "vampire" seems like sloppy descriptive shorthand for dark, vaguely mysterious men. Ditto the reference to Louisa's Hell's Kitchen home as seeming "small and warm as a doll's", echoing the earlier description of Tesla's hotel room. And Hunt simply resorts to cliché when it comes to the Hotel New Yorker: "The hotel is a gentle monster, a sleeping giant that endures the constant bustle of so many guests. Everywhere art-deco designs make the eyeballs pop."
These saggy descriptions are especially frustrating, since Hunt is capable of producing a fine passage, such as this one:
As Louisa walks home from the subway, she counts the gas lamps that once lit the sidewalks outside people's homes. The sun is setting. Years ago, before she was born, it would have been time for the lamplighter to start his evening's work. Wiry men who walked the streets of New York stopping at each cast-iron lamp and, by swinging one foot up onto the base, grabbing hold of the cross handle just below the glass chimney, and hanging suspended there in that position, they'd light the lamp. Now most of the lamps have been replaced by electrical ones or removed altogether, leaving behind a circle of fresh cement to fill in the hole. Walter would sometimes still demonstrate the lamplighter's swing. He'd get a faraway look in his eyes, Antarctica far, before both the wars, before he even met Freddie, so far that Louisa could imagine her father as a child, the excitement he must have felt peeking out from behind a bedroom curtain in the home where he grew up, waiting and watching for the lamplighter to make his way down the block as if every day were Christmas somehow.Time travel stories depend in large part upon a wistful evocation of what might have been; but this sense of a lost opportunity should not apply to the novel itself. Hunt's entire book suffers from a weird diffusion of affect and effect, as though the author couldn't decide where to place its narrative weight. Wistful love story, like Time and Again? Historical panorama, à la E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime? Clever use of the eccentric Tesla, as in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day?
This uncertainty, a kind of blurred literary double vision, is the central problem with The Invention of Everything Else. Historical fiction lives and dies by verisimilitude: get one detail wrong and you have the kind of detail that yanks you from the page or screen back to the very present you're presumably trying to escape from. Think of the Roman soldiers sporting wristwatches in Spartacus. A forgivable gaffe in a masterpiece, maybe, but still. Hunt has Walter and Azor as boys singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a song they would surely have known by its correct title, "Yankee Doodle Boy." Historical accuracy may not be everything, but it's something. The error appears sloppy.
Speaking of his time machine, Azor remarks, "You'd be surprised. You can build almost anything if you have two years, an empty airport, and a pile of Popular Mechanics." It's an amusing observation, but it doesn't hold true for writing a novel, especially one as ambitious as The Invention of Everything Else. You need flesh-and-blood characters, narrative drive, a sense of history and landscape that transcends what you can find online by entering "Nikola Tesla" and "1943 New York." That stack of Popular Mechanics will only get you so far.
Sway, Zachary Lazar's terse and haunting second novel, also draws on historical persons and events, with much greater success—an achievement all the more remarkable when one considers the familiarity of its source material, the still fertile burying ground of the late 1960s. The narrative relies less on coincidence than on a confluence between the Manson Family, the Rolling Stones, and the experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. The pattern of connections between its central characters—Anger; Brian Jones; Anita Pallenberg; Charles Manson; and Bobby Beausoleil—might be drawn as a pentacle, a fitting symbol since all these figures dabbled to varying degrees in the occult. Manson and the Rolling Stones entourage (in their Satanic Majesties mode) have spent the decades since 1970 as poster boys for the forces of black light. Anger's films, especially his so-called Magick Lantern Cycle, have a potent if drippy gloss of do-it-yourself occultism and so-bad-it's-good-for-you sex. They look silly and amateurish now, and give a good idea of the results of a dream collaboration between Ed Wood and Terence McKenna. But they looked silly and amateurish then, too, and Anger's potent blend of arthouse pretention and grindhouse imagery has had a powerful influence on film and video artists such as Matthew Barney and the late Derek Jarman.
Which leaves Bobby Beausoleil, perhaps the least-known of Sway's protagonists. A handsome, aimless rock star manqué, Beausoleil was a lunatic fringe figure who, like the Warhol Factory's Valerie Solanas, had a flickering encounter with celloloid fame when he appeared in Anger's short "Invocation of My Demon Brother," a movie that also featured the Rolling Stones. By the time the film debuted, Beausoleil had gained far greater notoriety for his part in the Manson Family murders—he killed a friend, then used the victim's blood to scrawl POLITICAL PIGGY on a wall beside the crime scene.
Lazar depicts murder, the Stones' music, and Anger's filmmaking process with the same measured detachment. This understatement works better at evoking the vertiginous freefall of those days than the exultant, overripe prose the period too often evokes from writers who lived through it. (It probably helps that Lazar is too young to have experienced the era firsthand.) At 250 pages, Sway provides a capsule history of the music and dark aesthetic that comprised the fag-end of the 1960s. There's the poisonous seepage of political into personal violence, demonstrated in Brian Jones's vicious beatings of his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg; the collusion of art, drugs, and the occult in Anger's movies and the Stones' music; the fatal combination of naivieté and refusal that culminated in the black spectacle that was the Stones' performance at Altamont, famously depicted in Gimme Shelter, a film that was neither elegy nor celebration of sixties' excess, but indictment.
But in Sway, the same event is presented as ritual, though not the demonic fever dreams of George R.R. Martin's The Armgaddon Rag or Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve. Instead, in Lazar's more subdued vision, Anger's film inadvertently summons into being our own damaged world.
"I'd like this to just be the first part," Anger said.The beginning was the end: the transcendent instauration that so many hippies and artists and ordinary people hoped would occur never did. "Everything is falling apart right now," Anger goes on to tell Jagger. "That's what we know. This revolution or whatever they're calling it, it's really happening. Whether it's only chaos, or if it leads to something better, we don't know yet. That's why I want to make the next film. I don't think it has to be only chaos."
But it was only chaos, the prolonged aftermath of disintegration and slow extinction in which we're still living. Sway's title refers to the power one person holds over another; it also name-checks the Rolling Stones song, "Sway," and may more obliquely reference the motion of a pendulum as it moves between two points: death and life; darkness and light; then and now. "There is no more Lucifer now," Lazar observes near the end of this fine, eerie novel, "no more Prince of Darkness, no more Angel of Light. There is a return to what was always there before, the silence."
Kenneth Anger's next film was Lucifer Rising. Its music was composed and recorded by Bobby Beausoleil while he was serving a death sentence for his part in the Manson family murders, a sentence that has since been commuted to life imprisonment. As of this writing, Anger is still alive. His films, including Mick Jagger's soundtrack for "Invocation of My Demon Brother" and Bobby Beausoleil's for "Lucifer Rising," can be accessed through UbuWeb's online archive of the avant garde, UbuWeb.com.
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