Reviewed by Steven H Silver
At the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore in 1998, Allen Steele’s novella “Where Angels Fear to Tread” was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novella. This story forms the basis for Steele’s new novel, Chronospace, in which Steele examines the lives of his characters both before, after and adjacent to the original story’s events.
When the novel begins, David Zachary Murphy is a NASA scientist who has been called on the floor to account for the conjectures he has published in Analog. Not only is this the start of a story about time traveling and multiple worlds, but also a look at how science fiction inspires scientific endeavors.
Murphy's job, first at NASA, later at the Office of Paranormal Sciences and finally at ICR are all based on the interest which was engendered when he read Astounding and Ace Doubles during his formative years. While the fiction in the magazines no longer directs his research, it is responsible for the underling interest and inquisitiveness he brings to his various jobs. On a metafictional level, Steele appears to be having fun, mentioning his various colleagues and even providing a cameo appearance by author Gregory Benford.
While the theme of science fiction in science plays throughout the novel, the more concrete and apparent theme is engendered by the time travelers, Franc Lu and Lea. Although Steele provides some hints about their own time, three centuries in our future, they spend the majority of the novel in the 1930s and 1990s. Rather than making them active participants in the formation of history, Steele sends them back merely to witness the Hindenburg disaster. Their presence alters the reality in a manner which they are unaware, but which brings them into contact with Murphy and creates a variety of anachronisms which must be resolved. Steele handles the multiple timelines well, without resorting to too many expository passages.
The progress of the novel isn’t always smooth. Steele switches back and forth between Murphy and the time travelers who have been sent back to the Hindenburg disaster. This type of interweaving of plots and main characters, however, is common. Steele’s story suffers (a little) when he switches between timelines. Although it quickly becomes apparent what Steele is doing, he disrupts the continuity a little while the reader becomes reacquainted with the revised backgrounds and situations.
Chronospace handles the idea of multiple worlds and alternative history in a much more straight-forward, less in-joke manner than his earlier (unrelated) novel, The Tranquillity Alternative. This new take demonstrates Steele's growth as a writer and ability to handle his themes more consistently.
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