Tuesday, May 29, 2012

'Map of Time' loses direction

The Map of Time
By Felix J. Palma
     This review will contain some spoilers because I can't really discuss what I didn't like without revealing some of them, and because you might enjoy the book if you go into it with your eyes wide open. The first is that although The Map of Time -- the first novel by the (apparently) acclaimed Spanish novelist Felix J. Palma to be translated into English -- is being marketed as science fiction (I bought my copy through the Science Fiction Book Club), it isn't really. If you go into it taking most of the science fictional elements at face value, you'll be disappointed. 
     It also purports to be a metafiction involving Jack the Ripper, H.G. Wells and time travel, told in three interconnecting stories, and I suppose that is true. It could as easily have been marketed as fantasy, but other than in the sense that any work of fiction is a fantasy, it's not really that either. And despite its Victorian setting and rave review quotes from two popular steampunk authors (though not favorites of mine), it isn't steampunk or even steampunk adjacent.
     The reason I was so severely disappointed is that one seemingly science fictional element is introduced early on: Jack the Ripper is apprehended after killing one of his victims, and so his identity does not remain a mystery for more than a century. Since in our world Jack the Ripper was never caught, that puts The Map of Time in the category of alternate history. The introduction of time travel suggests history has been changed by someone traveling in time.
     There is another possibly science fictional element in the third and final section, but it is so nonsensical that it could be a hoax.
    One reason I suspect -- hope, really -- it could be a hoax is that  !!!SPOILER ALERT !!!!  every other science fictional element in the book turns out to be a hoax.
     Regardless of whether it should be considered science fiction or fantasy, The Map of Time has a more serious problem: it is deathly dull and long-winded.
      First, there is an omniscient narrator who doesn't have the good grace to fade into the background. He doesn't just know everything; he wants you to know that he knows everything. He frequently intrudes in such a way as to remind you that you're reading a book, and not a very subtle one.
     Second, the book takes a long time to get to the pseudo-science fictional elements. The first and second stories are really romances with a tiny amount of SF mixed in. 
     Third, it's not over yet. The dust jacket announces that this is the first book of a trilogy (noooooo!!!), and the second volume is scheduled for English publication later this year: The Map of the Sky. Two of Palma's invented characters will re-appear, and possibly H.G. Wells again, too, as this book has something to do with The War of the Worlds
     What will the third book concern? There are many H.G. Wells books from which to choose -- The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Food of the Gods, The Invisible Man (though that's already been referenced in Map of Time), The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes -- and even more short stories -- "The Country of the Blind," "The Truth about Pyecraft," etc.  I don't plan to read either sequel.
     Let me say one thing in defense of Map of Time: It is an attractive looking book. It has a nice cover illustration, with distinctive endpapers (in the hardcover, that is; I don't know if they will appear on the paperback, due this summer). You can download wallpapers of them here.

If it were  written at 250 pages instead of more than 650, I might cut it some slack. As is, I can't recommend it.
      If you want a more fun tale of H.G Wells, Jack the Ripper and a real time machine, look for the reissue of Karl Alexander's novel Time After Time, the basis for the 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen.


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