Time travelling. Could there be a more tired, worn-out plot line than time travelling? If 50 years of Dr Who hasn’t explored every single crevice and wrinkle of the multiverse, Ben Elton decided to give it a go. And for 95% of the book he very nearly gets away with it.
Hugh Stanton, ex-special forces, and recently widowed, is asked by his old Cambridge history professor for a Christmas drink. Here he is inducted into a secret society preserving the mystery of time travel, and in fairly quick order he is off to 1914, to save Franz Ferdinand, and kill the Kaiser. We all by now know enough about chaos theory to know that the chances of it all going smoothly are slim, and sure enough, despite mission being (sort of) accomplished, the law of unintended consequences kicks in and things start to go pear-shaped.
Elton has clearly done a lot of research into the origins and causes of the first world war, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Sarajevo and the events of the day of the assassination are recreated faithfully and realistically, as Stanton casually stalks Gabriel Princip.
In telling a time travel story the reader is invited to accept one huge implausibility. Having done so, with however much pseudo-scientific hoopla to provide a veneer of credibility, we then reasonably expect that the rest of the story will have an internal coherence, complying with the rules of common sense and order. So when Stanton is propositioned by a young woman on the train to Berlin, who proceeds to sleep with him at the first opportunity, something that in 1914 would have surely been pretty exceptional, alarm bells start to ring. This character, Bernadette, an Irish suffragette, is there to provide romantic interest and an opportunity for Elton to contrast 21st century social and sexual attitudes to those of 100 years earlier. It’s all a bit worthy and predictable.
Stanton is incidentally a rubbish time-traveller – he can’t avoid using 21st century slang, for example, and his lover stumbles across his laptop and guns.
The novel has some interesting things to say about history. When considering the question “if you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?” (Stanton actually changes two things, but that’s being picky) Stanton’s history professor proposes two alternative positions – either history is about individuals and the choices they make and the things they do, or it isn’t. if the latter is right, intervening in Sarajevo in 1914 will have little or no impact on the broad sweep of history. Elton proposes a third choice – that people can make a difference – Gabriel Princip clearly did for example – but chaos theory then kicks in, and the world can be dramatically different from just one simple action. Ray Bradbury did this so much better in ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sound_of_Thunder) to which this and all subsequent time travel stories owe a debt. If we can’t know whether our intervention will make things better or worse, then probably best to leave well alone, is the overall point being made. The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t just apply to time travellers – it could equally apply to those of us living today. It’s an argument for political inactivity. For what it is worth, while Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was clearly the trigger for world war one, my view is that the European powers had been shaping up for a fight for a long time – hence the arms race – and if the assassionation had been prevented another reason would have come along soon enough.
At the end, the novel implodes in on itself, collapsing under the weight of its absurdities. (Avoid this next bit if you don’t like spoilers). We are asked to believe that Stanton is only the most recent in a long line of travellers returning to correct the future, each making it that little bit – or in Stanton’s case a hell of a lot – worse. We are asked to accept that each Master of Trinity would open Newton’s “this is what you need to know to travel in time” letter from 300 years previous, successfully form a secret society of supporters to organise the trip, that each time traveller would succeed in their mission, realise that things had not gone as planned, write a letter to the future warning them, but that none of these letters would be found. As usual, unless you skate over the timey-wimey stuff pretty quickly, the ice cracks and you fall in.
Elton writes well, and his short chapters and frequent changes of focus keep the reader engaged, even when we have a pretty good idea where it is all going. The desire to frustrate that predictability leads Elton up some dead ends but does ask an entirely reasonable question – given that the 20th century ended with the end of totalitarianism across almost the entire world, civil liberties making progress in most countries in a way Edwardians would find hard to believe (actually, time travellers from the 1970’s sometimes find it hard to believe) and technology that is as close to witchcraft as make no difference – why would we change anything? He invites us to consider whether the world wars and the Holocaust were the price of all this progress? I don’t accept that for one second, nor that we are now living in the ‘best of all possible worlds’ century, but it’s a question worth asking.