Wed March 19, 2014
The World's Smallest Time Machine Is Still Pretty Big
Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 8:50 am
When it comes to anthologies, there are two kinds of readers: On the one hand, there are folks who hate them simply because they're not novels — because it's like having an entire table full of appetizers but never getting to the main course. On the other, wiser (and, no doubt, better looking) hand, there are those who say, "Sweet! A whole dinner of appetizers!" and then commence chewing their way gleefully through every word.
Needless to say, I'm of the second sort — a man who would gladly eat 12 plates of potato skins and fried cheese and call it dinner, and one who collects anthologies the way a Midwestern housewife does cat calendars. As such, The Time Traveler's Almanac, edited by power couple and professional time travelers Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, was perfect for me.
Well, almost. Really kinda-very-nearly-but-not-quite-entirely perfect.
On the good side? Time travel. Which, in terms of organizing themes for a sci-fi anthology, is rather like "Writers whose names contain a vowel" when it comes to getting to cherry-pick content, and pretty much guarantees a broad spread of talents. Everyone from H.G. Wells ("The Time Machine," natch) and Douglas Adams to Gene Wolfe, William Gibson and Charles Yu (who wrote How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe — a book so good that he got tapped to write a piece just for this volume, called "Top Ten Tips For Time Travelers").
The lineup in this book is like the guest list for the greatest cocktail party of all time — writers modern and not so, alive and dead, known tinkerers with the time stream and those who just got it in their heads one day to go back in time and kiss their great-grandmothers or whatever. Seriously, check out the 60-plus writers in the table of contents and if you don't find at least one name that makes you say "What kind of parents would name their child Cordwainer?" you can come over to my house and punch me right in the face.
And yes, I know it's a pseudonym. I was making a joke.
Other good stuff: Team VanderMeer broke the whole thing up into sections: "Experiments," "Communiques," "Mazes and Traps" (about paradoxes, of course) and "Reactionaries and Revolutionaries." This is handy when you're looking for a certain kind of time travel story but aren't sure who might've written one. And they've bookended their sections with what they call "Non-fiction, educational palate-cleansers," of which Charles Yu's aforementioned list of tips is one.
But like I said, the book isn't perfect. For one, it is MASSIVE. We're talking almost a thousand pages, which is seriously Bible-big and unwieldy and chunky like carrying around a paving stone.
I get it. This is necessary for a book stuffed with so many stories, which serves as a kind of overview of ten million years of time travel stories. But it makes the thing rough reading in small doses. It's the kind of book that makes you commit to reading it. And maybe wearing a back brace.
Second disappointment? In all of its 900-some pages, it didn't include my favorite time travel story ever, "The Albertine Notes" by Rick Moody. I know it's totally not fair to knock an anthology for the things it doesn't include, but I'm doing it anyway, and mostly to make a point, which is this:
In all of its 900-some pages, the only time travel story I love that didn't get included in The Time Traveler's Almanac is "The Albertine Notes." And that is truly remarkable. I mean, I'm no sci-fi dilettante. And I certainly know my way around a (fictional) time machine. I've been reading and nerding-out over this stuff for longer than is probably healthy, and the stories that truly moved me have burrowed in deep. They gunked up my brain with their time machines, dinosaurs and melancholy and all of them (save that one) are now all together, all in one place, just waiting to gunk up yours.