British author Ian McDonald is best known for his futuristic novels set in India (River of Gods) or South America (Brasyl) or Turkey (Dervish House) or his more recent kick-arse Game of Thrones on the Moon series Luna. In Time Was he shifts a gear. This novella is an intimate time travel tale.
Emmett, an antiquarian bookseller in London, comes across a letter tucked into an old book of poetry. The letter, written in World War II, sends Emmett on a quest to find out more about its author.
Emmett’s research takes him to a woman named Thorn who lives in an old house in the Fen country where he learns the name of the author of the letter (Tom Shadwell) and its recipient (Ben Seligman). But when he takes a photo of the two that Thorn has given him to a contact at the British War Museum and it exactly matches a picture of two young men from the early years of World War I, things start to get weird. Emmett becomes obsessive about solving the mystery of the two men and following their path as it seems to take them in and out of different parts of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.
Time Was is a story of time travel, of quantum physics, obsession and, ultimately, of love. As Emmett searches for clues about the strangely peripatetic Tom and Ben, McDonald pays homage to some of the great time travel tales, like Doctor Who, but also to other popular science fiction and fantasy tales as diverse as Blade Runner and Highlander.
But it is also a story about the madness and futility of war, with the narrative jumping from the World Wars to the war in Bosnia, to the rape of Nanking to the Russian Revolution.
Time Was is short, but its brevity is used to great effect. And, as a novella, you can (and probably should) read it in a single sitting.
A version of this review first appeared in Aurealis #115, Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, www.aurealis.com.au.