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The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

03/06/2024
The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Kaliane Bradley’s debut speculative fiction novel demonsrates both the advantages and the pitfalls of genre mashing. The Ministry of Time is part time travel tale (obviously), part bureaucratic satire, part historical exploration, part romcom and part thriller. Some of these elements work some of the time. Some of these element work against the others. And most of these elements are made up from Bradley’s own experience and interests, as a daughter of Cambodian immigrants living in London and as a person fascinated by the Franklin Arctic Expedition in the mid-nineteenth century.

When the Ministry of Time opens its unnamed narrator, a translator for the British public service is being given a job in a secret part of the government. She will be a ‘bridge’ – a person who will live with one of the six people pulled out of history by a time machine that the government has acquired and now controls. In order to protect history, each of these people is taken from a situation in which they were certain to die. In doing so they end up with a soldier from World War One and a woman who was left to die from plague in the mid seventeenth century. And then there is the narrator’s ‘expat’ – Commander Graham Gore, pulled from the Franklin expedition to the arctic from which there were no survivors.

The narrator’s job is to help her expat integrate with modern society but also to watch and report on him. But there is something more going on, which she feels the need to get to the bottom of and which puts all of them, bridges and their expats, in danger. But this also gives Bradley the opportunity to consider what it means to be a ‘refugee’ or at least a person brought out of their world and required to conform with a new one.

The centrepiece of the novel though is the relationship between the narrator, who happens to know everything there is to know about arctic exploration, and her charge, the dashing and very Victorian Commander Gore. And just to bring all this home there are completely unnecessary and irrelevant (although interesting) interludes about the Franklin expedition particularly as they are about events after Gore has left it. Built around this is an edifice of sly observations, and a mystery that while resolved in a way that is part bootstrap paradox and part multi-world theory and does not make a lick of sense. But in the way of much time travel fiction maybe that doesn’t matter so long as in the moment readers are enjoying themselves.

Because, as a reader you just have to go with it as time travel never really makes any logical sense. Bradley, clearly aware of this, lampshades the problem right up front:

Anyone who has ever watched a film with time-travel, or read a book with time-travel, or dissociated on a delayed public transport vehicle considering the concept of time-travel, will know that the moment you start to think about the physics of it, you are in a crock of shit. How does it work? How can it work?… I’m here to tell you: Don’t worry about it

Which is good advice in this case because if you do worry about it, the whole edifice collapses in on itself as it turns out to be riddled with paradoxes and unanswerable questions.

The Ministry of Time is a mess, a combination of so many ideas and genres that none of them are able to deliver in a satisfactory way. But it is, overall, a fun mess anchored by a knowing narrator who is honest about her shortcomings and a relationship that readers will want to cheer for. It is the type of thing that will work well on the small screen where viewers will have even less time to contemplate the plot holes. So it is no wonder that there is a TV series on the way.

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The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

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