It All Goes Round and Round, and Doesn’t Get Where It Needs to Go – A Review of The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

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“The Garden of Forking Paths” is, in many ways, a watershed story for me. It was through this story, in my Introduction to Fiction class, that I was introduced to the inimitable Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and it was through this story that I was irrevocably hooked on his fiction. As soon as I found out that there was a three-volume set of his writing out, the first thing I did was purchase the volume collating his fiction work – inasmuch as I think he’s a great essayist and a wonderful poet, it is Borges as fictionist that I love the most. Even better, he – like Japanese author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, whose story “In a Grove” presents some similarties to “The Garden of Forking Paths” – never wrote a novel, and so the entirety of his fictional work is packaged in easily-consumed short stories.

I say “easily consumed,” though any reader of Borges knows his works are hardly that. They are easily consumed in the sense that they are all short stories, but the content itself can be difficult to swallow. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is one of the slightly easier ones to get around, but some of his other work can be a bit more complicated. However, the interesting thing about Borges’ work is that, funnily enough, the concepts that are are the core of his work are more or less the same ones currently used in sci-fi and comics. In particular, his views on time as embodied in stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Secret Miracle” have found use in sci-fi, and to some degree in actual science as well.

Of all his stories, it is “The Garden of Forking Paths” that has exerted the most influence on sci-fi. In it, time is described as a labyrinth, eternally branching off into other paths depending on the decisions made by a person. When a person makes a choice, they are only capable of experiencing the path they have chosen, but the path they have not chosen continues to exist, because they could also have taken that path and indeed may have, in some other reality. Therefore time is not a straightforward experience of past, present, and future – this is merely one’s conventional experience because one cannot make a decision and choose to take both paths at the same time. It is instead a multitude of paths, a multitude of possibilities, some of which will run eternally parallel and so never meet, but some of which do run together and intersect. Multiply this by the number of decisions, large and small, that a person makes throughout their lifetime, and multiply that by the number of people currently living, and well… One can only imagine how mind-boggling this is.

Naturally the implications of this idea for time travel are incredible. Instead of the possibility of creating paradoxes when one travels through time and attempts to change anything, it’s entirely possible that one instead creates an alternate, parallel universe, therefore making it possible to kill one’s own grandparent (to use the popular Grandfather Paradox) without wiping oneself out in the process. Nevertheless, the linear concept of time is still a very sound one, and so, depending on the preference of the writer, he or she may use one or the other – or combine both. This was the case with Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time.

I chose to pick this up because it was marketed as “steampunk.” And since it mentioned the words “alternate history,” and the name “H.G. Wells,” I was prepared to sink myself into a steampunk world involving time travel. What I got was not quite steampunk – in fact, there’s not enough of either “steam” or “punk” in this novel. This would be more appropriately described as “alternate history,” as opposed to steampunk, though I blame this on steampunk being such a marketing buzzword nowadays that publishers and marketers are happy to slap the word on anything, as long as it’s set in the Victorian period and has a smidge of sci-fi in it.

I was willing to forgive that, though, because the concept was still interesting. The summary described the novel as one involving novelist H.G. Wells getting caught up in a time travel fiasco and being forced to save not just his own work The Time Machine, but Dracula and The Turn of the Screw as well. This made it sound like an alternate history, Victorianesque spin on Jasper Fforde’s incredible Thursday Next books, but it wasn’t quite that, either. In fact, the most interesting, most engaging plot of the story was in the last third of the book, and to get there the reader has to read about two other stories, both of which are connected, kind of, to the last bit.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is about Andrew Harrington, who was in love with a prostitute named Marie Kelly – yes, the same “Mary” Kelly who was Jack the Ripper’s last victim – and wants to go back in time to save his beloved. The second part is about Tom Blunt, who’s part of an elaborate scheme mentioned in the first part, but falls in love with Claire Haggerty, and uses time travel as the heart of a rather elaborate scheme to be with the woman he loves. The last part of the book is the most interesting: H.G. Wells, who was a central figure in the first two parts, finds out that time travel is indeed real, and that he himself is capable of doing so without the help of a machine. He also finds himself caught up in an attempt to save not just his own life, but the lives of fellow authors Bram Stoker and Henry James, from another time traveler intent on killing all three of them so that he may keep their works – The Time Machine, Dracula, and The Turn of the Screw to himself.

In many ways, this novel might be viewed as an homage to Borges: the plots exhibit the non-linearity and twisting of time that are the hallmark of Borges’s tales, in particular “The Garden of Forking Paths.” However, Borges didn’t quite write in the Victorian style, and Palma was attempting to imitate just that narrative and descriptive style for this novel. The result sometimes verges on purple prose. While I’m not above forgiving that in a novel if I felt it was appropriate, in this case it just made things a bit more confusing, and I found myself skimming over quite a bit of the novel because it bogged my reading down in the most unexpected – and most annoying – ways. The novel plays a lot with the concept of paradoxes, focusing more on the idea that time is linear and therefore anything done in the past will have an effect on the future. As a result, one has no choice but to contend with the quality of the prose, while at the same time trying to wrangle the paradoxes into some form of order. This does not make the reading any smoother, and so it’s easy to glide through some overblown description or interior monologue just to get the plot moving.

The monologues, in particular, are problematic. Characters ramble on and on about some concept or idea that has seized their fancy, and sometimes these spells of deep thought occur right in the middle of what might have been a thrilling action sequence, something that would have benefited from being told in shorter, cleaner prose. While I suspect the rambling thoughts are meant to be an attempt to replicate Victorian literature, which does indeed have this tendency for characters to go on near-interminable internal monologues, I get the feeling that these monologues were not used very well in The Map of Time. As I was reading I’d sometimes hear a far more irreverent version of myself going “Blah, blah, blah” in my head whenever I hit one of these stumbling blocks, willing me to just get it over with so I could get to the more interesting bits.

And as for the characters, well, if they had been in any way interesting then the monologues might not have been so bad; unfortunately, not all of them are really that engaging. Wells is rather interesting, if only because he’s Wells, but the rest of them are hit and miss. Claire Haggerty was intriguing, but only because she fit in the mold of female characters that I tend to enjoy, and Tom Blunt was not entirely bad either, but the rest of them were rather lackluster and colorless. Even the final villain, Marcus Rhys, was insufferable in his lack of something to define him and make him a truly unique villain. He couldn’t disappear from the plot fast enough for my liking.

The plot, on the other hand, was more like three different novels crammed into one. The summary is misleading, because what’s described in it is only tackled in the Part Three of the novel; Parts One and Two are about setting up the world itself, and connecting two distinct story-lines to H.G. Wells, who is the central character of Part Three. On one hand, I can see how this is actually a positive quality: not only is it an attempt to replicate (if in a rather ham-fisted manner) the layout of the average Victorian novel, but it allows the writer to set up the world and the various paradoxes and circumstances that weave themselves around Wells, all of which affect the outcome of the novel. In that sense, the first two-thirds of the novel work well enough.

However, I also think that the novel ought to have begun with Part Three, and the circumstances leading up to it explained later on, integrated into the rest of the story. I think this would have gotten the novel off to a good start, thus making certain amounts of lengthy exposition tolerable enough that the reader would put up with it to know what happens next. I think that, if the structure of the plot had been a bit tighter, it would have been more of a fun ride as opposed to a slog.

I also rather wonder about the language. This is a translated work, which makes me wonder what’s been lost in translation, particularly since the language of the work doesn’t quite sit well with me. Is this something to do with the translation itself? Or did translation have nothing to do with it at all, and I was, in fact, reading what I would read if I could read the book in its original language (Spanish, in this case). Unless there’s another English translation out there, done by another translator, I can’t say for sure if it’s a question of translation, or of the writing itself.

Overall, The Map of Time is a rather frustrating read. The plot is convoluted and not tightly structured, likely as an attempt to mimic both Victorian and Borgesian narrative and descriptive conventions, but it doesn’t hold up very well. The characters aren’t all that interesting either, which makes it easy to just skim through their thoughts (as told through long internal monologues) without really getting to know them. Wells is a standout, but the story wherein he is the primary figure comes too late in the book, at a point when the reader is generally ready to throw in the towel on this thing, and likely for good reason. I also think that the overall quality of the storytelling may have suffered from being translated out of the original Spanish, but unless someone else has done a secondary translation of the thing, this isn’t certain. Either way, anyone looking for a tightly-told, carefully-balanced plot in the line of the Thursday Next books will be sorely disappointed, along with anyone who picks this up expecting steampunk. Said reader will find neither here.

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2 thoughts on “It All Goes Round and Round, and Doesn’t Get Where It Needs to Go – A Review of The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

    1. Oh, indeed, it’s very creative – that, I think, is something that can’t be argued. But I did have quite a bit of difficulty with the way it was laid out, plot-wise. I think the author was trying for Borgesian non-linearity in terms of plot structure, but that works best with a cleaner, sparser style of writing, not the Victorian style the author chose to employ. It’s as if the author was trying for Dickens’ voice, but attempting to suit it to Borges’ plot structure. I admire the author for trying to make the two styles work, but it didn’t quite fly as well as I, myself, would have liked it to.

      Maybe it works better in the original Spanish? Sometimes a story works better in its original language than in its translation (like many Japanese novels, unless in the hands of an exceptional translator working closely with the author).

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