Friday, 2 August 2013
Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another
Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I love a good time travel story, and I thought this might be one. Sadly, it wasn't, and I only made it to 49% of the way through.
Other reviewers have mentioned that it needs editing. Mostly this takes the form of commas applied on the Jackson Pollock principle, only not enough of them. However, we also get "ok" in lower case, missing words in sentences, "three day's food", "the Peasant's Revolt" (he can't have got far by himself, poor chap), "discrete" for "discreet", someone's hair in a "French pleat", "diner" for "dinner", and "whose" and "who's" used for the same purpose in the same sentence, in parallel phrases ("whose" was the correct word in both cases).
I've seen far worse, but it's enough to annoy me and break my engagement with the story, which then let me notice the other issues.
The biggest issue is that the time travel hasn't really been thought through. What's established by narration is that the historians, funded by a mysterious group for reasons which, by the halfway point anyway, were inadequately explored, go back in time in "pods" which are disguised as small stone huts. The disguise is so that they'll fit in more or less anywhere. These huts don't seem to be very steerable (the main character worries about ending up inside a mountain or underwater, though it never seems to happen), and apparently they can't be relocated once they reach the past (there's a dangerous path between two of them at one point, and it seems if they could be moved they would be). Yet nobody ever seems to notice them appearing and disappearing, even landowners who would surely think, "Hang on, I didn't have an old stone hut yesterday," and they don't end up in the middle of streets, in the middle of buildings, or otherwise inconveniently located.
Then there's how History works. I'm not sure if the trope, which I've seen in at least one other time-travel novel, originated with Connie Willis, but the basic idea is that History has a kind of built-in resistance, and maybe intelligence, that ensures it doesn't get changed. In Willis's case, it prevents historians even reaching places and times where they could change history, and even uses time travelers to make history come out a certain way. In this book, it's established both by what we're told and what we're shown that History will terminate time travelers with extreme prejudice if they're going to do anything that might lead to a paradox or an alternate timeline.
Except the antagonists apparently are trying to change the timeline. And in the very next chapter after two historians nearly get a large stone block dropped on them just because one of them thinks about watching an event that might be significant, several historians are sent off to a dangerous place in World War I, where they are disguised as nurses.
Do you think that nurses might possibly influence whether people live or die, and hence the course of history?
This despite the fact that the early 20th century is nowhere near their supposed specialty periods, which (as far as I read) don't seem to count for anything. Academics, in real life, specialize narrowly. But here, someone whose specialty area is ancient civilizations (which is ridiculously broad, to start with) gets sent to World War I, 11th-century London, and (most absurdly) the Cretaceous. Paleontology is another, completely different set of specialized skills and knowledge. Because I don't have this knowledge, I can't say whether the dinosaurs were accurate, but I wouldn't bet a sandwich.
Also, there don't seem to be many surprises from this "research". In real life, there are frequently discoveries of new evidence which turn everything we thought we knew on its head, particularly in areas where evidence is weak. That doesn't seem to happen much here. The historians gather observations and recordings, they release their findings to their sponsors who somehow explain how it was obtained without mentioning time travel (I think academic peer review probably requires more traceable evidence than this), and do something with it which somehow justifies the money they're spending. It's all very thin.
The main character did have some potential. It's established early on that the stranger things get, the calmer she becomes. She's funny, in a British way, which got the book a third star it otherwise didn't deserve. She wasn't enough, though, to keep me reading through a poorly-edited book in which the setting wasn't thought through.
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