From women writing subversive TV now to women inventing time travel! The Psychology of Time Travel is a quirky part mystery, part love story. As the title suggests, Kate Mascarenhas focuses more so on what it would be like to be a time traveller rather than on the social, historical, or future repercussions of mucking about with a timeline. Along with bringing up the usual questions of free will versus determinism, etc., this book seeks to address such burning queries as: what would you call it if you had sex with your future or past self, and is that cheating? I’m being tongue-in-cheek—there is a lot of serious, weird stuff in this book. But my overall impression is that there were better stories that could be told here.
There are two main characters: Ruby and Odette. Ruby is the granddaughter of Barbara, one of the four women who invented time travel in the 1960s. Barbara fell out with her fellow inventors after she had a breakdown on national television, so Ruby and her mother have always lived at a distance from the world of time travel. This changes in big ways, for a mysterious note from the future prompts Ruby to look into the Time Travel Conclave. Odette, on the other hand, thinks the Conclave holds the answer to what killed a dead woman she discovered in the basement of a museum. She joins up to look for those answers, but of course, the reality is much more wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey!
Mascarenhas follows a block time, self-consistent approach to time travel: if you know the future, you are doomed to complete it, no paradoxes allowed. She delves a little into what this does to time travellers’ attitudes towards deaths of loved ones—how do you grieve someone who is accessible to you by travelling to the past? Similarly, how do you live a life when you know the outcome—your date of death, how you die, who your friends and partners are at that time? We humans are so accustomed to the linearity of our time, and to the arrow of time being such that we know our past absolutely yet our future in no true sense—what would time travel, really, do to us? (It seems strange to me that Ruby is a therapist, yet she spends little enough time ruminating on this herself.) I, for one, do not want to know how or when I die. I like that uncertainty.
Time travel affects more than just romantic relationships. The relationships people have with Margaret Norton, the Conclave’s inaugural director, are an interesting example. Apparently she gets nastier as she gets older, and many characters remark that they prefer dealing with her younger selves. What would a job be like if you could talk to your boss across different time periods?
Mascarenhas never actually takes us on a time travel adventure. She offers up interesting tidbits on how our society has evolved after a few centuries of time travel. Perhaps the most tantalizing is that it’s impossible to travel beyond 2267, as if the time travel machines just disappear after that. Oooh, what a cool mystery! But that’s never brought up again—and in a weird continuity error any editor should have caught, they keep mentioning how time travel justice is inspired by “twenty-fourth century British law,” even though the 2267 cap is in the twenty-third century. Oops.
Speaking of errors, I’m not sure if this is a stylistic faux pas or a typesetting issue, but the dialogue habitually runs together—the speaker changing mid-paragraph. This kind of thing annoys the hell out of me, and honestly there were moments I wanted to put down this book simply because of that habit.
So, in short, this book could have used another editing pass, I think.
The main plots are all well and good, but in the end I guess I was just hoping for more after that set-up. I feel like there are more stories, better stories, more interesting stories happening here, yet we are on the periphery looking inwards with Ruby and Odette. Furthermore, while I give Mascarenhas due credit for attempting to use her time travel framework to tell the story in a non-linear yet comprehensive way, I wish she had taken more risks. I wonder if this is because this book attempts to be a more “literary” approach to time travel? In any case, The Psychology of Time Travel has a great premise, but the story itself and the characters within fall flat for me.