OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Reprise – by Zilla Novikov
Publisher: The BumblePuppy Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 2023.
Cover Art – by Rachel A. Rosen
Researching time travel is a bad idea.
The book is tightly focused on three characters.
First, Eddy, a teaching assistant struggling toward her PhD. Second, François, a full-fledged professor near god-like in his tenure and available research grants. And third, Mara, François’ wife, who could care less about academia but knows how to play the dutiful professor’s wife to perfection.
The fourth character, perhaps the main character really, is academia itself. It’s a vicious world, as I dimly came to grasp in my four years studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (or “Bachelor of F**k All” as many are wont to say) at the University of British Columbia where I majored in Creative Writing. Did quite well, too, in that I received the equivalent of an A average and even unexpectedly won a bursary I hadn’t even applied for.
I knew about the pressure imposed on professors by the unwritten rule “publish or perish.” It wasn’t enough to teach, one had to conduct original research and publish the results, ideally as often as possible. For instance, my excellent Classics professor Anthony A. Barrett published biographies of Caligula, Agrippina the Younger, and Livia, as well as numerous articles in appropriate journals, and after he retired, a book titled “Lives of the Caesars.” This is all par for the course for any professor, no matter what subject they teach.
I was also aware that many graduate students, working toward higher degrees, did a great deal of original research and laboratory experimentation on behalf of the Professor they worked for, and it has always been the custom that the professor gets the credit, not the student. I recall a case somewhere in the U.S.A. where a brilliant young mathematician, fed up with his professor getting the credit for the original concepts the student had invented, beat his professor to death with a hammer. On being sentenced to a long prison term, he declared it wasn’t fair, that he felt he should get a medal for what he had done.
But the above just scratches the surface. Universities are the breeding ground of small group dynamics not unlike competing warlords. Department heads have to compete for resources. Professors are constantly jockeying for position within the hierarchies of their departments and, for that matter, with their peers. It is possible to step out of line and get into trouble in all sorts of unexpected ways. Student opinion is a wild card. So, too, the views of alumni and financial benefactors. Most amusing of all, everyone has to play the game (suck up to everybody else in the approved manner) while gaming the system for all it’s worth (which is how you stay in place, let alone get ahead). Constant situational awareness is a vital necessity, and it has nothing to do with your expertise in your area of specialization and everything to do with your ambition.
Which is why the opening sequence of the novel is so entertaining. Basically, François meets Eddy for the first time and offers her a job as one of his assistant researchers. She is hyper-aware of all the politics involved, the subtext of his proposal, the emotional tension between them, and as a result smoothly and confidently second-guesses both his thoughts and intentions as well as her own every step of the way second by second. They are both playing the game in the same sense that gladiators play the game when they step into the arena. Instead of swordplay, wordplay is involved backed by a cynical, jaded, worldly perspective of experienced professionals who understand reality for what it is but are wise enough not to allude to it. A third-party listener, ignorant of the underlying debate, would conclude it was a slightly boring job offer of no interest to them. In fact, a duel is taking place.
This is the hallmark of the novel. We share Eddy’s point of view throughout but gain insight into the minds of other characters through her constant analysis of their hidden thoughts, intentions, and emotions. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel with this type of focus being paramount. You might think it’s a glimpse of a paranoid personality and not necessarily to your taste. But, given this book is a type of “blow the lid off the industry” sort of expose of what goes on beneath the placid, rather dull veneer of higher education, one presented in a perceptive, cynical manner, the result is often hilarious and always highly entertaining. At least, to anyone who has ever studied at a university or college. I imagine it’s quite a hoot to retired professors. I can visualize them nodding their heads and muttering “Yep.. accurate… revealing… I wish I had thought of that… it’s dead accurate,” and so on.
In short, at least at the beginning, character interaction is the source of drama. The reality of Time travel is understated. It does exist, the university has a time machine, but initial experiments are extremely cautious, as the scholars involved want to understand all the potential risks before they exploit the technology any further.
So, for example, a typical experiment is sending the experimental subject two minutes back in time and have them record their feelings for twelve hours before bringing them back to current time. At most they might be permitted to drop a rubber ball and record what happens. Upon return, their recorded experience is compared with what happened in real time at the same location. This has become the study of “Instances,” moments when reality has diverged. This is Eddy’s specialization. It amounts to a grasp of statistics and likely statistics involving probabilities and possibilities. Really just a form of higher mathematics groping toward a grasp of predictability reliable enough to render time travel “safe.” Impossible to convey the intricacies of this research to the general public. Sounds like a lot of hooey to them.
That time travel exists is something exploited by the media for great profit. The one TV show everyone watches is “Night Beat,” where every conceivable permeation of nasty time travel consequences, ripped off from decades of science fiction literature, is drenched in violence and sex for the viewers, with surprise twist endings being de rigueur. So much so that graduate students assisting Eddy in her research on behalf of François are prone to let the latest episode influence their calculations. This, in turn, is part of the novel’s satire of university life, as it demonstrates how the latest fads and trends can conspire to weaken or even destroy a higher institution’s ability to research and educate. Great fun.
As the experiments progress, many question their validity. Perhaps the time machine (never described, its nature is irrelevant) imposes a dream state, a false and delusional alternate mental state that is a form of temporary insanity. Yet the results appear reproducible, though never identical when repeated. This, of course, generates reams of statistical analysis which makes everyone involved quite happy. After all, it’s not the experience of the test subjects that matter so much as the formulae which can be used to quantify them. That’s what counts as results useful for attracting further grants.
Typically, in time travel stories, every action has unexpected consequences, with the result that multiple realities begin to intersect like ripples coming from different directions on the surface of a placid pond. It becomes difficult to define the movement, or any moment in the movement, complexity builds upon complexity. The answer? More experimentation! More instances needed!
The experiments move out of the lab. Eddy and others begin to move about the city of Ottawa as if everything is normal, except that it isn’t. It becomes clear that every “expedition” is a form of alternate reality. Outrageous actions are taken, just to see if they have any influence on the normal time frame world. Yes and no. “Reality” remains beholden to churning out yet more statistical analysis and justifying continued funding. But Eddy and other test subjects have to deal with “other world” traumatic experiences that risk their sanity and, to put it mildly, complicate their relationships.
They resort to playing Dungeons and Dragons as a form of therapy. It begins to evolve into a form of rehearsal, as if wargaming in preparation for war, a mechanism for understanding the risks they take on a daily basis. The game begins to influence the program of experiment.
Even more damaging, a rivalry develops between the experimenters and the “Night Beat” TV program, in that they seem to be competing with each other in terms of which can be more over-the-top in plot and incident. Not a literal rivalry, of course, the TV show cast and crew know nothing about the ongoing experiment, but a rivalry in Eddy’s mind, in that she is constantly making comparisons to the point of taking a perverse pride in all the unanticipated disasters hurting her and her colleagues.
The “alternate realities” encountered by the test subjects begin to fall into broad patterns which are given names like “Middlerealm” and “Shadowrealm.” Tactics and missions are devised to exploit their nature. At times the twist endings and violence definitely go beyond what the scriptwriters for the TV show come up with.
Eddy, with her superb penchant for instant analysis, somehow manages to surf above what were ripples but are now tsunamis of alternate reality crashing into each other. The space/time continuum has become a tempest, a hurricane of infinite possibilities. Her attitude is positively gleeful as she rides the tumult. Trouble is sooner or later it all has to come crashing down on some inhospitable shore or another. Fortunately, as a last resort, she can retreat to “normal” reality where her life is dull, pleasant, and safe. Or is it?
Admittedly this novel demands constant attention on the part of the reader. Otherwise, it’s easy to get confused. But, in a way, it doesn’t matter. The reader needs to keep an overall perspective in mind to understand the underlying satire in play.
For example, no matter how bizarre the experiments become, no matter what damage is inflicted on people in the alternate time realities, only the “normal” reality from which the test subjects come, and can retreat to, is viewed as real. The “realms” in other time frames are treated as abstractions, hypothetical concepts, collections of instances which “exist” only as long as that particular experiment runs. No more real, in fact, than the incidents in a bout of Dungeons and Dragons, or an episode of the “Night Beat” TV show.
But, if you accept the premise that time travel puts you back into the world as it was, only to see it rapidly spiral into something different because of your violating presence, then all the experiments involve genuine alternate realities on which the test subjects are wreaking havoc in the name of science. The test subjects are the villains. Not so much explorers as saboteurs.
This serves the overall satiric intent of the novel. It’s a dig at scientific objectivity, in which experimentation reveals the greater truth for the sake of greater knowledge and hang the consequences once politicians and/or the military get a hold of the knowledge gained. Scientific objectivity is all too often a quest without ethics or morality underpinning it, curiosity being the prime motivating factor, and the larger, social implications never considered. Perhaps the point of this satire depends on the concept that if we are ever able to explore the multiverse, we shouldn’t, because we’d only muck it up. I suspect this is very true.
Of course, scientists, like judges and doctors and other “clear thinkers,” often behave in public with their professional persona on display, as if logic and knowledge predominate in their character and this is why you should trust them. Indeed. Best to operate on that assumption. It’s your only hope.
But this book subverts the reputation of “objective” professionals. It concentrates on the pettiness and selfish ambition of the researchers playing the game in more ways than one. It renders them easier to identify with, makes them an amusing bunch to observe in action, but most important of all, portrays them in a fashion contrary to the concept of scientific dedication.
Not for nothing does the Amazon site for this novel title it “Reprise: a post-modern comedy of manner.”
There are incidents galore in the experimental realities, but all that matters is the interaction between the characters, their revealing banter with each other, and the fact that the reader is viewing everything through the mindset of a cynical, jaded, but observant and witty individual. It’s quite a show. Better than “Night Beat.”
I had a good time reading this. You do have to pay attention lest you lose track of which reality you’re in, but the solution is to concentrate on Eddy’s thoughts and go with their flow. In a sense, she’s the most entertaining tour guide you’ll ever meet.
It helps if you are at all familiar with the academic world, but that adds icing on the cake. The novel itself is sumptuous repast enough for anyone who appreciates quirkiness of character, sarcasm, irony, offbeat wit and the sheer insanity of petty ambition. More than anything else, it’s a great study of human nature and character. We are collectively not as smart as we think we are and too smart for our own good. This novel makes that clear.
I am at a loss in trying to figure out whether or not to recommend this book to anyone about to begin the first year of their higher education. It offers insights, perhaps to the point of being too educational. Hmm. But I guarantee it’ll appeal to anyone who’s been through “the system.” It’s flat out hilarious.
Buy it at: < Reprise >