Reviewed Lucy Forbes
The Map of Time
by Félix J Palma
June, 2011, RRP: $32.95, ISBN (13): 9781921844119
1896, London; Jack the Ripper has been caught, tried, and hanged. This certainty does nothing to assuage the affluent, youthful Andrew Harrington’s grief, however, as it was his unlikely lover, prostitute Marie Kelly, who had been the Ripper’s final victim in Dorset Street, Whitechapel. Without her, Andrew decides he has nothing to live for. Observing this emotional demise, his astute and buoyant cousin, Charles Winslow, contrives a dazzling plan to restore Andrew’s will to live: slip back in time, shoot the Ripper, and prevent Marie from being murdered. Charles convinces Andrew that this time-travelling rescue mission will be possible, because he himself has recently travelled to the future, where he witnessed the great battle between humans and machines; Charles explains that a Mr Gilliam Murray has commenced hosted ‘expeditions’ forward in time to the ‘dirty, cold year’ of 2000, and all of London is talking about Captain Shackleton, the robust hero of the future. Charles is certain that—with a little monetary encouragement—Mr Murray will oblige them with a trip back in time, to that fateful day, 7th November, 1888.
It’s an excellent plan, but Murray regretfully informs them that his portal only allows access to a certain point in time—that being the year 2000. The cousins instead seek out the author, H.G. Wells, as he may be willing to offer his time machine for their purposes. A conversation ensues with Wells, during which he informs them that his recent winning novel, The Time Machine, is purely fictitious, and that time travel is impossible; yet, following persuasion involving a firearm, Wells directs them up into the attic, where the time machine—straight out of his novel—rests by the window. Andrew pockets his loaded gun, hops in, is blinded by a brilliant light, then passes out. Once he comes-to, he carries out the plan to assassinate the Ripper. Being careful to avoid his past self, he dashes back to 1896. Puzzlingly, Marie Kelly is still dead! Wells logically deduces that an alternate timeline has now been constructed, and Andrew must be content with the knowledge that in an alternate time (or what will later be termed a ‘parallel universe’) Marie Kelly is alive and well.
The obvious diversion from historical truth will not have eluded the reader here: the identity of Jack the Ripper was never determined either then or since, nor was any man ever convicted of the atrocious murders. Palma’s novel poses the question: what if someone altered history, by identifying the Ripper? In The Map of Time the Ripper is apprehended due to the actions of a time traveller, who—as it turns out—was committing a criminal act of temporal manipulation that must be corrected. Palma, therefore, has resolutely positioned Jack the Ripper’s evasion of capture as being one of the defining and pivotal moments in history. This is a clever idea, because in countless ways the Ripper’s nameless, faceless character has significantly contributed to the construction of the modern world, and can be viewed as a definite mark on the figurative map of time. How would it affect the map of time, then, if the Ripper had had a stable identity and a conviction?
Thematically, the novel explores truth and belief, exposing hoax upon hoax, which the most sceptical of characters is ready to believe. Murray’s rickety train that transports travellers into the future is a ruse; Captain Shackleton is a handsome actor. Murray initially conceived the idea in a draft novel that he showed to his idol, Wells. Wells spurned the effort as hopelessly outlandish. In retaliation, Murray constructed a futuristic landscape in a warehouse—a con that the Victorian public wholeheartedly embrace. ‘We can all be deceived if the fraud is convincing enough’, avers Murray in triumphant conversation with Wells, who is dismayed at the ‘gullibility of his fellow men’. Palma seems to contend that in spite of mankind’s determination to regard science as truth, he will readily believe in—and romanticise—anything that suits him. This seems particularly evident during the nineteenth century, where ‘popular imagination outstripped reality’ and audiences were being awed by the literature of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wells. Murray, however, emphasizes that belief comprises more than gullibility, as he poses the question, ‘Aren’t there lies that make life more beautiful?’ The implication here is that romance and fantasy are often greater than reality.
The idealistic debate over truth versus beauty continues when Victorian heiress, Claire Haggerty, deliberately becomes enamoured with Captain Shackleton, and he chooses to allow her to believe that he has travelled back from the future in order to be with her—because to inform her of otherwise, would break her heart. Every character falls prey to their own set of beliefs and doubts—many of which become inverted, or at least called into question. Often, Palma suggests that ‘truth’ is a personal choice, rather than an imposed order.
Many failsafe contemporary beliefs are explored and dispelled as myth, in dizzyingly convoluted conversation. Palma explores, for example, the many paradoxes that would ensue from time travel. Encountering other passengers from previous expeditions to the year 2000, for example; or the paradox that if one travels back in time to prevent an event from occurring, that trip in effect would eliminate the necessity of—or even negate one being in the position to—travel back in time to even prevent that occurrence. Or, if one does travel back to alter time, perhaps the universe itself has a defensive device already in place?
Many physicists maintained that if someone travelled into the past, say, with the intention of shooting someone, the gun would explode in their hands because the universe would automatically realign itself…they discovered time had no such protective mechanism.
Primarily, though, The Map of Time warns of the hazards of manipulating history; this could loosely be read as a modern commentary on the written records of history–records that now include an increasing magnitude of unreliable records located on the World Wide Web. To a lesser extent, Palma explores the familiar modern anxiety of privacy: time travel would ultimately establish ‘a world where privacy would no longer exist’ and an individual could no longer sustain control—or permanency—over their actions.
Unsurprisingly, most people saw [time travel] as God’s way of giving humanity a free hand to correct its mistakes. The logical thing was to prevent past genocides and afflictions, to weed out the errors of history, so to speak…’
Yet, the dangers inherent in time travel were revealed to these travellers. The reader becomes acquainted with the Guardians of Time—the keepers of the map that contains the ‘original universe’, which is held in the Library of Truth. In this place the past is reassuringly ‘considered sacred, and must remain immutable’; thereafter, altering the ‘natural order’ of time became a criminal act, as manipulation of time is recognised as a disruption of the ‘natural order’. Sadly, in modern society, assurances of this nature are often difficult to uphold.
A final motif explored throughout the novel, is the creative process itself—specifically, writing. Murray’s sophisticated and exquisite hoax is illustrative of the creative writing process itself, and the degree of ingenuity a writer must possess in order to fuse together elements viable enough to dupe the reader or suspend their disbelief. Even the significance of the elusiveness of the Ripper is tied up with the process of writing:
He would have left behind him the unsolved mystery of his identity, over which as much ink would be spilled as the blood that had flowed under his knife…
The implication being that were time to be altered and the Ripper caught, a significant portion of the world’s literature would vanish.
Palma assumes the role of omniscient narrator and employs direct address. Direct address was often used in Victorian writing (so Palma is adopting a period convention), but it is also used in postmodern writing as an interruption that explicitly recognises and emphasises the reader as being an integral part of the process of narrative; it also mirrors the interruptions prevalent in daily life. Palma informs and forewarns the reader of events not yet passed in order to set their mind at rest. Yet, by interrupting the narrative and casually passing commentary on the characters and events, Palma is essentially disrupting the timeline. In The Map of Time, this convention serves as a disruption to narrative flow, which in turn ingeniously symbolises the disruption caused by the manipulation of time.
The Map of Time is a clever and complex story, one in which the reader must maintain a degree of concentration in order to fully comprehend the extent of the material. Because Palma excels in comical melodrama (particularly in regards to the investigative machinations and the veritable ‘temporal acrobatics’ conducted by Scotland Yard) and includes plenty of beautiful moments involving the legacy of Wells’s novels, the story is an amusing and witty read, to which the reader, in time, will certainly want to return.
About the author:Lucy Forbes works as an editor and primary school teacher, in Queensland. She holds a BA in English Literature and Italian language & literature, a GD in teaching, and a GCA in writing, editing, and publishing.