by John Varley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441012817
Date: 07 June, 2005 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
It seems that John Varley is out to re-examine a host of classic SF ideas in terms of what we know now. Not too long ago I enjoyed his Rocket Ship Galileo tribute, Red Thunder, in which a group of kids build a rocket ship with a little help from a washed up astronaut and a back country genius.
Now he's come back with another classic concept: a bring em back alive time travel adventure that has echoes of King Kong, Inherit the Stars (James Hogan's first, and possibly best book) and a host of other stories in it. It's every bit as much fun as the last book, and even though I was certain I knew how things would work out from the start, he managed to misdirect me just enough to keep guessing till the end, which turned out to be better than I'd hoped.
The story opens in Northernmost Canada, when an expedition uncovers a frozen mammoth in near perfect condition. Huddled alongside are a man and a woman, wearing appropriate garb for the time and clime, although they all appeared to have frozen to death. Why the man was wearing a wristwatch and carrying an aluminum briefcase provides a moderate amount of puzzlement for the scientists who find them.
In this near future it turns out that there's a media mogul zillionaire that's pretty well obsessed with creating his own mammoth, and he happened to have financed the expedition that found more than it expected. He's not unhappy about the result though, and sets off on two courses of action at the same time: one to clone a mammoth from the preserved genetic material in the frozen one, and the other to unlock the key to the time machine he figures to be in the briefcase.
For the first, he enlists an elephant handler from the circus, and the second, the world's best authority on the physics of time. It galls him not a little that the first gets on better with his "pets" than he, and that the second is substantially smarter than he is. Tough childhood and all that. So he uses them, fumes that he can't abuse them, and gets really pissy when they fall in love. But that's nothing compared to how annoyed he is when his entire research facility disappears into the past. Lock, stock and time machine.
Who built the time machine? Will the doc and his gal make it back to the present or become the figures at the beginning of the story, frozen in the past? Time will tell.
It's a nice temporal romp, and I don't often say that. Generally I find time travel SF a pain, since the standard trick is to spend an entire book trying to avoid some future that you wind up creating. The author (and his characters) come to terms with that dilemma, and it helps us through it as well. In time travel fiction, those that study history may well be doomed to repeat it first hand, but history may not turn out to be quite the way they imagined it.
Not a perfect story, as there are a few plot points you could drive a herd of woolly mammoths through, but inventive, refreshing, and peopled by engaging folks.
Definitely worth a trip to the bookstore, if not the Pleistocene Epoch, to pick up a copy.