By Megan AM
The Lost Time Accidents — John Wray (Canongate)
This is the first novel I’ve read from my shortlist that feels like it belongs on the actual Clarke shortlist. Written by a genre outsider, but built definitively upon a classic sci-fi concept, and clearly aware of decades of science fiction fandom and inside jokes, it ticks a few those well-established Clarke-preferred boxes. It’s also quite enjoyable for those same reasons.
It follows the Toula/Tolliver family over four generations of delusions of grandeur beginning with Ottokar Toula: family patriarch, pickle cultivator, and mad scientist of the pre-Atomic Age. His “discovery” of the Lost Time Accidents is overshadowed by the work of “the patent clerk” in Switzerland, dooming the Toula name to forgotten history. That is, until his son, Waldemar, seizes upon Ottokar’s ideas and uses Nazi-era concentration camps to carry out his secret, malevolent time experiments. Waldemar’s brother, Kaspar, meanwhile, moves his Jewish-bohemian family across the Atlantic to settle in Buffalo, NY, where his eccentric daughters grow up to host NYC salons, and his son, Orson Card Tolliver, writes “speculative pornography for the pulps,” which eventually inspires a cultish celebrity religion. Orson’s son, Waldy, comes to believe he’s inherited the curse of the Lost Time Accidents (an OSHA-legitimized workplace term, funnily enough) and writes a family history to investigate the truth… and reconnect with a lost love affair. Through it all, the legacy of “the patent clerk” (Albert Einstein, to us), hovers in the periphery, shaping history in one direction—the direction we know—while these Toula/Tollivers, the losers of science history, stubbornly push against that history for four generations.
It’s a novel that travels time as it recounts the lives of people who believe they can step out of time. But no time travel or time stoppage actually occurs. Probably. Maybe.
‘Sprawling’ is the word most reviews have used to describe this multi-generational family history written as a memoir by a jilted lover, and the summary above certainly gives that impression, but it’s a neat-and-tidy sort of thing, with all settings tightly encapsulated within their assigned segments. Its messiness—the sprawl reviewers keep referencing—better refers to the mental vitality and delusional belief systems of the subjects of the narrative. This is a family of eccentric creatives, anachronisms of their own eras. It’s not so much time travel they experience as time occupation or time internment—WWII metaphors best apply here—for being outsiders is their day-to-day reality.
Most endearing is its sense of humor. Wray is clearly an old sci-fi fan, and not someone who just decided to give time travel a whirl:
“I write speculative pornography for the pulps.” (309)
“Must be my natural aversion to cliché.” (435)
“This isn’t a bad place to grow up,” O2 tells the koala. “But by your one million, five hundred and seventy-six thousand, seven hundred and seventy-eighth iteration, there’s not much in the way of novelty.” (201)
“Everywhen” is a hopeless hack job, pocked with flubs and misspellings and shamelessly bruise-colored prose; somebody must have said something nice about it, however, because Orson churned out nineteen more stories by the end of that year.” (214)
While it is a clever, humorous, and well-written novel, what it’s lacking is emotionality. Major publicity reviews excuse this lack of emotionality for it being a philosophic novel, but philosophic SF is capable of humor, spirit, and vitality, while also being profound and contemplative. What prevents The Lost Time Accidents from any of these things is the vanity of narrative voice, with Waldy Tolliver, a young, over-privileged kid who is more concerned with himself and his love life than the events and family psychosis over which he ruminates. His memoir is simply a way to make himself appear more interesting to his lost love; he feigns disturbance, yet he cherishes his associations with eccentricity and infamy.
The vanity (and immaturity) fits the character and his disorder, but it eventually overstays its welcome, which doesn’t happen as quickly as one might expect from a 500-page novel. While Waldy’s memoirs/family history draws parallels between the evolving prejudiced sentiments of 1930’s Eastern Europe and our own situation today, it’s not done explicitly, and the characters, arguably disassociated by their own neuroses, are too distant and self-absorbed to adequately bring the necessary heart to contrast the heinous events of mid-20th century life. The narrator himself is too arrogant to draw much significance to these matters, which is tolerable until the final fifth, when Waldy dawdles on his painfully generic preppy college memories, and recounts, word-for-word, his long, repetitive, and mostly cheesy conversations with his evil Nazi ghost uncle/namesake, Waldemar. These final segments feel more like authorial indulgence than critical to plot or significance and could use a good shave.
Still, it’s enjoyable and quite funny, and a novel highly recommended for any fan of old SF. It’s fun, it’s neat, it’s nifty, and while it seems well-positioned to belong on a Clarke shortlist, it’s also a novel I think we’ll all promptly forget when all is said and done. It’s something that makes the reader feel “in on it” and special at that moment as it headpats and tosses the ball with old sci-fi fandom, and the way it creatively links history and time travel tropes with serious family neuroses is clever and engaging, but it’s not something easily labeled as inventive or boundary-pushing or even very special within the context of SF. While it’s clearly in dialogue time travel fiction, applying irrationality to the trope to rationalize the idea of it, it still sits comfortably within established SFnal conventions, making it basically nothing new or critical. Had it been a tad bit more affecting and profound, and a bit less indulgent of the self, I might have thought otherwise.
Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.