What we talk about when we talk about time travel

Scott K Andrews interviewed by Jason Arnopp at the British Science Fiction Association Meeting, 25 February 2015

The workings of time travel are impossible to show without telling, asserts Scott K Andrews, author of the young adult time travel trilogy ‘TimeBomb’, so in the first of the books he avoids this conundrum by deliberately not explaining it at all. Despite this entirely understandable approach, people have apparently still complained that the novel’s time travel exposition has confused them. It is one of the risks inherent in this notorious mind-bender of a genre; however, ‘TimeBomb’ makes the best of it with a suitably twist-filled narrative as three teens, one from the past, one from our present and one from the future, find themselves snatched from their lives by mysterious figures engaged in a conspiracy presumably caused by the chronological explosive of the title.

Scott explained that he has addressed the expositional need in Book Two and read this sequence on 25 February. The book will be worth getting for the Heisenberg gag alone (if you’ve put a poison gas pellet in with the cat, make sure you’re wearing a gas mask when you open the box, otherwise…). The first novel is entirely satisfying in its own right however, and while there is no detailed explanation of how the characters travel in time by holding hands and thinking about it there are beguiling hints about cracks in events and a mysterious asteroid from the Kuiper belt. Scott elaborated on the time damage theme, basing it on actual explosion science. He talked about how the opening of HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’ presents a similarly grounded theory in which the fourth dimension, time, is a physical direction; a simple and yet spectacularly geeky conceit.

Time travel stories have recurred throughout Scott’s career. An inveterate fanboy, he pitched Virgin in the early 90s for the opportunity to write one of their ‘Doctor Who’ novels. This process involved writing the first 20,000 words of the novel and another 20,000 explaining the rest of it. Frustratingly, Virgin passed but did write a genuinely encouraging letter whose talismanic power saw Scott through the next fifteen years of typical writer trial, error and rejection. He wrote a ‘Highlander’ story for Big Finish and eventually pitched for Abaddon’s ‘School’s Out’ series. The latter was his first major success, perhaps because it enabled him to channel his love for Terry Nation’s ‘Survivor’ TV series while at the same time acting as a catharsis for a miserable experience at school. ‘All stories,’ Scott said revealingly at the BSFA meeting, ‘are Westerns about standing up to bullies’. By now Scott had an editor able to marshal the writer’s torrential creativity, so when an opportunity arose to pitch a book of his own he was able to deliver three options, of which ‘TimeBomb’ was selected immediately. The pitching element of Scott’s career progression is interesting and very different from the ‘write it, send it off and hope for the best’ model. The key seems to be knowing not just the genre but the industry as well.

‘TimeBomb’’s no-nonsense kids are not, perhaps habitual SF readers – one is an impatient, confused and rather manipulative girl from the future, another is a young male Polish runaway and the last the fourteen-year old daughter of a baker from the time of the English Civil War. Scott described how he was determined to avoid the ‘girl and two boys’ relational structure of much young adult fiction and has cleverly mixed things up further by making the older girl, Jaya, rather androgynous, the boy, Kaz, the heart of the piece and finally puts a laser-pistol in the hands of a traumatised Dora with dramatic and upsetting results.

Time travel stories have a universal appeal but perhaps exercise a particular attraction for young people, stuck as they are between childhood and the adult world while at the mercy of seemingly arbitrary rules and restrictions. Scott mentioned two elements of the genre that make his setting and demographic such an ideal match; one is wish-fulfilment, which the novel takes further by introducing older versions of the characters to each other; the second is Scott’s insightful assertion that ‘everything which happened before we were born is mythological’. It could be added that everything that happens after we die is mythological too but in a different, less visceral way. Certainly, the ability of the protagonists to visit events in the past has a profound developmental effect on them, particularly in their relationships with bewildering adult characters who often seem to literally change places. An early mentor has the face of one of the villains (the deceptively named Lord Sweetclover) while the main antagonist, Quil, doesn’t have a face at all and wears a blank white mask. Even Lord Sweetclover is out of his depth; in thrall to a wife from the future who brings fridge freezers into the 17th century family manor from one chronological direction and an army of facially-tattooed Celts from another.

As is often the case it is the antagonists who define the tale and Scott explained that in Quil he wanted to avoid the usual clichés of female villainy. We first meet her in an interrogation room in the future; she is thrown back in time, burned at the stake, escapes that, encounters Dora and in touching her begins the girl’s own journey through the ages. Weirdly sexy, charming and clearly sociopathic, Quil is almost too much for the young heroes and it is only their time travel gift, or perhaps curse, that enables them to gain any kind of advantage.

Such is Quil’s confidence that I asked if she was actually a future version of one of the protagonists. Understandably, Scott declined to answer directly but did hint that she was an intrinsic part of their futures. It will be well worth finding out.



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