The first science fiction novel from best-selling fantasy author FD Lee effortlessly blends the DNA of time travel and cyberpunk to create a twisty and original beast of a thriller. At its heart is the question of whether you should go back in time to right some terrible wrong and thus prevent your contemporary world from descending into a dystopian apocalypse.
The classic trope is to do something like go back and kill Hitler. However, such simplistic narratives miss obvious snags, such as how it wasn’t just Hitler who was the problem but the millions who supported him; indeed, there are many proto-Hitlers in power now, and they are jolly popular. Also, there is a tedious liberal-elite assumption in traditional time-travel stories that the forces of good will wield time-travel technology, usually because they invented it and thus have higher moral standards because… er… Eton, or something? This assumption is clearly nonsense; from nukes to the dark arts of Facebook, technology accrues every human instinct, good and bad.
‘In the Slip’ takes these ideas, from the notion of the Special One to use of extreme technologies to advance the cause of narrow socio-political goals, and creates a grimly compelling narrative that is refracted through the disintegrating intelligence of a time agent called Kong. Kong’s missions involve stopping people interfering with the One True Timeline, an interesting causality sequence that doesn’t side-step an environmental devastation so total that the remains of humanity live in domed cities, but does ensure that life in the domes is nice. That’s right, nice. Yeah, too right your dystopian antennae should be twitching.
There are good reasons for all this of course, chief among them the impossibility of going back in time further than ‘the Fracture’, which is the environmental apocalypse that brought the whole nightmare about. Time travel in the novel is via the ‘Holo’, a device woven into the fabric of the traveller’s body, so there are no TARDIS-like time machines. Instead, travellers negotiate a kind of Wellsian fourth dimension, with the added hazard of ‘time-pressure’, which is like atmospheric pressure but chronological, eg the further back you go, the more accumulated time bears down on you. To get around this lethal danger, Kong constantly pops ‘chloros’ a drug that is meant to combat time pressure but increasingly comes to resemble something much more coercive.
These brilliant hard SF conceits put the novel way above the standard of most time travel books; I’ve read a lot of them recently and none have been as satisfying as this one. The pace, plot, and most of all Kong’s narrative voice – a kind of fast-paced Mockney Clint Eastwood hybrid that hints at an identity that is not quite what it thinks it is – combine to create an often dizzying, frequently uncomfortable ride back and forth through a world we should be doing everything we can do avoid coming to pass.
We aren’t let off the hook though; when Kong does finally struggle further back into the past than anyone else, he finds that people know what’s going to happen and carry on anyway, with the sort of hopeless resignation that has become a hallmark of contemporary politics. Only Kong’s love for the beautiful, enigmatic Joe, which survives numerous post-mission reconditionings, offers any hope of redemption, but even here there is a subversive twist. Kong, uniquely able to withstand the peculiar rigours of time-travel, finds he is less resilient to the machinations of a fate paradoxically beyond and yet wholly within his control.