Contrary to popular opinion, I have enjoyed but not been a flag-waving fanatic of Ian McDonald’s recent novels. The Dervish House, the Luna books thus far, and the Everness trilogy all received accolades and praise unlike any work from McDonald’s first three decades as a writer. But there is the extremely strong impression it’s only because these books are the most mainstream of McDonald’s oeuvre—like he gave up trying to be original and just produced an abstraction of what the market wanted. Gone is the gonzo imagination of Out on Blue Six. Absent is the Walt Whitman approach to Hearts, Hands and Voices. Nowhere is the magic realism and charm of Desolation Road. Instead, the reader is given relatively familiar characters, setups, and straight-forward prose combined in very competent fashion—not a criticism, just an observation. Thus when learning McDonald had been commissioned to write a novella for Tor.com, my heart sank further: more standard, market stuff. Having now read Time Was, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s far too early to say McDonald is back, but damn did he surprise with what may be the most affecting, sweeping story of his career.
I suppose Time Was is technically a frame story, though it should be known that the boundaries between the frame and its content are often blurred, and the frame itself occupies the majority of space. The novella opens in the very-near-future with rare book seller Emmet Leigh searching the contents of a London dumpster for potential literary gold. Coming across a semi-anonymous book of poetry, he takes a chance and picks it up. Opening the leather-bound volume, a love letter falls out. Written by one Tom Chappell to a Ben Seligman, the pair opine separation even as the exigencies of WWII press close. Intrigued, Leigh begins digging deeper into the history of the two men, and discovers more than he could ever have imagined.
Though at heart the romance of Chappell and Seligman, McDonald never beats the reader over the head with its LGBTWERTYU elements in Time Was. Like Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles or Adam Robert’s New Model Army, homosexuality is taken for granted, a natural aspect of life and the story, and matters array themselves from there. Given the extreme volume of social justice drum-beating happening in today’s world, McDonald’s approach makes for welcome relief. Addressing, describing, and respecting a real aspect of human existence without making a show of it does much more to raise awareness than any loud drum. And by doing so, the real emotions of life appear on the page to affect the reader. Brilliantly done.
Prose-wise, Time Was establishes McDonald as one of, if not the premiere stylist of his generation. Dynamic and unafraid, his oeuvre covers the widest range of any author I can think of. (Michael Swanwick is another contender.) From the skirting, clipped exposition of his debut Desolation Road to the disco-ball vigor of Out on Blue Six, the sing-the-body-electric approach in Hearts, Hands, and Voices to the tried and true, mainstream stylings of the Luna series, there is no other contemporary writer I have encountered who has shown such a spectrum of style. And Time Was is written in achingly beautiful prose unlike I’ve seen from McDonald before. As stated, it is a romance, and he imbues every page, every line with the weight and emotion of something unseen that fully complements the story being told without dipping into cheap sensationalism. Aged and mature, McDonald never delves into high school maudlinism, but instead uses panache to deliver a love story for adults—which is not something that can be said about the majority of the market these days.
And the compliments keep rolling. Time travel is in strong contention for the most overused science fictional device in existence. Extensory rather than central, McDonald deploys the device in a fashion that fits itself like a puzzle piece to the main premise yet never overshadows the narrative with fantasy “science” or deep, detailed, useless exposition. And it’s a natural extension. Where time and distance are used in many romance novels as a device to keep lovers apart, in Time Was McDonald uses time travel to enhance this. Also brilliantly done.
I rave and rave, and Time Was is indeed a fine novella. I would have liked to see another 30-40 pages of development, particularly the troubles in Leigh’s life as his obsession with getting to the bottom of Chappell and Seligman’s story unravels, not to mention a touch more personal content in the final chapters that ‘seals the deal’ on Seligman and Chappell. But what is remains works well, and given McDonald’s gorgeous delivery, is affecting. I have my reservations about Tor.com originals, not to mention the direction of McDonald’s oeuvre, but Time Was has me thinking twice about both.