Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review of Millennium by John Varley

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is one of if not the original time travel story, and uses the concept as a tool to comment upon the industrialization of society.  Isaac Asimov took the idea and converted it into commentary on the long term potential for human evolution in The End of Eternity.  Michael Moorcock, in Behold the Man, used time travel to tell a personal story of religious proportion, and fellow New Wave writer Robert Silverberg commented upon authoritarianism and isolation in Hawksbill Station.  Tim Powers played with time to tell a beautifully plotted story in The Anubis Gates, and Connie Willis traveled back to Medieval Ages to gush historical knowledge in Doomsday Book.  In 1982, John Varley decided to use the concept to attempt to snark at social and environmental concerns of the late 20th century. Starting as a short story (“Air Raid”), developing into a script idea, and then novelized in conjunction with a film, Millennium is the thrilling Hollywood-esque result, but begs to be more.

Millennium is the story of Louise Baltimore and Bill Smith.  Baltimore living in an extremely dilapidated version of Earth thousands of years in the future, the carelessness of 20th century environmental practices has brought humanity to the brink of extinction.  Technology having advanced significantly in the meantime, time travel has been invented, and in order to forestall the loss of humanity, snatch missions are sent to the past to grab healthy humans and bring them to the future to continue the species.  Knowing that any disruption in the past may cause irreparable damage to the future, only the imminently doomed are taken.  Airplanes about to crash the best target, time gates are opened minutes before the accident and the passengers offloaded to the future and replaced with meat dummies just before the collision.  None are the wiser, that is until Bill Smith, investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, is called to the scene of a two plane crash.  Bad relationships and an alcohol problem not getting in the way of his investigation, a few inconsistencies in the debris start his mind churning. Wrist watches behaving erratically, stomach contents not matching up, and a most bizarre weapon are enough to have Louise and her support team scrambling to send a mission team back to rectify the anomaly.  Good intentions, however, are not always good enough.

Though posturing to the effect it has real world concerns, the truth is that Millennium’s focus is entertainment.  There are a few cynical, biting comments upon the state of the world today, and indeed Lousie Baltimore’s job is rooted in the idea garbage-in today equals garbage-out in the future, but certainly the greater intent of the novel is to engage the reader along more base lines.  The plot unravels in unsurprisingly Hollywood fashion, and, garbage in/garbage out is parlayed into a doomsday, end-of-the-universe scenario requiring a hero.  James Bond has more in common with Millennium than the social and political concern of much of Varley’s other fiction.

Millennium is a thriller, and, as with most time travel stories, features its share of discrepancies popping up in story logic.  Varley doing a lot of hand waving to disguise this.  There are notes from past and future selves, windows to the past visible in the future, and windows which are closed simply because—all culminating in a head twister of rationale that never quite seems to fully click into place.  Like the overriding premise that humanity is falling apart to the point of needing to snatch healthy bodies from the past, the time travel logic likewise requires significant suspension of belief if the novel is to be read with conviction.

It is Varley’s prose that saves Millenium from descending into the depths of pulp time travel. The language vivid and the characters coming across in identifiable, edgy tones, it is enough to camouflage all of the hand waving covering for the various discrepancies appearing in the logic, and makes the pages turn with ease.  
In the end, Millennium is good as a thriller, but requires an effort above and beyond normal to engage with the heavily contrived nature of the premise.  Visceral prose plowing through the anomalies, Varley gives the reader their money’s worth for the one time they’ll read the book, the ending as trite as can be.  Hedging all its bets on the roll of the dice, you get a bang for that buck, but little to ruminate upon after save the dimensions of time travel.

(A side note regarding the film.  Michael Anderson’s adaptation of Varley’s short story “Air Raid” is, as far as sci-fi movies go, not so bad, not so great.  As a ‘big budget’ Hollywood film, the money helps seal off a lot of leak points that many well-intended sci-fi films suffer from.  For the 1980s, the graphics hold up relatively well, and the acting is better than average.  It’s only that the underlying story is tinsel town fluff—an aspect the novel mitigates only slightly—that prevents the movie form being among the greats of genre silver screen.  It did, however, intend to be a thriller, and for that, succeeds.)

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