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Timeshift by Phillip Ellis Jackson
(AmErica House, $19.95, 211 pages, paperback; Spring 2001.) cover scan

"The year is 2416. Mankind is slowly coming to terms with the terrifying reality that, as a race, it is moving toward extinction. Three hundred and fifty years earlier the country divided into two cooperative, but separate nations -- the East and West United States. A brief nuclear exchange involving remnants of the old Soviet empire gave rise to a deadly new lifeform -- a toxic, self-replicating, indestructible ash."

In the grand tradition of R. Lionel Fanthorpe comes Phillip Ellis Jackson's first novel, heralding what is promised to be a trilogy.

Our descendants live underground, hoping to reclaim their world (which is coextensive with today's USA) through eliminating the ash, a task they hope to accomplish by exploiting the properties of Beta Light. "Beta Light?" you ask with a quizzical crossing of the eyes. Well:

Scientists discovered that after leaving the sun, Alpha Light -- the spectrum ranging from infrared to ultraviolet -- split off and continued on into space while a new, hitherto unknown companion particle, Beta Light, was trapped in a sediment-like swirl by the earth's magnetic field. Because of its unique properties, Beta Light acted like a recording film capturing the images of the past exactly as they happened -- sights, sounds, everything just as it was. Man could view the past, but not interact with it. Still, it was enough to replay the 3-D holographic images they retrieved, allowing the people of the present to share in a life that once was, and might never again be.

As a wacky-physics sf premise, this is only about one order of magnitude wackier than Bob Shaw's "slow glass", a concept with which, in terms of potential for story development, it can be directly compared. Thanks to advanced technology, people can be sent on "jumps" into the layers of Beta Light that surround the earth rather like the rings of a tree; there they can record the past. The hope is that, by dint of detailed historical research, they can pinpoint the moment in time when either the precursor of that ash was invented as an item in the biological-warfare arsenal or the "cure" for it was invented by the long-dead scientist Audrey York. Or something like that: this is a novel in which it is easy to lose track.

There's not a lot of crime in the 25th century for the obvious reason that "jumps" can be made back to the moment of perpetration and the criminals thereby readily identified.

Paul Thorndyke is the up-and-comer in B.E.T.A., one of the three all-American corporations that control access to Beta Light; a member of the company for only a couple of weeks, he is visibly such a leader and genius that he is asked to stand in for B.E.T.A. boss Scott Hollock as witness of the most important "jump" yet, back to the moment when past US President Peter Haley authorized the development of York's work; if the establishment where that further research was done can only be pinpointed, the reasoning goes, then future "jumpers" can be sent to spy on what went on and thereby discover how to neutralize the killer ash.

Oh, yes, "B.E.T.A." stands for "Betalight Electromagnetic Technology Applications". The other two companies are P.A.S.T. -- "Particle Accelerator Shuttle Transmission" -- and T.I.M.E. -- "Transitional Insertion Management Enterprise". Each of these three handles a different aspect of the effort to exploit Beta Light. Clearly it'd be a good idea if the three corporations could be unified; and this is the aim of various criminals in high places who realize that the person at the helm of the unified corporation could also be (cackle, cackle, cackle, Mr Bond) the ruler of the world. The high-echelon nasties are assisted in their wheeze by the fact that the brilliant mathematician Harman Bright, who has devised a way of altering Beta Light images (so folk can be framed for crimes they didn't commit, and thus got out of the way), is not only a brilliant mathematician but a cheery little psychopath: anyone looks as if they're cottoning on to the nefariousness all around and Harman Bright can either snuff them or/and fake up the scene of a snuffing so that the threatening individual is instantly convicted of murder, on Beta Light evidence, and condemned to death.

Here's an odd thing. Throughout the civilized world at the start of the 21st century the US fascination with the death penalty is widely regarded as a noxious practice in which only a very young nation would indulge; juvenile barbarism, in other words. In Jackson's future, five hundred years hence, capital punishment is just taken for granted, despite its complete pointlessness in the society he paints.

Anyway, Jim Robenalt, a pal of Thorndyke's who has cottoned on to the conspiracy, is framed for the murder of Ben Mitchell, a pal of both of them who likewise cottoned on to the conspiracy. As a result Robenalt is condemned to die by being irreversibly "jumped" into the past of an hour ago, where he will eventually dissipate, as folk do. This galvanizes Thorndyke, his boss Hollock, Hollock's number one squeeze (who happens to be Secretary of State Lillian "Call Me Lillian" Dorr), Thorndyke's own squeeze Sharla Russell, Thorndyke's mathematician pal Quentin Cottle, Cottle's squeeze Ruth -- those women are all first-class citizens with admirable minds, you understand, but for some reason not remotely connected with the fact that they're merely women and sexy as hell fall short of the geniushood displayed by their respective menfolk.

And so the novel rambles on until the conspirators are defeated in a maze of spelling errors, further wacky science and poor proofreading.

There's a good bit, too, marred only by Jackson's ignorance of the fact that nouns ending in "a" are likely to be plurals rather than singulars (throughout the book we're told that "jumpers" must seek out an individual strata of Beta Light, the word "stratum" clearly being, um, terra incognita). This good bit occurs when Thorndyke and Russell go to have a meal in a restaurant where customers can call up authentic scenes from the past as ambience (they choose the court of Henry VIII), and it occurs at the top of page 82 where the waiter tells them:

If you have need of any other services, please throw a resin-polymer rib bone at the candelabra in front of the King. You'll strike a sensor pad behind that spot that will signal someone from customer services. Enjoy.

Those four lines are something of an oasis for the reader, alas; if you want to get the best out of this book, rush to page 82 and read that top paragraph again and again and again. Elsewhere we discover how infernally difficult it is for characters actually to say their dialogue; by way of compensation they have the ability to chuckle, smile, smirk or laugh not just single words but whole sentences: "`If you don't mind my asking,' Quentin frowned", the words presumably appearing on his wrinkled forehead in Braille.

There are other good bits, but only for the unpardonably vindictive reader. Here's an example of the New Botany:

... A genetically engineered virus-sized organism that can be introduced into the stem cells of plants to migrate to their leaves, then bind with the plant's own genetic material to fundamentally alter its indigenous respiratory process. Instead of simply scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air, the altered plants will take in even the most virulent form of airborne pollution, break it down chemically into harmless components, and then excrete it into the soil where it will remain a harmless constituent of the earth.

"Shitting plants!" shuddered my wife, nervously skirting a potted geranium in our back yard. The New Ecology is not far behind:

What was it they called it? Political correctness? Can you imagine actually working under conditions where basic research was so heavily influenced by the personal prejudices of petty politicians who were bound and determined to make science conform to their own preconceived notions? The ozone layer wasn't affected by sunspots and other natural climatic processes ... just aerosol spray cans and old air cooling technology. Well, we stopped the spray cans and changed cooling systems, but the ozone layer kept getting thinner. So we curtailed fossil fuel emissions and other byproducts of technological advancement, but still the problem worsened. It was only when the solutions became more and more perverse, and their anticipated beneficial effects farther and farther away, that the public finally began to see the pronouncements for what they were -- tools to advance a private, social agenda.

Sort of makes you wonder why the commie bastards in authority are so keen to curtail your fundamental American freedom to light cigarettes in gas stations, doesn't it?

Now, apart from the candelabrum/candelabra and stratum/strata problems, and the problem of the characters mystically smirking and grinning all those words, there are a number of others. For example, things emerge from the "bowls" of the earth, someone "pours" over a manuscript, "jumpers" are shot into the "breech of history" -- I promise I'm not pulling your leg here -- and all in all one begins to think that perhaps the publisher didn't bother putting a copy-editor through the text; at a level even below that, quite often there are double letter-spaces between words. Of course, it would be unjustifiably sceptical to suggest that the web-based publisher AmErica was merely a vanity press economizing on the editing in order to make itself more effectively profitable.

Rummaging through the more cobwebbed recesses of his memory, your reviewer recalled the time about a year ago when AmErica was actively soliciting freelance editors and copy-editors to work with their authors; offered in lieu of a fee was a royalty share and so your reviewer, reckoning that each author could have only so many moms, abruptly lost interest. It may be that he was not alone in this or there may have been some other, completely unrelated reason, but AmErica no longer boasts to the authors it recruits about the advantages of having copy-editors. Quite the contrary, the press has new strengths:

Furthermore, you are always the intellectual owner of the book. No one is allowed to tamper with the text after you have made it final. Digital printing makes it technically possible to make changes to texts at any time, therefore your contract protects you against such outside tampering. You are your book's creator, writer, and owner.
Then, last but not least, you are entitled to having fun! It is important that you enjoy being a published writer. To have your book out and have other people buy and read it, is pure joy. It makes you feel proud and fulfilled. Your name and face are in the newspaper, people discuss your work and are impacted by what you wrote: all that is sheer pleasure. Enjoy it!

In other words, a great advantage of publishing your book with AmErica is that you won't have some clown correcting the spelling without your permission -- or, in fact, at all. But at least it's obvious from the rest of the site that potential authors are not expected to pay for publication; one suspects it may be rather easy to gain acceptance of your book at AmErica, but at least there's none of the nonsense other, similar organizations promulgate about it being "fair" that authors "contribute to production costs".

Over the decades, this reviewer has sometimes wondered about the advantages of publishers having copy-editors. To be sure, having a paradigm of the trade like Nancy Webber or Katrina Whone or Lydia Darbyshire going through your text is a great boon; my bacon has been often saved. At the same time, it has often been the case that the task of proof correction has been less one of spotting literals and more one of unpicking the worst idiocies of a copy-editor whose acquaintance with the basics of literacy is at best remote.

All such doubts about the advisability of using copy-editors are banished on a reading of Timeshift. This is a fairly short novel (211 pages, big print), yet it takes a long time to read because it is -- to doff one's aura of saintly charity for just a moment -- a complete mess. Struggling through the last forty pages or so was an ever-slowing task made possible only by the thought that the alternative was helping my wife re-wallpaper the landing. If you ignore the bad science and the bad grammar and the bad spelling and the bad characterization and ... But you can't.

This reviewer has no wish to be unnecessarily cruel, but here is a book that should never have been published. That it has been -- and that there is a sequel on the way -- is a cause for great depression.

Or is it?

Like it or not -- and most of the big publishers don't -- there's a justified air of excitement at the moment about the "new publishing". Thanks to advances in printing technology, small presses are proliferating: it now costs only a fraction of what it did a mere decade ago to set oneself up as a publisher. At the same time, the big commercial houses have been forming themselves into ever-larger conglomerates with a redefined editorial brief: where once there was the faith that a good book would bring in the pennies, now there is the belief that only a strong media-related hook will make a genre-sf novel sell. The folly of this notion is symptomatized not just by the fact that, six months after publication, these sf novels are crowding out the remainder tables at Barnes & Noble but by the difficulty Infinity Plus's US Reviews Editor has in finding reviewers to take them off his hands -- in other words, the difficulty he has even giving them away.

By contrast, what the new small presses are releasing is often very exciting. Timeshift is at the bottom end of the garbage pile, to be true, but it's not actually much worse -- if for quite different reasons -- than much of the stuff coming out of the commercial houses at the moment. Perhaps the price we have to pay for seeing good, un-commercially-adulterated novels from the small presses is the occasional Timeshift. If that's the case it's a price worth paying.

Review by John Grant.


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© John Grant 10 June 2001