The DWJ Project: A Tale of Time City

Okay, two things first.

1) Has anybody written the fanfic where the Pevensies get kidnapped away to Time City, and Vivian goes to Narnia? Because really.


Ahem. No, seriously though — maybe lactose-intolerant people and such can read the description of a butter-pie and not want one, but my god they sound good. (The name, not so much. But the description . . . yes please.)

Anyway, as for the book itself:

Time City — built eons from now on a patch of space outside time — was designed especially to oversee history, but now its very foundations are crumbling from age. Two boys are convinced that Time City’s impending doom can be averted by a Twenty Century girl named Vivian Smith. They also know that no one will take the wild schemes of children seriously, so they violate nearly every law in the book by traveling back in time to pluck her from a British railway station at the start of World War II in 1939. By the time the boys learn Vivian’s just an ordinary girl, they realize it’s too late to return her safely — unless, with her help, they can somehow manage to get Time City’s foundations back on the right track. It’s either that or she’ll be stuck in the far-distant future forever!

“Wild schemes” is right: Vivian realizes fairly quickly that Jonathan and Sam, the two boys who more or less kidnap her from the railway station, were — well, they were acting like kids. Kids on an adventure, and they didn’t really stop to think the whole thing through before it blew up in their faces. What’s great about that is, Vivian catches herself acting that way a few times, and catches some (supposed) adults at it, too. I think I love that because, really, let’s face it: a lot of us are readers, and if we suddenly found ourselves caught up in events that seemed more like a story than our daily lives . . . well, depending on the events, we’d either shriek and curl into a little ball — or start thinking of ourselves as if we were the protagonists of a book. So that part rings really true to me.

I also love the cleverness of the entire Time City premise. The history of human beings is shaped like a great horseshoe, stretching from the Stone Age up to the Depopulation of Earth, and Time City — perched not only on its own patch of space, but time (which makes it not so much “the far-distant future” as something else entirely) — travels backward along that span, to keep it separate from history. Then there are the polarities, whose nature has been forgotten to the point of making them near-myth, and the stories of Faber John and the Time Lady, who founded the city, and even the political question of how Time City handles tourists from the Fixed Eras, and tries to keep the Unstable Eras from spinning out of control.

(There’s also one other thing that amuses the hell out of me, from the scenes where Dr. Wilander sets Vivian at translation — but that’s a long enough story, and enough of a digression, that I’ll have to do it in a separate post.)

Spoiler time!

It’s great to see Vivian and several others call the residents of Time City on their, quite frankly, elitist bullshit. I understand that they can’t run amok in history, trying to stop every bad thing that ever happened, but their isolationism and tendency to view having to go out into history as the Worst Thing Evah doesn’t exactly reflect well on them. And while I suppose you might justify their near-total lack of knowledge about their own history by remembering that Time City is itself an Unstable Era (and let me just say, I love that touch) . . . they don’t come off looking very good.

You could waste time arguing whether this book is science fiction or fantasy, but I’m more interested in the way that its science-fictional characteristics run afoul of that common problem, which is that they age rather weirdly. The book was published in 1987: radial keratotomy was a thing by then, but Jonathan — with all the technology of human existence to draw from — depends on an “eye function” to correct his vision. And the worldbuilding (or rather, future-building) is just imaginative enough to make my anthropological brain wake up — which ends up backfiring a bit, because then I’m sad it’s not more imaginative. I recognize the game Jones is playing here, and don’t have a problem with it, but that doesn’t stop me from raising an eyebrow at the notion that there would be anything recognizable left of London (let alone the landmarks within it) seven thousand years from now. The Mind Wars and such are cool, but I have to remind myself to gloss over the bits where I don’t feel things have changed enough. (Which is, I should mention, a new problem for me. Although I’ve read selections from this book for Milk & Cookies, I haven’t read the whole thing for years — since before I went to grad school, I think.)

My one other wish is that the narrative structure made it feasible to have the bad guys onstage sooner. The “real” Vivian and her parents are mentioned in the story as a problem for Protagonist!Vivian, but the revelation of their villainy doesn’t quick click into place with full inevitability, because they haven’t really been characters up until that point.

I think this one, in retrospect, is less technically strong than I remembered it being — but I still like it a lot. Vivian’s adventures in and out of history are fun, and there are lots of great character moments, like when she figures out the method to Sempitern Walker’s madness. I love the notion of Time City itself, and the time ghosts (a nice bit of foreshadowing, in several places), and the weird AU WWII we get glimpses of, as Twenty Century goes off the rails entirely.

Side note: I blanked on Dr. Wilander’s name before I started re-reading, and could only half-remember it, as Wiland or Wyland or some such. Which then made me wonder whether there’s supposed to be an echo there of Wayland Smith. I only drew the connection because of the discussion as to what “Faber John” means, but having thought of it, now I think it could be deliberate. If it weren’t for the -er on the end, I’d be fairly sure.

And that’s it for the last of the second-tier favorites. One more anthology to go — I hope to post about that tonight — and then we’ll be into the final three books, all of which I have left until last for very specific reasons.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: A Tale of Time City”

  1. oneminutemonkey

    This book haunted me for years. I read it in high school, and then spent ages as an adult trying to track down a copy. This was, of course, before the American reprints made it easier… I finally located an English import at a con and thus was happy.

    This and Homeward Bounders and Fire and Hemlock are probably my favorite DWJ books.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I spent a number of years collecting her books haphazardly, many of them as English imports. I’m glad they’re more available these days.

      My edition of this one, incidentally, is a U.S. copy, with a ridiculously dreary cover. A half-visible boy and girl in the foreground, some kind of psychedelic smear in the distance, and everything else is brown. Really terrible.

  2. joyeuce

    I think I read somewhere that DWJ invented the butter-pie out of her longing for dairy products when she’d been forbidden them. The closest thing to (my mental image of) it that I’ve ever tasted was a salted-caramel patisserie I had in Lille, but of course it didn’t have the hot bit.

  3. alessandriana

    I read this book as a kid long before I’d ever heard of the rest of DWJ’s works, and it was a massive light bulb moment when I realized years later it was by her– that’s why it was so good! It’s still probably one of my favorites of hers, and probably where my love of AU fiction comes from…

    And yes: butter pie! OM NOM. I hope I live long enough to see that technology come along…

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve got a few books from childhood like that, ones I don’t properly connect to an author, or have connected to the wrong author.

      . . . wow. I would hate knowing somebody felt that way about one of my books. I want credit for my work, dammit! 🙂

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