A Shortcut in Time

A Shortcut in Time by Charles DickinsonCharles Dickinson
Forge Books ($24.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Every culture tells stories about fate. The word of an oracle, the decree of a god, represents either an irrevocable doom or an opportunity for some loophole-exploiting trickster to rewrite destiny. Our culture fills this niche with time-travel stories, and these tales generally offer two possible morals. Either we should accept that the present—and its surrogate, the future—is so fixed that all our attempts at change only make it more inevitable, or else we should be empowered by the hope that clever strategies and well-timed actions can rescue us from history's blind stumble. Charles Dickinson's novel, A Shortcut in Time gives us a time-travel tale that eludes both patterns, offering a world that can be shaped by its characters, even if they aren't always in complete control of that shaping.

Dickinson displays the mastery of cause and effect that any time-travel author needs, seeding small, seemingly inconsequential details throughout the narrative so that they can return in unexpected ways later. His characters, however, are not so adept. The novel's narrator, Josh Winkler, seems to have no more command over the repercussions of his actions—in either present or past—than any ordinary person would. As he sleepwalks through a sort of midlife slackerdom, an artist supported by his physician wife, Josh has less of a sense of having an impact on his world than most people; even his most urgent actions seem to unfold over the course of hours, if not days.

The roots of this ineffectualness can be seen in the novel's opening chapter, in which a teenaged Josh's eventual heroism is too late to avert a tragedy. The reader might expect this is the central moment which must be undone in order to right the future, but neither Josh's temperament, nor the workings of time travel as Dickinson develops it, lead events in that direction. The novel's characters are more occupied with getting to the place and time where they belong than with rigging the past in order to rearrange the present, and the "shortcuts" of the title are only vaguely amenable to conscious manipulation.

By de-emphasizing the mechanics of time-travel, A Shortcut in Time allows Dickinson the space to unfold Josh's story quietly, almost incidentally. Josh's low-key description of the aftermath of his first slip into the past is indicative: "A lot could happen in fifteen minutes, and at the same time, not much at all. I felt myself catching up to the present. Soon I would be living through time I hadn't lived through already." A few lines later, Josh uses the word "helpless" to describe how he feels while watching the predestined world pass him by.

Josh Winkler is not the only time traveler in the novel—among the others is a 15-year old girl from the turn of the century who displays a more hands-on approach to moving through time. Scenes between young Contance, with her resourcefulness and her drive to return home, and the ever-cautious Josh provide many of the novel's most compelling moments. In the end, however, it's through Josh's story that Dickinson rearranges a familiar story-pattern into something new, and perhaps appropriate to an age when the interconnections of cause and effect seem more chaotic and complex than a simple domino chain.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003