Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.
Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are as limited as Tom’s ability to operate them.) Sadly, of the three time travel novels I’ve read by RCW (the other two are The Chronoliths and Last Year), A Bridge of Years is my least favourite.
It’s not all bad, thankfully, and my favourite parts of the novel were Tom’s experiences in New York and how the dissolution of his marriage leads him away from his life. Wilson has a knack for taking straight arrows and bending them into Bohemian groups like the one he finds in Greenwich Village. These heroes have interesting conversations, meet interesting women, and try interesting new things. They open up and realize that they like alternative values, which is why they are willing to leave the safety of the mundane behind them. Ironically, Tom’s decision to answer the call to adventure is grounded by the exact opposite impulse:
What if you could step out of the world? What if you knew a place — not a perfect place, but a place where you could live without some of the uncertainties? A place where you knew for sure there wouldn’t be a nuclear exchange in the next thirty years. Where there was disease, but not AIDS. All of the human agony — repression, pain, ugliness — but on a slightly less massive scale.
For Tom, New York in 1962 is novel, but as adventures go, it seems charmingly manageable. Of course, there is also a marauder from the future whose psychopathic armor causes him to kill people, but Tom doesn’t know about the marauder when he leaves 1989.
A Bridge of Years also stands out when Wilson gets into the technical details about the building of the time travel tunnels. It turns out that mysterious (hypothetical?) creatures spread out into the universe and discovered strange things out there. Inside the time travel tunnels are mysterious creatures, maybe ghosts, that are mostly benign. Where do they come from?
Having said that, I found the minutia of Tom’s life in Belltower dull — and long. The Marauder and his armor never clicked for me either. Perhaps it was that “Billy” is a name that does not easily inspire fear in me, or maybe “armor” is just not a very threatening word. Regardless, compared to his later works, Wilson’s plotting here feels long and winding.
A Bridge of Years was recently published by Orb and it also has been released as an audiobook, so while I had to rely on interlibrary loan to read it, it’s not impossible to find. It’s a good time travel book, but not a great one, and given that Wilson has two other time travel books that both surpass this one, it’s tough to recommend A Bridge of Years to anyone other than RCW fanatics and time travel fans.