The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
Note: Available on August 9, 2018 in the UK.
Available in the US in February 2019.
Any author who ventures forth into times unknown, or those gone by, must accept more than the usual scrutiny of their work. It was a brave move then, by new British author Kate Mascarenhas to not only write a debut novel about time travel but also to delve into the psychological implications on those who practice it.
It is 1967 and four talented young women (the pioneers) build the first ever time machine and leap forward one hour in time. Unfortunately for one of them, Bee, these initial experiences are damaging. Just as the BBC are called in to interview the fantastic foursome, Bee has a breakdown live on air, forever landing time travel with a reputation for causing mental health problems.
Appropriately, the story then leaps about in time, with each chapter representing a different year and a different character (all female). The plot follows the lives of several women who are all, in different ways, caught up in time travel.
For the three remaining pioneers glory and success await. They go on to found the Time Travel Conclave, a shadowy organisation that operates outside any national or international laws. Bee, who was never allowed to time travel again, settles down and starts a family. Given what happened, time travel is a forbidden topic in her household but Bee’s granddaughter, Ruby, is desperate to find out more. Meanwhile, another young woman, Odette, discovers the body of a woman rotting in the basement of a museum and determines to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s a quest that takes her all the way to the Conclave’s recruitment department.
There’s a lot going on in The Psychology of Time Travel (2018). It is a murder mystery knotted with a romance and wrapped in psychological drama. There’s also a lot that is never explored. Despite the fact that many of the time travellers we meet go to the future, they never reveal anything about it. The mechanics of time travel are also entirely missing. Instead the focus is, as the title suggests, the impact of time travel on its devotees and, to a certain extent, their families.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the idea of time travel as a profession. Unlike other stories within the genre, in which travelers must be careful not to bump into their future selves, Mascarenhas’ travellers are professionals and are therefore au fait with meeting their past or former selves. In fact they frequently choose to do so, even visiting their own deaths. They also visit other people, sometimes conducting romantic relationships out of their own time zone. Mascarenhas does an excellent job of exploring these issues and probing the effect of such activities on the mind. As might be expected, some travellers take to the whole thing, while for others it leads to depression.
Mascarenhas also creates a spookily believable institution in the Conclave. She manages this particularly through the use of invented slang (to live an incident you’ve already read about is called ‘completion’, feeling angry with someone for something they won’t do for years to come is ‘zeitigzorn’, a traveller may call their younger selves ‘green-me’ and their older selves ‘silver-me’). There are also myriad job roles in the Conclave, from the department that uses time travel to solve crimes, to the people who act as spies. As the institution starts to take on a darker nature under the leadership of one of the original pioneers, Margaret, the reader also gets a taste of what happens to those who take time travel too far, losing their grip on normal behaviour and moral values.
Mascarenhas is at her best when dealing with these kinds of detail. The wider plot is rather confusing and demands much flicking back to check on dates and times. Characterisation isn’t particularly strong because the cast is so sprawling. Bit-part characters get chapters to themselves, breaking the plot into too many fragments. In particular, the romance and the murder have to fight for attention, with neither coming out on top.
There is also a rather glaring problem (or so I thought) with the plot. As all time travel fans know, the biggest risk of going back in time is that the traveller might change the course of history. In The Psychology of Time Travel the travellers know this and so they simply refrain from doing anything that could change the future. For example, someone working in the crime department can go back in time to collect evidence, but they must not prevent the crime from happening. But it seems unlikely this would always work. What about all the tiny little things that people do subconsciously which could change the course of history?
The above just goes to show how hard it is to write about time travel — there’s always something that doesn’t add up. In general, however, this story is entertaining because it doesn’t try to explain everything perfectly. By focusing on psychology the reader is happier to excuse these sticky conundrums. The Psychology of Time Travel isn’t perfect in its structure and characterization; nevertheless the subject is fascinating and Mascarenhas’ eye for detail makes it well worth a read — something a little bit different from the normal plunge into the past.
This sounds great! And I love the word “zeitigzorn!”