The good news is that, in terms of time-travel novels, Robert Dickinson does quite a lot of interesting things with The Tourist (2016): dual narratives — one straightforward and one circuitous, commentary on human nature, and the mechanics of time-travel itself, along with its social and economic effects on the 21st-century. The bad news is that the novel stumbles in the third act and never regains its footing, sacrificing clarity and plot in favor of poetic imagery.
The Tourist begins by describing the prison “you” reside in, an arrangement which has been going on for seemingly quite some time. Eventually, it is revealed that “you” are Karia, and the terms and reasons for this captivity are complex. Karia is released into the custody of a young man, Riemann, a man she recognizes as someone she met as a much older man long ago. The two of them are sent off on a journey, the goal of which is kept secret until the very close of the novel. Meanwhile, a time-tourism agent named Spens is on what should be a routine trip back to 21st-century London, guiding Tri-Millennium tourists through a shopping mall and organizing thrilling adventures like a minor traffic accident. When a passenger goes missing, however, it sets off a chain of events which reveal the instability and fragility of the system Spens has always taken for granted. In his efforts to find the missing traveler, Spens comes into contact with locals, bureaucrats, and “extemps” who have abandoned their 23rd-century lives.
A diagram detailing Spens’, Karia’s, and Reimann’s sometimes-recursive timelines is included at the beginning of The Tourist; I referred to it infrequently, as the chapters are listed by number in the diagram, and are titled — not numbered — in the novel itself. The diagram is most helpful in keeping track of events like The March for Humanity (a demonstration against time-tourists, who are believed to be detrimental to residents of the 21st century, and are supposedly hiding information about the Earth’s impending demise) and the Near-Extinction Event, a mysterious period of time with an unknown cause and tremendously awful effect on the entire planet. It’s crucial to bear in mind that, while some information is carried forward and accessible to inhabitants of the 23rd century, there are large gaps in their knowledge about the past. Moreover, travelling backward isn’t a perfect system, nor are all previous points accessible; certain time periods require long stays in order for a return point to become available, and some trips are, by necessity, one-way.
Dickinson’s depictions of tourist enclaves within modern-day London are interesting, especially regarding the ways in which societies have or have not changed over centuries, and Spens’ outsider interpretations of behavior and customs we might take for granted give interesting insight. His difficulties in navigating a world only a few centuries removed from his own are sometimes comical, and illuminate the additional problems he might eventually experience should he achieve his life’s goal of traveling to early-19th century Austria. The bureaucracy he struggles against provides obvious allegory for governmental obstruction, and the division of his society into groups like “Millies,” “Happiness,” and “Safety” is a knowing wink to George Orwell’s 1984. Of the two storylines, Spens’ narrative is both compelling and sympathetic, and the linear path of his journey is easily accessible.
Karia’s narrative is fascinating, hinting at a complicated personal ethos which drives her to take incredible risks across time, but too many of her actions go unexplained, and ultimately I was left confused as to what she was actually responsible for and why it mattered. Where Spens’ storyline is mostly complete, there were great gaps in both Karia’s and Riemann’s plots, and the scattershot nature of Karia’s timeline leaves far too much to the reader’s imagination. Dickinson intimates a level of importance that isn’t followed through, and The Tourist’s ending suffers from a lack of focus and the absence of a satisfactory conclusion.
Despite its disappointing resolution, The Tourist is a mostly-strong effort, and Dickinson does a great job of setting up his primary characters with compelling backstories and interesting challenges. His interpretation of the effect time-travel tourism could have on a previous time period is thought-provoking and clever. Overall, The Tourist was generally enjoyable, and I think fans of time-travel stories will appreciate Dickinson’s perspective.