You know that feeling when you experience a story–whether it be a book, a film, a TV show, a work of theatre–so dazzlingly original, so mindbogglingly brilliant, so downright nifty that you want to grab every single person you know and tell them that they have to read or see it, as well, but you also know that there’s no way to fully convey just what makes it so dazzlingly original, so mindbogglingly brilliant, and so downright nifty without giving away twists that will render it far less dazzlingly original, mindbogglingly brilliant, and downright nifty to the people you’re trying to convince to read or watch it?
Well, that’s the dilemma I have when it comes to Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, which is a heartstoppingly, achingly magnificent, deeply heartfelt and human time travel epic that is as blissfully, inventively, enchantingly wibbly wobbly timey wimey as the greatest episodes of Doctor Who, the Back to the Future trilogy, and The Time Traveler’s Wife combined but which distinguishes itself by featuring at least one of the most stunning twists on time travel I’ve ever read or seen–a twist that I can’t reveal without defeating the purpose of recommending the novel in the first place. In other words, “Why should you read The Map of Time? I can’t tell you.”
Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I can tell you that Palma’s exquisite work of steampunk is composed of three interconnected novellas, all three of which begin in the Victorian Era and revolve around time travel as literal reality, as theoretical concept, and as metaphorical conceit–Palma isn’t just implementing time travel as a plot device but really exploring the human, primal reasons behind the desire to travel through time and peoples’ awestruck reactions to such, along with the potential philosophical dilemmas that go hand-in-hand with it. And, oh, yes, it’s also really, really fun. And, much like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, The Map of Time isn’t just a story but a story about stories and the people who tell them. It’s a time travel story about why we crave stories about time travel and science fiction, centering on the man who, in our reality, first sparked our imaginations for the currently-still-fictional concept, and who in this novel’s reality, did more than that by literally setting it into motion in Victorian times: H. G. Wells.
Palma isn’t the first person to dream up a literally time-traveling H. G. Wells. He is, however, the first person to do it in quite this way. Again, I can’t tell you what “this way” implies, but I can tell you that Palma’s depiction of Wells–the man and the storyteller–is the richest, fullest portrait of the man I’ve read. Sometimes, it takes fictionalization to really get to the heart of a matter or a person, for that matter, and in this case, despite the fact that this is a science-fiction novel that places the man into made-up situations (including a meeting with the Elephant Man that is one of the single best scenes in a novel I’ve ever read), I feel like I know Wells better after having read it. More than ever before, I feel like I understand the impulse that drove him to create, as well as the Catch-22 at the core of his being. Palma depicts Wells as a scientist with a thirst for knowledge of the future but who, at the same time, knows that the steadily approaching future will render his own work obsolete. What Wells doesn’t know is that he is going to be one of a handful of writers who inspires an entire genre, and that his dreams won’t be cast aside but will merely inspire other writers and scientists to their own dreams of the future, which will themselves grow even further and inspire others; he will inspire technology and help shape the future. He starts the novel as a dissatisfied man whose daily life isn’t nearly as gratifying as the dreams he puts on paper but who, by the end…well, I can’t tell you.
The Map of Time is also a triptych of love stories. Each of the three acts contains at least one couple divided by time. In the first, a young man mourns the loss of his lover who became Jack the Ripper’s final victim one fateful night eight years previously. In the second, a young woman falls in love with a man from the year 2000, when most of the human race has been eradicated by steam-powered automatons. In the third, Wells himself experiences numerous, tragic romantic separations that I would love to elaborate on further but cannot. Suffice it to say that whereas the first two acts find Wells attempting to use time travel to help other star-crossed lovers, in the final story, he does the same for himself, each tale driven by the questions of whether time travel actually alters the past, whether it creates a whole new timeline, or whether everything that was fated to happen has already happened, including every instance of time travel.
Some people may not take to The Map of Time. It is a boldly postmodern work with a practically endless cast of characters and subplots built around a metafictional framework–including a fourth-wall-breaking, third-person omniscient narrator. Many readers such as myself will find this nothing short of stunning. Others will be flat-out annoyed by certain crucial plot twists and have trouble connecting to a novel that is so very much aware that it is a novel. For me, though, Palma pulls off this challenging feat with supreme dexterity and grace, like an illusionist who reveals the secrets to his magic trick as he is performing it and yet performs it so brilliantly that an audience member can’t help but be completely swept up in the illusion. Or like a puppeteer who doesn’t obscure his presence, yet manages to draw the audience’s attention to the character in his hands, to the point that we all but completely eliminate the man from our field of vision. And yet not only do we all know he is there, but we applaud him all the more for it. The Map of Time‘s narrator is always there, and we both simultaneously know and forget it, which is the point that Palma is making about the complicit relationship between storyteller and audience.
Another level is added to this relationship when you check the title page and realize that the rapturously phrased prose of The Map of Time actually isn’t in its original language at all. Palma wrote it in his native Spanish, whereas the American edition has been translated into English by Nick Caistor, and it is a truly impressive achievement. Often, translations feel strangely stilted, containing awkward phrases that imply that the sentences were probably much better in their original forms. This one, however, is flawless. The language feels so smooth and delicately sculpted that it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t originally written in English.
The Map of Time won’t fit anyone’s standard definition of time travel–again, that’s all I can say–but at the same time, it might get to the crux of time travel as an idea better than any other story on the topic that I’ve read, proving that sometimes the best way for a writer of today to play with well-worn literary concepts, archetypes, and genres is to go over and around, upside down and inside out of them, rather than directly through them, just as perhaps the best way to confront famous historical figures isn’t the traditional biography route but through a massive collection of stories of things that probably never happened to them.