The Watch by Dennis Danvers
List Price: $24.95

Hardcover - 368 pages (December 24, 2001)
Eos (Trade); ISBN: 0380977621

Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

 

Peter Kropotkin, the Russian "anarchist prince," lying on his deathbed in 1921, is given a chance at a new life by a mysterious and Faustian stranger from the distant future. Not a continuation of the life he's known, but a new one, in a new time.

 

Unlike most time travelers we know, Peter doesn't pop into his benefactor's time, but into a time closer to ours, and like most travelers to our time and place, he comes by jetliner..

 

When he arrives, as an immigrant in Richmond Virginia, he immediately begins to sow the seeds of anarchist revolution, not so much by intent, for he is content to relish the feeling if being alive, well,  and reasonably young...his new body being about 30. He sows them by living a compassionate life in the middle of a city absorbed in its capitalist gluttony and chained to its civil war history.

 

Being young, one of the pleasures he savors is the attraction of the opposite sex. In short order he has fallen in love with a social worker named Rachel, who clearly feels something in return even though it's mixed with laudable caution for a very strange man with a very dubious past.

As the story progresses, Peter discovers that he's no the only person torn from dire circumstances times and begins to unravel the nature of the plot he is the epicenter of and prepare to take a stand for his beliefs, regardless of the cost.

 

As a rule, time travel is my least favorite SF device. There are several reasons for this, but in the main, it is because it seduces authors to treat stories as dream sequences.

 

At the end, everything generally returns to the way it was at the beginning of the story, and the efforts of the hero are largely negated. The protagonist is left wiser, but often sadder, for the adventure, either having averted some catastrophe or glimpsed something wonderful, or often both.

 

Ray Bradury's classic short story, "The Sound of Thunder" being an exception, and an excellent story, though not one with an especially happy ending. H.G. Wells The Time Machine manages to sidestep this dilemma by delivering the character into a future far from his own time and with the girl of his dreams besides. Interestingly, both those stories are in film production at present, Bradbury's for the first time, and Time Machine in remake.

 

Danvers makes use of the infinite futures version of time travel, where every event, probably every quantum state can generate multiple futures, and thanks to a bit of meddling from the far future, reality keeps getting adjusted to suit his script. Peter has not been delivered to here and now out of simple benevolence, of course, but to sow seeds of anarchy.

 

What Peter gradually comes to see is just how far his benefactors meddling goes, throwing  him into a quandary of freedom versus slavery on a personal level.

 

Dennis Danvers lives in Richmond, so one can assume he is writing from personal observation. I doubt that the city will entirely appreciate its characterization, or that it is completely fair. Of course, with a deus ex machina lurking conveniently in the wings, events can be easily molded to the author's whim. I just wonder if Danvers might not be happier living in NYC or Seattle or somewhere more noir.

 

What I do like about the story is the use of individuals from various different periods as point of view characters to explore our society.

 

Peter, in particular having leapt forward from 1921, has seen the seeds of much of what we accept as common, from air travel to plastics, and as a "man of science" he has the theoretical background to make sense of it. Indeed, he tries to trade on his actual accomplishments in life...but the publication dates on his Scientific American articles stretches his credibility as much as his presence stretches the fabric of time. His characters from the past may not fit in to the present, but it proves little challenge to comprehend it.

 

What I don't like is the notion that there are only young radicals and complacent grownups. I don't think the author knows the latter group as well as he might, and underestimates them as a result. I also wonder if his perspective is solely urban, leading to his views on cars and other things.

 

I wouldn't have gone on like this if I hadn't liked the book. Danvers is a talented author and his characters are engaging folks. America can always use a bit of reminding that there are other ways of doing things and that change must begin on an individual level.

 

And Peter Kropotkin certainly seems to be getting around, as his original wife is a regular character (thanks to anti-aging treatments) in L. Neil Smith's Confederacy series, which has a new volume, The American Zone (see our review) out the same month as The Watch.