Ah, the light of other days:
Once (not so long ago), as I was wandering around Brooklyn, I sensed for the first time with such clarity that the light was coming from another time. I could define it quite precisely, the light of the 1980s, sometime from the beginning of the decade, I think it was from 1982, late summer. Light as if from a Polaroid picture, lacking brightness, soft, making everything look slightly faded. (p. 50)
There is no slow glass here, capturing 1982’s photons and releasing them back to the narrator; but in an important sense the narrator is still literally encountering the light of late summer 1982. His job, at this point in Georgi Gospodinov's hypnotic, haunting novel Time Shelter (2020; trans. Angela Rodel 2022) is, despite what you may initially think, not to design filters for Instagram, but to be a collector for his enigmatic, magus-like friend and colleague Gaustine, recognising and capturing not just the light but the smells, sounds, objects, and stories of different periods when they manifest in the present day. If the future is here, but unevenly distributed, then so is the past.
What he collects is subsequently used to enhance Gaustine’s clinic in Zurich, which recreates different versions of different twentieth-century decades in different rooms, providing therapeutic environments for those who no longer find the present tolerable, largely people with encroaching amnesia—a literalisation of some of the more sensationalist descriptions of residential care “dementia villages” such as the Hogeweyk in the Netherlands. The 40s occupy the ground floor, with a basement to recreate World War Two bomb shelters; then as you climb through the building you climb through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The attic is reserved for the 80s and 90s: as yet sparsely populated. It is not a museum. There are no actors; any inhabitants are reacting genuinely. The inversion of Thomas Mann’s International Sanatorium Berghof—with the rooms, rather than their occupants, becoming symbolic—is acknowledged in the text, although Switzerland is apparently also chosen as Gaustine's venue because of all places in Europe it is the one least marked by the twentieth century, and therefore most easily inhabited by different eras, a quality described as “time degree zero” (p. 43).
A handful of case studies relating to European traumas of the twentieth century demonstrate how the therapy works, when it does. An elderly woman who arrives with a “blank face” and “empty gaze” (p. 75) is brought to life by a room containing a heavy wooden radio, of a kind she remembers from her urgent evacuation from Bulgaria to Germany in 1944. More branches of the clinic open up: in the Sofia clinic, two men, Mr N and Mr A, strike up an acquaintance, realise that behind the iron curtain, the latter had been an agent reluctantly surveilling the former, and are able to process some of the implications of that connection. Sometimes, however, the treatment is only palliative. “On a warm June evening in 1978” (p. 101), the narrator re-encounters his father watching that year’s world cup final. For a brief moment, “We don't know how a match that ended forty years ago will end [...] everything is possible” (p. 103); but ultimately his father’s forgetting is too advanced.
In a time when, the narrator observes, memory loss is the fastest-spreading disease in the world, the concept of re-creating past times soon leaves the confines of the clinic and becomes commonplace across Europe. “Imperceptibly people in native costumes began to take over the cities”; modern clothes are not banned, but will get you dirty looks. It’s easiest to go along to get along. “The soft tyranny of any majority” (p. 122). This retreat into the past is the result of a loss of belief in the future, and is framed as both ecological—as Gaustine observes, it is likely that the first era named for humanity could turn out to be its last—and socioeconomic. Before too long politicians are participating (“the European Parliament began to resemble some German New Year's special from the 80s” [p. 122]), with the debate framed in terms eerily familiar from real-world political debates of the last half decade: “when you have no future, you vote for the past” (p. 124). But in Time Shelter, voting for the past is literalised. Each European country will hold its own referendum to decide to which decade of the twentieth century they would like to return. Two countries outside the Union petition to participate: Great Britain is denied, but Switzerland is accepted.
This big-picture idea is intoxicatingly, distractingly fertile. It’s a good thing for the novel’s sake that Gospodinov takes the time to show us in detail what the referendum might mean for one country, his native Bulgaria. His narrator (who is a version of the author) returns to Sofia to observe the process. The airline that flies him there and the car that meets him there are old and worn, but not yet through choice. It's April, but autumn in his mind: he walks through old haunts, remembers old lovers but doesn't dare contact them, remembers student nights that he wishes he could forget. The referendum, we understand, is something of a lie from the start, because the past is always with us and always personal. But the fervour in the body politic is undeniable, and immune to such sober considerations. “It’s as if,” the narrator observes, “some people think that bringing back the recent past will also automatically take them back to the age they were then” (p. 155). There are advocates for every decade (the narrator would probably pick either the 30s for the literature or the 60s for “the vague feeling that I remember that decade in detail” [p. 159]), but two leading camps have quickly emerged. The Movement For State Socialism argues for a return to the mature communist state of the 60s and 70s; against that, the Bulgarian Heroes lobby for recreating the earliest allowed decade, right at the start of the century, which they claim as a peak of Bulgarian nationalism. The rallies of both groups are LARP fantasias involving a lot of hired extras, enacted with assistance from an old theatrical friend of the narrator. Even before the referendum the past is changing the economics of the present, the friend observes, creating new jobs as well as bringing back old ones. But the result of the referendum is dark. Following a statistical tie, the forces of nationalism and communism declare an alliance, “the fatherland fathered anew” (p. 212). The narrator rushes to catch a departing flight; the borders are closed two days later. “I had already lived through what was to come” (p. 213), he notes.
It's a brilliant, tragic section that anchors Time Shelter’s antic thought experiment. The situation in other European nations is only sketched, albeit with delicacy and some wit. A common thread is that countries don't choose what observers expect them to choose: “that which looked good from the outside did not look quite the same from the inside” (p. 232). For instance, very few people, it turns out, actually want to live in the 60s; average times are better for living in than revolutionary ones. The 90s are also under-favoured, turning out to be “a second-place dream” (p. 247) for most nations; although most of the Balkans are drawn there, albeit with a clause that their time will start only after the end of the wars. The largest bloc that emerges is for the 80s, in a spine running through France, Germany, Austria, and Poland. Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality, chooses the date of the referendum itself, providing a new clock for the rest of Europe to set its time by.
Gospodinov is not done with his readers yet. The new situation is only metastable; locals rebel against the national majorities, and Europe fractures further, becoming “a chaotic open-air clinic of the past” (p. 254), where road maps are suddenly time maps. But the experience of being in that Europe is largely left to readers to imagine; instead, from this point on the narrative becomes increasingly impressionistic and metafictional, and somewhat Gene Wolfean, as the narrator struggles against his own encroaching amnesia, and his ambiguous relationship with Gaustine. He becomes acutely conscious of the layers of his local times, and how he interacts with them:
I observe the world shut up in a room from the seventeenth century, with Wi-Fi from the twenty-first century, writing on a wooden desk that is at least one hundred years old and sleeping in a bed with metal head- and footboards from the nineteenth century. I try to play out the past that lies ahead. [...] Forgive me, O God of utopias, the times have mixed together and now you don’t know whether the story you are telling has already happened or is yet to come. (pp. 264-5)
It is enough. Time Shelter left me feeling very strange, the way living in any time can make you feel, if you’re paying attention.
When science fiction novels mess with time, they usually do it via time travel, not the sort of time-recreation used by Gospodinov, which can make it all the more provocative when recreations do appear. I don’t mean The Truman Show-style performances, in which the protagonists are unaware of their circumstances but achieve conceptual breakthrough at the story's conclusion. I mean in particular stories containing Gaustines: stories in which characters deliberately stage the past for a purpose, and in doing so provide commentary on that past and its persistence. Their purpose is not always as benign as providing shelter.
Take, for instance, Ada Palmer’s monumental, fascinating, strange series Terra Ignota (2016-2021). It is presented as the work of a contemporaneous narrator who aims to reconstruct for a presumed posterity how and why a political crisis shook their world: “a narrative of events of the year 2454,” as the cover of each volume states. Crucially, in this future the world society has been explicitly and carefully designed to prevent any majority of any kind ever dictating to a minority, to stabilise the kind of fracturing that courses through Time Shelter's Europe. “Sooner or later,” wrote the narrator of Time Shelter, “all utopias turn into historical novels”; well, Terra Ignota is a story about the work of building utopia that is framed as a historical novel. The narrator writes in a self-consciously archaic style, the text peppered with dialogues with Enlightenment thinkers and glosses on ancient Greek stories, even as it describes a world of flying cars and space elevators.
One key part of the rationale for this voice is revealed towards the end of the first book, Too Like the Lightning (2016), when two characters are led to “an old town chateau” (p. 298) in Paris. Up to this point, the taboos of 2454 have been described to us more than they have been experienced. The narrator, for instance, tells us that this considers itself to be a “post-gender” future by vigorously insisting that it is no such thing, and applying gendered pronouns to every character even as those characters tend to use “they” in their own conversations with each other. Similarly the mere existence of another character, a “sensayer,” a type of spiritual and ethical counselor, is indicative of how private and personal religion has become. But it is in Paris that we first feel the full force of these social norms, because within that chateau is a historically flavoured cross between a sex club and a temple. “Our members,” says one employee, “come here for a few hours to escape to a more courteous and enlightened society” (p. 304); the proprietor describes it as “a bubble of the eighteenth century” (p. 318). Dazed, the protagonists watch as “men and women of both sexes paraded in the most elaborate gowns and wigs and coats and tails” (p. 316): strongly gendered clothing that is almost never seen in the outside world.
The proprietor herself, Madame D'Arouet—the name a tribute to Voltaire—appears as a “precise, stylised ideal” (p. 320), in a grand wig, jewellery, gown, and heavy white-and-rouge makeup. She is the Gaustine of this setting. She has a purpose, and it aligns with the narrator's earlier insistence: she argues that gender has not been, as the world believes it to be, surpassed, and that the false belief that it has makes its lingering presence that much more toxic. So she provides a safe space—with, she claims, the awareness and consent of world powers—in which gender, and other forbidden topics, like theology, can be explored. Drawing on Rousseau, de Sade, and Diderot, as well as Voltaire, she argues for another kind of history-therapy, one that reveals and domesticates that which might otherwise remain suppressed.
Everything she says is true, and incomplete. It turns out that she has not been using history as therapy, or not primarily: she has been weaponising it. Her chateau is not a shelter, it is a laboratory. To the outrage of the sensayer, it turns out that there are individuals who are not just visiting the chateau, but who have been raised there, raised “to think inside this box” (p. 328). And to the eventual outrage of many more people, it turns out that Madame D'Arouet has been entrapping, manipulating, and directing world leaders, through the lure of gender and other concepts, for her own ends, over decades. It's not obvious to readers (or at least was not obvious to me) on their first visit to Madame's chateau whether it is a parodic exaggeration of history, or only feels such because in the rest of the novel such excesses have been strikingly absent. But either way, it makes history present in the text in a way that few other science fiction novels attempt.
Alternatively, Gaustine may remain behind the curtain, and the focus might be on his subjects. Further in the future than Terra Ignota, and drawing on the deeper past—a sort of readerly dolly zoom—is located Robert Silverberg’s 1985 novella Sailing to Byzantium. It has a fine and wrong-footing opening:
At dawn he arose and stepped out onto the patio for his first look at Alexandria, the one city he had not yet seen. That year the five cities were Chang’an, Asgard, New Chicago, Timbuctoo [sic], Alexandria: the usual mix of eras, cultures, realities. (p. 394)
The casualness of the second sentence draws you in efficiently: oh, there are five important cities, oh, that's quite a list of places, oh, it's a “usual mix.” And before that, the first sentence establishes the confidence and cosmopolitanism of the protagonist: “the one city he had not yet seen.” This is, we think, a man who knows his world.
We are wrong. The narrator, it turns out, has the prosaic American name of Charles Phillips and, like the residents of Gaustine's clinic, he is partially amnesiac. He knows he is not from this time: he believes he has been transported from 1984 to the fiftieth century, but cannot remember how or when this occurred. The world, and humanity, are changed utterly from his expectations. The continents have been rearranged, and humanity has homogenised, with echoes of Eloi: every citizen he meets is “short, supple, slender, dark-eyed, olive-skinned, narrow-hipped, with wide shoulders and flat muscles” (p. 396), and they all seem youthful, adolescent or early twenties at the most, regardless of how long they have actually lived. Charles is travelling with one particular member of this society, Gioia, but fairly early in the story she leaves him without explanation: most of the rest of the narrative involves his pursuit of her from city to city, until he understands why she left. It’s a little melodramatic, and obviously a rather one-sided tale, but in the end it works, which is to say we come to understand the tragedy and the promise of being Charles Phillips.
But before that: the cities. They are not like the rooms in Gaustine’s clinic, or Madame’s chateau, or even like post-referendum Europe, not least because the rationale for their selection remains obscure. But they are authored, on behalf of the citizens like Gioia and the “visitors” like Charles: created and destroyed in an unending cycle. For the citizens, Charles muses, “the past was one borderless timeless realm” (p. 404), a source of diversion and novelty, not so much therapy as theme park, sparing no expense; or perhaps like going to the cinema: “a different show every day: not much plot, but the special effects were magnificent and the detail work could hardly have been surpassed” (p. 406). Of course, authenticity is a question mark. Charles wonders what would happen if they recreated late twentieth-century New York, perhaps relocating Times Square to the Bronx, or installing “temporaries” (essentially, non-player characters who populate the cities: one step further on from the hired actors at the Bulgarian political demonstrations) who speak with Southern accents. And when Charles visits other cities, he considers the motives and approaches of their builders, as in the case of Mohenjo-daro:
It was an oppressive city, but not a squalid one. The intensity of the concern with sanitation amazed him: wells and fountains and public privies everywhere, and brick drains running from each building to covered cesspools. [...] Perhaps the citizens had redesigned the city to suit their own ideals of cleanliness. No: most likely what he saw was authentic, he decided [...] If Mohenjo-daro had been a verminous filthy hole, the citizens probably would have recreated it in just that way, and love it for its fascinating reeking filth. (p. 432)
Charles, one feels, would be at home debating worldbuilding choices with Game of Thrones fans, and more broadly in our current media ecosystem in which fictional worlds are franchised and their preservation (or not) is at the whim of corporate masters. When Charles attempts to visit Timbuktu, he finds it being dismantled by robots, with no citizens anywhere to be seen. The robots are immune to persuasion or argument, and will not let him stay: “this is not a place any longer” (p. 436), they insist. After further encounters, it is eventually revealed that Charles himself is part of the artifice: not a time traveller after all, but a made thing, more advanced than the temporaries, but for the same purpose, to enliven the world for citizens. That’s a step further than either Gaustine or Madame.
The primary speculative conceit of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad (2016) is probably now widely enough known that it needs little introduction. The historical network of anti-slavery safe houses and escape routes is reimagined with literal trains and literal tracks and literal tunnels, and it carries the novel’s protagonist, Cora, from state to state after an initial escape from a Georgia plantation. Each location is rendered unflinchingly.
The first stop, an unnamed town in South Carolina, seems initially to offer as much freedom as Cora could hope for. Black people are still property, it’s true, but of the US government rather than individuals, and it seems like a technicality, since they are not used as slaves. They can take jobs and earn money; move around freely, and buy their own things; and perhaps most energising for Cora, they can take classes, study, and learn. On her arrival Cora is treated well, given a medical exam, and helped to settle. She initially finds work as domestic help, but before too long a new placement comes up, and she is sent (not invited) to work at the new Museum of Natural Wonders as a “type,” becoming part of their Living History display, a series of rooms containing tableaux vivants.
There are resonances here with the staged demonstrations in Gospodinov’s Bulgaria, but these historical recreations have yet another purpose we have not encountered yet: not therapy, not coercion, not leisure, not simply illusion, but, ostensibly, a form of education. In fact they are consolation for their presumed white audience. In “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” Cora sits at a cooking fire with flames made of glass shards, or retreats into a thatched hut when audience scrutiny becomes too exhausting. In “Life on the Slave Ship” (set, scathingly, in a room with “soothing blue walls” 110), Cora has to play-act “a kind of apprentice” (p. 110), an African boy helping the crew with various tasks. And in “Typical Day on the Plantation,” she sits and works a spinning wheel. She and a couple of other Black people are the only actors in the setup; white people are represented by wire-and-plaster figures with wax faces.
Sometimes Cora meets visitors’ gazes, challenging them to see beyond the imposture. “It was a fine lesson,” she thought, “to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you, too” (p. 126). Re-reading The Underground Railroad for this column, Cora’s action was also a reminder that we never enter into the perspective of a patient in Gaustine’s clinic, or of one of Madame's casual attendees. Cora is in this sense more like Silverberg’s protagonist, placed into a scenario for the benefit of its viewers, and even more than Charles in Mohenjo-daro or musing about a possible New York, she has the standing to question those scenarios. In a measure of the relative comfort she feels in South Carolina, Cora challenges the curator (the museum’s Gaustine) about the plantation room, since that is the area where she has first-hand expertise. Mr Fields acknowledges some apolitical imperfections. He agrees, for instance, that it is uncommon for spinning wheels to be used outdoors in the way shown. But he attributes these to a lack of space and a lack of budget. “Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps” (p. 110). One doesn't have to struggle much to imagine what Mr Fields would do with the powers and budget available to Silverberg’s future curators.
The broader narrative cunning of the museum is revealed in how it is framed when Mr Fields is explaining it to Cora: “Like a railroad, the museum permitted them to see the rest of the country beyond their small experience, from Florida to Maine to the western frontier” (p. 109). That key phrase, like a railroad, contrasts it to the larger structure of The Underground Railroad, which also hopscotches from state to state and scenario to scenario, and which, crucially, uses inauthenticity to the exact opposite end than the museum. Because this is the secondary speculative conceit of the novel: despite a shared underlying reference year of perhaps 1850 or so, the places Cora visits frequently diverge from the reality of that time, condensing and critiquing a broad and persistent system by bringing forward elements from the relative future. It transpires that the medical exam Cora was offered on her arrival in South Carolina was not neutral. The staff at the shiny new hospital—which opens, significantly, at the same time as the museum—are not only deliberately infecting Black patients with syphilis to understand its disease course (a premonition of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1930s) but are carrying out involuntary sterilizations of Black women (as happened to over 60,000 Black and other minority people in the US over the course of the twentieth century). Futures, as Cora observes, are not just lost but stolen. In Cora’s next stop, North Carolina, Black people themselves are made illegal (as was the case in Oregon in the late nineteenth century), and every Friday sees executions in the town park. And so on.
There is a sense in which Whitehead’s America is similar to Gospodinov’s post-referendum Europe, as a place where inhabitants have chosen—and here, much as Cora's gaze made me think of the subjectivity of Gaustine’s patients, I think of who got to vote in that referendum, and who might have been excluded—to live in different times. The railroad map is a time map. By this point, while being cautious about simplistically linear narratives of progress, we might even start to ask to what extent political maps are always time maps: the US is already a patchwork, for instance, from voting restrictions to the overturning of Roe. Perhaps it’s not always helpful to frame these actually existing inequities as lingering from “the past”; but sometimes I think it is. The contrast can be a reminder that victories are often provisional, and require active maintenance; and an inspiration that change is possible, because if it’s been achieved in some times and places, it can be achieved in others. And more immediately—turning back to the book at hand—Whitehead’s undeniable great achievement is that he has, through his layered and scrambled recreations, given us a novel about the horrors of structural racism that never becomes only a museum to gawk at.
This is the start of a new column. Its premise is to explore ways of talking about the breadth (and depth) of SF at a time when it is no longer really tenable to talk about a single history of SF, because so much is being shared about the histories of different SF-writing communities: to find ways of moving across the sorts of patchwork landscapes described in the works discussed above. I suspect each column will start, as this one did, with a keystone text that inspires further exploration; but we’ll see. The goal, as I hope is clear from the discussions above, is not to claim lines of influence, because they are no longer clear, if they ever really were (among other things the process of translation is itself a kind of time machine that scrambles impact); nor is this about trying to construct a new Sacred Timeline where all SF history is part of a single narrative, or about writing definitive takes on this trope or that parabola. It simply seems to me there is value in trying to find resonances between SF of disparate origins, present and past, known to me and new to me: to move between different shelters.
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov. Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2022 (UK); ISBN 9781474623025
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota 1). Head of Zeus 2017 (UK); ISBN 9781786699480
The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades by Robert Silverberg. Subterranean Press 2012 (USA); ISBN 9781596064720
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Fleet 2016 (UK); ISBN 9780708898390