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Overlap coverAs a common subject for science fiction, the success of a time travel story perhaps comes down to how something is written and not so much what is written. While all time travel stories are unique, few really grab your attention and never let go, or resonate with you and leave you with a sense of some kind of renewal. In this way, we come to appreciate a writer’s craftsmanship in penning an intriguing tale of—for example—loss, love, and grief.

Overlap: The Lives of a Former Time Jumper by N. Joseph Glass is about a man named Marcus Hollister who is pushed by the loss of his dear wife Ellie, to build a time travel machine. In the opening scene of the novel, we see a young couple by the names of Ellie and Marcus Hollister on their way home from a restaurant in the “least posh part of town.” When, all of a sudden, they are ambushed by robbers, seemingly out of nowhere, and are stripped of their prized possessions. However, a gun, as if by mistake, goes off and kills Marcus’s dear Ellie, and the robbers scurry off into the night.

Until this dreadful night, this “least posh part of town” was also the safest. However, the rug has been pulled from under the couple’s feet. It was at this moment, of course, that Marcus makes up his mind: he will build a time machine in order to reunite himself with his dear wife. On this fateful night, a mad scientist is born.

Years later, Marcus sits across from Jessica Matthews. A young up-and-coming reporter with brilliant reporting skills who has won his heart—or perhaps it is simply her eerily striking resemblance to his dead wife? Besides her looks, Jessica Matthews’ conversation skills won her the chance to interview a man who has shunned and turned down any media interviews for years and shut himself off from the world.

Marcus Hollister is now ready to tell the world his life story, or at least the parts that have not yet made it into the media: stories only he can tell, as if on trial or under trial, as if ready to tell his side of the story unfiltered and undiluted. After years of hiding behind the shadows, it is as if guilt and shame have driven him out into the open. It is as if he is turning himself in through the interview and memoir: he intends to leave it for the public to decide if he was friend or foe, hero or villain. The public are the jury, he the accused, and he will leave it up to them to decide if he really deserves to be exalted or dishonoured.

And so here he is in his Chesterfield with drink in hand, going back and forth with Jessica Matthews, relaying the foundations of events that had set his business in motion.

Marcus had met a fellow student, Peter, at university and tossed business ideas around until one stuck. Their first project was “subsidized by the depths of Peter’s trust fund […] a simple AI-based network routing system that transformed existing data connections to instantaneous synchronous flow channels, making possible the growth of the metaverse and its successor, Transcend.’’ While Peter provided the necessary funds, Marcus was the brains behind the operation. Peter mostly focused on the marketing side of things, sweet-talking investors being his strong suit. We could say the projects were a passion, but Peter was driven by the monetary gain and fame, while Marcus, of course, was driven by the sheer will to reunite with his love.

The creations that Marcus deemed failures were taken by Peter and rolled out into production. Where there is a will, there is a way: Peter, rather than tossing out what Marcus thought were failures, repackaged them for the world, and marketed them in such a way that finds them rich soon after. Though they failed to create the versions of time travel they wanted, the pair developed Transcend, a virtual reality built on memories and not on time travel. It allowed people to relive their memories in a virtual augmented environment: the AI could take all the information provided and build a memory.

Peter and Marcus would also go on to create Vacations In Time. Here there was no virtual reality. Everything was real: they could send people back in time not to experience a memory but to relive a moment. The customer could even choose to act differently at that moment, but it would not change anything in the future.

It was in this little detail that Marcus saw his failure: while he could go back in time and do things differently, it did not change anything once he got back to his own time, meaning he would never get to unite with Ellie in the present. Instead, Marcus began to go back in the chamber as many times as he could just to meet her.

Though Marcus began pretty much to live entirely disconnected from “real life,” he spawned new worlds and lives in the chamber each time he went. The more he went in, the more he discovered the limits of his body and mind, the extent of what was possible before things became dangerously hazardous for his health. His constant yearning for Ellie made him addicted to the chamber; he went back many times, going to holiday destinations she chose, even having a family with her.

Marcus’s failure again proved to have a market. His customers became intrigued by the capacity of the system to offer limitless second chances. Driven by unhealthy feelings, however, they also began to practice more nefarious things with the machine. While Marcus used the machine to cure his loneliness, his customers use it to feed their darker obsessions, some opting to plan murders and crimes. The military, meanwhile, used the time chambers for military training and war practice, which often involves thermonuclear weapons that obliterated most life on earth. Only when inevitable global devastation is undeniable did they seek alternatives.

Marcus’s biggest failings are perhaps more intimate. One customer, Henry Shorter, made trips in the overlaps that are always short, and this prompted Marcus and his team to probe a bit—only to find out that the man is trying to find the best way in which to kill himself. Marcus tried to get him help in the form of paying for his therapy, but to no avail: Shorter eventually ends his life in the present. Overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, Marcus flew to see Shorter’s wife in order to console and share in her grief, but instead slept with her, in his mind betraying both himself and Ellie.

Another unnamed, female, client used the time chamber to replay the outcomes of a mass murder. Each time she went into the chamber, she tried to “rack up” her body count. She, too, went on to replicate her fantasies in real life—and also took her own life.

But the final straw, or nail in the coffin, that made Marcus shut down the program was Ash Hamilton, a sex offender who used the chamber to find male child victims to molest. What makes the crime more heinous is that his lawyers tried to justify his use of the chamber as a precautionary and preventive method, as he didn’t harm any real boy in real life—a defense that would have held, had it not been discovered that in each of his trips Hamilton worked to perfect the ways in which he groomed and abused his real-life victims.

They say life is a game, but who is the real winner? What did Marcus really gain when he treated life like a video game in which he went into a new world and gained a new life but always left a loser? There’s nothing more painful than waking up from a good dream and only realizing it was only a dream, and nothing more dreadful than being awake in a nightmarish situation and realizing it’s not. This is how Marcus’s life can be summed up: the lives he lived were in some senses a little fabrication of reality, each of which eventually tore at their own seams. The weight of one world is one thing, but he had the weight of so many worlds on his shoulders, the weight of the “façade” worlds that were created by his chambers, and that of other people’s lives that his machine ruined.

This is the novel’s perhaps unique, and certainly memorable, contribution to time travel literature: how to face a past we can endlessly relive, but which finds its way nonetheless into our present? Did the good Marcus gave to many outweigh the bad that followed for some? In some ways, his lonely life comes to feel to him like a suitable punishment for his ill-fated experiments—and his self-imposed confinement to his house or estate an attempt to pacify the grief and anguish of those he has hurt.

Certainly Marcus never forgives himself. He stayed stagnant but still aged, an indication that time only moves forward—even if he did not. While we all hope for a chance to go back in time and do things differently, this story teaches us to always take each new day as a clean slate to start again. We must not linger in the past and allow memories to haunt us, or seek to recreate or perfect our pasts in the present—but rather look forward to the future for our better days. I enjoyed reading this story from start to finish, but I’m still debating in my mind whether its end offers merely a double-edged sword.

Racheal Chie is a writer from Zimbabwe. Her work has appeared in The Blue Marble Review, Eureka Street, Wet Dreamz Journal, East Wave Magazine, Sage Cigarettes, Stick Figure Journal, CloutBase Magazine, Poetry, and She is the receiver of the 2019 Certificate Petal Star Award from Inked with Magic, and a Certificate of Appreciation from The Writer’s Manger Network. She was the first winner of the Fortnight Poetry Competition, second runner-up in the Kuchanaya Poetry Contest, and the third runner-up of the Black History Poetry Slam.
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