I spent my first weekend in college tear-assing around the New Jersey woods on an extended booty call with a girl named Melina.*
Hold on a moment. This is relevant.
Melina was eighteen but her aura was older. She was glamorous, pleather-clad, and without apologies. With a wicked laugh, she announced that we’d be taking her "rice rocket" to New Jersey and that I might have to hang out while she and her boyfriend had their reunion. I have no idea what we were doing together. I vaguely recall that we both liked Robert Plant.
On the way to New Jersey, Melina introduced me to Portishead and West Side Connection. Two days later, I could sing the entirely of Dummy and Bow Down. At one point I found myself sitting across from one of Melina's female high school friends at a long wooden table in a long wooden farm house, the two of us fidgeting uncomfortably, knowing full well what Melina and her boyfriend were up to in the barn. Around dawn, after a drunken, how-fast-are-we-going? car ride there was some puking in driveways, some stumbling to bedrooms, and some epic sexual encounters (none of them mine). The next afternoon when we finally got up, Melina's parents had materialized as if from the ether and, over lunch on a picturesque, rolling lawn, I remember telling Melina's dad that Hillary Clinton was not, in fact, Satan.
The gleeful horror of that weekend came back to me while reading Alan Averill's The Beautiful Land, a zany first novel of time travel, its over-the-topness kept in check by snappy plotting and the author's sense of humor. Like the best college exploits it is fast-paced and disorienting as it explores time—and people—out of place and out of joint.
Like the beguiling, pleather-clad Melina, I couldn't be sure, at first, if I trusted this novel. Early passages, in which the author introduces us to his hero—a Japanese-Irish American "explorer" (in the vein of Wild Things with Dominic Monahan) named Takahiro O'Leary—are bogged down with a number of first-novel tics. As Takahiro (Tak, for short) attempts to hang himself in a New York hotel room, the third person omniscient present tense repeatedly advises us that "at this point" something has happened to stall him. Students of MFA programs the world over may roll their eyes and grit their teeth at the introduction-by-suicide ploy, and that tense, which Averill struggles to keep under control throughout the novel, has the unfortunate effect of seeming to dictate, puppet like, not only the character's actions ("Tak shifts on his feet and looks around his suicide studio" [p. 9]) but our responses to them ("At that moment, he understands how the furniture feels. Once, he too had been vibrant and new and alive, but he'd slowly spent the previous years stripping the joy from his life; now he was just rolling around like the last drops of beer in a bottle" [p. 9]). Our trust isn't bolstered when we meet Tak's lady love, the fragile ex-military translator, Samira, who moves through life "like the victim of a bad hypnotism show" (p. 41). Tak and Samira were childhood sweethearts pulled apart by Tak's father (whose authoritarian parenting style Tak fled) and the Iraq war, where Samira, bereft of Tak, enlists, as she later admits, because "I didn't want to feel anything anymore" (p. 276).
As character motivations go, going to war because you don't want to feel anything is a pretty hard sell, and while Averill means to make this a moving love story, Samira, who cries in nearly every chapter and has developed a cleaning fetish (as opposed to a personality) as part of her PTSD, is more a construction of feelings Averill hopes we'll have for her than a fitting foil to the exuberant Tak. As an example, here's a typical Tak passage, followed by a typical Samira:
Tak laughs, sending the still attached noose swinging back and forth. "Bullshit. There are no unexplored worlds anymore. I can go to the internet and see pictures, satellite images, whatever I want. Hell, we mapped the fucking seafloor years ago." (p. 8)
[Samira] squeezes her eyes tight, trying to hold back the tears that always seem to be there, but it's a losing effort. She's so tired of crying. Every day, something or other causes her to sob uncontrollably for what seems to be forever. (p. 20)
Tak, we notice, gets the active, funny description ("sending," "swinging," "Bullshit": very strident), whereas Samira gets a description basically telling us what she's feeling (she's so tired of crying). And while sunbeams "practically engage in fist fights" for the honor of shining in Samira's hair (p. 15), that filtered-though-a-male-gaze character trait is about as effervescent as she gets. In other words, Averill may have to write a couple more novels before he moves beyond the male wish fulfillment/damsel in distress level of heroine-creation, but as he's a crack shot in other arenas (and even other female characters), I'm happy to wait.
What Averill excels at is pacing and plot. No sooner has a phone call interrupted Tak's suicide attempt than he's called on to use his explorer capabilities to test out the world's first time machine. The evil Axon Corporation, hoping to become "like the U.S. government and Halliburton and the Catholic Church all rolled into one" (p. 155), has decided to dupe Tak into testing all the possible time streams until they find the one where they rule the world. They will then overwrite the present timeline, plunging the world into a despotic nightmare. Tak, discovering their plan too late, steals a briefcase containing time-travel technology and enlists Samira's help in resisting them, spurred by the knowledge that, in the timeline Axon hopes to manifest, Samira is dead.
So much for your standard time travel caper. Less than a quarter of the way through the novel, Averill lets loose with the unforeseen consequences. The best of these involves a scheming genius named Yates (upon whom Axon has bestowed too much trust), and a plague of creepy avian monsters right out of the Lovecraftian sub-basement.
Approaching [Tak], flying through the air with talons barely touching the ground, is a thing straight out of hell. Its mouth is a thin yellow beak. Its skin is nearly translucent and shot through with red veins. It has a pair of twisted, useless arms that sprout from its chest as if the creator simply ran out of inspiration before finishing. But worst of all are the eyes: huge black things with no white or iris at all. They bulge out from its head like a pair of overfilled balloons, and they hold a cunning beyond imagining.
It's a bird, thinks Samira as she watches it soar towards Tak. Dear God in heaven, it's a gigantic baby bird. (p. 139)
Chaos and bloody mayhem ensue as the "birds" begin devouring people and overrunning timelines. Meanwhile, Stephen King-ish descriptions of grisly, apocalyptic violence are tempered by Averill's sly sense of humor:
With legs cranky and sore, Tak begins the long trek up. At the landing for floor seven, he finds a dry puddle of blood nearly an inch thick. It trails up the stairs, occasionally leaping to the handrail, until it finally ends with a single red handprint smeared on the door to floor fifteen. Tak makes a mental note to never go to that floor, no matter how desperate things get. He just doesn't even want to know. (p. 193)
This is all very fast and loose, and satisfying. The story wants little but to entertain us. Scenes of Tak and Samira jumping through timelines and discovering new technologies (cars driven by joysticks, say) or new food ("I don't want to eat something called Pandonkulous!" [p. 127]) put an original signature on an old trick, and the handful of side characters, like the evil Yates and a coolly smart scientist named Judith Halford (unlike Samira, she does things for plausible reasons), provide our protagonists with some amusing camaraderie and antagonism. ("[My parents] thought I should be something sensible . . . Like a trophy wife," quips Judith in a typically wry aside [p. 311].) If anything it's the more earnest passages—those sans Pandonkulous! bars and references to a Mario-land timeline (Averill sometimes blurs the lines between timeline and alternate fantasy dimension)—that, as well meaning as they are, make us roll our eyes, if only a little. Averill doesn’t linger overlong in the titular time line (the Beautiful Land, which, of course, can reflect the desires of whoever hops there first) but the peaceful windmills and rolling grass locale where Tak and Samira share a romantic interlude don't touch the heart in the way Averill intends because Samira is, ultimately, too pathetic (in the classical sense) a leading lady. She even cries in the scenes where we see her military past, making it hard to believe she survived basic training, much less witnessing the exploding heads of her comrades. Perhaps if she had some agency—if she were allowed some essential-to-the-plot talent on par with Tak's ability to navigate timelines—she would seem more worthy of our emotional investment, but, sadly, her agency steadily erodes until, by novel’s end, she is a game-piece which the male characters literally shove back and forth.
I don't accuse Averill of sexism—the three dimensional Judith proves not only that his heart is in the right place, but that he can indeed create winning female characters—but he isn't yet at that level of skill where his madcap adventures match his desire for poignancy. Not as far as the two leads are concerned, anyway. He fares much better in his descriptions of spectacle (burned out cities, shuffling apparitions) or in his offhand descriptions of minor characters who occasionally stray into his boiling morass. As timelines are overwritten and re-written he occasionally checks in with these lesser folks, and their brief, bewildered points of views, rapidly juxtaposed with one another before we return to the main story, are some of the most effective passages in the novel (ones I'll afford interested readers the delight of uncovering themselves).
At Amazon.com some folks have compared The Beautiful Land to The Passage, Justin Cronin's elegiac vampire plague novel. The Passage also deals in time—but in a far more haunting and adult way. The Beautiful Land is a younger novel, one that just wants to take you on a ride. In this it completely and utterly succeeds. It glances at you like your past (or future) college buddy and says, "Want to try something crazy? Hop in."
* Actually, this was not her name.
Hannah Strom-Martin's fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (forthcoming), and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her nonfiction has been published in Strange Horizons, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review, among others. With Erin Underwood, she is the co-editor of The Pop Fic Review and the recent anthology Futuredaze: A Collection of YA Science Fiction. She lives in California with her husband and the obligatory herd of cats named after fantasy characters.