Rebecca Ore's Time and Robbery is a classic science fictional novel of ideas, and not much else. It is a short book and a long thought experiment, with only as much conflict and character development as it needs to move from one set of discussions and experiments to the next. It's a novel that wants to think about what it would take to survive and stay sane as an immortal, homosexual, British time traveler who can step from one moment in history to another at will.
In the twenty-first century, the first thing such a time traveler needs is an ally in the government. That's Joe Tavistock, our mild-mannered hero. His Job, which he thinks of in Capital Letters, is to detect and eliminate passport fraud for the British government. He stumbles across a string of passports issued to the same man again and again over the last hundred years. Following these passports brings him into contact with Velius the time traveler. Of course, Vel intended to be caught, as he makes no effort to flee or hide from the authorities. In fact, he sends his wild-haired teenaged daughter to take information to Tavistock.
I have read plenty of time travel stories over the years. Tavistock came as a relief, because when confronted by overwhelming evidence that he is dealing with an immortal time traveler, he wastes no time in concluding that he is, in fact, dealing with an immortal time traveler. It is nice to skip the false drama of is-he isn't-he in a book that announces its time travel plot on the back cover. On the other hand, it is difficult for Time and Robbery to sustain any kind of drama when Tavistock insists on a rigorous and rational study of the science fiction novel in which he finds himself.
The rest of the drama is killed by every single character's willingness to explain themselves in simple, declarative sentences. If they lie on one page, they come clean on the next, to no particular effect. They're willing to stand around and discuss a subject until everyone in the room, including random nurses, understands as much as they need to do their jobs without screwing anything up. Potential missed connections are short-circuited by CCTV and the power of the almighty smartphone. Conversations often border on the mechanical, such as this exchange between Tavistock and the time traveler:
"I'm not your enemy, but the powers scare us."
"Your fear is scary for me. I don't want to be taken apart for parts or locked down for the rest of my life." (p. 128)
However, where Time and Robbery shines is in the concept of the time traveler. Once the reader accepts that a man can live for 14,000 years and step from time to time with a thought, every other question, from "how does a human brain cope with fourteen thousand years of memory?" to "how did Vel and his family survive the Dark Ages if they are so very, very gay?" will be answered in the book. Given the premise, I could find no fault in Ore's portrayal of her time traveler's biology and psychology.
Time and Robbery is full of sex, but not in a way that seems intended to titillate. Like everything else, the sex proceeds from logical postulates: the characters are adults, some of the characters are gay, adults have sex, QED. Vel delights in the conveniences of modern sex; when asked why he doesn't miss being a bold hunter-gatherer tracking mammoths across the plains of Europe, he talks about clean clothes and flea powder, but he might as well have cited Boy Butter and gay bars. It's good to see gay men treated like rational human beings in a science fiction novel.
In the end, the fate of the time traveler, his family, and potentially European history as we know it all hinge on whether or not Tavistock and his team of bureaucrats can put aside their morals long enough to help a young man commit several hundred pounds' worth of petty robbery. I hope I've missed something, because that part of Time and Robbery utterly failed to convince me. A man whose Job borders on espionage has moral problems with subsistence thievery? He doesn't want to work with someone who may have killed a man in self-defense? I didn't buy it, and the novel didn't stop long enough to sell it to me.
Still, Ore's sharp-edged prose kept me moving through the story and the hints of a deeper mystery held my interest to the very end. Unfortunately, the end of the story feels far too easy. Ore almost saves the book with one final joke and a brilliant piece of worldbuilding, but even that didn't satisfy me. Because Time and Robbery is so short (only 176 pages), I didn't feel cheated. I just wanted to read the other half of the novel—the half with all the character drama and action.
Time and Robbery feels like it ought to end with a big time travel twist, but all I got was a sense of dim melancholy. I'm curious to see if the depth that I wanted can be found in Ore's collection of short stories about Vel the time-traveling mammoth-breeder, Centuries Ago and Very Fast (2009). As a science fictional look at the psychological and social impacts of time travel, Time and Robbery is interesting. As a dramatic work and a mystery, it fails to reach as far as it could have.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.
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