Ours is a boom period for time travel romances. With Outlander (2014-) finishing its sixth series and HBO's adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) recently premiering, it seems popular culture just can't get enough of time-crossed lovers. (We might also include, as more nebulous examples, the openly anachronistic Bridgerton [2020-] and the half-hearted romantic fumblings between the Doctor and Yaz on Doctor Who—most especially in the Flux storyline  and the specials that have followed.) It's not hard to see why we're so fascinated. Beyond simply offering marketable IP, there is a sense that dating has become more complex in the wake of the pandemic: more distant yet more direct, and more bound up with technology than ever before. And as writers ranging from Kurt Vonnegut and Steven Moffat to Kim Bo-Young have demonstrated, time travel can be a useful way in to all sorts of feelings about our intimate relationships. Enter Someone in Time, another time-travel romance project dropping in spring 2022. A new anthology of undeniable pedigree, the book offers a number of interesting takes on its subgenre but ultimately suffers from too many derivative stories. Individual entries may sparkle, but there is a sense that we have already done this time warp a few too many times.
Some of the included stories use time travel to explore regrets about failed relationships. Zen Cho's “The Past Life Reconstruction Service” concerns Rui, a struggling filmmaker who quantum leaps into his past lives to escape his ex and find inspiration. But when he recognises his ex in those previous lives, he discovers that he has broken up with his literal “soulmate.” A technician explains:
“You have to have a very strong fate with another person for you to recognize them in another life. Even our bonds with family members are too weak to carry through. What we’ve found is clients are only likely to recognize somebody in a past life if it’s their soulmate.”
It's a wonderful, tragicomic science-fiction idea, functioning as a metaphor for the seeming entrapment of breakup regret without bluntly hammering home the symbolism. It's one of many deft and witty moves in this inventive story, though perhaps the best moment comes when the protagonist decides to go back to the 1950s:
“I want to see what the world was like when my parents were young,” said Rui. “It’ll probably teach me more than going to the Song dynasty.”
“I guess,” said the technician, but she sounded dubious. “You never know, with past lives.”
She was right. In the 1950s, Rui was a cow.
Yet even as a cow, Rui can't escape his soulmate, as he is incessantly bothered by a fly that seems to have “some kind of personal connection that drew it back to Rui again and again.” This is one of many delights in this tender and imaginative story whose more outlandish concepts always serve its strong emotional core.
Similarly outlandish, but a good deal more abstract, is “The Difference Between Love and Time” by Catherynne M. Valente. The story revolves around the narrator's relationship with the space-time continuum, which has manifested in something like a human form. When the narrator first meets the space-time continuum, it looks “like a boy my own age, with thick glasses in plastic army camouflage-printed frames, a cute little baby afro, and a faded T-shirt with the old mascot for the poison control hotline on it.” That last detail betrays the melancholic whimsy of the overall piece. The story really shines when it breaks down into streams of consciousness which play on its inherent absurdity while also revealing the very human rifts in the central relationship:
Here is an abridged list of things the space/time continuum and I fought about:
What movie to watch.
Whether or not I had a hostile tone this morning.
The exact dictionary definition of narcissist.
If it’s technically gaslighting to make a fight never have happened.
Where it goes when we’re not together.
Why it won’t let anything last.
The whole thing about it allowing death to exist.
Why everything sucks so much all the time.
Why I don’t think a baby is a good idea.
This is a complex, off-the-wall story, expertly weaving together its nonlinear setups and payoffs, and a highlight of the anthology, even if the quirky imagery occasionally grates.
It shares a structural oddity with many of the book's stories, befitting the time travel theme. Sameem Siddiqui's “Timed Obsolescence” is a future-tense story about a time-travelling memory recordist, and Theodora Goss's “A Letter to Merlin” cuts intriguingly back and forth between Arthurian myth and a “Temporal Observatory” in the distant future. The latter is a particularly effective bit of science metafiction, with the narrator having played the part of Princess Guinevere “twenty or thirty times” across different timelines, a conceit that's a bit Neil Gaiman and a bit Tom Stoppard.
But there is an oddity to the anthology’s overall structure as well, which is where some issues start to creep in.
Someone in Time consists predominantly of original stories, alongside two fairly old reprints. In his introduction, Jonathan Strahan identifies these two older pieces as “long-standing favorites of mine,” but whatever their merits, it's hard not to detect a certain arbitrariness to their inclusion. “Kronia” by Elizabeth Hand is a brief, meditative story from 2005 about two characters impacted by the 9/11 attacks. It's a worthy piece, but feels like what it is: a story that has wandered in from another book entirely.
Ellen Klages's “Time Gypsy,” on the other hand, is probably the best thing on offer here. A 1999 story about a scientific researcher travelling back to the 1950s to meet a “long-dead crackpot” whose theory of time travel was lost to history, it brilliantly portrays a whirlwind romance between two scientists separated by time—but united by their ingenuity and desire to get their own back on a scientific establishment that has belittled and exploited them at every turn. The science-fiction mechanics are rock solid, but the story also nails the breathless rush of new love against the backdrop of fifties homophobia. When the two leads get together, there is a sense of triumph claimed against fear, of both historical inevitability and societal opprobrium:
I don’t know what to do. Every dream I’ve ever had is coming true tonight. But how can I kiss her? How can I begin something I know is doomed? She must see the indecision in my face, because she looks scared, and starts to take a step backward. And I can’t let her go. Not yet. I put my hand on the back of her neck and pull her into a second, longer kiss.
Klages's story perfectly executes both halves of the anthology's brief: it is both a fascinating time-travel puzzle box and an effective, heart-pounding romance. That it originally came out twenty-three years too early is perhaps fitting, but it does highlight the shortcomings of many of these other stories, especially coming as it does at the very end of the book.
For all Strahan's talk of time travel fiction “exploring endless possibilities,” many of the book's authors land on remarkably similar premises. A solid eight out of these sixteen stories feature some variation on the plot “an agent from the future travels back in time and falls in love with someone they shouldn't.” Several stories also have structural and pacing problems. Seanan McGuire's “First Aid” hits on an amusing enough premise—someone tries to travel back to Elizabethan England but ends up at a Renaissance fair in 1996—but that premise doesn't actually arrive until the story is almost over, and the story’s opening movements are swallowed by technobabbly exposition. Lavanya Lakshminarayan's “Bergamot and Vetiver” unwisely crams several pages of incident into its conclusion, making the whole story feel rushed and unfocused. Similarly disappointing is “The Golden Hour” by Jeffrey Ford, a painfully derivative bit of metafiction. Taking inspiration is one thing, but when a character muses aloud that “my novel could be about these days where the time traveler’s wife arrives in the time he’s lost in and tries to train him to escape to their original time,” it feels like Audrey Niffenegger may be owed royalties.
Someone in Time is not without its charms. There are good, even great stories here. But the book's overall effect is of a few shining moments in a much drabber timestream. Perhaps if a stronger editorial hand had been exerted, or the book's premise had been a little more thoroughly worked through, this could have been a more impactful project. As it is, it's a mostly fun anthology with a bit too much chaff for its wheat. Less HBO Max, more ITV Hub. It's just a shame that a team of this calibre couldn't manage better.