I’m a sucker for a good time travel novel. My benchmark is now and has always been Dean Koontz’s Lightning, if only for the sheer surprise value of who the time travelers were. But admittedly, time travel tales can get a bit stale. Most of them involve going back in time to either change something, or going back in time to observe something. Joe Kimball manages to handily get around this issue in Timecaster, a fun and original novel with cops, murder, and a few glimpses into the past.
In 2064, there’s not a lot of crime left. The advent of timecasting—being able to look back in time up to two weeks—has virtually eliminated things like murder and rape. So Talon Avalon doesn’t have much to do with his time except trim the foliage on his roof and try not to be too upset about his wife’s job as a licensed sex therapist.
When one of her clients asks for his help with a possible murder, Talon reluctantly agrees. But when he timecasts the incident, he sees the impossible: he himself committing the murder. Since evidence from a timecast is considered irrefutable legally, not even an alibi could save Talon if someone finds out. With his life literally hanging in the balance, Talon sets out to find out who framed him, and how they subverted a technology that’s supposed to be impossible to tamper with.
After my stating how much I love time travel novels, you might be a bit surprised to hear me say that there’s really no time travel in this book. The characters have the ability to look back in time, but not to go there and change anything. And the neat twist is that you have to be in the same physical location as what you want to look back on. In other words, when Talon goes to investigate the murder, he has to take his tachyon emissions visualizer—TEV—to the actual scene of the crime. Thus, if something happens on a plane or a train, or in a location that’s otherwise not “stable”, it’s hard to get a lock on what actually happened. This neatly gives some exceptions to what could otherwise be a too powerful device.
I also enjoyed the worldbuilding. Kimball has created an America that is completely green and eco-friendly. People grow food anywhere they can, even on their own rooftops. They pay a foliage fee from plant clippings on their property. Products made from natural materials such as books or certain kinds of clothing are contraband. All of these details are woven into the background, and done so in such a way that they complement the action instead of overshadowing it. I found these details just as fascinating and enjoyable as the plot, but in a way that didn’t distract me.
The action is virtually non-stop and this novel has very little downtime. Readers will have to pay close attention to what’s going on, because if you miss something, the plot will run you over with its pace. I don’t say that’s a bad thing, as I rather enjoyed the fact that Kimball created a breakneck plot and kept it tight and efficient. The novel clocks in at 302 pages, and that feels just about right.
The one thing that I found off-putting was the sexual content. I don’t object to sex in a novel as a rule, unless it really doesn’t fit the story. And given Talon’s wife’s profession, there’s going to be a certain amount of sex (or at least the mention of it). But that’s all that we see—sex. Not love or tenderness. Just sex. Given the problems that arise between Talon and Vicki during the novel, I would have liked a scene between them that had some affection and real love before everything goes to hell. We never get that. And worse, a good portion of the sexual content has a measure of violence. Talon is raped twice, once by one woman and once by three women at the same time. Vicki is shown being subjected to a violent sexual encounter, one where she’s being choked and is sporting a black eye. Although I understand that this society is supposed to be one where sex is just sex and nothing deeper than that, this still didn’t sit well with me. It just didn’t seem necessary to the plot, and it made me uncomfortable.
With high marks for worldbuilding and creativity, but low marks for some instances of gratuitous sexual violence, Timecaster ultimately gets my vote as a reasonably good novel. I hope that the author tones things down in his next book and focuses on the world that he’s created, because it’s a truly unique idea. I was completely taken in with Kimball’s vision of a greener and safer future for America, and I’ll be watching for his next novel.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 3, 2011.