Fiction Reviews

The Tourist

(2016) Robert Dickinson, Orbit, 12.99, hrdbk, 283pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50826-9


It is the near future and we are getting time-travelling visitors from the 23rd century coming to see what life was like back in the 21st.  Our protagonist is attached to 'Happiness' and is a rep for the Tri-Millennium tourism company a cheap rate version of the more classier Heritage package holiday operation that operates out of Resort 4, a huge domed complex somewhere presumably in the Home counties outside of London.

We (the readers) soon learn that the locals (21st century natives) are very aware of their tourist visitors and that they are from the future (though a few still think that time travel is science fiction). We also soon learn (though the natives are unaware) that in the decades to come there will be a near extinction event (NEE) and that one of the things that attracts the tourists from 23rd is that ours is a pre-NEE, populous time of plenty with people living out in the open air.

Our tourist rep, Spens, is in charge of a group on a visit to a shopping mall. He is aware that in a few weeks time he will be sent back to the 23rd having broken some to him as yet unknown protocol or other: he does not know what as people's timeline records are not fully available to themselves, presumably to prevent paradoxes. He is also aware that their coach on the way back to Resort 4 will have a minor accident with another vehicle. The tourists onboard are eagerly awaiting the impending accident, unconcerned as they too are in the full knowledge that it will be inconsequential but is an anticipated moment of excitement. Except that the problem is that it isn't: during the itinerary break caused by the accident, one of the tourists wanders off and is unaccounted.  As a result Spens gets an unofficial secondment to 'Safety' and charged with locating and bringing back the missing tourist. Yet what seems to be a reasonably routine affair soon spirals out of control when Spens discovers two locals are also after the tourist and that despite his, and his boss at Resort 4's, best efforts the tourist remains absent: it seems as if the tourist going missing was deliberate! The question then becomes one of not only locating the tourist but finding out what the tourist was hoping to do and achieve. This is especially important as some of the (what we will call in a depopulated future) 'cities' of the 23rd have a certain enmity, if not outright hostility towards some of the others; it could be that they are using time travel to gain some sort of advantage.  Matters would be easier if everyone had a full record of what was to happen but they don't. This is not just because of the need to restrict information (again purportedly to avoid temporal paradoxes) but because those of the further future 25th century have decided to shield themselves from visitors from their past: try to go forward to the 25th and you will be bounced back to goodness knows where and in all likelihood be stranded there.

And then there are the 'extemps', those from the 23rd who have chosen to live in the 21st with the natives. There are also those who will find artefacts and pre-NEE resources in the 21st and then secretly bury them somewhere for retrieval in the 23rd. Plus there is the reaction of the 21st locals to those from their future. It all makes for a heady mix.

The Tourist is an SF thriller or pedantically given time travel as is portrayed so scientifically unlikely it is science fantasy, but it is very much first and foremost an SF thriller. Yet while The Tourist is very firmly SF, it is not written in a hard SF way: there are no light cones, space-time horizons, no Cherenkov glow as a transport arrives, etc., but there does not need to be. There is enough fascination and sensawunda on a multiple of fronts from the implications of time travel (such as knowing you have a past future in the future and vice-versa), through the cultural implications of having overt future visitors on the (our) present, and to discovering what it is like in the 23rd, let alone the story behind the NEE (which is it transpires a central event around which many of the plot elements pivot). In short there is plenty to assuage the SF reader's thirst.

It has been said that the rise of the mobile (cell) phone in the early 21st century has had an adverse impact on detective stories as people potential victims or the detective(s) that otherwise might have been isolated and find themselves threatened can simply make a call or can be tracked using GPS. And more generally, there is no excuse for information not being shared quickly regardless of distance or the need to meet. Actually, a little thought is all it takes to realise that such concerns are meaningless: it just means that writers need to be more inventive. However, if one does accept that there is something to such a concern then there is one obvious genre workaround given we (hence all fictional settings) are in a space-time continuum. If the mobile phone has effectively removed spatial constraints (anyone can quickly contact someone anywhere) then the obvious genre solution is to work with time. This is one way where time travel stories can come into their own. While it may be known how to reach people, replacement alternative elements of unknowns can provide the mystery; for example, who is, was, or will be this person, and from when will they come and to when will they go?

It is not clear that Robert Dickinson himself is that versed in the genre: there do not seem to be any references to other SF works. Yet time travel is such a core SF trope, arguably notably starting with H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1894), and The Tourist is so richly crafted a novel, that some of the novel's ideas are almost invariably reminiscent of earlier works. For example, the notion of 'Safety' the 23rd century's equivalent of the security services and especially their talked about but not seen operation in Geneva, being necessary to police (as well as protect) the time travelling tourists is reminiscent of the Time Service in Up the Line by Robert Silverberg (1969). Also the isolated 25th century clearly has a parallel in the 'Hidden Centuries' between 70,000th and 150,000th in Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), and then there are the time tourists in David Twohy's film Timescape (1991). So, if Robert Dickinson is steeped in SF it does not show, but this does not at all matter as The Tourist assuredly stands on its own two feet.

Robert Dickinson provides a detailed portrayal of his novel's set-up. This is engaging in itself but also allows for some observations on our own time's potentially quirky aspects: we value visual imagery and electronic records, but the visitors from the post-NEE future (where electronic records have been destroyed) value books. And then there is the future visitors enjoyment of music as it was originally played back in the 17th and 18th centuries, recordings of which were obtained by risky long-distance time-travel to unseated locales where there are no permanent time-links.

The novel deftly carries the reader through a time convoluted plot to a satisfactory conclusion that at least resolves questions the reader might have about the book's opening chapter. In this sense the novel is satisfactorily complete. Having said that, there are a number of loose ends and a couple of unanswered inconsistencies (only noticed if you are paying reasonable attention). This means that there is the potential for a sequel re-visiting (albeit in part) the events of this novel be it from the perspective of this book's principal protagonist Spens, and/or from one of the other lead characters. Having said that, as far as I know from the publisher, no sequel is currently planned. Nonetheless, I do hope that Dickinson returns to his creation of The Tourist as there are a number of potentialities that would resolve those nagging loose ends and I would be fascinated to find out which, if any, of these, or if there are other possibilities, the author had in mind.

The Tourist is Dickinson's break-out novel, his first with a major publishing house. He has had a couple of prior novels published by Myriad Editions: the Orwellian The Noise of Strangers; and the occult riffed The Schism.

The Tourist is truly an accomplished work. Each decade seems to have one (or two) remarkable novels related to an SF subgenre or core trope. The works cited previously are arguably examples of such notable time travel novels: others, should you want exemplars, might include Fritz Leiber's The Big Time (novelette 1958, novel 1961) and Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980). I would not be surprised if in years to come and we look back The Tourist might well be one of this decade's stand-out time travel novels. Expect it to be long-listed, possibly short-listed, for an SF award or two in 2017.

Jonathan Cowie

Other time travel stories, not cited in the above article, reviewed on this site include:-
          Kaleidoscope Century by Steve Barnes
          Weaver: Time's Tapestry Book Four by Stephen Baxter
          Kindred by Octavia Butler
          Timeline by Michael Crichton
          Time on my Hands by Peter Delacorte
          The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
          Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel
          11.22.63 by Stephen King
          Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley
          The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
          The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
          Here, There & Everywhere by Chris Roberson
          A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin
          Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
          Blackout by Connie Willis
          How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

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