I keep thinking about the book I am reading, The Heavens by Sandra Newman, in which the dreamer/time traveller protagonist keeps returning from dreams, in which she is living in the sixteenth century, into her present reality, to find reality has once again got worse. By the time we are two thirds of the way into the book, the present has become a dystopia, in that it has gradually worsened from the relatively utopian reality we began with, to a reality pretty much the one we are living right now, outside the book. I am waiting for it to get even worse. This is set at the time of 9/11 – it isn’t even the present yet. The way the book presents our actual reality as a dystopian alternative reality to what was formerly the truth seems oddly true to how our contemporary reality actually feels – I have been feeling for a while now as if we are living in the alternative reality to the real one. This of course makes no sense and the fact that we are living in it proves it makes no sense. Obviously all alternatives must be equally real, or equally possible, if they are in fact alternatives. Which is why the idea of multiple alternative worlds isn’t one I believe in – there must be a reason why decisions are made and things happen the way they have happened. But if you could change them? In this book, the time traveller doesn’t know exactly what she needs to change but knows she has to avert a future time of fire – a burned city – a ruined civilisation – the future we can in reality see coming towards us – more clearly then she could have nearly twenty years ago. But how can things she do in 1593 make a difference? The only person she seems to have any effect on is some minor poet called Will Shakespeare – some poet no one has even heard of in 2001. Not the alternative 2001. By the time she has turned her world into the dystopia of our own, it is clear that somehow by helping William Shakespeare become Shakespeare she is making a worse and worse future. Would it have been better if there had never been a Shakespeare? Apparently yes. If you were Shakespeare, and knew this, you’d have to wish to die young and never become Shakespeare and not change some distant future for the worse.
But now I have finished the novel and (don’t read this if you haven’t read the novel but are going to, and you should)…..…..it wasn’t because of William Shakespeare that things were getting worse in our time, but because she was travelling in time at all, and her effect on William Shakespeare was part of the time-travel effect which seems strangely to channel all the good of one time period (the period travelled from) into glory for one person in the past (the period travelled to). An inexplicable enough effect to seem oddly plausible. And the novel ends with our time-traveller no longer time-travelling, and beginning her life in our time and although she believes there is nothing one person can do to avert the coming firestorm, still she will take action. And although I thought the moral was that one person is less important than the world – when I thought the one person was Shakespeare – the novel has you care, actually, about its own main characters more than the fate of the world (the fictional world). Is this the fault of the novel as a genre? Or me as a reader? Or is it the only way to live, to care about people in particular, but not instead of caring about the fate of the world, but as the only way to actually care about the fate of the world?