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"Stephen Fry at his twinkling best" (Sunday Times)
"His best novel yet ... an extravagant, deeply questioning work of science fiction" (GQ)
"A sci-fi comedy that is also a time-travel thriller, constantly topical and always surprising... packed with the author's personal enthusiasm and hatreds, the former red-hot and the latter icy-black" (Literary Review)
"A powerful imaginative pull that keeps the pages turning while the tea goes cold and the cat gets the goldfish" (The Independent)
"A sprightly and entertaining read" (Daily Telegraph) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A novel of ideas – comical, historical, frightening and unputdownable. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
[quote]”There was even a time, which ought to have been humiliating for the town, when they tried a Scheme….The town fathers bought thousands of bicycles, sprayed them green and left them in little bike-parks all over the city. The idea was that you hopped on one, got to where you wanted to be and then left it on the street for the next user. Such a cute idea, so William Morris, so Utopian, so dumb. Reader, you will be amazed to hear, astonished you will be, thunderstruck to learn, that within a week all the green bicycles had disappeared. Every single one. There was something so cute and trusting and hopeful and noble and aaah! In the Scheme that the city ended up prouder, not humbler, for the deal. We giggled. And, when the council announced a new improved Scheme, we rolled over on the ground howling with laughter, begging them between gasps to stop.”[unquote] [pp. 21-22].
That scene-setter is more important than it might at first appear. The characters in this story live in a protected world and are somewhat naïve. Michael’s doctoral thesis – entitled, ‘The Roots of Power’ - is about the early life of Adolf Hitler and attempts to provide some of the explanation of Hitler’s meteoric rise to power in those terms. Michael eventually meets up with one Professor Zuckerman who, intrigued by the subject-matter, has devised a novel means to kill off Hitler’s ambitions at their root, in the belief this will change history for the better. Michael joins the enterprise. Despite their intelligence (or maybe because of it), the two men fail to see the obvious: that history is in reality about general movements, trends and undercurrents, and that historical change is not just in the lap of Great Men, but social, economic and political forces that they use their prodigious energies to guide and harness towards certain goals and ideals: including Nazism. In contradistinction to Michael’s academic thesis, the author’s position on the relevant period of history is that Nazism as a successful mass political movement in Germany might well have happened without Hitler, and he shows us how this could have occurred. I happen to agree with Stephen Fry’s broad view of history, and disagree with Michael and Professor Zuckerman’s. Fry is suggesting that people in history follow patterns of behaviour that are shaped by material circumstances, which perspicacious individuals exploit and manipulate but do not necessarily create. Michael comes to agree and suitably ends the novel by discarding his dissertation, having seen its basis disproven in the most practicable way possible.
This is not a time travel novel. Michael, the main agent of change, by his own admission does not travel through time. Rather, “time has travelled in [him]” [p.379]. The world has changed around him, but as a result of his actions, such that he is the pivot of change, much like Archimedes’ lever. Michael’s consciousness remains unchanged, so that he remembers the old world as it was before, just as he can clearly surmise the new world he is in; the converse is also true when he restores the world to how it was. The idea of altering history by removing a proverbial Great Man from the picture is an old idea in fiction, especially in the case of Hitler – practically a cliché - but Fry gives it a new twist by having the characters change history not by killing Hitler as such, but by ensuring he is never born in the first place. There is an irony that in attempting to do what they think is ‘good’, Michael and Professor Zuckerman end up making the world worse in their perspective, and committing genocide: the very thing they supposedly set out to prevent, an actualisation of Saint Bernard’s maxim, again quite a common theme in fiction. Of course, they are not doing ‘good’ at all, not even on their own terms. Professor Zuckerman is salving his own conscience. Michael is acting out of naivety. Neither is a ‘goodie’ in this novel, they are more like oversensitive children, and if there is a flaw here in Fry’s writing, it is that I genuinely find it difficult to sympathise with either. They are not making history. They have gone outside history and are instead turning the past into a crude morality play in which they have the chance to play God, to make themselves feel better or more important: to make the world spin on their terms, in short to become Great Men themselves. Certainly in the case of Michael that turns out to be the case, as he retains his consciousness of both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ worlds throughout his variegated experiences, thus he stands ‘outside’ the conscious realm of the rest of the world, much like a Great Man might stand above the consciousness of the masses.
Real history isn’t germane to the moralistic point-of-view adopted by Michael and Professor Zuckerman. It is often difficult to discern the morally pure from the less so, and in any case, we will invariably fail in the attempt because we are retroactively imposing a moral template suitable for our own time, not necessarily for whatever past time is under examination. Michael, as a graduate student of the past, should know this. Professor Zuckerman, as a man with a past, does know this. Both are acting thoughtlessly. On the other hand, by removing a Great Man from the equation, and inadvertently replacing him with another, the characters do change history in noticeable ways. Here is the second novel twist from Fry: the notion that replacing Hitler might have improved Nazi fortunes, again implicitly attacking the ad Hitlerum premise of much of the modern history of Germany. The question arises: if our two “heroes” had taken into account the possibility of a replacement for Hitler, could they have achieved their goal, which was presumably to stop Nazism in its tracks as a significant political force in Germany and Europe? Throughout this novel, the word ‘Making’ is used in the chapter titles: Making Coffee is the title of the first chapter. We also have Making Breakfast, Making News, Making Friends, Making Conversation. Underpinning this is a sense that events that make up our lives, and eventually culminate in the history of our own lives, and sometimes the history that makes up the broader public consciousness, is the result of millions of micro-actions of individuals, and that changing one tiny thing, even something as seemingly inconsequential as skipping a university lecture one morning, could have immense consequences. Therefore the moral question is not straight-forward. Even if we accept the value judgement that Nazism was “wrong”, we then have to contend with the prospect that changing history involves altering an infinite number of variables, most of which we cannot even begin to contemplate, with the possibility that our actions might result in or cause still greater evils. The old saw: ‘Things happen for a reason’, has wisdom. Even if Michael and Professor Zuckerman had got to Gloder as well and, anticipating his rise to power in Hitler’s stead, killed him or somehow otherwise neutralised him, who is to say that another still more effective leader for the Nazis could not have emerged?
Also, a broader value judgement inescapably enters into all this. Who says that Nazism was a force for evil? Who decides this? How is this decided? On what criteria? Do we apply our own standards that exist today or do we take account of how people thought in the past? Over what period of history do we make the moral reckoning: the full 20th. century? This novel was written in 1996 and the story has been set contemporarily, so presumably the characters think that the passage of a mere 50 years is long enough to judge an entire period of history and consign it to the dustbin of their own private memory holes. I beg to differ. I would like the patient reader of this review to consider another possibility: that the revolution instigated by people like Stephen Fry is the real evil and that the inverted world that Michael confronts in this novel at Princeton as a result of his dubious dalliances with time is in fact the better world and the way the world should have been.
For once, the naïve whig historian is half-correct: exceptionally, the Second World War was - contingently – a war of good versus evil. But the good side lost and now we live in a world in which this horrible man, Stephen Fry, gets to flaunt his homosexuality and degeneracy right under our noses, knowing we don’t like it. That is not what I would in any sense recognise as freedom. Give me milk and cookies and virgin 20-something women in long dresses and stern fathers and good manners and lifelong marriages and large families and real blue collar jobs and nutritious food and pleasant countryside and literate tabloid newspapers, men who are real men, women who are real women, homosexuality in the closet where it belongs, unarmed bobbies on the beat in funny hats, and above all else, a white British society - give me all those things and more any day over the sick, inverted world that the ‘Stephen Frys’ have created for us. Fry, much like the characters in his own novel, has imposed his own twisted morality on the rest of us in his quest for a ‘better world’: a Hell for everybody else.
Fry is a good writer, I think his pop references are skilful, he is adept with language, he is knowledgeable, and some of the turns of phrases are interesting and often puzzling, but never dull: what, for instance, is “figgy coffee” when it’s at home? [page 129]. Coffee with figs in, I suppose. Another thing I like about this novel is Fry’s knowledge of German. It’s very entertaining to read choice German colloquialisms like Wienerschnitzel, but then I remember Fry has a smutty mentality and I wonder whether the thing that seems entertaining is not as wholesome as it appears, which spoils the experience as I find myself second-guessing the author and delving into his filthy mind, something I would rather not do. Fry does seem to treat his fiction-writing as a platform to promote a pro-homosexual agenda and general obscenity. That is his prerogative, of course, and that in a sense is one of the messages of this book. It is only his prerogative because the forces of everything good and pure were defeated in 1945. Fry is not a stupid man, he knows this, and he chooses to rub this perverse victory in our faces. I would not consider this novel suitable for children, as I would worry about them being exposed to Fry’s homosexual proclivities in print, not to mention lots of other subtle smutty references, especially early on. I am no prude, but it’s not well done here and I can’t get quite the image of the author out of my head when reading it. It is not a stimulating vision. It is for these reasons that, despite the author’s talent, I will not be reading any more of his work. Should I break my own resolution, I expect I will be needing eyewash.
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