This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Today I’m here to sit down backwards on my chair Captain America style and have a “rap” with you kids about Journey to the Past, by Esteban Corio.
Okay, where to start … alright, so first off the bat I give massive cred and hats-off to Corio, who I believe is Argentinian and either wrote this book in Spanish and then translated it, or wrote it in English as a second language. There’s some fantastic idioms and some other little slips that I will get to later, in the spirit of discovery, but I make full allowance and am not docking marks for the book needing a good hard editing (well, not just for that). This is a common thing with indie books. There was some confusion between he / his, she / her and they / their, which I take to be a result of Spanish pronoun grammar, that made it difficult to tell sometimes who was being talked about in a given paragraph. It was challenging, but you know what else is challenging? Writing in your non-native tongue.
I loved the intro, the hopeful future of the late 21st Century. Pretty stuff, I unironically love a good info dump, and the new union of human and alien races, although very under-utilised here, was great. I was mildly amused to find in an early chapter of the book that the perfect future world still had health insurance and not free universal healthcare, but I guess nobody’s perfect.
So, with the advent of faster-than-light travel humanity also learned how to travel in time. Doing so, into the past, could not affect the “Mother Timeline” because every change just made new variants of the universe and the universe of origin remained unaffected, but they were still reasonably careful not to spin off too many alternative realities – or travel into the future at all. Which, okay, would that not be a better way to make profit in secret if you’re going to break the rules anyway? But fine. That’s not really covered.
Research, however, into the past is permitted under very controlled circumstances. The not too recent past, and they still have to go in essentially invisible despite the apparent inviolability of the Mother Timeline, and enter and leave within a few hours carrying nothing … but that’s how it works. Companies, like the one our set of protagonists work for, sort of shoot people pot-luck into the past for a few hours at a time to see what they can see. It’s an interesting premise.
I’m not sure why the text in the ebook sometimes went to one word per line, is it a missing drawing or something?
Enter Edgar (director of operations) and Mark (deputy director), two absolute units who get in approximately one million dollars’ worth of trouble (one million and fifty-six thousand dollars, to be exact) with a mob boss named Biao. Now, keep in mind that keeping a time portal open costs their company one million dollars a minute in energy fees. And this company is set to make staggering profits. This gambling debt is pocket change, even taking into account that there might be regulations preventing them from misappropriating too much of the company’s funds directly (stupid hyper-regulated future!).
Still, they offer Biao their houses, but Biao doesn’t dabble in real estate. Which, why? Clearly everyone involved here is an idiot. But okay. They owe this nasty piece of work a modest amount of money, and they desperately scramble to find a way to use their company’s time travel mechanic to make it for him. It’s actually rather clever, although maybe not as clever as just, you know, embezzling the money. We’ll get to the idea, hold on.
Occasionally a bit of Spanish punctuation slipped through. I found this interesting and cool, not distracting.
There were also some directly (Google?) translated stuff like this gem, which I found downright fascinating.
Meanwhile, the legit side of the company is doing time jumps. Small teams including a doctor and a fixer, go into the past and check things out and then come back with data. The company has two fixers, from what I could see – Randy and Sprague, the former a bit of a loose cannon and the latter our main protagonist, a private investigator down on his luck who is happy to be picked up by this company that will pay him super, super well (remember the directors of the company are one million dollars in the red to a mob guy).
There are also some other characters in the story, and we are treated to some absolutely amazing descriptions of them.
Ooh, those flirtatious gays with their … *checks notes* … chocolates and their … *checks notes again* … ornate owls.
And don’t even get me started on those stolid orientals with their … *checks notes* … uh …
Anyway, moving on. They go back in time to see Pumapunku being built, and accidentally totally find out it was being built as a resort by some Ancient Aliens. Yup, that happened. Now, on the other hand they also go to see Columbus making landfall on America, and one of the travellers attempts to assassinate him. Not because it will have any impact on the Mother Timeline, but just to create some spin-off universes in which the Native American people have a chance to exist free of mass-rape and genocide. Anyway that guy turns out to be a terrorist and a bad guy so never mind.
Maybe it’s innocent. Look, I loved the idea of aliens coming to Earth and having a hand in ancient civilisations when I was younger (and, you know, dumb and ignorant). I still write about it myself – it’s just that you also need to be aware of the huge risk that in saying “and aliens came and helped build this amazing thing” what you’re actually kinda saying is “brown savages couldn’t possibly have had the skill and tenacity to do this themselves.” So you need to be careful.
I boldly read on, batting aside red flags as I went. Then Randy, our not-quite-protagonist fixer, decided to stay in 1994, where there is no environmentalist preaching, no constant electronic pamphlets about the “social conscience required of citizens”, no policies of equitable distribution of wealth, and also you’re allowed to smoke.
And, it’s just, okay. I’m not going to punish a book and its author because we differ ideologically. That’s not what this is about. This could have been a fascinating study of these issues, and could have ended with a masterpiece of sci-fi iconoclastry like Demolition Man. I’m just saying, if there’s a guy who doesn’t like anything about the progressive future he lives in, maybe put a little mark in his folder about it before you make him a fixer on time travel missions back to the early days of proto-political correctness and rampant pollutant consumerism? You know, just a little – a little asterisk?
Anyway, all that stuff I just mentioned, aside from Randy, that’s all somehow a side-point to the main plot. The Randy thing brings us back around to the actual body of the story, which is all about using time travel to fiddle with World Cup soccer matches in order to have one million dollars of gambling debts forgiven.
And like I said, it was actually a pretty damn cool idea!
So, like I mentioned, Edgar and Mark send Randy to 1994. This is against the rules for near-present proximity, but whatever. They’re off the legal map from here on out. Randy’s mission is to tamper with the first game of the World Cup, then hang around and record how the contest played out as a result. Then he comes back with the recordings, and the high fliers back in the 2050s watch the new variant of the World Cup play out, and bet on it. It’s pretty interesting, and although some interference has occurred, the Mother Timeline is inviolable so all that’s really happened is that Randy is a month or so older than he was when he went into the portal, and a new version of the universe has spun into existence where Bolivia beat Germany in the first match of the 1994 World Cup (and also Randy did just an absolute fucking ton of other things that would alter that universe … I’m just saying, this is kind of important for later).
There are a few problems with this plan, of course. I don’t know how easy it would have been for someone to get accommodation in Chicago during the first time the soccer World Cup came to the US, with three days’ notice. I think it would have been very very difficult indeed. Furthermore, they send him back there with some jewellery to pawn, but they don’t have the tech to just provide him with a card that will tweak the bank machines and give him money? Yeesh. Even furthermore, they expect Randy to be able to record the games as they’re broadcast? Using ’90s technology? People in the ’90s couldn’t even do that!
Randy didn’t need to figure out the VHS recorder though, because he just bought a DVD recorder instead. Half a decade before they were commercially available.
So. Randy enjoys his little World Cup trip so much, he decides to win the lottery using Powerball numbers he brought with him for the purpose, and cut and run with his winnings. This is where Edgar and Mark start to realise their whole plan was a fucking dog’s breakfast from start to finish, and send Sprague, our hero, to fix things. And this is where it all finally and ultimately falls to pieces.
Sprague, to cut a long story slightly less-long, puts himself in cryo-suspension in 1994 and returns to the 2050s the long way ’round, with a clever plan of his own. Somehow, this is portrayed as his return to the Mother Timeline, and its preservation. But that is not possible.
He is already in an alternate universe. He’s in cryo-suspension and headed into the 2050s of an Earth where Bolivia beat Germany in the first match of the 1994 World Cup – and also, like I said was going to be important later, Randy took half the Powerball winnings that season and bought himself a private beach and had jacuzzi threesomes with ’90s babes. Randy is not getting back to the Mother Timeline any way but through the portals sent by his corporate bosses. There’s no way. I don’t make the rules. The author makes the rules. And this is against the rules.
You can make a case for self-correction and return to the Mother Timeline if you like. The champion of the World Cup that year ultimately did not change. And if Columbus was killed, another genocidal rapist would have arrived shortly thereafter.
Maybe that’s the lesson here.
We end in a flurry of Futurama cryo-facility shenanigans and Back to the Future plotting that might have worked better if the narrator had framed time travel as a fucking free-for-all in the first place, and holy shit this review turned out to be really long, let’s move on to the meters. Quick.
Biao’s psychotic idiot of a son “crossed” with two women, which I’m pretty sure means he beat and raped them. Sprague and Eva watch vintage movies and have sex, their relationship is generally wholesome and sweet. And there’s some sleazy ’90s jacuzzi action. Not a hugely sex-filled romp. A limp, meek, non-smoking environmentalist little 2050s boner out of a possible huge, throbbing, oiled-bicep-like boner of the 1990s.
There’s something of a spree-ending here and some satisfying fights. I also like to think that, after Biao is ruined and after he gets over his grief, he goes to find that friend of Sprague’s who very foolishly allowed his company’s details to be put on the “fake video” Sprague used to ruin Biao, and just systematically slaughters his entire family and all his friends. But that only happened in my mind, not in the book. One gobbet out of a possible five.
So much WTF. So, so much. Why wasn’t this book about the aliens who were building a resort at Pumapunku? That would have been amazing (if, I cannot stress this enough, handled correctly). I’ll restrict myself to that single important question, and give this book a Crystal Skull out of a possible Jesus Was Actually Bigfoot on the WTF-o-meter.
My Final Verdict
Oof. One star.