Monday, 22 June 2015

The Time Torch - review

This is a curious but likeable little book. That 'little' is not a condescending remark. The book is physically small - about two thirds of the width of a normal paperback - with large print that means it's almost like reading on a Kindle rather than a normal printed copy.

I am always a little wary about self-published titles, which this is, but it has been well proof read, with no more typos than I see in books from mainstream publishers. What particularly attracted me to it is that it's a story involving a time machine - I love time machines - and the blurb said that it made an attempt to make the science as close to realistic as possible, which got my science writer antennae twitching... and it turns out that this is a reasonable claim.

So we've some interesting science and a satisfying if fairly simplistic plot. The Time Torch was a short enough read to get through all of it on a train journey (it verges on being a novella), and it was entertaining enough in the storyline and intriguing enough in that science content to mean that I genuinely enjoyed the experience.

I have to admit, though, that the book isn't without faults. The main characters aren't particularly likeable. Even though a major plot point is reminiscent of the backstory of Batman, the characters don't reflect the superhero ethics shown in the Spider Man's reflection that 'with great power comes great responsibility.' And the writing style is idiosyncratic to say the least. The author likes to be very specific about some things and lacks sophistication in his writing. To get a feel, here's the opening of the third chapter, where we are introduced to the girlfriend of main character Ben:
Ben rang his girlfriend, Melissa Harper. Melissa was a tall elegant woman with an athletic frame. She was in a smart business suit seated at a table with five other people. She felt her phone vibrate on the table. She had a quick look at the screen and saw it was Ben.
I'm not going to pick out detail, but it's not the most elegant writing and time and time again through the book the essential fiction editor's plea 'Show, don't tell,' is roundly ignored.

As for the science, like any science fiction the plot has to come first, so the physics isn't 100% accurate, but it was a noble attempt and very clever concept. The author starts by telling us that for matter to travel through time is impossible - which is simply wrong, but that's not too much of an issue. Instead, though, our hero sends photons into the past. He uses a general relativity approach (the only potential way we know to get something into the past, so that's good) to get his photons back in time. But the clever bit is that they are in a state of quantum entanglement with photons that remain in the present. When the spray of photons (his 'time torch') hits an item in the past, it shows up in the twinned photons that remain in the present.

This nicely reflects the real experiment in which a picture of a cat was generated using photons that never encountered a cat-shaped slot thanks to entanglement. In practice there are a number of reasons why the approach wouldn't work. Entangled photons lose their entanglement when they interact with atoms. So though it was possible to produce an image of a slot, where the entangled photons didn't hit anything, it's not possible for an entangled photon to hit, say, a person and reflect off her to produce an image from its entangled partner - both because the entanglement is lost and the 'reflected' photon isn't the same one that was emitted by the 'torch'. If such imaging were possible, you could use entanglement to send messages faster than light, which has all sorts of interesting implications and doesn't happen. The other big snag is that general relativity techniques can only send things back as far as the point in time that the device was first switched on, making it impossible to work in the way that was required for the story.

These science notes are minor niggles, though, which are absolutely fine to make the plot work. It doesn't stop the idea of the 'time torch' being very clever, along with the interesting details that you could see into the past, but only in black and white and without sound, giving the fictional inventor some worthwhile challenges.

So what we have here is a really interesting science fiction concept and a reasonable plot, but an undeveloped style. If you can set the unpolished writing aside, it's well worth a go.

You can find The Time Torch at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com on Kindle or at Lulu as a paperback.

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