BOOK REVIEW: The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Agency has been a concern since the early years of travel. It’s still the subject of most entertainments. If you know your loved one is going to be killed in an accident do you try to stop them leaving for work? If you find out they’re going to commit a crime do you try to talk them out of it? The entertainments always give the same answer: you can’t change what’s going to happen. You warn somebody about the accident; they take a different route, which results in the accident. You warn them not to commit the crime and it turns out you gave them the idea.
The Tourist is a time travel novel that, at the beginning, did remind this reader a little of the situation with the Observers in the tv show, Fringe. It deals with a whole bunch of time travel theories, and is told, for the most part, from the point of view of one of these people from the future, working as a tourism rep in the “early 21st” for a company that allows people from the 23rd century to spend some vacation time in the early 21st century. It’s easy to tell that these people don’t belong in the time of shopping malls and film-based entertainment, and they certainly stand out in a crowd. They live in Number Cities where they come from, the dialect has changed over the centuries, and they also don’t have the best grasp of the terms used by the “natives”.
He hesitates. “No, wait. It’s probably best if you don’t take a native. We’ll keep this quiet for now. You can work on your own, can’t you? You know how to drive their” – he gropes for the word, gives up – “their things?”
“I have a licence.”
“Good. I’ll authorise the use of a thing.” He makes hand gestures over his desk.
The natives aren’t exactly fans of the people from the future, in part because they feel like information is being withheld; as though, because they’re from a time beyond our own, they know every little thing that is going to happen.
When we first announced our presence to the early 21st the natives had a lot of questions. Their scientists had thought travel was either impossible, or theoretically possible but impractical (requiring more energy than exists in the universe, etc.), or possible in only one direction (I forget which). And the people who weren’t scientists assumed we could pick a date and go back or forward to whenever we pleased.
Tensions rise as an organised march against the interlopers draws closer, and people speculate more and more on why it is, exactly, that these beings have come back to this time. The natives don’t know, of course, about the Near Extinction Event looming, but there are all kinds of theories circulating about the people from the future. Are they here to steal resources? Do they want to enslave the people of the 21st? What are they hiding?
And to top it all off, our other narrator is working against the people from the Number Cities.
If you are sent you must understand you may never see your friends again.
She must know you haven’t made any friends: that’s why you were chosen. Out of all the damaged girls you’re the most solitary. Not the most vicious, not the cleverest or the funniest, or the best fighter or the prettiest, but the one who can live surrounded by strangers and not care. You were made for this.
The blurb of this book is highly misleading, suggesting that it is a thriller with a potential time travel twist, but in reality it is all about the time travel. The fact that it was marketed as thriller more than time travel almost lead to me deciding not to read this title. But in the end, it is produced by Orbit, an imprint known for their speculative fiction, so I gave it a go and was pleasantly surprised. Someone who reads a lot of crime thrillers would likely have the opposite reaction when discovering that there is so much about time travel and timelines here, and that even the mystery hinted at in the blurb is entirely wrapped up in time travel itself.
This is not the kind of book that anyone can pick up and understand; you need to have at least some knowledge of time travel or it will lose you early on.
One of the big plot points in this story is agency. If you meet someone and you’re further along the intersecting timeline than they are, you have to be careful about what you tell them, and there’s a lot of people doing things because they were told to do things by the records that say they already did these things.
If this makes sense to you, congratulations, you will quite possibly enjoy this book!
Quite a few instances of the incorrect tense being used did stand out for this reader, though it is understandable that a book about time travel, which takes place over many different time periods, would face more than the standard share of such errors. There were undoubtedly many more that were caught in the editing stages, and ten such errors aren’t a deal-breaker in a 342 page novel, but they happened frequently enough to warrant a mention in this review.
Overall it was an enjoyable read, if at times confusing; but if you read as many books a year as this reviewer does, you’re likely pleasantly surprised when a book can keep you on your toes. The world-building is subtle enough that it will put your inferencing muscles to the test, and the character-building is… very much on the light side, but this book is a good fun, well put-together read.
At least for the most part.
One of the reasons this has been rated 7/10 rather than 8 or 9 is the fact that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There’s all this build up, with the conspiracies and different elements of humanity working against each other, and as the threads start to come together, you realise how it all connects. But then? Then it just stops. It feels almost as though the author didn’t know how to end the story, and so the big crescendo that has been building just never ends up going anywhere, and the “race” to the finish line ends up being more of a confused shamble.
I am glad to have read it, and quite enjoyed my time spent in the world Dickinson offers us, but it could have been so much more.
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