Rating: 5 out of 5
Edward Aubry’s Unhappenings pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. I tend to be very leery of time travel, because it’s so hard to do in a fashion that makes any kind of sense and doesn’t leave dozens of plot holes behind. When I saw mention in the description of an ‘enigmatic young guide,’ I worried even more–when a ‘guide’ shows up who isn’t willing to tell the person they’re guiding much about what’s going on, it’s usually a transparent excuse to manipulate when the audience gets certain information; there’s rarely a good reason for someone to not explain what’s going on. To my surprise, I found Unhappenings to be entrancing.
Nigel Walden wants many things, but life interferes in the strangest ways. He seems to be the only person aware that thing are ‘unhappening’ around him. As a young student he kisses a girl, only to have her cease to exist. He learns to ignore these discrepancies and not comment on them, trying to figure out what is real to the people around him without giving his ‘problem’ away. Sometimes the changes are rapid-fire, sometimes occasional. Some of them are huge (unhappening an entire person’s existence) while other times they’re small and seemingly insignificant. He wants to work on time travel, which he now believes is real, and the timeline keeps changing, moving him farther away from that goal with every alteration. A young woman who refuses to give her name (he calls her youngest self Penelope, later Una, later Athena) implants him with a device that gives him the ability to time travel. Then she repeatedly comes to him for help ‘running a fix’ in the past. She never really tells him what this is about. Before long he’s time traveling almost continuously, trying to keep things from unhappening all around him–and he finally realizes that the constant unhappenings aren’t random. They aren’t a by-product of tampering. They are evidence of a war going on around him, a war aimed at him. The only solace he has is his relationship with his beloved Helen, which seems to be immune to alteration through time travel.
In this case, the ‘enigmatic guide’ didn’t particularly bother me because it became clear that she was traveling by the seat of her pants too, with only a little more information than Nigel had. She has absolutely no way of understanding what affects she could have on the world. Time is so carefully woven together that it seems traveling at all–let alone trying to make deliberate alterations–already propagates changes throughout the timeline, and not always with an end result you’d expect.
I was a little confused at the lack of hugely obvious tech-level changes in the next 100-200 years, but there was just enough of a sort-of explanation given that I was willing to suspend disbelief. Also, some of the larger changes just happened to be on the subtle side from the reader’s point of view.
I love seeing Penelope coach Nigel on ways to make his constantly shifting experience less obvious in his behavior around others. He actually fakes having severe ADD by using a bunch of tricks designed to be memory aids, making it seem much more reasonable when, say, someone no longer knows who he is and he has to pretend that he’s made an error in identification.
I like the quality of the writing in general. There are some wonderful quotable parts, which I always enjoy.
The stakes get higher and higher as the story goes, indicating wonderful pacing. Suddenly we’ve gone from a single person un-existing to whole, multiple versions of apocalyptic end-points: robot uprisings, virulent plagues, international bombings.
I laughed, I cried, and I could not set aside the book for very long at all. I absolutely loved the pure mess that was time travel, and the fact that everyone trying it was out of their depth. This is the best time-travel book that I can remember reading.