First, sadly, a necessary question: does a book’s organisation and its written style actively interfere with one’s enjoyment - to the extent that throwing it across the room becomes a real temptation?
Of course the basic rules of grammar and indeed, the rationale behind a book’s layout, are intended not to be merely the wordy equivalent of trainspotting. They are there to facilitate the understanding of the sentence, chapter or the narrative as a whole. And nowhere is this more obvious – sadly by omission – than in This Book is From the Future by Jones and Flaxman.
Although an Editor is thanked in the acknowledgements, it remains a mystery as to what she actually contributed. Quotes run into the narrative text so the reader has no idea who says what. And twice the simple word ‘not’ becomes ‘note’. This error is perversely compounded by the fact that the word is picked out in bold type. Elsewhere ‘not’ is missing, when of course those three little letters, either by their appearance or non-appearance, change everything (as readers of early editions of the Bible discovered when the printers left the word out of the 10 Commandments).
But yes, the actual content…
According to the jacket blurb, this 200-page work covers ‘A Journey through Portals, Relativity, Worm Holes, and Other Adventures in Time Travel’. Together with its sensationalist title, this can guarantee a fairly respectable readership even before the book is opened – which is presumably why the authors and/or the publisher’s PR department came up with such enticements. But of course this sets the bar very high, especially for Magonians who’ve read a thing or two on many profound subjects and could certainly give these authors a run for their money.
There is a problem, at the very beginning, with the jokey title. The rest of the book has to live up to it, or at least maintain a similar level of flippancy. Oh it is flippant, in discrete chunks of levity, interwoven with serious – sometimes almost scholarly - or pseudo-serious passages, a mix that, to say the very least, is desperately confusing and infuriating. And the scattergun approach also applies to the number of pages allotted to what most readers would consider lightweight, versus more genuinely deep and thought-provoking, material. The imbalance is startling and never ceases to amaze.
Do we really need nearly a page and a half listing songs about time? (‘We spend so much time thinking about time, we even sing about time all the time!’) This comes after just a page on the vexed question ‘Is Time Real?’ Then there are another page and a half of lists, this time ‘a sampling of time travel motion pictures’, followed shortly by a gallop through ‘Inventions That Changed the World’, then a couple of pages on ‘Blurring Fact and Fiction’ (featuring our own Jenny Randles). Then it’s off on a canter through the Philadelphia Experiment and the Montauk Project as examples (or not) of Tesla’s ‘cloaking of a three dimensional object by manipulating the EM field’. Ah, now we get to a good bit. Or not. Tesla, one of the most fascinating of all modern-era scientists, gets a page. As does the Theory of Relativity. But we do get two pages, allegedly about ‘Time Tunnels’, but actually another long list, this time of movies about black holes, wormholes and time portals.
Then there is another page-and-a-bit section entitled ‘Out of the Mouthes [sic] of Babes?’ on a CNN report from 2010 about a boy with a new theory about time travel. They say cheerily: ‘Okay, so it was a really complicated experiment that, we suspect, has not been proven to result in a real time machine yet, because we could find no follow-up articles or reports, the sheer ingenuity and intellect of this child makes us wonder if time travel of the brain is possible and if these theories will indeed one day become fact.’ Mind you, ‘this boy is not to be confused with…’ another boy who apparently ‘is close to disproving Einstein’s theory of relativity… Stay tuned!’ Yes, this lad is being encouraged by real scientists, but, we note, only to explain calculus ‘using a whiteboard marker and his living room windows… Just Google it!’
To be fair, the book does take us on a breathless journey through assorted deep concepts and hypotheses – all in chunks often totally disproportionate to their interest or even relevance – such as the short passage on The Grandfather Paradox (if you went back in time and killed your grandfather would you ever be born?). But then we’re back to the over-worked and somewhat desperate flippancy, with the authors’ own invention, the ‘Lady GaGa paradox’. Basically, we can’t time travel because we weren’t ‘Born This Way’.
I thought my heart would be gladdened by a couple of pages on Dr Who, though heaven only knows what non-Who lovers in the States think of Jones and Flaxman gushing over the blue police box with no explanation – after all, even most British people, except for really old ones, have no idea what such an object was. Curiously, too, in a book with relatively few illustrations, we are treated to a picture of a real police box next to one of the Tardis.
(By the way, this little section is introduced by a quote from Einstein, which is only fair as the quite serious discussion about the possibilities of time travel is headed by the famous ‘wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey…stuff’ quote from Dr Who boss Stephen Moffat.)
Then, quite suddenly, there is a short chapter by Stanton Friedman of UFO fame – nothing wrong in that, but why does the format abruptly change to a mini-compendium? There is also a piece by Anthony Peake, a distinguished and measured contribution about the possibility of continuing consciousness after death in a dimension without time. It is allotted two pages. And dashing through the subject of time slips, the famous ‘Adventure’ of the two British school teachers at Versailles takes just one page. On the other hand a curious chapter, where the authors interview – or rather grovel at the feet of - someone called Starfire Tor about her theories on ‘Co-Existing Time Lines, Reality Shifts and the Core Matrix’ goes on for nearly 17 pages. One has to call them theories, though they are presented as absolute fact. Indeed, the authors introduce this lengthy, bewildering and highly annoying digression by explaining: ‘We turned to an expert on [time shifts] for a complete description of what time shifts are and how they operate’.
There is undoubtedly an eager readership for Ms Tor’s ideas, and those panting for more can find more of them immediately, thanks to her remorseless self-promotion in the middle of someone else’s book. (Not that Jones and Flaxman object: they obviously think she’s the fount of all knowledge on the subject. She may be, but some may find her ideas a) hard to understand and b) hard to swallow.)
Perhaps the secret of this appallingly disorganised book – sometimes downright trashy, occasionally sparking with a tease of a great idea, and with an alarming lack of discernment about what is important or even interesting – lies in the fact it has two authors. And only they know just who has ruined what should have been a great book, especially with such a rip-roaringly beguiling title.
Not good for Magonian blood pressure. -- Lynn Picknett