Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Timecaster by Joe Kimball

Sometimes, Science Fiction is at its best when it’s at its most basic: setting the future on a tangent and jumping it forward. I think by now, most of humanity has come to understand that we can not and will not predict the path that politics and technology will take in the future. Joe Kimball’s Timecaster is one book that I don’t think tries- which, for the record, is a good thing. Rather, several tangents are selected- some that are problems in the world, some that are ways of fixing them, and some that are just ideas that could go either way or neither- and then put on fast forward by about 50 years. This is all a perfectly viable strategy, as far as Sci-Fi goes, and something that I think speaks a lot louder about Timecaster than its plot does.
In order to get the essential information out of the way, Timecaster is a Sci-Fi Action Mystery novel. It features around a detective- one of two left on the force- in a dystopian society where violent crime is a thing of the past. I mostly call bull on this, because there will always be people who don’t care about getting caught and will slug a man who looked at their wife in broad daylight, but I can look past that easily enough in context. As will always happen when new forensics techniques are discovered in Sci-Fi- in this case the titular timecaster, a camcorder that can be tuned back in time to when the crime was committed- somebody has come up with a way to circumvent it and frame somebody. Our hero Talon Avalon spends the novel trying to avoid getting caught by his former allies (and his friend-turned-rival-turned-enemy) and find a mass murderer, all while trying to deal with his own faltering marriage.
While going through its plot- which has plenty of action, and plenty of gratuitous sex- Timecaster looks at things such as libertarian views of drug use, practical solutions to limited fossil fuels, and what the criminal element would look like in a “Big Brother” society. Included in this was an off-hand remark that apparently, the only fiction on paper worth any money in the 2060s’ black market (paper books are, as a rule, illegal as a waste of fuel) are books written by Joe Kimball. By the way, despite having an established thriller-writing persona to fall back on by the name of J.A. Konrath, he chose to use (and write under) a brand new pen name. More on this later.
I mentioned marital problems, and you’re going to want to know if it detracts from the action at all. I’m not going to lie, yes… in little ways. It’s never made to be a major plot, and it detracts from the story in the same way as the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne distracts from any Batman story. In essence, the plot between Victoria and Talon helps to shape the story, giving you a framework to look at scenes such as Talon’s rape by numerous female nymphomaniacs, which could alternately be viewed as tedious or heinous. The conflict lies in Talon’s struggles to accept Victoria’s profession as an “SLP”, short for “State-Licensed Prostitute”, who has emotionless sex with numerous wealthy men but has a heart only for him. Oh, and the friend-turned-rival-turned-enemy I mentioned? They competed for Victoria’s love after the friend (the only other remaining Timecaster in Chicago) discovered her. Talon won, and their friendship became a thing of the past. Apparently, it’s become a pot of simmering rage in the back of Teague’s mind, and he’s just been waiting for a legitimate reason to beat the crap out of his former friend.
Damn. I seem to have left myself with two segueways at once. Would you like to hear about “SLP” or about Teague’s motives to frame Talon? Well, one ties into how this novel is interesting, and one is a minor irritation, so I suppose I’ll talk about the interesting one first. There are three things that novels do with mysteries. One is to give you a mystery that it is physically impossible to solve; after all, the plot is holding its cards close to its chest, and gives you just enough evidence to show you how brilliant it was in retrospect. Sort of like Hannibal Lecter does in Silence of the Lambs. This is acceptable, but not when a book passes itself off as a mystery. It verges between being a legitimate way of keeping the suspense and being a cop-out, from an author who’s afraid the audience is smarter than they are.
The second method is, of course, preferred, especially for any book that plays up the idea of focusing on a solvable mystery. For the record, Timecaster doesn’t exactly do that- certain clues are left out for Talon to come to a certain conclusion, but circumstances are working very much against him all the while. This second method is for everything to be completely solvable, as long as the reader is paying attention. This is harder to write, if you want to maintain suspense, but ultimately it helps a reader who’s paying attention get more involved in the story and is no worse than the other two method for the reader who’s given up and let the protagonist solve the mystery. It’s this method- or at least, the illusion of using this method- that causes the need for red herrings to appear. It’s unfortunate that this cliché has grown so prominent that the first person indicated is almost never even remotely related to the actual crime any more.
The third method, for the record, is the one that Timecaster uses- all of the elements to solve the mystery are presented to you, sure, but you’d have to make some pretty hefty leaps in order to put them together. When you hear someone referring to the ending of a story as “Why didn’t I think of that?” this is more often than not going to be the case. I believe Scooby Doo was fond of this one. This is fair, depending on the focus of the piece; not the best for a legitimate, mind-bending, Hardy Boys style mystery, but not a poor method of managing a more involved piece- such as an action-thriller.
Actually, what I said is not entirely accurate. Because when the “Category 3” mystery and its villain are gone… there’s another chapter or two left. And some more stakes. In fact, there’s a whole nother book, which I imagine was entirely essential in order to sell a new “Sci-Fi” pen name from an author who was already writing under two different names, one of them specializing in thrillers, a category this book could certainly fit into. In fact, this novel apparently has some relation to Konrath’s other works, and I appreciate the fact that it was subtle enough for me, as a first time reader, not to be aware of that until I looked the author up online.
I promised to talk about the acronyms, and I will.  This is both a clever act on behalf of Konrath/Kimball, and a source of annoyance.  Because of the rising use of acronyms over the past fifteen to twenty years thanks to the internet and text messages, Timecaster has extrapolated that to include numerous acronyms in everyday conversation.  As a rule, I don't mind this.  After all, SOB, POS, and ASAP have already been incorporated into everyday conversation.  However, when expressions such as “WTF” enter into the vernacular, it's clear that this is only in the novel in order to minimize use of a word that does appear in the novel.  If you're still not sure what my complaint is, try alternately reading out the acronym and saying the words that it replaces out loud.

For the first book under a new name, Joe Kimball could certainly do worse than Timecaster. It’s got an engaging mystery, plenty of action, and enough Sci-Fi experimentation to keep a genre fan itching for more. The sequel has already been published, and I can only hope that there’s enough meat to make that novel as good as this one. It’s not the epic novel of our time, but for a short, fun, read, Timecaster would not be a poor choice.


SQT said...

Very good review. I tried to read this one but it never grabbed me. But I'm glad you mostly seemed to enjoy it.

William Silvia said...

Was there anything particular about the opening that drove you away, or was it just generally not along your interests?