Friday, 3 March 2017

Indiana Belle, by John A. Heldt - 4.5 Stars


This isn’t directly relevant but as no one’s reading it anyway I’ll push a few more keys and fill up the page to amuse myself. On my way back from the hairdresser in Winchester, which I now realise is in the pay of my enemies, I was on a bus with this hanging stirrup thing repeatedly knocking the side of my head (we aim to improve your customer experience, tap, tap, tap, ow), disembarked and was on the way home with a metaphorical paper bag over my head and wondering where I might borrow one of those sheep-shearing buzzy devices when, perfect timing, Simon popped out. The news of the moment turned out to be that Simon, who wears a blue jacket at all times and stoops when there’s nothing to pick up, has invented a revolutionary musical instrument called The Simonica, or possibly Simoniker. As the poor, misguided, bless lamb thinks I have a way with words, I was asked to inspect the object and say something to encapsulate it. I blame this on my frame of mind but the line I replied to him with was: “It makes a terrible whining noise but you get used to it”. This morning I’ve received an email to say he’s ordered and paid for leaflets with that printed on. It’s a funny world.

You probably don’t see any relevance in all this but, from what I’ve read, the ethos of the mid-1920s had something of the Simonica about it. It was an age of invention with ideas both crazy (check out the planes) and pioneering (food in cans, modular factory production and quality assurance), where a society of strict formality suddenly relaxed and federal agents didn’t, trying to enforce unmanageable laws like prohibition on a population of party-goers who drank bath-tub spirits out of kettles in speakeasies. The Mob was in town, problems with integration and bigotry reared and spat, hats were worn, Josephine Whatsit paraded her bananas, Lindbergh set records on wings and flappers never got tired of doing the Charleston. One of my all time favourite films hails from this era and if I can’t drop in a quote from that, I’ll scream: “Leonard Zelig backed his car over my grandmother’s ankle. She is old and uses her ankle A LOT.”

This is a time travel story, in a loose sense because time travel is just a means to explore this very interesting era in human history. In order to power and extend the range of an existing home-made time machine, a single man with hours very much on his hands is sent off to the past to loot a bag full of the good old raw materials. Glowing crystals, flashing lights and puckered reality zero in, it’s hero out and then a modern man is striding out into the 1920s and blinking into the light of a younger sun. I didn’t quite follow how they could be so specific about the temporal arrival point but, just like life, not everything gets explained to you while you’re twiddling the knobs. It just happens and then you get on with it. He gets on with it.

This is also a love story because the time traveler hasn’t just gone back for the magic disco-crystals, no-Sir-E. She’s a reporter, a sassy modernist and she’s a torch bearer for civil rights and emancipation. By our standards, she’s normal, so of course they’ve got it in for her, the antagonistic wierdo. How would you feel though if you spied on a Ku Klux Klan gathering and recognised the voices of people living around you, running local businesses or who’ve been inviting you around socially? Do you get out of the decade with hot feet or do you stay and try to do something about it? Bravery comes into this story too. Then there’s nostalgia, with the cars, the sporting events and the first edition of The Great Gatsby. Fortunes were there to be made, then lost, in the last few years before the stock market crash and a generational-scale war. The time traveler knows what’s coming in this respect but still has no doubt about his choice of which period to settle down in, no concern at all that he might be heading for death on a beach in France.

The temporary jump into our near future was interesting too, with strange behaviour and a controlling government, everyone at peace and provided for but at the same time it was un-natural and inhuman with a current of subliminal fear. Yes, I got that message: we need to stand up to any system that gets too powerful in its management of the public; and hair dressers.

I really liked this book. It was well written, well edited, a flowing read and didn’t have any of the bad stuff from a few historical jaunts I’ve read which I found to be over-researched to the point of pedantry or where someone’s picking lottery numbers or sidling alongside a king or tyrant to take them out (security?). The author walks his character through the era and gives you its spirit and atmosphere realistically, i.e. without delving into it like a list or encyclopedia. When the protagonist summarises the time period to someone living in that time, we are shown they’re surprised and then eventually agree because they can see it’s true but have never thought of it like that because they are inside and not objective. Fitzgerald got it, wrote it and then people recognised themselves within it, after the time had already passed. In England it was Waugh, with Brideshead. The heat goes up in the saucepan of history and the frog boils one degree at a time because it doesn’t notice the changing environment. Food for thought? Look around you. Where is our Fitzgerald? Will someone tell us what is happening?

This book is entertaining and revealing, to anyone, not just intended for readers of science fiction, historical fiction or romance, when it covers all three with a light touch and easy-going charm. If you read this book, I am certain you will like it because there’s a stocking full of good stuff and nothing in particular to get your goat. It will make kids dream about what it would be like to time travel and have a good meddle. It will bring out the best and worst characteristics and desires in adults, who may dream of making themselves rich, “inventing” something before its time or taking the young Steve McQueen or Marilyn Monroe out to the pictures. The time traveler here could have changed the world on a massive scale but was more restrained than that, responsibly aware of the domino effect of causality perhaps but maybe just less imaginative and more provincial, just wanting to settle down. It’s called maturity. This is a mature journey to the past, which suggests a whole series of books where time periods can be walked through and described to us without prolapsing the time-line. That’s education, grown up talk, so even though the Jazz Age was a random Simonica in the order of history, the book feels more responsible than that. Pah. If I get the chance, I’m going to meddle.

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