OR: Timequake

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #20:-

TIMEQUAKE

Kurt Vonnegut

Vintage pb, 219pp, £5.99

In the year 2001 the world is struck by a cosmic phenomenon known as a timequake, rather like the stylus jumping a groove on a gramophone record (those big black things we used to make do with before CDs came along). Time skips back to 1991 and the intervening ten years begin to repeat themselves, the same events occurring over again in exactly the same order as they did the first time. As a result free will is suspended, leaving people as little more than automata of flesh and blood, doomed to repeat whatever they did before, but fully aware of what is happening. And then, when 2001 comes around again and time snaps back into the groove, after ten years on autopilot they must rediscover the habit of thinking for themselves.

Such is the staggering concept behind Timequake, Vonnegut’s first novel in over a decade and a book that sees him back at the top of his form. While Vonnegut might eschew the label science fiction, or any label for that matter, his best work is informed by that elusive quality ‘sense of wonder’ prized so highly by devotees of the genre. The difference is that for Vonnegut wonder has little or nothing to do with scientific theory and cosmic phenomena, but everything to do with outwardly ordinary people, and it is in creating such people and showing them as truly remarkable that this writer excels. The timequake is simply a facilitating device, important only in that it permits Vonnegut to discuss the things that most concern him in his twilight years.

There’s the sense of a man in a hurry about this book, a writer who wants to get everything down on paper before it’s too late. As with many of Vonnegut’s other books, most famously in Slaughterhouse 5, fact and fiction merge to create a patchwork that is neither one thing nor the other. The author uses whatever material is at hand. We get anecdotes from his own life, moving portraits of the people he loves, family and friends, his views about writing, religion, science and so much else besides, all of it expressed with wit and compassion. We also get the final chapters in the life of Vonnegut’s sometime alter-ego Kilgore Trout, the world’s most prolific and least successful writer of sf, together with some fine examples of the quirky stories that are his stock in trade.

Reading Timequake is like sitting down to a long, open ended conversation with an old friend we haven’t seen in a while, someone who is a little bit wiser than we are but has the good sense and common decency not to rub our noses in the fact. Recommended without reservation.

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