Most of us experience a psychological disconnect between “time’s arrow”; the accepted construct that time is moving ever forward in a neat continuous stream (the basis for most of our routines, our calendars, and our plans), and the way we feel time. Everyone knows that time goes faster when you’re having fun; faster for adults than it does for children; faster when you’ve got children than when you don’t.
In his latest novel, Geoff Nelder takes that disconnect one step further, and plays with the notion that time discoherence may be the norm, while our sense of a smooth, calendar-driven arrow, is one that is artificially created and able to be removed. His science is superb, and like all good sci-fi, he builds his plot on scientific principles that are absolutely believable, mirrored as they are to what we already understand; even when aliens are involved.
The story takes, primarily, the point of view of Kallandra, a NASA scientist who is about to go on the first manned mission to Mars with her fiancé Derek. Their plans are interrupted when, while relaxing pre-flight at the Glastonbury Festival, the Tor begins to rise up, and disintegrate, revealing a large vibrating metal sphere. Kallandra’s natural curiosity is piqued, and from that point on, the spheres become her focus as she tries to determine what they are, how to communicate with them, and above all, how to stop them from destroying the Earth by leaving and taking ‘time’s arrow’ with them.
There are many theories about the spheres posited in this book: that they have kept time stable, that they are harvesting time, and that they are both agents of good and evil. The way in which the appearance of the spheres brings out both the positive and negative in the characters is part of what works well in this story. Kallandra herself is a believable character, full of energy, erotic and intelligent. Derek too progresses in the story, from an earwax-picking nerd to someone with enough foresight to move beyond jealousy and work against the system he has believed in. Other characters such as the handsome playboy Claude and Tabatha and the conniving journalist, are less believable, though they progress the plot effectively.
Although Exit, Pursued by a Bee is primarily a character-driven story, some of the most poignant parts of the book are in observation of setting. Nelder clearly loves the space his characters inhabit, and passages tend towards the lyrical and evocative:
With her hunger abated she drifted to the bow for a languorous stare out of the window and played join the dots with the stars. She frowned as the constellations didn’t figure as they should, even taking into account the distance from Earth. (217)
An interesting side story involves Derek’s cousin Blake, who takes a trip back in time to meet a Paleolithic caveman named Oqmar, 20,000 years before present. But by now time has become a clear illusion, with both Oqmar's Paleolithic world and Blake's 21st Century being more or less concurrent as they watch the same spheres rise from the Earth:
As the sun rose overhead, the sphere inexorably climbed too. An earlier thought surfaced in Oqmar – the sphere had not been aware of him nor his dog in the cave. The magic sphere ignored everything except itself. It performed whatever task it needed no matter what was thrown at it. No yelling back. And yet it had two admirers, followers, who risked ridicule and humiliation to believe it was something they could have. (53)
Nelder shakes our entire notion of what ‘present’ means, and in so doing, also what death and life mean. Characters die but sometimes they don’t really. If we aren’t moving forward, then maybe even the notion of change is an illusion. The most interesting thing about Exit, Pursued by a Bee , is not the myriad unanswered questions it raises about the spheres, or whether Kallandra was meant to be with Claude or Derek, or even whether Kallandra saves the world or not.
By undermining, in the most quantum of ways, the way we perceive the notion of time, it raises the whole question about what life is and who we are. In the end, the one thing we’re left with is a kind of constant throughout the novel: Kallandra’s tactile sensations. When time is no longer the backbone of our lives, and everything we perceive about ourselves disappears, those sensations remain. Nelder has created a novel that will both satisfy readers at a deep level, and at the same time raise unsettling questions about the very fabric of who we are.