Some people live their life on a timer where everything starts at zero as if they have a certain amount of things to accomplish within a limited time. Other people take their time, not worrying about how long it takes them, but about the quality of the time they put into doing something. No matter the approach, they both see time as being a straight line from A to B that never deviates from its inexorable path.
Some people believe in reincarnation, returning to lead a succession of lives until they complete whatever it was they were meant to complete, or learn what they needed to move on to somewhere else. They still see time as a line that inches forward entropically eating up the ages with an insatiable appetite — otherwise how could they progress and grow?
Time is the barrier against which humankind finds itself running into whenever we consider travel beyond our own little planet's sphere of influence. Even the closest star — our Sun — is an unobtainable objective due to, for one, our limited time alive. No matter what system you use to measure time, what calendar you follow, doesn't change the fact that it takes more then a human's life span to make it there, never mind back again.
Science fiction writers have spent as much creative energy on figuring out ways to circumvent the problem of overcoming time as they have on creating plots and character. If a story features space travel and humans, writers feel compelled to show off their make believe physics to justify their characters crossing distances that take more then their life spans. While there have been some interesting theories in that regard suggested, everyone still accepts the premise of linear time.
Things aren't quite as straightforward in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's book Stamping Butterflies, released in Canada by Random House Canada's Bantam/Spectra imprint. While it's not the first novel to take place in the past, the present, and various futures, it also explores the possibility that time isn't necessarily linear. In fact, things could be construed as confusing at the beginning as we try to get our bearings in three separate eras, but Grimwood ties it all neatly together in the end.
Of the three timelines we follow in Butterflies, the connection between the past and the present seems obvious enough. The book's current time, a near parallel time to ours, revolves around the attempted assassination of an American president by what appears to be a deranged individual. What else are you supposed to think when a person tells you that the "darkness" has ordered him to carry out the attempt? But when the prisoner turns out to be some sort of idiot savant who is scrapping quantum physics equations into his arms or in his own excrement that he has smeared over his cells surfaces like plaster, his jailers are forced to re-evaluate his status.
Who is the mysterious "Prisoner Zero" and where did he come from? What's his connection to a punk rocker from the States who supposedly died in a fire in a junkie's squat in Amsterdam? Where does the street kid from Marrakech of the sixties and seventies — who wants to know how things work — fit in, and what does his relationship with the rock star Jack Razor forebode for the future?
Thousands of years in the future a young emperor exists in what appears to be a vast artificial replica of the "Forbidden City" of Chinese empires from ages long past. Zaq is the latest in a line of "Emperors" who originated with a cryogenically frozen Navigator of a star ship launched by the book's present-day China. It's from that Navigator's brain that the empire in the future was created.
When you read a novel like this you have two options: try and make sense of all the different circumstances as they are happening, or sit back and enjoy what's on the page in the moment and trust in the author to pull it all together in the end. In the case of Stamping Butterflies my suggestion is to go with the latter and it will be well worth your while. While some authors might be able to only carry off the conundrum part of the book and not have anything left over for character creation or storytelling, that's not the case with Grimwood.
This is a beautifully written book with characters and situations unbearably real in their ability to break your heart and make you rail at the injustices of the world. I would say that Grimwood writes with precision, in the way he uses his words to paint pictures that come alive in your mind, but that makes him sound cold and clinical, the furthest thing from the truth.
I know from nothing when it comes to physics, and in spite of that, I was able to enjoy even the technical parts of the book. Although I think that had more to do with Grimwood's abilities as a writer — if he wrote phone books he'd find a way to make them interesting — than my understanding of what was written. At the same time, if something of a technical nature was truly important to the story, he ensures that it is understandable to anyone willing to make some effort.
Stamping Butterflies is one of those rare books in which you forget what genre you're reading and simply enjoy the story. Moreover, it's refreshing to find this good a story combined with an intelligence that challenges you — and yet there's nothing that smacks of the intimidating show-off from this author. Indeed, Jon Courtenay Grimwood is rapidly becoming one of my new, favourite writers, and I can only hope that more of his work is made available in Canada soon.