Hazards of Time Travel

This is a book by Joyce Carol Oates. I had taken a break from fiction for a while; nonfiction is a refuge for me because it’s almost never boring. That is, reality filtered through human thoughts is perpetually fascinating. I’m not sure this was a good book to get me back into fiction, specifically SF. The author is not, whatever the case, known for SF.

Oates is a silent generation author, liberal-minded, but in a different way from the boomer generation. Oates, although about ten years younger than my grandma (if my grandma were still alive — actually, my husband has a living grandma who is in her 90s; I don’t), shares some of my grandma’s characteristics. That generation lived through the depression, at least for a few years of their childhood, as well as World War II. They have, or had, a steely sort of quietude to the way they approach the world, combined with a penchant for enjoying life despite negative circumstances. They are apt at masking their feelings and acting resourcefully.

Oates brings these characteristics to her stories, and this includes The Hazards of Time Travel. The female protagonist is meant to be either gen Z or the upcoming generation, but she is imbued with much of the silent generation’s resourcefulness and coping methods to get along, despite the world she’s been thrust into. This alone gives this dystopic novel a unique flavor, since most current novels of this genre are written by millennials. Also, Oates has had a long career writing literary novels, which is is not usual for dystopian time travel. Or, I guess I should say, it isn’t necessarily what the readers of the genre want or expect. I’ve heard SF has been overtaken with literary drek these days, but I don’t read much produced by Tor any longer. Also, much of literary brings a boomer approach to storytelling, edgy stuff that’s meant to shock, but rather disgusts instead (e.g. incest and pedophilia).

I don’t know if I wanted or expected Oates’ projected dystopian world, either. It’s a little muddled. There’s both a sharp critique of the extant tradition of conservatism in the early 60s, as well as a sharp critique of what happens when you get rid of it and live in a liberal dystopian nightmare. The time of the past is a happier time for her protagonist, despite the author’s insinuation that it’s all lies and hypocrisy.

But Oates lived it. It’s possible that, in her circumspect way, she’s giving both the good and bad of her youthful days, while demonstrating what the US will become if we throw it away. There also seems to be an unironic examination of McCarthyism, in which the main characters know the cold war doesn’t end in a communist takeover (they are, after all, time travelers from the future), and yet still they rail against the forces that prevented communism from spreading…as if it were never a threat to be taken seriously…and yet, the future dystopia looks a lot like the worst of the KGB or the STASI. So… apparently it did happen, but the author doesn’t recognize it. Also, there is an unironic bent toward pacifism with no understanding of how one creates or maintains that.

All in all, it’s an easy read with a surprising romance. I enjoyed it, but it loses a lot of steam by the end because the essential problem is never confronted or solved. And, as I said, the politics are muddled; there is no answer clearly given for how to avoid the future.

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