The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

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Reviewed by Annabel

The first thing you need to do with this sparkling debut novel is to suspend your disbelief. Just accept that time travel was invented by a quartet of four women in 1967 and run with it. That done, you can sit back and enjoy this enjoyable and complex story which incorporates a clever murder mystery into its pages.

It was such a delight to have a narrative that focused on female scientists taking the lead. Too often, women as scientists in books have been relegated to be the assistants, like Cora (as personified by Raquel Welch) in Asimov’s novelisation of his film script, Fantastic Voyage, published in 1966. To have this group of scientific pioneers who are women in this book is refreshing, doubly so, given the initial setting in the 1960s.

The ‘Summer of Love’ has bypassed our quartet though, engaged in their research in a remote laboratory in Cumbria, they are engaged in more mind-blowing experiments than LSD or the like! The four women couldn’t be more different from each other, but together they make a formidable team.  Margaret, a baroness, is a cosmologist; Grace, is an expert in matter, and an artist too; Lucille makes radio waves travel faster than light. The fourth, the youngest of the quartet is Barbara, a mathematician and specialist in nuclear fission.

As the novel begins, they are ready to send their first living creature into the future. A rabbit is selected, Barbara asks:

“Shall we give him a name?” she asked the others.

“Yes,” Margaret said. “For the history books!”

“He’s a scruffy fellow,” Grace said. “His name should be scruffy too.”

“Call him Patrick Troughton,” Lucille suggested.

Everyone laughed.

“Patrick it is,” said Barbara.

(Patrick Troughton was the second incarnation of Doctor Who, playing the Timelord between 1966 and 1969 – a more appropriate name couldn’t be found!) Patrick returns safely, and Barbara persuades the team not to dissect him.

Soon, they’ve tried the machine for themselves, and are ready to announce their invention to the world. A reporter is invited to interview the group:

Margaret took the lead. “Well, for our first excursion, we activated the machine at ten a.m. on Christmas day. It transported us, instantaneously, to eleven o’clock of the same morning. At half past eleven we activated the time machine again, and travelled back to one minute past ten. What that means is between ten and ten-oh-one we didn’t exist in the world at all. But between eleven and eleven-thirty, there were twice as many of us – and we were able to meet.”

My alarm bells clanged!  This was Barbara’s place to explain the apparent paradox – but instead she has a breakdown on camera – since their repeated trips over Christmas, she’d been feeling strange.

We then move forward to 2017, to join Ruby Rebello, a psychologist. Her “grandmother was the time traveller who went mad.”  Barbara – Granny Bee – has never talked about her time travelling and the breakdown it triggered, but something happens to open the dialogue between Ruby and Bee when Ruby finds an origami rabbit marked “For Barbara” on the doorstep. It’s a message from Grace, and Bee agrees to tell Ruby all about it, and Ruby will take matters into her own hands as Barbara gets all excited about time-travel again, and Ruby is scared that something bad will happen.

The third and final strand in the story takes us to 2018. An archaelogy student named Odette is volunteering at the toy museum – it’s her first day, and she got the task of opening up – only to find a sulphurous smell, leading to the body of a dead woman in a locked room in the basement.

These three strands will weave around each other as we go backwards and forwards in time to find out what happened next to the four scientists – in multiple timelines, and Odette’s compulsion to work out what happened to the body in the basement and to discover who it was. 

Mascarenhas has obviously thought long and hard about all the usual paradoxes that come up in time-travel novels, coming up with a scenario in which multiple selves from different times can coexist without risk of contaminating the earlier timelines. It’s fiendishly clever, and some nice examples like Grace creating a painting in reverse time help us to get to grips with it a little.

Her time-travel is also expensive, exclusive and ultimately controlled by a shadowy organisation, chaired by Margaret, which will be called the Conclave. From the Conclave’s beginnings, it’s clear that Margaret is becoming profoundly affected by her need to protect the project; early stages of megalomania are evident, whereas Grace and Lucille who have stayed on the technical and scientific side remain more balanced. There is no place for Barbara in this organisation though.

The other key theme that Mascarenhas explores in the novel is, of course, the psychology of time travel. From the effects of time-travel induced jet lag, to meeting your future (or younger) selves, to the weirdness of existing in many different ages in many different time zones, sometimes in multiple selves, and the distinct strangeness of the situation that you can be visiting your past or future after you’ve died in one time-line, Mascarenhas has considered and incorporated them all into the novel, in a way that seems quite natural in the main text. Appendices at the book’s end containing a whole series of psychometric tests for time-travellers shouldn’t be ignored either, they add a final layer to the story.

Mascarenhas has created a great cast of women characters in the original quartet augmented by Ruby and Odette and to have devised a fiendishly clever locked room mystery to drive the plot made this novel a real page-turner that got my full attention. An unusual debut that I heartily recommend.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny and is unsure about time travel, but enjoys reading about it.

Kate Mascarenhas, The Psychology of Time Travel (Head of Zeus, 2018) 9781788540100, hardback, 358 pages.

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