The Chinese Time Machine by Ian Watson
(NewCon Press, 2023)
Reviewed by Stuart Carter
Despite my last review of an Ian Watson book being Mockymen in 2005, I still have fond memories of that book. So, I jumped at the chance when offered a copy of The Chinese Time Machine, his latest short story collection.
Of the eleven stories here, four are set in the near-future and involve the voyages of—you guessed it—a ‘Chinese Time Machine’. What you probably didn’t guess is that the eponymous craft is based in Oxford, and crewed by two English academics, Mason and Sharma. Although invented by an ascendant Chinese government, it is the British who pilot her back in time, to rescue a famous tragic figure here (Oscar Wilde) and tweak a timeline there (by delaying the adoption of Arabic numerals).
The opening tales of The Chinese Time Machine are not entirely serious and much fun, as well as being draped luxuriously in puns and wordplay—as most of the loquacious tales herein. The resurgent Wilde would, no doubt, approve, not only of their wit and playfulness, but their erudition, too. I certainly did: the first two adventures of Sharma and Mason are both short and undoubtedly stories of a splendidly science fictional bent.
Sadly, my own enjoyment began to dwindle during the unexpectedly lengthy course of the third tale of The Chinese Time Machine. The surfeit of puns and wordplay on display had somewhat outstayed their welcome, leaving this reader ever-more curious to know how many of its 100-plus pages were still required to rescue the Emperor Napoleon (the answer: more than expected).
Beginning the fourth and final story in the sequence, I confess I was a little jaded from the previous centenary of pages. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the prospect of Mason and Sharma’s meeting Mr Sherlock Holmes, the famous and, er, fictional detective.
Unlike Napoleon’s one hundred pages, Mr Holmes was dispatched in a mere 20 pages. Perhaps, I reasoned gently, these tales work their combined magic more effectively when spread across publications and time?
So, bowed but unbroken, on to the next!
‘Hot Gates’ is a molten confusion—not unlike one of the ‘melts’ our Vulcanologist narrator is studying in the Middle East. When he observes Jerusalem twisting and burning like Taffy, a strange lady jumps upon his ‘flyboard’ and the two of them decide that a judgemental subterranean superintelligence must be to blame. The end.
Well, um, yes. Anyway, onwards and upwards (I hope) to ‘Monkey Business’, in which 37 monkeys at 37 typewriters are busily typing at random to recreate the works of Shakespeare. But they’re robot monkeys, obviously, since real monkeys would quickly tire of this task.
After 24 pages of ‘Monkey Business’ I was none the wiser as to its raison d'être.
‘When the Aliens Stop to Bottle’ is a post-alien-invasion story that concerns a confused misunderstanding by passengers on a train of a PA announcement by our tentacled intruders.
Spoiler alert: everyone on the train loses an eye at the end of the story.
Wait a minute, is this a trap? Have I stumbled into a belated collection of 1960s New Wave stories? Let’s look at the next story, hopefully that will be…
No. Sigh. The next title is ‘Heinrich Himmler in the Barcelona Hallucination Cell’.
What of ‘Clickbeetle’? More Nazis and a character called Suzan who is… She’s… There’s a…
It’s a strange and unpleasant situation: to read a book and have literally no idea what the author is doing. Is it my fault? Ian Watson is a respected writer whose previous books I’ve enjoyed. I enjoyed the beginning of this one. So, is it me? Should I apologise for not understanding or enjoying most of these stories?
Honestly, after almost 25 years of reviewing, it’s the first time something like this has happened. Perhaps it’s time I retired?