Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City is an intriguing departure from her usual fantasy fare. While Ms. Jones eschews the magical elements that govern her other characters’ lives, this story is not exactly science-fiction. She has created an intriguing universe with loads of fun elements and three strong characters whose lives so interest me that I’m surprised she hasn’t returned to them since releasing the book in 1987.
The story begins in September 1939 where eleven-year-old Vivian Smith is among the children being evacuated from London to escape the Blitz. Assigned to meet a Cousin Marty, she is surprised by the appearance of “cousin” Jonathan, who calls her by name, grabs her bags, and leads her through a station wall into a temporal portal.
Jonathan and his cousin Sam are residents of Time City, a place that exists outside space and time thanks to the use of polarities which anchor it to various points in human history. The city was set up hundreds of thousands of years ago by Faber John and his wife, the Time Lady, and it is about to exhaust its current patch of space-time. The problem is, Time City has been around so long, people have forgotten how to renew it. Worse, legend has it that Faber John and his wife quarrelled and split up, and rumours are abounding that the Time Lady is moving through time, altering history, and disrupting the polarities needed for Time City’s renewal. (The eagle-eyed among you will have caught the inaccuracy of Vivian’s evacuation from London and might have initially dismissed it as a typo. It isn’t. As the book progresses and history deteriorates, the Second World War gets fought earlier, with rockets and napalm.)
The big problem is Time City is boring (to its citizens, not us readers). Aloof from history, its residents have become complacent (Doctor Who fans will note many similarities with the program’s Time Lords), and this explains why young Jonathan and Sam are able to sneak through time portals and illegally visit such unstable periods as the twentieth century. Jonathan and Sam are bored youth, with far too much time on their hands, and they’ve taken it into their heads that they can catch the Time Lady and convince her to reverse the damage. That was what led them to the station platform where Vivian disembarks. A number of other understandible mistakes, which come to light later, makes Jonathan mistake Vivian for the Time Lady.
When Jonathan realizes that he’s taken an innocent young girl from wartorn England, they have a considerable quandary. Jonathan and Sam have broken several laws. As for Vivian: she’s a person from an unstable point of history who has seen the marvels of Time City. She can’t go home again. And meanwhile history continues to go critical around them. To protect themselves and Vivian, Jonathan and Sam make up a story that Vivian is actually their cousin, Vivian Lee, daughter of two temporal observers who are currently in Vivian’s era. Vivian eventually decides that Time City is worth saving and helps Jonathan and Sam in their struggle, but can she do it before the observers are recalled, and the real cousin Vivian returns, exposing her lie for all to see?
Diana Wynne Jones’ fiction vision of the nature of time has no basis even in science fiction. In this universe, Earth’s history is circular, starting from the stone age and proceeding almost two hundred centuries into the future until the “depopulation of Earth” and the movement of humanity to the stars. From there, history supposedly resets itself and starts over. Time City exists in the centre of this circle, a tourist attraction for all of the stable eras of history. For the most part, history is fixed and unchanging, so Time City and the various centuries can trade without disrupting the timelines, but there are nine periods of unstable time — the period between 300 BC to 2300 AD is listed as the first unstable era — where history is malleable. It is in these unstable era that the four polarities holding Time City are to be found.
Vivian, Jonathan and Sam are compelling characters. Vivian’s transformation from a scared evacuee to intrepid heroine is well done and believable. Of the supporting characters, Elio the all-too-human android is the most interesting. Unlike the other adults, he quickly cottons on to what Jonathan and Sam are up to, and becomes a co-conspirator. Even better is the sense that Jonathan, Sam and then Vivian have that the whole thing is some great adventure — a sense that they are quickly disabused of during a violent visit to the ninth unstable era of history.
The glimpses Diana Wynne Jones gives us of Earth’s future are alternately hilarious and disturbing. When Jonathan finds a piece of verse that describes the location of one of the polarities as being in “a town once great, residing beneath a forest”, he complains “a town once great? I can name forty off the top of my head, from Troy to Minneapolis!” It turns out to be London in 9500 AD, after a great apocalypse which has destroyed the city and left a great oak forest growing up among the ruins. This oak forest is only just being cleared in 10100 AD (a stable era) — by men with horses. But lest you think the world has reverted to the stone age, Jonathan and Vivian disguise themselves for 9500 AD in strange plastic armour. They are almost skewered by a spear-wielding horseman wearing camouflaged version of that armour, and they are only saved from death by a green-clad matronly woman who fixes their broken bones with a touch of her hands.
There is no explanation of the great movements of history, but the hints we are given, of Mind Wars, the Icelandic Ascendency, the Demise of Europe, and even Revolt in Canada, paints an interesting picture that merits return visits. As for Time City, there is no shortage of interesting ideas to play with, including the city’s habit-ghosts and once-ghosts. Because Time City occupies the same point in space and time, people’s regular habits sometimes get picked up as apparitions that perform the same tasks day after day. Commuters walk to work alongside their own apparitions, and somehow nobody worries about this. On the other hand, once-ghosts are apparitions of things which haven’t happened yet, wherein characters experience moments of intense emotion. These once-ghosts shift the plot along in interesting ways, predicting future events, but in ways the readers, or the characters, rarely expect.
Time City itself challenges one’s suspension of disbelief at times, despite Ms. Jones’ efforts to insert details which convey the age of the city. The replicator/automats, the burdensome sense of ceremony, the crazy fashions and architecture, not to mention Jonathan and Sam’s ability to go through unregistered time portals without the authorities’ notice, all seem unreal compared to the authenticity of our glimspes into History. Still, it mixes well with Vivian, Jonathan and Sam’s initial sense of being on an adventure. Despite being an unstable era in its own right, the people of Time City have become bound to their ceremonies and their stately, academic lives. No one truly understands the threat that they face until its too late, and this ignorance of reality makes its sudden intrusion all the more effective.
Can Vivian, Jonathan and Sam stop the forces of chaos out to destroy Time City and, ultimately, all of history? Will Vivian ever be able to return home to oh-so-peaceful London during the blitz? The story moves along at an exciting pace with compelling characters and intriguing ideas, and readers are left wanting a sequel. Unfortunately, eighteen years after the book’s publication, no sequel appears to be in the offing. But A Tale of Time City is a worthwhile read, and an intriguing change of pace from Diana Wynne Jones’ usual fare.