Charles Dickinson, A Shortcut in Time (Forge, 2002)

Time travel is an old standard in science fiction and fantasy novels. Beginning with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, the time-travel novel has a long and mostly distinguished history. The idea of time travel sits comfortably between the real and the fantastic. Many science-fiction tropes, such as space travel or cyberspace, are merely extrapolations from known science. Time-travel, however, reaches into the fantastic, positing a "science" that is not (currently) possible. There is also the element of the exotic, in that you have either a character from the present going into another time, or a character from another time coming into ours; either may be viewed as a journey into another world. But paradoxically, time travel is also quite mundane: the fantastic element has to do with the action of the novel rather than the reality of the constructed world. That is, most time-travel novels never leave the known world.

Perhaps that is why mainstream novelist Charles Dickinson has chosen to venture into the fantastic via time travel in his latest novel, A Shortcut in Time. There is both the risky (writing a fantasy novel, after all) and the staid ("at least he didn't write a fairy story") in this venture.

The novel opens with a prologue that lays out one of the central conflicts in the book. In 1964, when narrator Josh Winkler was in his early teens, his younger brother Kurt was attacked in their small town's swimming pool by the sheriff's bully of a son, Jack Ketch (known as Jock Itch). Ketch goes too far and ends up drowning Kurt's friend, Vaughan Garner, and causing irreparable brain damage to Kurt, who becomes (literally) the village idiot.

Shift to the present, 1999, when Josh has married Vaughan's sister, Flo, and now has a teenage daughter, Penny. Josh is a not-too-successful artist who relies on the income from his wife's pediatric practice. Jock Itch has followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and become a police officer. Kurt is still the village idiot, living more on the street than under a roof and constantly harassing (albeit innocently) the people who bought the house he and Josh grew up in.

Then, in the middle of a storm, Josh moves back in time fifteen minutes. At first, he doesn't know what to believe, but when he can't deny the oddity of what happens, he accepts it. Unfortunately, most around him either don't accept the time travel or, if they do, do so only for selfish reasons.

Into this mix comes a young lady from 1908, Constance Morceau, whose only desire is to get home to her beau, who has been arrested in connection with her disappearance. Josh helps Constance to return to her own time, but in the process loses his own daughter to the past. And so, with the police suspecting him in the disappearance of two young girls, his wife not believing him, and his life in general unraveling, Josh must figure out how to save his daughter from her fate — which he has learned from reading old newspapers.

While not breaking any new ground in terms of time-travel ideas, A Shortcut in Time is still a wonderful novel. It is not too long (well under 300 pages) and the pace is brisk without being breathtaking. Dickinson manages to keep your attention throughout by not letting on to what he has planned. Just as soon as you think you've got it figured out, Dickinson throws a monkey wrench into the works and you're back to square one, but pleasantly surprised.

The characterization is also superb. With a minimum of words, Dickinson is able to create well rounded characters. Josh, for example, is not too shabby as an artist, but one day his daughter decides to draw alongside him. When Josh finally gets to see what she has done, neither speaks of her work, but Josh tells us that her drawings were better than his. Here, without going into much detail or using a lot of words, Dickinson reveals Josh's love for his daughter, as well as his opinion of his own art.

One problem with the book, however, is that it ends too quickly. The exact moment that all conflicts within the plot are resolved, the book comes to a screeching halt. I read this book aloud to my wife and when I came to the end and shut the book, she turned to me and said, "That can't be it." Indeed, it was. There's no post-climax winding down, no final chapter giving us a sense of ending. Instead it's.... Wham! The End.

So I recommend this book, but when you get to the end, stop, pause, and then use your imagination to complete it.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]