We Are All Time Traveling Together: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

We Are All Time Traveling Together: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

The Ministry of Time (Avid Reader Press, May 7, 2024)

Perhaps second only to space travel, science fiction is obsessed with time travel and in particular the paradox that if we go back to the past, how do we affect the future; can we inadvertently or purposely alter our “present”? Sometimes the answer is that your somehow being in the past is essential to determining your present (e.g., Kindred by Octavia Butler where the protagonist travels back to antebellum South to ensure an ancestor stays alive). Other times the innocent butterfly effect (e.g., Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder) has disastrous consequences; even attempting something seemingly good, such as thwarting a presidential assassination, proves catastrophic (e.g., Stephen King’s 1/22/63 ). Then there’s the question of how visitors from the future to our present seek to change future events (e.g., the Terminator movie franchise).

H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is a canonical SF work because it offers a technology, rather than magical intervention, that enables time travel (hence the title). In addition to its social criticism, The Time Machine is a quintessential adventure tale. The hero enters a strange land populated by equally strange different beings nonetheless still sort of like us, whose use of advanced technology causes disaster. The hero manages escape, but then mysteriously disappears, perhaps in search of something better than what awaits back home.

Which brings us to Kaliane Bradley’s Ministry of Time, in which she reverse-engineers a number of these time travel and adventure tropes.

The Terror by Dan Simmons (Back Bay Books, December 10, 2007)

Our narrator is (like the author, as it happens) of mixed Cambodian-British heritage, striving to fit the expectations of government bureaucracy and class. She is employed by the aforesaid ministry as a “bridge,” helping those recovered from a previous time era adjust to the present time (which is some near future to our own).

Her assignment is Naval Commander Graham Gore (an actual historical person who also, fun fact, appears as a character in The Terror by Dan Simmons), retrieved from a doomed Arctic expedition in 1847 right before his death. As with his fellow group of time expats, it is felt safe to retrieve only this who were about to die or otherwise disappear from their era to eliminate the possibility they may somehow still affect the present timeline.

Like his bridge (she is not named), Gore is also a square peg stuck in a round hole. While his Victorian sensibilities recoil at certain contemporary standards (he is, among other things, an unrepentant chain smoker, as well as having some antiquated ideas about courtship), he nonetheless has the wit to make use of modern tools made available to him (Spotify is more than welcome, as well as use of handguns).

This is one of the key themes of Ministry of Time: the refugee experience, the sense of alienation in trying to adapt to or failing to adapt to a foreign culture. While the bridge seeks to integrate into the British bureaucracy and gain acceptance, with frustrating results, Gore’s firm sense of identity helps resist it.

There are a lot of other things going on here, too, including the likely effects of continued climate change, the consequences of colonialism, changing attitudes towards same sex attraction, among others. It’s also a love story. And quite funny.

But first and foremost, it’s a time travel story. Bradley doesn’t try to explain how time travel could work. It’s sufficient that some entity managed to find a way to do it. And, as so often happens, a government wants to exploit a technology without giving much thought to collateral damage the technology might cause.

As the novel travels towards the novel’s resolution, we travel toward the reason why time travel is so intriguing for us. Because we all travel through time. And as we do so, we can’t help but think of what we could have done, or didn’t do, or should have done, and how that might have changed circumstances not just for us, but for others. And what if we were actually able to do that. Would it make things worse, or better? Or would it somehow not make a difference no matter how hard we try to change things?

Bradley suggests that what is past, is past. As we move forward in time, because like it or not that’s all we really can do, what we can do is take course corrections that lead to a more desirable future. You just have to be alert to what might be ahead. And hope for the better.

David Soyka is one of the founding bloggers at Black Gate. He’s written over 200 articles for us since 2008. His most recent was an obituary for H. Bruce Franklin.

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William H. Stoddard

Prophecy seems to be an older analog of time travel, in which not people, but knowledge travels from future to past. There are both “rigid time” versions, as in the “Appointment in Samarra” story (which seemingly has Talmudic antecedents), and “plastic time” ones, as in the failure of Jonah’s prophecies.

[…] My latest Black Gate article is a review of Kaliane Bradley’s terrific novel, The Ministry of Time. […]

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