Book review: An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
An Ocean of Minutes - Thea Lim
Time-travel is always a fascinating idea to play with; a utopian ideal that we can control our destinies, the future altered by reshaping the past, fixing all the mistakes we've made individually and as a species. There are pitfalls of course, and somehow in almost all fiction and movies it never seems to turn out quite as planned.
So fascinating an idea is it however that you can't help but feel excited right from the start of Thea Lim's An Ocean of Minutes when you discover that Polly Nader is contemplating a jump into the future, even though it's only from 1981 to 1993. We've already been in 1993 and as I recall it wasn't that big a deal making the journey in real time. This 1993 and 1981 that An Ocean of Minutes deals with however are slightly different from the ones we've lived through, and for Polly it's a leap into the unknown but a necessary leap.
In 1981, a flu pandemic has gripped not just the USA, but much of the world. Polly and Frank had been hoping to get married at the time, enjoying a simple but idyllic romance with great hopes for the future, when Frank discovers he is infected. There is treatment available, but it's expensive and the only way Polly can pay for it is by volunteering to work for TimeRaiser, a corporation who have newly discovered but limited access to time-travel.
The limitations mean that they can't go back far enough to stop the origin and mutation of the virus, so all they can do is send uninfected individuals with skills a short hop into the future to help rebuild what is left of America and its depleted population once the pandemic has run it course. Polly, 23 years old, has skills in furniture restoration, a craft that gives her O1 status in TimeRaiser, considerably better than the manual labour that most sign up for. She makes plans with Frank to meet up again in 12 years' time, but inevitably, as you might have guessed, things don't turn out quite as planned.
Without giving away too much of the story, Polly arrives a little later than she was supposed to, in 1998. Five extra years doesn't sound like much, but it puts a gap of 17 years between Frank and Polly. Worse than that, finding Frank at an agreed landmark doesn't turn out to be as easy as they had planned, as the pandemic in 1981 has altered things considerably, and the America that Polly experiences in 1998 is unrecognisable from the one in 1981. It's such an altered version of reality that Polly's efforts to adjust take on a Kafkaesque aspect, a society indeed that is not unlike Kafka's nightmarish vision of 'Amerika'.
Despite the science-fiction and post-apocalyptic tropes however An Ocean of Minutes is far from the usual dystopian nightmare, although it does share some of the concerns with capitalism exploiting any technical innovation and its soul-destroying impact on the individual. Rather than exploring time-travel however, Thea Lim is far more interested in time and how it affects us all. We've all travelled into the future, we've all sought to recover the past, and we've even re-encountered people from our pasts who have changed while we feel that we are still the same person.
In that respect, we are all time-travellers like Polly, struggling to get by from day to day, having to deal with what life throws in your way, placing hopes in the future only to find that - even with the benefit of time-travel (or another term for it might be 'living') - that it constantly eludes our ability to shape and control it. In An Ocean of Minutes, Lim taps beautifully into the fundamental values and temporal essence of what makes us human, capturing both the wonder and the aching sadness of it all.