The great Arthur C Clarke once sagely remarked, in what has become known as one of his three laws, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
In Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist, that threshold has long since been transgressed with the people of 24th century earth routinely back and forwards in time as easily and commonly as we pop down the shops for some milk.
Any sense that technology is even remotely magical has long since faded, although the clients who travel back to early 21st century UK, which is where we meet Spens aka “Tunnel Boy” who works as a tour guide or rep for one of the time travel companies, remain excited and fearful in equal measure by what awaits them.
While the exact timeframe is never specified, allusions to anti-time travel groups – who operate with the same morality and fact-free ferocity as the far right anti-immigrant groups of our timeline – current technology and cultural realities suggest that the events of this fascinating novel take place not far from the present day.
What draws the people of the 24th century to our place and time is a desire to see what pre-Near Extinction Event earth looks like – the NEE, as its commonly referred to takes place sometime in the latest 21st century – and to sample its food, culture, and even to stand outside and look at blue skies or to feel the rain on their face.
“People have travelled and not returned before, but they were either on official business or scholars like Brink and Nakamura, who knew the risks and travelled knowing they might not come back. Or they’re extemps, supposedly alienated from their own era, who want to live in a simpler, more natural society.” (P. 35)
Most people choose to stay within the confines of their tours, assured by the companies bringing them to our exotically different present that all events are known and accounted for (one of the big pluses of time travel), but a number choose to “go native”, going so far as to move here, living and working and trying to fitting as much as people from three centuries hence can.
The thing is they are incredibly obvious thanks to their extreme height, dress, culture mores and speech and while most people are happy to have them there, given the great economic benefits they bring, there is an increasing fear of the Other, stoked by far right groups and even the government itself, a situation stoked for reasons that are never fully or adequately articulated, by a coterie of shadowy figures from the future.
Spens, as happens with many innocents abroad, finds himself drawn into murky goings-on beyond his experience, in which tourists, extemps and a range of figures with uncertain allegiances and agendas are doing battle, proof if ever we needed it that humanity’s capacity for self-destructive behaviour is able to survive pretty much anything including an NEE.
One thing that is made clear in Dickinson’s fast-paced novel is that future humanity is ruled in a fairly autocratic fashion, organised into rigid castes with fairly Orwellian names as Safety, Happiness and Awareness, where technology is advanced but resources, social behaviour and political expression are strictly regulated.
It explains the attraction of our chaotic, messy century, a magnet for time tourists even if most of them are too afraid to go much beyond the strict itineraries assigned for them; unfortunately, Dickinson leaves much of the future veiled in a shadows, leaving us to guess about the motivations of the people involved.
It does mean that it becomes increasingly hard to care too much about the people involved in this thrilling temporal conspiracy caper such as Spens, fellow reps Edda and Li (who adores being away from home), and Spens’ childhood friends, brothers Reimann and Cantor who, while they’re caught up in a series of events so brilliantly built-up and executed, for most of the book at least, that The Tourist is a genuine page-turner, fail to have much of their character or background revealed.
They are teased out as characters just enough for us to have some investment in the events that fill the books but the story of which they’re apart, which rips along at a furiously-involving pace for the first 3/4 of the book or so only to fizzle out to a wholly unsatisfying end, you’re left wondering what the hell just happened and why.
“His back is turned to you. You realise this is a chance to shoot him. You also realise it’s one you won’t take. Or can’t. His coat might be heavy enough to stop a pin; even a shot to the back of the head night not be effective. You keep your hand at your side. Killing him wasn’t inn your instructions.” (P. 197)
Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue especially if you’re comfortable with artfully oblique endings that are more suggestion than actuality; but The Tourist, while immensely engaging, well-paced and utterly engaging for much of its length, eventually forgoes any kind of satisfying finally in favour of placing all its eggs in a Lost-like basket.
It’s a failing of many mystery books, which build their puzzles in ever more enigmatic, intriguing layers until such time as they present us with a dazzling finish, one that justifies the investment of all the tricky twists and turns of the plot, or collapses in on itself, limping to a middling end.
That’s not to say that The Tourist isn’t worth your time or an unruly, unreadable schmozzle; in fact, it is beautifully written for the most part, a book that enthralls with its central conceit and ideas, and whose characters, though limited in expression, command enough interest to keep you immersed into the fast moving story.
It simply never fully pays off its early promise, leaving you wondering what might have been if we’d been given a little more of an idea why many of the narrative strands were there at all, what was motivating many of the characters to act as they do, and why the past matters so much to the people of the future, beyond being a fun, unspoiled place, from their point of view, to visit.
By all means take a trip with The Tourist which will make you wonder what life would be like if you had the ability to move around the past at relative will, but be aware that like many trips we take, that it may not end as satisfactorily as you might hope.