Time Travelers Never Die – Jack McDevitt

The lives we know are not forever. Live well. Enjoy what time is given you. It is a magnificent gift.

I haven’t been wowed by a book in a while, but I could not put this one down and finished it in one weekend. I also cannot remember when I last read a science fiction book, so thank God I stumbled upon this.

In Time Travelers Never Die, Adrian “Shel” Shelborne’s famous physicist father, Michael Shelborne, mysteriously disappears from his home. All the doors are locked, there is no sign of forced entry, and everyone, including his son, is baffled. After the disappearance, Shel receives a package from his father, with instructions to destroy the enclosed items. And what are these items? After some experimentation, Shel discovers them to be time machines (or converters, as his father called them). And so begins Shel (and his best friend Dave)’s search for his father through space and time.

The book had me at the prologue: we begin with Shel’s funeral as Dave mourns – but right after Dave goes home, Shel casually walks out into his living room. Dun dunnnnn.

Time travel has always fascinated me. This is probably because of Back to the Future, which is one of my favorite movies. But it isn’t because I want to do the time travelling myself. Or at least because I always thought of time travel within my own lifetime, and the thought of that brings up way too many questions I don’t want to contemplate – “What will I change? Where did it all go wrong?”, that sort of thing. So what I really want is to understand the principle behind it.

Which makes it funny why this book had such an impact on me. Because it doesn’t explain how Michael Shelborne was able to create his converters. Instead, the book takes the time travel part as a given, and focuses on how the characters use it.

It does introduce the “cardiac principle”, which is basically a time paradox and must be avoided at all costs because trying to fool time into creating something that cannot happen will make your own existence impossible. In short, you die. But other than that, we are treated to Shel and Dave’s travels through time and encounters with famous figures in history. They visit Selma, Alabama on the day of that historic march; meet Michaelangelo before he starts his great work and Churchill before he becomes Prime Minister; join a young Benjamin Franklin and his “Junto”; and see the Colossus of Rhodes. The description of Shel seeing the Colossus for the first time is particularly vivid, that even now I keep thinking I must have watched it in a movie. I have to remind myself that I read it in this book, because as a reader you can almost feel the atmosphere.  But the highlights for me are their visit to the great Library of Alexandria, and a pivotal meeting with Socrates on his last day on Earth.

They meet the librarian Aristarchus, who sees through their pretense and is thus rewarded with the truth: it’s only to him that Shel and Dave admit that they are in fact, from the future. Perhaps it’s because Aristarchus is a custodian of the world’s knowledge that he accepts this revelation from an intellectual standpoint – he is amazed by the magic, but he also wants to know how the world fares in the future, and if the library survives. We know the sad answer to that, which makes Aristarchus one of the most sympathetic characters here.

Of course what keeps the story moving forward is the search for Shel’s father. It reads as a mystery thriller because of this, and the biggest reason I kept reading way past my bedtime. But the time travel device actually fades in the background, and it becomes more of a philosophical search about what your life really means, how you make an impact, and how you define what that means in your own life.

Definitely a recommended read.

Everything is forever.