DISPEL ILLUSION by Mark Lawrence (Book Review)
I was fortunate enough, having swiftly devoured One Word Kill and Limited Wish, to blag an early electronic copy of Dispel Illusion off the author. Though to be fair, the publishers and Mark Lawrence’s phenomenal productivity have collaborated to ensure that all three books in the Impossible Times trilogy will be released within a calendar year, so no one needs to wait too long to have their curiosity about Mia and Nick and their perilous future(s) satisfied.
Dispel Illusion starts with a bang – if not exactly the big one, certainly an enthralling one. Its opening line:
“The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they’re pretty and from the inside they’re quick.”
As the story progresses, Dispel illusion is necessarily different, in several ways, from its two predecessors.
One Word Kill took an ordinary (genius-level mathematics skills aside) if geeky 1980s teenager, Nick, through two heart-rending dilemmas. Already forced into growing up early by his father’s death, a strangely familiar stranger compelled Nick to face up to his own imminent demise through cancer and the need to make his life count for something – or more specifically, for someone.
Limited Wish carried us forward six months to confront a universe-threatening paradox and show us Nick’s determination to use his knowledge to find a path through the kaleidoscope of splintered futures that Lawrence’s vision of science presented. An ailing Nick ended up walking a tightrope between being caught by cancer in the present or travelling on to a cruel and inescapable fate in the future.
No wonder the series is entitled “Impossible Times.”
Dispel Illusion brings the story full circle, taking Nick and Mia and their friends relentlessly on to the moment of crisis in 2012 which precipitates that confrontation in the mists of 1986 where Nick finally gets to land the long-awaited punch on a bully’s jaw. Like the Midgard serpent swallowing its tail, the two ends of the story join triumphantly up.
I should perhaps have mentioned there is a spoiler in that paragraph for One Word Kill. I assume that no one would read a review of book three without having at least read book one, but yes, let’s admit it – Impossible Times’ spine is built around good old-fashioned time travel and multiple worlds hypotheses.
That said, Lawrence brings a keen scientific eye to bear on a topic that many writers have happily waved hands over, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through “Back to the Future” and on to the various editions of the “Terminator” franchise. What does meaningful time travel look like in the context of a multiple worlds hypothesis? There, every change your time-traveling protagonists makes shunts them onto a fresh timeline with access to an entirely different range of possible futures, while simultaneously locking them out of the timeline they left.
The answer Lawrence finds is, strangely enough, that meaningful time travel in a multiple worlds context looks… frankly… somewhat embarrassing, a bit like those enduring nightmares one has of the first day in a new job (or is that just me?).
Where One Word Kill and Limited Wish took us through only six months of contemporary time, Dispel Illusion runs the gamut up to 2012 and back again, though physicists can argue as to whether that is a total timespan of 26 years, 52 years or a mere negative 6 months depending on whether you think time is a vector or not.
However you measure it, a lot happens to Nick and his friends in another excursion into contemporary angst, life-and-death peril, and a side serving of role-playing games.
Early in the story, when the shrapnel of that opening explosion has settled somewhat lethargically to the floor, Nick finds himself trapped in a groundhog five minutes – with far less time than Bill Murray had to adjust and reason out what steps it would take to break the infinite loop. It felt like an echo of those early days of BASIC computer programming
10 Play this specific otherwise trivial five minutes of my life
20 GOTO 10
But that fraught exercise in temporal extraction is merely the start of Nick’s trials. Nick’s considerable abilities are harnessed by his need and his certainty that he can discover the secret to time travel. Unlike Stephen Hawking – who observed that the best evidence for the future impossibility of time travel is that we haven’t encountered time travellers from the future – Nick has met his evidence.
Of course, raw mathematical talent is not enough. A project like this needs money, corporate money, and with corporate money comes the private motivations and personal greed of billionaire owners.
At the same time, Nick has to stay one step ahead of the legislators. All new technology presents challenges to society – I mean, having seen how far the internet and social media can wreak unregulated havoc, what on earths could uncontrolled access to time travel do?
So Lawrence takes us along two separated timelines. We follow the Nick of 1986 travelling forward in his friendships, his discoveries and the various subtle and unsubtle coercions he must survive or evade. And we follow the Nick of 2011 who, having ascended the height of achievement and comfort, finds himself on another tightrope between two perils – on one side the self-interest of a billionaire and his vicious henchman, on the other the slipstream of researchers and legislators who will inevitably close off the narrow window of opportunity he has in which to meet his 2012 appointment with destiny.
And time is not done with him even then, still willing to throw a universe-threatening paradox bomb in his path. But…
“Frankly I wasn’t that bothered about the universe past the borders of our solar system. In fact my compassion didn’t really extend beyond the atmosphere.”
At the end of the fifth book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, Adams has the multiverse folding in on itself – all futures across all possible universes resolved and addressed so that the destruction of the Earth for a hyperspace bypass occurs not just in this world but in all the Nexts.
In a similar vein, Nick’s futures converge back on the climax of One Word Kill in that dark factory canteen, where he rails against fate and the necessity of adhering to the certainty of what has to happen. Resolution, as ever, is hidden in the spell at the heart of his companions’ long-running role-playing game. The future and the past must not just be done; they must be seen to be done.