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Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

book cover of Here and Now and Then

I wasn't completely sold on this novel in the beginning, but man did I get more and more sucked in. This is a novel about time travel, and in particular about how an amoral bureaucracy has established a hardline monopoly over time travel. In this the book is somewhat similar thematically to The Psychology of Time Travel, which I also really enjoyed. However, in Here and Now and Then the emphasis is less on the world-building and ensemble cast and more on one singular POV character and his emotional turmoil as the bureaucracy's bungles and subsequent callousness put his family into jeopardy.

At the outset of the story, Kin Stewart is apparently an ordinary suburban dad, happy husband to Heather and devoted dad to 14yo Miranda. The secret he's hiding, though, is that he's actually a time-travelling agent from 2142, stranded around 20 years ago after the equipment that had been supposed to return him home broke, and the agency he worked for failed to pick him up again when they were meant to. The agency's protocol stated that he was supposed to lie low and remain uninvolved with the world until they could collect him, but come on – for 20 years?! Kin gave up on all hope the agency would retrieve him, and let himself live his life. In what is described as a survival mechanism (because, in this book, human psychology can't handle remembering two different eras of time as “the present” without medicinal aids), Kin forgets all about his life in 2142, but doesn't forget his semantic memories about being a time traveller, working for the agency he works for, the internal policies and hierarchies of that agency, etc. Or at least, not immediately. Concerned that he might be forgetting some of it, he writes down everything he can in a journal. He is also beset by strange headaches and black-outs, which he passes off to his family as untreated PTSD.

But then, one day, a strange man (Markus) appears to return Kin to his “home” era in time. Kin is, as you'd expect, extremely reluctant to go home. However, since Heather fails to be persuaded to uproot their lives to go into hiding from some mysterious threat, and Markus assures him that his abrupt disappearance from the 2010s will be “clean”, Kin acquiesces and lets himself be taken home.

What follows is a story that really surprised me with its emotional strength. In his home era, Kin is reintroduced to his fiancée, Penny, and even though his memories of her come back, the emotional intimacy and warmth is something Kin has to rebuild from scratch. From his new desk job, he can't resist looking up what happened to his family after he left, is horrified by what he discovers, and then concocts a scheme to intervene through emails without his employer finding out. When his employer inevitably does find out and sacks him on the spot, he is forced to intervene through even more drastic measures.

Overall, this is a really compelling story about a man trying to do what's right by everyone he cares about, coming up constantly against the unfeeling coldness of the bureaucracy he works for. The book doesn't set its expectations too high – Kin isn't trying to bring down the whole establishment, he just wants to save his daughter – which gives it all an intimate feel. And the characters feel realistic and I surprised myself by how strongly I cared about them by the story's end (except Markus, that guy pissed me off to no end). If you like time travel plots with an emotional punch, this is a good choice.

★★★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.