Intellectus Speculativus

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Time Gypsy by Ellen Klages

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A modern post-doctoral physicist gets the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel backward in time and meet her heroine, Dr. Sara Baxter Clarke. But there is something else that Carol McCullough never could have expected in the shockingly oppressive world of 1956: Love. Time Gypsy is a journey into the past where time travel, academic rivalry, queer history, and romance intersect. It’s where the scientists are women and have hearts as well as brains. Funny, sweet, and brave, this is an adventure the reader will never forget.
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Academia, with its rivalry, backbiting, status-seeking, ambition, obscure and complex politics, rules and regulations, oversized egos and undermatured personalities, is rarely a setting for speculative fiction; Kushner & Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings and Asimov’s Foundation are the obvious counterexamples, and now Time Gypsy can join them. A brief novella, but one in which Klages manages to pack an awful lot…

Time Gypsy is set in both 1995 and 1965. McCullough, our protagonist, is summoned by her department head to be sent back in time to retrieve the secrets to stable time travel from a scientist who disappeared the day before presenting it. As a bare-bones summary this is very sparse, but between McCullough’s relationship with Clarke that Klages portrays beautifully, especially McCullough’s knowledge of its impending failure, and the deadline to return to 1995 with the secrets to stable time travel, there is not only suspense but also a good deal of action in this romance.

Time Gypsy actively and explicitly includes the official harassment and persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s, and its semi-acceptance in the 1990s. The contrats between the two timelines, especially but not only in terms of discrimination – against people of colour, against women, against homosexuals – are beautifully and evocatively drawn, from the necessity of a beard to the different styles of dress and fashion. Klages sets up her world vividly in order to paint her vivid characters onto that backdrop; each lends to and takes life from the other in a wonderfully symbiotic feedback loop in this writing.

Really though, this is about the romance, which is sweet, and the academia, which is shown in all its bizarre glory. Klages, in Time Gypsy, paints composite portraits of a number of the different types of academics one comes across, and does so without descending into pastiche or charicature; instead, she makes them real, makes them human, as much by seeing their motives as by understanding their flaws, something often left aside. This is a university I feel familiar with despite being in a different country, faculty and time period to mine, and that verissimilitude is truly impressive.

For a short piece, Time Gypsy packs an awful lot of punch; Klages really does conjure up the feel of a love affair, the change in the air in the 1960s, and the bizarre world of academia. A really nice little chapbook here.

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