"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

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"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

Rob Shackleford’s ambitions are many for Traveller - Inceptio, his first novel. He strives to portray how a post-graduate project in security technology can evolve into a device for time travel. He wants to depict modern elite soldiers as they train for an unprecedented and intimidating mission. He wants to focus on a modern media frenzy over heroic and beautiful pioneers, and most importantly, he deeply desires to render realistically eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon villagers’ lives and culture.

The fact that he comes as close as he does to realizing all these ambitions testifies to the strength and consistency of his book.

A bare plot outline: 21st Century Australian students accidentally invent a device that will transport anything, animate or not, 1,000 years into the past. After thoroughly testing the device, the university and the corporation which funded the research become partners with various governments. In response to the clamorous calls of historians they settle on Saxon England as a logical destination to begin to use the apparatus. The authorities train a small squad of modern elite soldiers for the journey; they must learn the language, culture, and perhaps most important of all, the fighting techniques of the time. These soldiers do in fact make this trip, first singly, and then they go as a group. It turns out Saxon England is quite a challenging place, especially when vengeful Danish Vikings are roaming the land bent on plunder and destruction.

This broad ambition means that Shackleford must deal with events on the surface and carefully pick an choose which of his characters’ psyches deserve deeper treatment. This is not too hard a puzzle. After all this a science fiction novel of action. We start with a band of brilliant doctoral candidates whom we just begin to get to know, and from there the focus is on progress to actual time travel, and then time travel with a purpose. There are just too many elements to deal with in any depth, but our intrepid author stays his course, keeping the action, and the international politics of the action, in the foreground.

On a couple of occasions characters voice the existential questions and concerns which surround time travel. We don’t encounter any issues with creating different futures, for instance, or changing the courses of one’s own ancestors. Shackleford expounds competing theories on these issues, and comes down on the side that allows for minimal alteration of the future given traveling to a specific time in the past. Again, it’s an action novel, not a philosophical treatise.

The best thing about this novel is its sustained level of imagination. The author shows solid storytelling instincts in his pacing and his treatment of his readers. He makes good on his fictional promises and continues to surprise, even in such a lengthy piece. Ultimately, it’s a novel containing a whole series of elements for today’s reader: limited time travel is invented by a motley crew of young scientists; elite Special Forces soldiers live like Samurais, dispensing wisdom and protecting the innocent; Saxon England comes vividly alive, with its crude scents, its face-to-face fencing with death, and its superstitions. I congratulate Rob Shackleford for his effort. I don’t know if this is the start of a series, but even if it isn’t, it’s a memorable piece of science fiction.

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov

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"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov

Translated with notes by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Introduction by Richard Pevear.

The Master and Margarita teases the reader in many ways: improbable people and the  supernatural activities they engage in confound you a little at the outset. But as with any consistent narrative we learn to expect traits and characteristics; outcomes begin to gratify us, and treat us to a series of accelerating surprises.

Bulgakov composed and revised Master between 1928 and 1940. (He died in 1940, a short time after dictating the last revisions.) It contains multiple narrative threads, each with its own style and level of speech. There is a prominent story featuring Pontius Pilate, a close and almost sympathetic portrait that includes forgiveness for the Procurator. Moscow’s ordinary citizens populate another strand, and they exhibit pomposity, cynicism, greed, and jealousy. The main players, the writer called the Master, his lover Margarita, and a poet named Homeless emerge with deeper coloring, and a lot more sympathy. The third distinct thread folds in the eerie and omnipotent Satan and his retinue, slumming in Moscow for a time.

These three skeins have something in common: they each prominently display themes and scenes forbidden from Soviet literature under Stalin. Master and Margarita first saw light when it was serialized in the Soviet Union in 1966 and it caused an immediate sensation. We encounter many scenes which satirize and vilify the Soviet police state, sometimes through the use of a code word, like “sitting,” a term for incarceration in a work camp or prison. Or when citizens disappear, Bulgakov’s narrator says no one knows where, such a mysterious thing! The book almost certainly would have made Bulgakov disappear had it appeared in his lifetime.

The mix of fanciful, almost fairy tale aspects, with the everyday drabness and shiftiness of Moscow life, sharpens both into crystal focus. This juxtaposition proves Bulgakov’s brilliance. It makes several points clearly, unmistakably: there is a desperation and dreariness to life when it contains no freedom; the devil is all-powerful and you may need his services to achieve a happy ending; certain citizens live a life of luxury and work assiduously to keep others from it. Lay over the top of these observations a vivid, remarkable picture of Pontius Pilate in his moment of cowardice and doubt, and the whole sparks and trembles and shifts in our consciousness. It’s a product of its time and place, but that doesn’t stop it from being brilliant, a masterwork.

I don’t usually read introductions to books, preferring to let the work settle on me with my own set of views and experience. But after finishing Master and Margarita I took up Richard Pevear’s introduction, and if more were like his, I would definitely read more. He impresses with his knowledge of the book’s compositional history, and makes a number of compelling observations about the historical and political milieu in which it was written and then published. His observations on the text are astute and helpful, and the end notes eminently useful. This introduction definitely adds something to the reading, which a good introduction should.

Take up Bulgakov’s parable. See what all the fuss is about.