I’m getting quite comfortable with reading John Brunner’s novels. I’ve read five of them within the last year and each one has been a worthwhile experience (although I can always find some things to nitpick, that’s just the kind of person I am). This time around it was The Tides of Time, published in 1984, and it’s one of the more interesting Brunner novels I’ve come across so far.
At the beginning it’s really hard to say what’s going on. You’re introduced to two characters, Gene and Stacy, who have come by boat to a small island in the Mediterranean and who seem to be running away from something or someone — although it’s a long time before you find out the reasons for this. In each succeeding chapter, there is a strange shift as the same two characters are presented, on the very same island, but further back in time by perhaps a few centuries. Each time, they are the same people, on the same island, living in generally the same circumstances, but with strange differences as well. And to add an even greater sense of strangeness, you’re never quite sure if Gene and Stacy know they are moving through time, even though there are moments when they seem aware that something odd is happening.
The book has a nice structure. In each era, the two characters interact with the people of that time, and overcome various challenges to their survival. Also in each chapter either Gene or Stacy tells a story, what sounds like a fable or myth. All the stories are broadly similar, involving someone who is seeking something and travels to distant, exotic, and downright bizarre lands in order to find it. The seekers’ individual motives vary, and this is how the stories come to be told; Gene or Stacy will observe how some recent event in their lives reminds them of a certain story, and why that mythological character did what he or she did.
This pattern carries on through most of the book, getting just a wee bit repetitive actually, but at the end things really come together when you finally find out what’s been happening. You see, Gene and Stacy were members of a scientific experiment, an amazing physics experiment of great importance to humanity. I won’t tell you what it is, exactly, except to say it’s NOT about time travel. Let’s just say it involves travel to a distant, exotic, and bizarre place beyond anything we could call reality, and the shock of it was more than Gene and Stacy could bear. And this is the basic point of the novel. Brunner asks what happens to the mind, the self, the ego, when one is confronted by something completely outside of all experience and conception of reality:
“Well — what becomes of ‘I’ when it’s doing something deemed to be impossible?”
It’s a brilliant question, and Brunner’s answer is that the mind can’t handle it, the “I” cracks and either must find some way to cope, or go insane, or die. In the case of Gene and Stacy, their shocked, broken minds run away and seek refuge in the past, or at least some mental projection of the past, where they instinctively try to reconnect to reality by delving into humanity’s roots. And — this is ingenious — all the stories told by Gene and Stacy turn out to be reflections on themselves and their situation, a sort of therapy in which they try to come to terms with their experience. Over and over they ask why the people in the stories leave their homes and seek the unknown. What they are really asking is why they themselves did so, trying to find some reason that would justify what they went through and help them to accept it.
The Tides of Time presents a fascinating philosophical question, and a poetic and imaginative exploration of it. In other words, I liked it quite a lot.