I’m sure many of you will have watched Doctor Who episodes such as The End of Time, or Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and will have enjoyed the pulp-fiction nature of having such anachronistic characters as Egyptian Pharaohs, dinosaurs, intergalactic transportation, Philosophers stones and advanced life-lengthening technology, current-day politics and Victorian-style machines all wrapped up in one package, one daring escapade. This sort of mish-mash story is mighty fun – but what about the real impact something like this would have?
Anne McCaffrey went briefly into the mechanics of splicing in her Dragons of Pern novels – and the horrors of what should happen when such spacetime magic goes wrong (the image of a dragon partially embedded in a rock face is etched into my mind forever).
Kingdom Hearts got a little too complicated after the first game as it tried to resolve a lot of multi-world and multi-timeline story arcs whilst maintaining a central chronology – admittedly this still works for a lot of people but I found myself losing engagement in the series as it went further along due to this.
In fact anything from the Dying Earth subgenre of sci-fi tends to get into the pitfall of trying too hard to keep a central chronology. The very nature of a world at the end of time itself seems to go against chronology.
So how best to deal with a story that involves the meshing, melding and merging of time? Perhaps the best response is to chronicle smaller stories from varied viewpoints, immersing the reader in the full chaos of the brave new world(s) they would face after such a cataclysm. So it is with the anthology of short stories, This Twisted Earth.
‘There is a sabre-tooth hunting just beyond those hills. Most of the locals worship it as a god, but it will rip out your throat nevertheless. Also, one of the caravans who travelled this way recently swore they saw fresh dinosaur tracks. Small ones, but you know how it is, the smaller the meaner.’ (excerpt from Curiosity is a First Step, by Piotr)
None of the stories in This Twisted Earth shy away from anything. All stories take place after ‘The Cataclysm’, a mysterious event that caused time to twist in all directions. Some stories feature newbie travellers in the twisted world, others feature seasoned veterans, and others yet feature later-generations who have been born and grown up in the twisted world. As Winton-Polak himself says, ‘This is your chance to grab the skein of history and play cat’s cradle with it.’
‘She is one of my people,’ Isobel repeated […] ‘They gave their toys to us and told us to bring back their goddamn golden age. And long after they were gone we kept on tinkering with the weather and the albedo, trying to put it all right. My tribe, the last in all the world who understood that the lights in the sky were far-off balls of burning gas.’ (excerpt from The Electric Eye of the Silver God, by Adrian Tchaikovsky)
There is also the reality of what merging multiple moments of time would cause. For instance, at the moment of cataclysm, most people on Earth would die, as the Earth is on an orbit around the sun, and can’t occupy every point of said orbit at once. Depending on what moment in time you get thrust suddenly into, it’s more than likely you’re going to end up in the cold vacuum of space. A chilling thought – and a good way to realistically look at what such a time-breaking event might do.
‘Earth was a Trick-or-Treater’s egg, hurled against the void’s front door. It was cracked and splashed, nothing more than a chaotic mess, frozen in a huge splatter pattern.’ (excerpt from Fatal Planet by Mike Chinn)
It’s incredibly ambitious – that goes without saying, really, for an anthology that breaks the format of what we consider an anthology to be demands more attention, and asks that the reader be comfortable with feeling out of their comfort zone. But it’s this quality, I think, that allows This Twisted Earth to shine, as all readers are put in the position of the characters, unsure of what to expect next. It could be dinosaurs, but it could also be a nice cup of tea and a singsong.
Editor Dion Winton-Polak has envisaged more volumes of This Twisted Earth in the future. It’s a living series, one that has no fixed reason behind the cataclysm as of yet, and that’s something that contributors are going to be working on together as things progress. It’s designed to be a shared world, the development of which everyone can partake in if they desire, and this selfless public nature of the work gives it authenticity and credence.
Contributors to the anthology include Adrien Tchaikovsky, who recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his (also appropriately-named) novel Children of Time, and Mike Chinn, author of many of the Starblazer comics.
If you like reading about old gods and new, if you like prehistoric monsters meeting futuristic civilisations, if you want to meet some talking severed heads or learn what a deus otiosus is or just fancy picking your way through a post-nuclear wasteland, this is the book for you.