K.A. Bedford’s science fiction time-travel murder mystery Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait was short-listed for the 2008 Philip K Dick award.
The comparison with the master of dystopian, paranoid, time-twisted mystery plotting shows both the book’s strengths and its limitations. It is a good, enjoyable book – but not in the Philip K Dick class, which makes the question of whether or not to read it dependent on what else you have already read.
Bedford’s book starts off in promising Philip K Dick style, with a near future, set for once not in America, hooray!, but instead Australia. It is a future where time machines have become a mass consumer good, widely available and widely used. The hero, “Spider” Webb, has a low-paid job repairing them, a personal life that is a mess, a troubled past, a dreadful boss – and then a dead body enters his life. So far, so good.
However, whilst Webb’s life is skilfully and painfully drawn, the question of time travel is not. For a story that hinges so heavily on what people can and cannot do with time travel, it is regrettable that the story’s internal logic when it comes to time travel, altering events and grandfather paradoxes is so very limited. There is passing promise with the idea that the government has regulated to deliberately cripple time machines but the implications – hackers who side-step the rules or secret government teams that never have to follow them – are only lightly touched on. A few deft touches of humour appear, such as over the problem with too many time travel tourists causing congestion at the Crucifixion, but soon we are into the territory of characters apparently only doing things because that is what the author says they do.
As the strains from the lack of a time travel logic show, the plot slightly loses its way, taking a turn towards a far-future battle for the preservation of the universe before becoming a time-chasing attempt to solve a murder and then ending with a very weak finale that makes you feel like you have been set up to go buy a sequel.
Despite all that, it is a very pacey read for most of the book, it has – unlike much SF – a decent set of female characters and there are touches of time travel genius and effective paranoia-inducing scenes. So set off with the right expectations and you can find much to enjoy.
The cover I have used to illustrate this piece is from the Australian edition which I much prefer to the cover used on other editions. If you can, I would recommend getting the Australian version. Or, failing that, print out the Australian cover and stick it over the inferior alternatives.