Like many neo-Victorian novels, Felix J. Palma's engaging The Map of Time enjoys playing games with genres. The three-part (triple decker) novel announces that it's a "melodrama," and Part II, in particular, translates nineteenth-century melodramatic spectacle (special effects, rah-rah war games, etc.) into SF terms (Hunky Hero vs. Robots!). Most obviously, The Map of Time has fun reworking early SF, cheerfully letting the reader know that it's fooling around with H. G. Wells--the novel's protagonist--and Jules Verne, but also invoking Frankenstein and Karel Capek's R. U. R.; the SF co-exists, however, with the sensation novel in Part I and the detective novel in Part III (Doyle gets a name-check). Oh, and Cyrano de Bergerac makes a guest appearance, because...why not, I suppose.
To get the novel's chief flaw out of the way: the plotting works quite well in Parts I and II, then implodes in Part III, where all of a sudden the Bigger Bad Villain (we've already had a Big Bad one) is introduced and summarily dispatched, and H. G. Wells (From the Future) spends more time infodumping to H. G. Wells (Of the Present) than is, perhaps, entirely welcome. Part III's play with detective fiction is also somewhat cursory, in comparison to its manipulation of other genres, and while the Supervillain's Evil Plot is actually well-motivated in terms of the novel's larger themes (of which more in a moment), it comes out of nowhere in terms of narrative development. But that to one side.
The Map of Time is, in effect, part of the genre that we might as well call "popular metafiction." Having called attention to its own narrative devices and rhetorical strategies, the novel simply shrugs, as it were: of course fiction is an illusion; of course it is possible to make us experience fictions as though it were real; but, like other popular metafictions, the novel is not interested in exploring the more extreme ramifications of this approach. Instead, its deconstruction of the time travel genre (stable time loops! multiplying universes! butterfly effects!), Map proposes imaginative creation as its own time travel device, and literature as a mode of parallel universe. "What if his life were being written by someone in another reality," H. G. Wells muses at the end, "for instance, in the universe almost exactly like his own in which there was no Time Travel company and Gilliam Murray was the author of dreadful little novels?" (607) Although Map certainly suggests that creative play can be literally life-saving, as is the case in Part I, it also celebrates escapism and simple pleasures. Gilliam Murray, the Big Bad of Parts One and Two, is Bad not just because he has people violently assaulted when they get in his way, but more importantly because he profits from confusing fiction and empirical reality: Murray's grand dramatic spectacle of the supposed war against the automatons in 2000, itself backed up by what he eventually tells us is an adventure narrative inspired by Haggard (his pioneering explorer is Tremanquai--do some rearranging of the letters...), is utterly self-interested, designed as money-making machine and personal vendetta against Wells. By contrast, Wells' various interventions in real life--the fake time machine in Part I, intended to rescue a young man from committing suicide; the love letters in Part II, intended to facilitate the relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman--are ultimately other-directed. Wells himself is not what you would call an especially nice man, but he grasps that fiction is a powerful and potentially dangerous tool; as the case of Claire Haggerty indicates in Part Two, being taken in by Gilliam Murray can have scary implications. In a way, the novel advocates a very nineteenth-century understanding of the novelist's moral responsibilities (despite the outcome of Part II): if fictional narratives remake how we operate in everyday life, then the novelist ought to think more carefully about what she represents and how she goes about doing it.
Who needs fiction?, the novel asks, and the answer is: the dissatisfied, the alienated, the oppressed. Tom Blunt (a name suited to a melodramatic hero) is a gorgeous lower-class crook, to be sure, who sexually exploits Claire, but playing Murray's Captain Derek Shackleton eventually enables him to reimagine himself as a hero. As he realizes, "what Claire had really fallen in love with was his way of acting him [Shackleton]" (362); eventually, he opts to become the character, taking on his self-sacrificial grandeur in the process. Claire and Andrew Harrington are both upper-class and privileged, but they also rebel against the social conventions that constrain the range of their emotional development. But at the same time, fiction's liberating potential is explicitly limited: Andrew cannot actually save Marie Kelly, the prostitute murdered by Jack the Ripper, although he is finally able to move beyond her death; Claire cannot escape to the year 2000, outside of her late-Victorian social context; Tom Blunt, whatever his new heroic demeanor, cannot quite escape markers of class (especially literacy); Joseph Merrick, one of the novel's real-life figures, cannot comfortably exist outside his hospital. But what they can do, in good Victorian fashion, is act. Merrick gives Wells one of his own creations, a wicker basket, to "remind you that everything is a question of will" (170), and imagination's most potent power is its capacity to inspire transformative action, for good or evil. Gilliam Murray, along with the equally fraudulent time-traveling plagiarist, exemplify bad acts--driven fully by greed, revenge, and sheer narcissism. The more heroic, or at least more positive characters, like Wells or Blunt, manage to struggle beyond their limited horizons to grasp at some larger good. "You used your imagination to save a man's life" (233), Wells' wife Jane lovingly tells him. While Charles Dickens would no doubt balk left and right at the novel's plot, I'm not sure he would disagree with the larger point.