Fiction Review: Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

CoverOn 28th June 1914, Driver Leopold Lojka took a wrong turn in Sarajevo. One of his passengers, the Governor of Bosnia, told him of his mistake. Lojka stopped, intending to reverse back on to his planned route. It was his bad luck that he had stopped right in front of Gavrilo Princip, an assassin of a secret nationalist organisation calling itself the Black Hand.

Lojka had driven his passenger, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, past five Black Hand assassins already that day. Only one of them had plucked up the courage to act, and the bomb he threw bounced off the back of the car and injured twenty onlookers. The assassin took an ineffective cyanide pill and tried to drown himself in the Miljacka River, only to find it all but dry in the middle of the summer. The Black Hand assassins were so incompetent that they couldn’t kill themselves, let alone anyone else.

Nobody had thought to tell the driver that the Archduke, an unusually decent man by the standards of 1910s European royalty, had revised his plans and intended to meet the people injured in the botched bombing. If anyone had told Lojka they were supposed to be going to the hospital before they set off, Princip would have found himself watching an empty street for the rest of the day. But no one did and with the one fatal bullet he fired into the Archduke, Princip plunged Europe into chaos that reverberates a hundred years later.

His second bullet missed the governor and killed the Archduke’s wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenburg. Even with the target stopped right in front of him, Princip got as much wrong as he got right. The First World War was started by a conspiracy of bunglers.

Meanwhile, a closed box sat in the vaults of Trinity College, Cambridge, addressed from Sir Isaac Newton to the master of the college in 2024. When the master opens it, she will find a single opportunity to send one man back to a month before the assassination. A man with one chance to divert the the twentieth century away from the catalogue of slaughter that it would become.

The assassination is history. The box is the premise of Time and Time Again. It’s simultaneously a thriller and a reflection on the forces that decide history. Most of the novel is taken up with the mission of Hugh Stanton, the ex-SAS officer and former student the master recruits to stop the First World War. His mission takes him from Istanbul through Sarajevo to Berlin, through some beautiful descriptions of the epoch he is trying to save.

The narrative balances the internal tensions of a man who is no longer of his own time with his struggle against history itself. In a way, it’s the Great Man theory of history taken to such an extreme that said great man can apply hindsight to his actions.

I wouldn’t be able to keep my curmudgeon badge if I didn’t find a few things to carp at. I thought Stanton lapsed into twenty-first century English a bit too often, especially when he didn’t have the same problem when he was speaking German. There’s also a bit of a plothole at the end, but I’ll say no more about that as it would give away a large spoiler.

None of my carping detracts from the fact that this was a rollicking good read as well as a fascinating game of ‘what if?’ It joins Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five on the podium of the best time travel novels I’ve read.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification
3 comments on “Fiction Review: Time and Time Again by Ben Elton
  1. Ive heard belton as i will call him, writes schlocky books, but im intrigued by this one, great premise. Nice review.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I’d say ‘schlocky’ is a fair description of his first few novels, but not of anything he’s written for the last 20 years or so. If this sounds like it might appeal, I’d recommend ‘The First Casualty’, which is also set in the First World War, and ‘High Society’ is one of the better social satires I’ve read.

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