Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN


Time is broken in Mark Hodder's new novel, THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN (2014). It's the fifth book in his Burton & Swinburne sf/steam punk/time travel series. The series is comprised of the following books: THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING-HEELED JACK (2010), THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN (2011), EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (2012) and THE SECRET OF ABDU EL YEZDI (2013). Of those, I've read SPRING-HEELED JACK and ABDU EL YEZDI, as well as his stand alone science fiction novel  A RED SUN ALSO RISES (2012).

The series relates the adventures of Sir Richard Francis Burton and his friend Algernon Swinburne, real people who lived in England during the Victorian age. The stories also include appearances by other real people from history, a tradition which continues in DISCONTINUED with guest stars H.G. Wells and the late sf author Mick Farren.

The Burton and Swinburne novels also rely heavily on time travel and alternate histories and Hodder once again returns to those tropes here. At the beginning of the book, Burton experiences hallucinatory visions of other time lines and other realities which all share one common event: an experiment in 1860 using technology scavenged from a time travel suit from the future. In one of these alternate time lines, Burton travels to the far distant future of 2032 where his consciousness inhabits the body of one Edward Oxford, a traveler from the future whose journey to the Victorian Age in  SPRING HEELED JACK, caused time to split into an infinity of parallel time lines.

Burton and Swinburne, along with a team of chrononauts, outfit a dirigible with a time machine and set off into the future to set things right. They make stops along the way in 1914, 1968 and 2020 before reaching their final destination, the world of 2032, a nightmare dystopia of haves and have-nots ruled by the iron fist of a mechanical despot. Burton discovers that Oxford's consciousness has taken up residence within the body of the mechanical man and the two engage in a fight to the death.

During the battle, Burton is shown his real history, the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton as it really occurred in history. It's nowhere near as exciting and dramatic as the adventures that he has experienced in these novels. Spoiler Alert: Burton dies (at least his body does) but his consciousness is transferred to the mechanical man and the novel ends with the new Burton and a cloned Swinburne looking out over the landscape of 2032.

Where does this series go from here? Will Burton and Swinburne remain in the future and explore this brave new world or will they return to their original place in time? Your guess is as good as mine but you can bet I'll read the next episode in this series.

DISCONTINUED MAN is a page turner full of cinematic sweep and an epic vision of possible futures. The ideas are well developed, the action fast and furious when it comes and there's just enough humor to lighten some of the darker moments. There are too many secondary characters clogging the plot however. While they do serve to advance the narrative, none of them are given enough space and time to be as fully developed as Burton and Swinburne are. And, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I have to admit that it does all seem a bit too familiar. Hodder seems obsessed with telling as many different time travel variations involving Burton, Swinburne, et al. as he possibly can. They're novel and exciting but it may be time to move this series into an entirely new direction. Will that happen?

Only time will tell.

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