By John R. Little (Bad Moon Books; 2009)
The concept of time travel is given a fascinating workout in this novella, a powerfully ominous tale that dimly recalls other such accounts (such as Alain Resnais’ classic film JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME) but is for the most part quite unique. It’s also superbly drafted in pointed and precise prose, with nary a wasted word.
It begins in Aswan, Egypt, circa 1984. The first person narrator Henry, a Canadian, is nearing the end of his stay in Aswan. He saves a young boy from drowning in the Nile and is rewarded by the boy’s father Mohammed, who gives Henry a powder apparently filched from the tomb of Ramses II, the “King of Time.”
Henry imbibes the powder and is abruptly thrust back to Montreal of 1982, and his first meeting his beloved wife Cassie. This is the beginning of a fractured time-tripping odyssey that takes Henry to a high point of his childhood and then into the future year 2002, in which he lives in apparent contentment with Cassie and their young son.
Before long Henry comes to find the constant jumping between past and future routine, and even blasé. The story, as the author claims in a brief afterward, was inspired by a Stephen Hawking comment about why we can’t remember the future like we can the past; in THE GRAY ZONE Henry learns to do just that, and finds that the ability isn’t nearly as exciting as it might seem.
However, there is a point Henry can’t seem to penetrate, a “Gray Zone” in the year 2014 that he comes to fear. Inevitably, however, Henry eventually finds himself in that Gray Zone, of which no past or future memory exists. That fact is significant because what occurs is profoundly horrific and, even worse, can be experienced again and again, each time with all prior knowledge of the event wiped clean and hence no way of altering it–it’s in the Gray Zone, after all.
Thus, a story that begins in rather jaunty, science fictionish fashion ends up firmly in horror territory (with our realization that Mohammed’s “gift” of the time traveling powder is more of a curse). It’s an experiential account told entirely through Henry’s point of view, and related without the expected pseudo-scientific explanations. The properties of the Gray Zone are never revealed, nor its precise reason for being. The most intriguing explanation is that the protagonist created the zone himself, committing a foolish and reckless act and then mentally blocking it out.
That’s conjecture on my part, of course, as like the hapless protagonist we’re left to figure out this fractured landscape on our own. Henry isn’t scientifically astute enough to fully make sense of his journeys through time, so it’s fully reasonable that he offers no real explanation for the fate that befalls him. You can call this mind-expanding book implausible or inconclusive, I suppose, but you can’t say it doesn’t play fair.