Robert Dickinson, The Tourist (Orbit, 2016, 342pp, £12.99)
Reviewed by Amandine Faucheux (Louisiana State University
The premise of The Tourist is delightful: time travel is a possibility and it has been turned into a tourist attraction. You can now travel back to the 21st century before the ‘Near-Extinction Event’ and go on such wild adventures as visiting a mall or seeing real live animals. The story alternates between the point of view of a rep, Spens, who goes in search of the eponymous missing tourist, and that of a woman in a prison cell in the 24th century.
Like in all time-travel stories, the characters face issues linked to agency and control over past/future events. Dickinson resolves this point by suggesting that characters who go back in time have access to their historical record and can read the major events that happen to them – their deaths, for instance. But they also have to accept that the past cannot be changed and that intervention is impossible. A mysterious institution called Geneva controls the records and is suspected of manipulating them. An equally mysterious bureaucracy, the Awareness, can travel forwards in time but they refuse to share what they have seen. The 25th century seems to have abandoned time travel and remains secretive about what happened.
These elements could have made for a thrilling story, but unfortunately, there are two intertwined problems with The Tourist. One is rather weak world-building. The majority of the plot happens in the 21st century, and although the main characters come from the 24th century, the novel does not manage to make us see the past through their eyes. This is in part because we know very little of their world: the novel alludes to a post-apocalyptic world with a ravaged environment, yet Spens looks on everything in the 21st with disdain. The food is inedible, the ‘natives’ are dull and stupid, everything seems uncomfortable and ugly. It is hard to understand why someone coming from a presumably horrific future might not enjoy breathing the air, standing in non-acidic rain or eating unprocessed food. The only character who might offer a different perspective, Li, serves as a sidekick but the novel does not develop her enough to present a counterpoint. We only glimpse the 24th century through Dickinson’s attempt at a future ‘Modern’ English. But Spens’s perspective is not written in that Modern: we only know it’s different because he tells us so. The story would have been tremendously more believable if the language aspect had been developed; instead Dickinson relies on an Orwellian style that doesn’t quite work because it mimics its structure but lacks the mordant social critique.
The second major problem with The Tourist is that it tells rather than shows. Dickinson tells us the two worlds are different, but fails to show us how. For example, Spens can ‘blip’ people, which we must assume is an instantaneous communication system, while 21st century natives message one another. We are not shown how those two systems are different, we are simply told they are. Another passage attempts to demonstrate a cultural miscommunication: ‘Logan [a native] looks at us nervously: “What are you drinking?” I almost answer: Nothing, yet. Li recognizes the idiom and orders beers.’ Here the passage is supposed to suggest that Modern English has got rid of such literal inaccuracies, but it doesn’t quite work, both because this happens too little in the text and because we have no clear access to what Modern looks like. As a result, Spens sounds pretentious and conceited throughout. One cannot help but to compare the novel, rather unfavorably, to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), in which the travel to and from the future both manages an acute criticism of the present society and gives us an unforgettable glimpse at a future universe.
It is surprising that world-building should be such an issue in a text that is otherwise full of intriguing ideas. For instance, Spens is obsessed with the story of two explorers, Brink and Nakamura, who travelled back to 19th century Europe to record classical music as it was performed live. Time and again, Spens goes back to their story, telling us for example that ‘They had been travelling as a Swedish count and his oriental manservant. Earlier they had travelled as a Persian prince and his Christian slave.’ Such snippets almost eclipse the actual storyline because they sound so fascinating: you end up wishing Dickinson had written that book instead of this one. Instead, he attempts to set up a good mystery while having all the structure of a utopia/dystopia, but without the strength of the social critique that comes from that genre.