Massimo Villata, The Dark Arrow of Time (Springer, 2017, 163pp, £15)
Reviewed by Jana Vizmuller-Zocco
Massimo Villata is an astrophysicist working at the Osservatorio Astrofisico in Torino, with more than 300 scientific publications to his credit. The Dark Arrow of Time, in its Italian version, was first self-published in 2012. The plot unfolds through the experiences of Helias Kadler, a young scientist whose intention is to engage in research on the planet Alkenia. It turns out that Alkenia is inhabited by the descendants of seventy travellers from Earth, whose ship had been derailed by a black hole, and had arrived on a planet they called Thaýmia. The Thaýmians can travel through time and space due to an alternative interpretation of antimatter: antimatter is nothing other than ordinary matter going backward in time. Nevertheless, the Thaýmians require a series of receiving stations whereas the content of a mysterious diskette, in the possession of the woman Helias loves, provides information on how to move in time without such a necessity. The diskette therefore becomes a point of conflict and Helias an unwitting participant in the struggle to possess it.
In an appendix to the novel, Villata discusses the consequences of time travel, free will, alternative worlds, parallel universes and ontology. The novel interweaves elements of astrophysics, an attempt that both succeeds and fails. It succeeds because it brings the reader’s attention to real-world science alongside ethical questions. It fails, however, on account of the lack of psychological depth exhibited by the characters. For sure, the plot has twists and bends, but even though the technology may be light-years ahead of today, the characters show the usual human weaknesses and foibles. In other words, despite the technological advances, the author presents his characters as essentially unchanged by them. Contrary to much contemporary sf that aims at modifying, questioning or reconciling human values and ways of being with advances in science and technology, The Dark Arrow of Time does not make any reference to the wider social, economic and environmental contexts in which its characters interact. This could be to the novel’s advantage, except that there remains a lurking query in the reader’s mind: Why engage in time travel at all when ‘What happened cannot be prevented. We can only work to make it happen’? In other words, how far back in time should one go to reach the state of making something happen so that the outcome is the ‘right’ one? And right for whom? The novel does not answer these crucial questions.
It is clear that The Dark Arrow of Time induces a wealth of philosophical and critical musings in a reader who is not an astrophysicist. It is rightly subtitled a ‘Scientific Novel’, because astrophysics is its protagonist and humans are made to hop, skip and jump according to its laws.