Archive – The Houses of Time – Jamil Nasir

Another review from Interzone in 2008.

The Houses of Time
Jamil Nasir, Tor, 304pp US$24.95 hb

It’s only too common to see science fiction described as a ‘literature of ideas’, as though all other forms of literature are somehow devoid of them. What such commentators are presumably groping towards is some sort of notion that ideas are foregrounded in sf in a way they aren’t in other kinds of literature. Or, and I suspect that this is really at the heart of the comment, they mean that ideas rather than people drive the plots of sf novels. Sometimes this is true, but a good science fiction story cannot simply rely on a decent idea to get it through. There has to be something more. What shape that ‘more’ takes is up to the author, of course, but it has to be present for a novel to become something other than an elaborate cognitive doodle placed in front of the reader, some sort of mental amuse-gueule that will tease the intellect without ever satisfying it. Which brings me to Jamil Nasir’s The Houses of Time.

As the novel opens, David Grant is travelling in his dreams, moving into the past, visiting places he knew when he was young. One might almost be heading into the territory of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife. Except that David Grant is not falling almost uncontrollably through time. In fact, he is an experienced lucid dreamer who is undergoing some form of training with the Trans Humanist Institute, in an attempt to give greater meaning to his life.

Learning to dream lucidly might not seem to be an obvious road to greater self-enlightenment, but it is not difficult to see why Grant might suppose it would be. His whole life is focused on control. He is, as he admits, a product of ‘discipline and self-realization’. He is a self-made man, shaped by training seminars and self-help guides. A successful lawyer, with all the usual trappings of a wealthy lifestyle, attractive to women, careless of emotional attachment, Grant is as superficial and unpleasant as such a carefully constructed CV would imply. He is also the classic, buttoned-up, middle-aged professional man, ripe for an experience that will break down his emotional restraints and either lead him to greater fulfilment or utter humiliation.

Were it not for the existence of the THI and the presence of lucid dreaming, one might be in any old novel about a male mid-life crisis. However, David Grant is not your average lucid dreamer; not only can he control his dreams while asleep but he can travel between ‘dream-places’ while awake. In effect, he has the ability to move between parallel worlds, while awake. It is this skill that interests the THI and its bizarre director, Dr Thotmoses. The THI is in fact a front for the Caucasus Synod Western Orthodox Church, which needs to find people like Grant to go and talk to God on their behalf. They have great hopes for Grant’s success.

So far, so good. The narrative has possibilities, even if, I have to admit, the presence of Dr Thotmoses and the Caucasus Synod has caused my capacity for disbelief to sag alarmingly floorwards. It comes as a disappointment, then, to find that Jamil Nasir is so caught up with the notion of being able to move between these parallel worlds that he has to work out the concept to what feels like the nth degree, without substantially moving the narrative forward. The reader is effectively trapped in Grant’s solipsism, and spends a considerable amount of time cycling through several worlds as Grant experiments with his own ability to travel, and tries to come to terms with what is happening to him.

To an extent, I sympathise with Nasir’s absorption in these worlds. His descriptions of Grant’s lives in these different world are at times lyrical. He has a wonderful ability to evoke the ‘feel’ of small-town life, as it exists in adult memories of childhood: the play of light in the trees, the look of a path, the people, the houses and gardens. When he returns to the student David hitchhiking through rural North America, he perfectly catches that feeling of life unrolling without a need for more than that moment to exist. The whole thing falls apart when Nasir returns the reader to what seems to be Grant’s ‘home world’, one in which he is now a paraplegic, trapped in a monstrous care home where the routine relies on relentless drugs and violence.

And round the reader goes again, trying to construct some sort of narrative from the fragments. Are we supposed to see the travelling as a response to Grant’s being trapped in a useless body? No, because I don’t think that’s where the story started. In which case, should we be concerned about time paradoxes? No, Grant (and by implication Nasir) has that one tidied away to the extent of blatantly playing with it on the page, just to prove the matter.

One might endeavour to draw a moral from the fact that Grant has been set up by Kat, the original of the beautiful ‘surfer girl’, the holy nun-whore who is a honey-trap agent for the THI, using Grant just as ruthlessly as he uses her. Religion is what drives her in the same way as Grant is driven by a desperate need for novelty. Yet, the Caucasus Synod Western Orthodox Church is, for me, one of the least plausible elements of this novel; its biological differences, its social exclusivity, none of this rings true. It sits undigested in the narrative to provide a reason for Grant to come into his powers and then exercise them.

At the end of it all, we’re left with some ideas: a mysterious church that needs talented world-hoppers to intercede with its version of god, a well-developed theory of parallel worlds that neatly ties up all the usual paradoxes, and an overwhelming sense of ‘is that it?’ left lingering on the intellectual palate. I want to like this novel; it has ideas that intrigue me, it has passages of exquisite description, and a protagonist who, while he is thoroughly unlikeable, is somehow touching in his stumbling efforts to cope. Yet, I remain disappointed because this novel cannot transcend those ideas and transform them into something more.