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An Ocean of Minutes: 04/09/19
I rarely come away from finishing a book with a hangover feeling. An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim is one of those rare books that left me with a weeklong one.
Most time travel books are set in contemporaneous times, either as the origin point — for traveling to the future or the past, or as the destination point, from either the past or the future. Lim, instead, sets a time range from 1978 to 1998, a span of twenty years, that is forty to twenty years in the past. This choice gives the entire novel a retro feeling, like reading a newly discovered time travel book from the 1950s or mid 1970s.
In 1981, Polly and Frank, vacationers from Buffalo, New York, are trapped by an influenza quarantine in Galveston, Texas. Frank ends up sick and can't afford treatment. Polly is given the opportunity to work off his treatment because she has skills that are in high demand. All she has to do is travel to the future, to 1993, work for 22 months, and then she's free to reunite with Frank.
This is a what-if scenario. The 1981-1982 influenza season was relatively mild, a non-event save for a few southern states. There were 61 confirmed deaths. In Polly and Frank's 1981, the flu spread beyond those 61 and became a pandemic.
Here is where An Ocean of Minutes takes a turn for the familiar, bringing to mind Chris Marker's 1962 film, La Jetée. I know what you're thinking, 12 Monkeys but the forty-year gap between now and then as well as Lim's terse language and Polly's on-going confusion especially after she travels, brings to mind the starkness and open ended plot of Marker's short film, more so than Terry Gilliam's 1995 update. (I'm not going to compare the television adaptation as I haven't seen it).
There's one more key thing the two have in common, the airport as the travel point. In the Marker and Gilliam versions, the time traveler is sent back to stop patient zero from getting on a plane and infecting the world with a virulent disease. Here, though, the Houston airport has been repurposed for time travel because it makes it appear safe and normal.
Most of this book, though, is about Polly's work in the future. Her life as now an O-1 visa holding worker is a chance to imagine an alternate future (now past) as well as to make social commentary on the current xenophobia circling around immigration, even at the high end, skilled worker visas.
This novel works because it has a grounded sense of place. Galveston, though changed by an alternate timeline, is still recognizable and Polly's life there can be tracked on Google Maps. For instance, her agreed upon meeting spot, has been taken over by the time travel company that essentially now runs the former Southern half of the United States. On our Google Map, the hotel in question has been closed for ten years from damage by Hurricane Ike. Ten years before, though, in our timeline, it was open. It should have been a safe bet.
I am old enough to have lived through these twenty lost years in Polly and Frank's relationship. I am old enough to remember those years. Even so, Lim has made the time gap seem even more insurmountable than it is for anyone who has lived through a span of forty years (as Frank has through normal aging) and how different things would seem to someone who hasn't (Polly).
I could go on with a deeper read, but I will leave that for a separate essay for the road narrative spectrum. I will however briefly explain where this novel sits in it.
For the road narrative spectrum, it is an orphan traveling to uhoria via an offroad manner (FFCC66). Polly is forced to separate from Frank to travel forward in time so that he'll be given life saving treatment. Her journey to the future, while grounded in a real world, recognizable place, it is in an alternate timeline, one where time travel exist, and so the oddity of time lost is the destination itself. Finally, Polly's travel to the future as well as her eventual return to Buffalo is all done by offroad methods: airplane (time machine) and ship.