My love affair with Leo Frankowski’s novels is a constant source of consternation to me: I enjoy them largely because Frankowski absolutely wallows in technical puzzles and infrastructure, and he instills in me the same giddiness for engineering, but at the same time, his books are rather poor in terms of style and positively execrable in terms of ideology.
Conrad’s Time Machine, as the name might suggest, is a kind of prequel to Frankowski’s Adventures of Conrad Stargard series, in which Conrad is often helped by his time-traveling relative, Tom. This book explains how it is that Tom came to invent time travel, and provides the basis for some of the utterly mysterious prologues, epilogues, and interludes in those books.
This is a very recent book, and I’ve mentioned before that Frankowski’s work in the new century hasn’t exactly been the sort of marvelous science fiction that he was writing in the 1980s (OK, A Boy and His Tank was good, but not so much the sequels). Conrad’s Time Machine has some really cool technical stuff, and it takes a tremendous effort to wrap one’s head around causality (not so much if one is familiar with the basic premise of quantum theory). Largely, however, this book was Frankowski having fun, and by fun, I mean it is essentially a novel of wish-fulfillment. Narrated from the point of view of Tom, who ends up being almost exactly like Conrad, it tells the story of Tom and his two friends, Jim and Ian, as they discover the mechanics of time travel, and end up whisked away to a private island established by their future selves. From that point on, it becomes a matter of magic: they get reengineered bodies; they live in a culture in which their countless servant girls want to be impregnated by them, and so throw themselves lustfully at the protagonists, sometimes several at a time; they have personal castles; they are waited on, hand and foot, all the time. Finally, near the end of the book, Frankowski shifts back into technical mode, and Tom starts building infrastructure in the 18th century.
The most absurd thing of all, however, is the deus ex machina that Frankowski uses two chapters from the end, in order to expedite the technological advances of time travel. Not only that, but it seems to somehow violate causality as well: I’m not entirely sure that Frankowski double-checked his narrative for plausibility.
Frankowski can’t help but include his own silly views about things like feminism: his characters, I feel, are little more than mouthpieces for whatever scrambled worldview he has. Tom is a steadfast atheist, but when he is planning to get married, he tells his friend Ian that dammit, he is a “Catholic atheist!” and wants his wedding with an ordained priests, altar boys, choir… the whole ritualistic works.
The bottom line is that Conrad’s Time Machine isn’t a good book—though it’s moderately good science fiction—but it can still be damn fun to read.