Time and Time Again is a ridiculously stupid novel by Ben Elton. A shadowy sect (established by Isaac Newton no less!) recruits a soldier to go back in time and prevent Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo in August 1914. I wonder if it all goes to plan and everyone lives happily ever after with no weird timey-wimey after-effects?
Needless to say this novel makes me wish that time travel were a real thing so that I could travel back in time and slap myself in the face while in the queue to buy this tripe. I usually try to see the best in the books, albums and movies that I write about, but the most fun you can have with this novel is to rip it to shreds.
The main character Hugh “Guts” Stanton is a self-pitying sad-sack that Elton expects us to believe graduated from Cambridge. He is thoroughly unlikable: I spent most of the novel hoping that he’d meet some grizzly end rather than succeed in his goal. Apparently all it takes is a poorly written caricature of a sad-sack soldier for me to start siding with the Black Hand. I wanted world war one to start anyway, just to spite this guy.
Stanton is so thinly drawn, you might think Ben Elton used a template from one of those “How to write your bestseller in 30 days” books. Poor characterisation could be excused if this were a novel that your crazy uncle wrote at his creative writing class: at least it got him out of the house for a bit. But this is a novel by Ben Elton, who wrote scripts for Blackadder. He’s supposed to be pretty good at this stuff. Blackadder Goes Forth and its poignant yet enormously funny treatment of the Great War is one of the biggest reasons why people will bother to pick up this book.
The sections featuring Isaac Newton read like extracts from the journal of someone who has had a particularly vivid cheese dream the night after binge watching Wolf Hall.
What about the affable Cambridge don who recruits Hugh to this hare-brained scheme? Well she’s probably the best thing in the book, a sort of cross between Stephen Fry and one of the two fat ladies. (Incidentally, as fun and frothy alternate history novels go, you’d be well advised to pick up Fry’s “Making History” which covers similar territory with considerably more aplomb). However, Elton decides halfway through that’s she’s going to be evil and bumps her off just as her comic potential begins to dawn on the reader.
A gallumphing intellectual set loose on the past is more preferable to what actually ensues - a love interest who is (of course!) a suffragette and guess what?! She’s irish. Or rather “oirish” as Elton insists on adding italicised potayto ta bee shure repetitions after every instance of her reported speech. In 2015! What the heck was Ben Elton thinking? Why the hell didn’t whoever was editing this say something? Was there even an editor? I’m almost certain that there wasn’t.
The unfortunate thing is that in a mirror to the plot of this book, the paths untaken and the ripples that travel out from those choices mean that it is possible to see a better story within the mess. The last five chapters are more interesting as Ben Elton’s construction of time travel is clever enough to include a mechanism for timelines to cross over, so we get to see the onward effects of time travel. However, those alternate time lines and their impact should have more emphasis in the plot. After all, isn’t that what you expect from a title like “Time and Time Again”?
To conclude, I’d advise that you do not buy this book. Instead, please invent a time machine and pinch my copy from me last Thursday. Thanks in advance.
Cover image is “Slinky Sunburst” by Max, creative commons license. I have not modified the image. I used an image of a slinky because the construction of time travel in the novel involves time and space being “like a slinky”.