Book review: Timefield, by Charlie Nash

31 03 2021

The astute among you will have noticed it’s been yonks since I last posted anything. In the spirit of addressing this problem, here’s a book review.

Charlie Nash is the SF-writer pen name of Australian novelist Charlotte Nash. I’ve previously worked with Nash’s short SF as an editor, having edited her story ‘Alchemy and Ice’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 61 and having coedited (with Edwina Harvey) her Aurealis Award shortlisted story ‘Derringer’, published in the Use Only As Directed anthology.

Nash has a PhD in creative writing. She also has degrees in engineering and medicine, and a clear affinity for technology and gadgetry which is on full display in her efficient and inventive prose. She has written numerous SF stories across the past decade or so; Timefield is her debut SF novel.

It’s characteristic of Nash’s writing that Timefield is not just one thing: it’s unashamedly steampunk, plays hard in the time-travel and alternate history domain, and earns its hard-SF stripes by virtue of its attention to technical detail. It’s also highly kinetic and strongly character-driven.

In a near-future London under the constant threat of drone-bombing, and worse, jobbing caretaker Leo has just been offered a spot of work by his theoretical-physicist sister Helen. Leo is a PTSD-afflicted ex-squaddie who has long been a bit of a disappointment to his sister, who felt he took the easy way out in choosing the military over completing his studies at Uni. Helen, for her part, has been secretly working to stave off the world’s environmental and geopolitical strife… by changing the past.

Nikola Tesla cannot believe his luck, having been given royal patronage, an almost free hand and a near-unlimited budget, so as to pioneer the development of cheap, transmissible electric power in the model late-Victorian borough of St Alberts. Tesla has been given an opportunity to reshape the world… and he intends to run with it. But he’s not the only one.

Tesla is an 1880’s inhabitant of the ‘timefield’ which Helen has engineered, an accessible time-shifted parallel reality which—if it attains certain standards of congruence with the reality in which Helen and Leo find themselves—can be allowed to coalesce with their own timeline, to change their history (and the present) for the better. But the timefield, which for months has been sliding slowly towards harmony, has recently begun sinking into chaos… which is bad news for Leo, who has been sent by his sister back in time to rescue her colleague David. It’s bad news, too, for Araminta, a young physically-disabled woman with extraordinary mathematical ability but none of the freedom that has been gifted to Tesla. It is Araminta’s efforts to gain a meeting with Tesla which place her at the focus of a high-stakes struggle for control of Tesla’s revolutionary new inventions, a struggle in which Leo and David also find themselves enmeshed.

Nash excels at crafting characters we can care deeply about, and in Timefield she has a well-constructed sandbox to let them loose in, and to break things whilst trying to fix things. It’s pacy and snappy and multilevelled: all in all, it’s a highly effective introduction to Nash’s work.