People of a certain age—especially those who spend a lot of time nurturing their comic and SF collections, and/or online—might find their lives reflected in this engaging, skilfully told tale. Highly recommended.
There’s No Time Like The Present is a graphic novel written and drawn by Paul Rainey, published by Escape Books ( www.escape-books.co.uk ) 2015.
Available from the Escape books site, Gosh! http://www.goshlondon.com, Foyles, MK Art Gallery, or order at you local bookshop by ISBN 978-0-9570694-1-1
The first thing to say about this book is that it is a true graphic novel—not, like some other books, a graphic short story dressed up as a novel. Reading it in one sitting is, I suppose, technically possible, but you would probably want a couple of meal breaks. Possibly also a night’s sleep.
TNTLTP started life as a series of self-published comics. Escape Books have collected the story into a single hardback book, beautifully designed and produced, and this is without doubt a Very Good Thing.
It is both a well-observed tale of the everyday lives of unexceptional people, and a wild science fiction story involving time travel and its far-reaching implications.
From his life in the southern English “new town” of Milton Keynes—not always thought of as an inspiring location—and from our early 21st century times, Paul Rainey has crafted a story which spans if not the whole of space, time and human experience, something pretty damn close.
One of his key insights is that life in a small town anywhere in the developed world is not lived solely in its streets and buildings. Inside the head of every resident is a world of the imagination, fed both from within and by the media we consume. This in itself is not new, of course. Our Neanderthal cousins probably had some kind of imaginative life. Our Victorian ancestors read both fiction and newspapers in increasingly huge quantities. What is new is the sheer quantity, scope and immediacy of information and novel experiences available from the new media, especially the online variety. We live in a world that a few generations ago literally was science fiction.
Life in Milton Keynes, in other words, is life simultaneously bounded by the concrete realities of the town and its opportunities (or the lack of them) and unbounded by unprecedented access to worlds beyond.
And if we are already living in a science fiction world… what comes next?
Paul Rainey’s story starts with a group of Milton Keynes residents very much living their ordinary lives. It would be grossly unfair to suggest that life in Milton Keynes (or in the early 21st century) can or should be reduced to a stereotype. Rainey does not attempt to do this, though the four specific people he focuses on, connected by threads of friendship and cultural interest, are drawn from a certain demographic—one he probably knows very well.
Kelly and Cliff are friends and flatmates. “I like it when you talk about The A Team,” Kelly tells Cliff. “It means you’re not rattling on about Dr Who.”
In skilful dialogue like this Rainey tells us a lot about his cast in a few panels. His art, as others have noted, is not the greatest. But it tells the story clearly and, crucially, he draws faces which reveal the emotions of his characters to good effect.
Here’s Cliff getting his preferred reading matter home.
(For those who might be uncertain, Previews is not a “glamour magazine”—or not in the usual sense. It’s a massive listing of all the comics and related paraphernalia released every month in the USA.)
Barry, in his thirties, lives with his parents, who argue about whether or not to throw him out. He collects DVDs and toys relating to science fiction in films and on TV. He is internet friends with Inspector Jive who is agoraphobic, but starting to get out of the house for the first time in ages. Barry gets pirated films from the Inspector and sometimes sells them to Cliff.
There’s No Time Like The Present falls neatly into three parts. In the first section, the four characters are young and just about getting by. This is where Rainey skilfully depicts slices of their non-affluent life, made more bearable by the soap opera and science-fiction to which they are devoted.
It might not be stretching things too far to suggest that these four epitomize some key aspects of contemporary British life. It is in fact possible to read this story as something of an allegory for the lives we live today—we in the world connected to television and the internet, that is.
Paul Rainey’s SF twist is that time travel has been invented in the near future, and is having effects in the present, as information and visitors arrive from times to come. This will inform the whole of the story, increasingly so in later chapters. One early result of this is that bootlegged future episodes of movie sagas like Star Wars and TV soaps like Emmerdale can now be downloaded from the “Ultranet”. Kelly is devoted to one particular soap, and Barry can get future episodes for her. This kicks off the neatly done storylines of Part One that bring the characters together in ways that are convincing and entertaining—funny and mildly tragic by turns.
One highlight of this section—among many—is Kelly’s agonising experiences with the formal twice-yearly appraisal process at the office where she works. This is excruciatingly well observed and nicely told. It will ring true with anyone who has been through the process. The early scenes around this are also followed up later in more ways than the reader might expect.
This part of the story reads very much like a superior soap opera in itself. Rainey’s cast are well set up for plot elements to come. The SF content is minimal. The world of today is coming to terms with what it is learning from the future. The ground rules under which time travel works are being laid down—there are limitations on what is allowed to happen, and new regulations are being brought in to ensure that the timelines are not messed up. There is to be no sudden arrival of utopia.
Ordinary life goes on much as before, with some knowledge of future events, but information about the future is not necessarily welcome or helpful. We are shown several examples of this. A visitor from the future attempts to set himself up as something between a celebrity and a politician. He does not prove popular with the citizens of Milton Keynes. The local comic shop owner finds out he will be superseded by a branch of a big chain (which may or may not be a fictionalised Forbidden Planet) in a few years’ time. The future has been glimpsed, but cannot be fully embraced.
Whether intended by Paul Rainey or not, it is impossible to read this without reflecting on our relationship with the internet today. As with previous new media, TV especially, the net promises so much, and indeed delivers to many of us, every day, an amazingly expanded knowledge base and experience of the world. And yet, wherever (and whenever) you go on your screen, you’re still at home (or in the library, or…). When the screen goes off, ordinary life goes on. Wonderment must co-exist with frustration. And where will it lead? Is it changing us, or, more pertinently, our children? What will the future be like for generations to come in this new online world?
TNTLTP answers some of those questions in its second section—at least for its characters. Some fifty years have passed, and the aged Cliff, Barry and the Inspector now hang out together at an old people’s day centre. They don’t mingle, but sit and to watch old Dr Who, Star Wars and Star Trek, and discuss the fate of their comics and SF collections when they die—which seems not far off. Indeed, the grim reaper does come calling, though with unexpected results.
In this section, Cliff has an encounter with a car driver which gave me the biggest laugh of the book—and there are many. I can’t say any more without giving away the joke. You’ll know it when you see it. In addition, there is a bit of spot-on analysis of Ang Lee’s disappointing Hulk movie. This I will spoil for you completely by reproducing it here. Someone else noticed how dumb the gamma-ray poodle was… so, I just can’t resist.
This section is in some ways a continuation of the first. Life in Milton Keynes goes on very much as before, while the final stages of separation from the world of the future are under way. This turns out to have particular implications for some of our cast. Without spoiling this excellent bit of Paul Rainey’s plot, I will say a certain amount about one story element, as it is in some ways the single outstanding part of the story.
Due to the situation with time travel etc., Barry is given a chance—as he sees it—to change his life for the better. However he is forced to consider whether the opportunity will really make him a better person. He realises that he is facing a stark choice, and in fact by giving up his chance for self-improvement through time travel, he could in fact ironically become a better person in the here and now.
This is beautifully handled by writer-artist Rainey. And as the story goes on, we are faced with a further question—would Barry’s ultimate choice actually make him a better person? Or is that too “pat”, almost a soap opera cliché in its turn? The story offers a further chance to reflect on that, and fittingly, without offering any obvious answer.
Also, there is a scene in which old men get to dress up as their favourite Dr Who. See? Just like real life.
If the first two sections of the book have merely flirted with the subject of time travel, Part Three jumps in with both feet. We are off on a dizzying ride through multiple time zones, with a plot involving Kelly in particular. This storyline is somewhat less convincing than the more grounded earlier parts, but still has a lot going for it.
It is comparable, in some aspects, to two classic science fiction texts—and this is not to suggest influence or plagiarism, but to praise Paul Rainey’s ambition and achievement. The books in question are Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956) and Michael Moorcock’s trilogy, The Dancers at the End of Time (1972-76).
Like Bester’s outlaws teleporting through space, Rainey’s travellers “jaunt” wildly through time and place, their worlds and their lifestyles massively expanded in potential. Rainey shows us some who fully embrace this change, others who can only cope with it in limited doses.
Like Moorcock’s decadent Dancers, Rainey’s travellers can live out their lives as one long party. They can choose their location and lifestyle, and shape their own identities, in innovative ways which the past did not allow for. Gender roles blur, as indeed does gender itself when increasingly profound body modifications are possible.
Not only in the subject matter of teleportation, time travel and reality-bending, Bester’s and Moorcock’s texts are also notable—like TNTLTP—for their sense of inclusivity. Younger modern readers might find them dated in this regard, as real life has been catching up with SF to an unprecedented degree. But The Stars My Destination and The Dancers at the End of Time will live on as classic texts partly for that very reason—they expressed the Zeitgeist of the late 20th century and noted/anticipated the changes that were happening. SF, at its best, can allegorise our own times for us like no other fiction. That is not to say that it has to do this in order to be good. It is one way in which it can achieve greatness.
Again, whether Paul Rainey intended this or not, I cannot read this third section of TNTLTP without comparing this life of time travel with our own times. We have the ability to move around the world, if not at will then at least with far more ease than previous generations, and more “on impulse.” And we have more ability to choose—or express—our lifestyle, our look, our sexuality. And yet, we have limitations due to our personalities, our emotions and obsessions, our determination and courage, or lack thereof. Held together by a plot involving motherhood and jealousy, these are all in Paul Rainey’s fictional mix.
(There is perhaps an avoidance of the question of money. For various reasons Rainey’s characters seem largely unconstrained by financial limitations. In our world this is an unavoidable issue—I am thinking of travel in particular—though again we now face much smaller costs than our recent forebears did. We cannot all live like the wealthy of the 20th century did on the Riviera. Arguably we in the developed world can now afford enough of these good things that our existence can be allegorized as Paul Rainey—perhaps—does here. Or maybe he is thinking more of the world of the imagination, augmented by the internet, as he seemed to be in parts one and two. If you can afford a broadband connection, arguably “all this can be yours” without stepping outside your door.)
At the end of the story, we shift gear yet again, to find out where all the future’s time travel and other advanced technology is leading. If not the ultimate expression of human ingenuity, the science here has at least achieved something that is clearly a huge watershed in human existence.
And like the great SF writers who precede him, Rainey knows that these big ideas mean nothing if they do not relate to the person reading the story. And so it all comes down, as with Barry earlier, to a moment of human choice for Cliff—and, the story says, for all of us in the end. There are two paths. No rush, but at some time you will need to decide. Go one way or the other.
Ultimately though, there is one place where everybody goes, real or fictional. Death is involved in TNTLTP‘s final scene, though not precisely as we know it today. The choice being offered at the end of this splendid book is perhaps not really one from the far future, but of the here and now. Like Jerry Cornelius in the film version of Moorcock’s The Final Programme, Paul Rainey is not so much looking ahead as looking around—ahead’s already here.
A metaphorical choice then, and one which isn’t as binary as it sounds. Maybe TNTLTP is suggesting that the choices we make every day, right now, are the ones which count. The present is all we really have. Are we going to embrace more of the opportunities it offers, or close down choices and limit our life unnecessarily? Get out more? Watch screens less?
And, this being a graphic novel, not a text one, Rainey brings it to a close with a suitably graphic device. We entered his excellent book via a blank white page from our world, which—like Milton Keynes—is part mundane reality, and part imagination. We have exited back to our “real” world. Between the book’s covers, we have read a superb, entertaining story which also perhaps stimulates some thought about the nature of that reality, and the lives we lead in it.
And if it has left us with some food for thought, or just with the urge to get out and meet some people… There Is, after all, No Time Like the Present.
Or, to end with another Moorcock quote, “It’s now or never… it always bleeding well is!”