by Billy Dee Williams and Rob MacGregor
Published by Tor Books
352 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Bruce Byfield
Stories about changing reality are a staple of science fiction. From Robert E. Heinlein's By His Bootstraps and Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity through Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven and beyond, variants on the theme have recycled endlessly. The theme is so familiar that new variants can no longer rely on the novelty of the basic idea to hold readers' interest. Even the dodge of having every attempt to manipulate result in worse problems has been done too many times to rely on. Instead, they need a new twist, interesting characters, or stylistic verve. Billy Dee Williams and Rob MacGregor's JUSTIN/Time has none of these things. It is simply a competent replay of themes that have been already used far too often.
JUSTIN/Time is a sequel to Psi/Net. Like Psi/Net, the novel features psychic spy Trent Calloway, his not-so estranged wife Camila Hidalgo and their efforts to overcome their enemies and prevent a disaster. The trouble is, after two books, the writers' powers of invention are already starting to wear thin. Both books feature a threat against Washington, DC, and the same major villain, although in this book he is imprisoned in body, if not in spirit. This repetition of major plot elements give the book a tired feeling. You don't even have to have read Psi/Net to feel this weariness, because JUSTIN/Time guarantees giving you a feeling of repetition by summarizing the first book at some length.
Never more than adequate, the writing in JUSTIN/Time is breezy at best, never stopping for development. People face death, disgrace, or the destruction of people around them with all the passion of a seasoned commuter in another traffic jam. For example, when Trent and his partner realize that their moral scruples may have caused the disaster they were trying to avoid, the realization is given no more than a single sentence. True, you can tell that the realization is serious because it is given a paragraph to itself at the end of a chapter, but the realization does nothing to slow the heroes down. In fact, by the start of the next chapter, they seem to have forgotten it altogether. And, at times, the writing descends far into the depths, as when Trent does psychic battle with his enemy Ritter:
He felt a surge of anger rise when he recognized Ritter's foul presence. He heard him cackling, enjoying his ability to interfere. Calloway had to work around him. He imagined himself leaping over Ritter and settling right into Tera's mind.
In passages like this, the last seven decades' of struggle to improve the writing of science fiction have never happened. It's the mid-30s again, and Weird Tales' purple prose is still the standard.
The minor characters show the same style of caricature. Justin Logos, the title character, changes personality depending entirely on whether he gets his lithium or not. Nor does Justin's New Age recasting of the struggle of good and evil as the conflict between the Thunderbird and the Vulture manage to be anything except annoying in its shallowness. Doc, Trent's associate, has more potential, being a fat woman in the glamour-conscious worlds of high politics, but nothing much is done with her, so she suffers the same lack of development as all the others.
With the major characters, this superficiality is mixed with inconsistency. Trent Calloway, a man who has rejected the world of psychic intrigue for the more satisfying life of a wilderness guide, returns to his former life with hardly a backwards glance. For that matter, his senior partner in the guide business lets him go with barely a token complaint, even though Trent is more than half the business. Perhaps these reactions are meant to suggest a deep-rooted patriotism, an unspoken willingness for the characters to sacrifice themselves for the good of their country. However, these motives have to be well-developed to be credible in a modern setting. A simpler explanation is that the characters are as shallow as they appear.
Camilla, Trent's estranged wife, is no better fleshed out. She is supposed to be the President's press secretary, but she is mostly shown as a clerical worker. The one exception, when she collapses during a press conference, is even edited out of existence as one reality replaces another. For a workaholic, she has surprisingly few qualms about dropping her responsibilities to take a few days to patch her marriage together. Characters like this are impossible to care about, because they never come into focus. Instead of being concerned with what happens to them with each change in reality, readers are more likely to be confused and bored.
To make matters worse, the writers show little awareness of how to make SF speculation effective or believable. As E. E. Doc Smith proved in the 1940s, even mediocre writing can hold a certain fascination if the events described are big enough. However, the events in JUSTIN/Time are trivial, even if they have large consequences. With only glimpses of the larger consequences, the changes are not enough to hold any interest.
Stories about special powers are endlessly fascinating to the SF audience. They appeal to the inner adolescent. However, to make the stories credible to the outer adult, they require limits. That's why experienced writers are careful to place limits on their heroes' powers, or to match them with villains of equal strength: Superman without Kryptonite or Lex Luthor would soon become boring to anyone over the age of five. But JUSTIN/Time does neither of these things. Trent seems able to pull a magical rabbit out of his hat whenever necessary. Suddenly, he can peer magically into the future. Suddenly, he can change the outcome of events in the past by mentally nagging the people involved in them. Admittedly, his opponents show the same convenient growth in powers, but they never seem to learn their new skills as quickly as Trent, so they are never a match for him.
The low point of this treatment comes at the conclusion of the book. Having manipulated reality to the desired end, Trent has to reinsert himself into the flow of events -- and then relive everything that he has just witnessed. Fortunately, readers are spared more than the start of this process, but the damage is done. Nothing that has happened in the book has actually happened and the story becomes a cheat, only half a step up from a declaration that it was all a dream.
Billy Dee Williams has a fan following for his acting in the Star Wars series and the relative success of Psi/Net probably guarantees reasonable sales for its sequel. Written by someone else, however, JUSTIN/Time would be simply another mid-list book. It's good enough to fill a gap in a publisher's schedule, fast-paced enough to kill a few hours with and shallow enough for no one to care if they never picked it up again once they had put it down. | July 2000
Bruce Byfield is a freelance high-tech journalist, product manager and technical writer. A recovering academic, he is a widely published poet, as well as the writer of the standard reference on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber. His other obsessions include raising Nanday conures, running long, painful distances, listening to punk-folk music and indulging a four-to-10 book per week reading habit.