Book review: The Map of Time

June 28, 2011

Forget vampires, zombies and werewolves. It’s time to set a 19th-century author after a real monster: Jack the Ripper.

The idea of sending H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction, to catch the most notorious killer of the Victorian age is so delicious it’s surprising that nobody has come up with it before — except that they have.

Before Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time” was a sci-fi mystery by Karl Alexander in which the “Time Machine” author chases Jack the Ripper all the way to the 1970s.

But Spanish writer Felix J. Palma’s first novel published in the United States, “The Map of Time,” is such a big, genre-bending delight — and his sly execution is so different from Alexander’s plot — that I can’t imagine anyone crying foul. And, besides, Wells and the Ripper are just one storyline in this science-fiction, historical, fantasy doorstopper. In addition to Wells, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), Henry James and Bram Stoker all make appearances by the end of the three-part novel. And presiding over these time-trotting shenanigans is a fourth-wall-shattering narrator with a taste for overly arch comments.

When “The Map of Time” opens in London in 1896, a rich young man named Andrew Harrington is contemplating suicide. His true love, the prostitute Marie Kelly, was Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim. (It is perhaps curmudgeonly to mention that, generally, true love does not involve a nightly monetary exchange. But still.) Eight years after her murder, Harrington is pretty much the reason why the words “namby” and “pamby” were coined. Unless you enjoy hanging out with a self-pitying drip, these early chapters take some patience. But the novel picks up considerably once his cousin, fresh from visiting the apocalypse in 2000 courtesy of an outfit called Murray’s Time Travel, shows up with a scheme to go back and save Marie.

Harrington’s story is the first of three linked tales, all of which combine Wells, Murray’s Time Travel and some truly sneaky surprises. In the second, Palma riffs wittily on “The Terminator” (and “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) as a bored young woman dreams of trading her corseted age for the future. In the third, a Scotland Yard inspector tries to find a serial killer who is offing his victims with something that looks remarkably like a heat ray. But how do you arrest someone who hasn’t been born yet?

Fans of serious science fiction may find the story too metafictional. (Others may object that it’s clogged with too many adjectives.) But Palma writes with such shrewdness and glee that I enjoyed “The Map of Time” more than any time-travel novel since Connie Willis’s “To Say Nothing of the Dog.”

Victorian characters discourse with all the zeal of attendees at a “Star Trek” convention about parallel universes, whether you can change the past, and what would happen if you met a future you. There are references to everything from “Planet of the Apes” and “Doctor Who” to “Time Bandits” director Terry Gilliam and writers H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne (the other father of science fiction). The only thing missing is a DeLorean.

Zipp frequently reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.

THE MAP OF TIME

By Felix J. Palma

Translated from

the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Atria. 611 pp. $26

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