Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jesus Was a Time Traveler

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I procured this novel on my own, possibly motivated by the offer of a free download from Amazon, if my memory is to be trusted.)

Jesus Was a Time Traveler, D.J. Gelner
Read: 3 to 4 November 2013 
3.5/ 5 stars   

I can't say that I was disappointed in this bizarro-flavored take on time travel--it is more or less impossible to have lukewarm feelings about a book that unabashedly references the likes of Quantum Leap, the Back to the Future trilogy and Star Trek when it's not dropping lines like "Take that you Nazi assmonsters!"--but for a novel that presents some questions about the true chronological home of Our Lord and Savior directly in its title, Jesus Was a Time Traveler doesn't spend as much time with the eponymous Son of God as my predilection for purposeful irreverence had hoped. Though I suppose positing that Jesus of Nazareth was really a privileged hippie stoner from the future (albeit one with good intentions) could perhaps strike others as adequately blasphemous.

Instead of the organized-religion skewering I had expected, D.J. Gelner's novel offers up a time-hopping romp that dumps its hero, Dr. Phineas "Finn" Templeton, in a scattershot selection of eras ranging from the reign of dinosaurs to Maryland of 2042--the location, time and purpose of each jump having been predetermined by the mysterious Benefactor whose financial backing helped Finn build his time machine--to piece together its surprisingly zen-like observations about fate's role in shaping the events that shaped the world, both in the larger all-encompassing historical sense and the much smaller individual basis, while also serving up such decidedly un-scientist-like behaviors as casual drug use, one-night stands and what comes across as almost medically necessary alcoholism.

Finn is an affable enough fellow who's far less bitter than I would be when he discovers that the history books have attributed his time-travel breakthroughs to the dashing Commander Ricky Corcoran, with whom Finn spends a considerable chunk of the story and, despite an admirably controlled initial impulse to sock the usurper of his glory right in his heroically chiseled jawline, comes to begrudgingly tolerate the company of both the Commander and his comrade, Steve Bloomington, as the trio leapfrog their way back and forth across time with occasional help (and hindrance) from fellow time travelers, all of whom identify themselves with the Vulcan salute.

Finn's encounters with great men and minor players of the past offer a warning against turning fallible humans into historical legend, that perhaps letting the pretty lie that has been polished to an irresistible shine over millennia might just be better left as a widely accepted if unproven truth. The discovery that Jesus's miracles are nothing more than the work of hyper-modern science that baffle and astound an audience unfamiliar with such marvels comes early in the book, so each subsequent upheaval of longstanding regard for the past is a little less shocking. As it turns out, the inception of time travel works its way backward through time, allowing travelers to leave their unseen "I was here" marks all over history, such as the debt-plagued teacher who escapes his modern woes by tutoring (and mildly terrorizing) the seemingly hopeless Isaac Newton during his academically formative years.

Aided by the frequently uttered mantra of "Whatever happened, happened" acknowledging the Universe's way of righting itself and eliminating the paradoxes that could muck up the ways that certain events are meant to play out, and the quick-moving plot not allowing its protagonist much time to mull over his failures or close calls, Jesus Was a Time Traveler makes some surprisingly astute observations about the starring role that fate plays in assuring that history remains unmolested so the future plays out the only way it was ever meant to. The book's world embraces something of an amalgamation of the "canonical" time-travel theories put forth by other media that have tackled the hypothetical accomplishment's science and philosophy, though ultimately favors a Terminatoresque school of thought--that is, the immutability of what is destined to unfold--as the truth of time travel, rather than the more variable-dependent model that so many movies, shows and books have hinged their outcomes upon.

While the role and power of fate are explored quite extensively in these frantically paced pages, the inherent "goodness" or "evil" of technological breakthroughs gets quite a bit of attention, too. The time-traveling cosmonauts comprising this book's fictional personae speak of time travel being deregulated, meaning that almost anyone can experience the past for themselves. While some of these characters use these advances for good, such as seizing the opportunity to serve as battlefield nurses in past wars, others simply want to use their access to superior gadgetry to take advantage of their "inferior" predecessors. The same technology is available to the good guys and the baddies, offering a subtle but successful explanation that it's not the technology that's evil but the hands in which it falls, and that even then, mere perspective affects the perceived motivation of the technology's use: Weighing the good of the many against the good of the few looks a lot less admirable to those unlucky enough to be the few cut worms who must forgive the plough in the name of progress.

Like any off-kilter premise that uses wacky antics to underscore a moral imperative or three, Jesus Was a Time Traveler deftly sidesteps the dangers of sermonizing with its copious adventure, a healthy offering of humor and mostly likable characters whose depths aren't apparent until the big reveal turns everything that the audience--and Finn--think they know on its ear.

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