Tuesday, December 23, 2014

New Alcatraz, by Grant Pies: Time Travel, Freedom, and Five Good Things About Good Fiction

Author’s Note: The book reviewed here was written by the brother of one of my good friends, Warren Pies. I have done my best to not let that bias my review, but I do think this book is awesome. I recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by time travel, freedom or the future. You can find the book here, and you can read more from the author at For future reference, most of my reviews on this blog will be positive. Why? Because I am only reading books I think I will like. Life is too short to read books you hate.

I think about time travel all the time. Or at least I used to. It’s one of those concepts any kid with a ripe imagination should think about seriously. It’s cool, right? So when my friend told me his brother had just published a book about time travel, I knew I wanted to read it. This book, New Alcatraz, did not disappoint. It gets the reader thinking about how time travel could be used and, more importantly, whether time travel could allow us to see time as a fourth dimension that does not always run in a straight line.

NA is debut effort of Florida author Grant Pies. It is part science fiction, part action thriller, part political statement, and part essay on the meaning of human existence. While it has a few small flaws, the book is, on the whole, top notch. The story centers on a narrator named Powell, who lives in a dystopian future where time travel and android technology have been invented but are heavily controlled by a shady cartel of federal government agencies and massive corporations. Powell comes from difficult origins, with his mother dying at his birth and his father dying when Powell is still a young boy, but he manages to get through school and settle into a career as a lawyer. Powell’s life is reduced to dreary routine until he is abruptly arrested on charges of murdering a “Time Anomaly Agent,” a person who patrols for unauthorized time travelers. Powell is framed and convicted of the murder, and he is sentenced to a prison called “New Alcatraz,” a time 3,000 years in the future when all human life on Earth has ceased to exist.

First, the flaws: the start of New Alcatraz is not as exciting as the rest of the book, and it contains a little of the sloppiness you expect from a self-published book. While Pies’ economical language makes it easier to charge through some of the slower parts of the early story, the pace does not pick up until after the first 100 pages. The other major issue is the parade of overdone murder scenes. I am all for good descriptive writing, but Pies goes into graphic detail about every flesh wound and murder incurred in the book. I did not have any problem getting through these scenes, but anyone with a distaste for violent language (or a weaker stomach) will have a harder time with them.

Beyond these minor caveats, NA is great, and it tackles two topics I really enjoy:

1. Big Business and Big Government vs. Individuals
NA describes a future in which the North American government and large corporations have control of all science and technology. The most advanced of this science is the ability to travel through time. In the world of New Alcatraz, the government has a monopoly on legal time travel, and they conduct all time expeditions from a giant vault buried hundreds of feet below the Denver Airport (in real life, the Denver Airport has a legend surrounding it about a hidden underground vault. You can read a tongue-in-cheek account of it here). The government’s stated rationale is time travel is too dangerous in the hands of private citizens, and it therefore must be controlled by a central power.

When covering the subjects of big business and big government, writers often use cliches denouncing “evil corporations” and perpetuating government conspiracy theories. Pies takes a more thoughtful route. He asks the reader a question throughout the book: are we better off letting large companies and government dictate the course of technology, or should individuals be the ones to drive progress? The answer in NA is clear: significant government interference in technology is bad for technology, and it will squander the potential of human discovery. 

Being a small-government, free market kind of guy, I agree with Pies’ point of view here. Consider the Viennese economist Joseph Schumpeter. He argued in his book The Theory of Economic Development that government or big business does not sustain the modern economic system. Rather, an enigmatic creature known as the “entrepreneur” keeps the system going. The entrepreneur, not the standard businessman, creates new products and develops new technology. Without the entrepreneur, capitalism stagnates as people become more comfortable, and the system eventually collapses under its own weight. 

As Schumpeter points out, the entrepreneur does not necessarily need monetary incentive to work at his craft. After all, the businessman, not the innovator, is really the one making the lion’s share of the money. The entrepreneur does his work for the joy of either conquering new worlds or creating new things. Since innovators are driven by intangibles beyond money or status, governments do not necessarily need to “encourage” entrepreneurship. The government (and, for that matter, all types of private business) should simply not stifle creativity and self-reliance, as these qualities often lead to an entrepreneurial mindset. Because without the possibility for original creation, human civilization might stagnate or decline as portrayed in New Alcatraz.

2. Time Travel
Call me old-fashioned, but I struggle to picture time as anything but chronological. Like any good time travel story, NA challenges this idea immediately. Pies lays out the book in non-linear fashion, jumping between court cases hashed out in 2070, childhood adventures 20 years earlier, and temporal prison three millennia in the future. At first the reader thinks he knows what constitutes the present, past and future in the story, but these definitions become blurrier as the book moves along. By the end, I was persuaded that moving between different points in time at will is possible. More importantly, it made me believe that it is possible, or even preferable, to live life out of order.

The best explanation of the time travel paradox comes in an extended passage on pages 239 to 241 from one of the supporting characters, a scientist named Dr. Adler. He says, “Imagine on that piece of paper is a person, a two dimensional person. Imagine that a two dimensional cage surrounds the person. A square. To them their entire world is to the left and the right of them. To that person he is trapped, but to an outside three dimensional observer like us, this person is not trapped.” He continues later, “Now imagine that there is a person, a three dimensional person, stuck in a cell. Not just a square, but a cube...the same concept holds true for this three dimensional person.” He concludes, “To a fourth dimensional observer, it is just as simple to rescue the third dimensional person from his cube.”

For us in only three dimensions, a fourth seems incomprehensible, but time is not a constrictive linear scale. It is in theory possible to jump across time just as you might fly on a plane from New York to Los Angeles. It is also, in theory, possible to be in two places at one time and to experience multiple realities. This leads to another question: is there only one, predestined version of events? NA does not give a definitive answer, but I enjoyed the thoughts of another supporting character in the story, Hamilton. He says, “The end and the beginning of all time will be indistinguishable. Looking backward in time will be the same as looking forward, and all things will essentially be reset. Recycled. We will do all of this over again; we already have.” He is either saying all events will take place again in the same way, or saying all events will be redone in millions of different iterations. I, for one, prefer the latter interpretation. It is more freeing to ignore what is supposed to happen and instead focus on what is possible. If you have that attitude, time becomes as trivial as the measurements of your living room.

These two big concepts tie in nicely with my theme of “I know nothing” from last week. This blog is a journey of self-discovery for me, and New Alcatraz allows me to add “see beyond your own world” and “don’t let others define your world for you” to my list of lessons learned. Maybe at the end of this journey, I will publish a huge list of these lessons learned for the world to read. Until then, here is a slightly less ambitious list of things I have learned about reading:

Five Good Things About Good Fiction
  1. It’s entertaining. Call me a spoiled, entitled millennial, but I want to be entertained constantly. Also, most professionals read non-fiction writing for their work that is dry as hell. So, if you want something that is stimulating but still self-improving, a good novel is a good way to go. I am all about learning and hard work, but I also think long bouts of productivity can only be gotten if they are punctuated with intermediate bouts of blowing off steam. Since video games and television are usually stupor-inducing time wasters, fiction is your best bet.
  2. It’s fast-paced. Good non-fiction writing is tremendous. I will read anything Michael Lewis, mostly because he focuses on character development more than most reporters. But good non-fiction can also be a slog. If you have a 300-page book on the Battle of the Somme, it could take you weeks to get through it if you really want digest all of its main points. Good fiction moves much faster, especially if the author is economical with the language in the book. See New Alcatraz as Exhibit A.
  3. It gets you into the groove of reading. Do you want to be the next John Lyon and start your own book-a-week challenge? First, find a less pathetic goal. Second, do NOT begin with the latest biography on Xanthippe (Socrates’s wife and the namesake of the Lyon family’s first cat). Pick up a book you know will hook you immediately. Don’t worry if you think that book is a guilty pleasure. It’s probably better if the book is a guilty pleasure, because you will zoom through it with ease. Start with whatever gives you momentum with your reading, then move on to the tough stuff.
  4. It inspires the imagination. Non-fiction is very structured and restrictive. It lays out an argument or story point by point, and the author can do very little to deviate from the logical progression of the piece. Fiction does not have these constraints. It can be non-linear in nature, include passages of song or poetry, and begin in the middle of things. It can also create its own reality, its own dimensions and its own visions of the world. Good non-fiction must operate within the boundaries of what is. Good fiction pushes those boundaries to challenge our own view of the truth.
  5. It can make your writing less boring. Try using a motif to introduce some rays of light to an otherwise bleak office-wide email, or start smaller and use onomatopoeia to create buzz for your next company event. At worst, adding acceptable alliteration alienates asinine associates. At best, it makes people think, “that person is super literate.” Either way, it will be fun. In fact, I promise to use a literary device in at least three office communications this week. If you want, you can do the same and post them (anonymously, if you wish) to the comments section below.
Next week, I will tackle a classic which I did not give proper due when I first read it in high school, and I will ask a more pointed question: “does high school make students hate books?” Later skaters.

No comments:

Post a Comment