Book Review: Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve read several books by Joyce Carol Oates, mainly short story collections. I think I also once read a memoir having to do with her early writing experiences. Oates frequently ventures into the realms of dark fantasy and horror in her fiction. When I heard about Hazards of Time Travel, I thought that it would be interesting to read what she comes up with in the genre of science fiction.

The book has a great premise. After 9/11, in an alternate future, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have consolidated to form the North American States, or NAS. The rich have taken over and have the mass of the populace under tight surveillance and strictly controlled. This government also has technology that makes time travel possible, and one method it uses to punish dissidents is to send them into the past to certain backwards periods of history, where they have to live out a sentence of exile.

The protagonist is a teen girl named Adriane Strohl. Her crime is that she stands out too starkly from the mass of students by getting good grades and becoming class valedictorian; she then has the audacity to write an original valedictorian speech in which she asks questions about recent past history. She is arrested during rehearsal, cruelly interrogated at a facility for young criminals, and then sentenced to be sent for four years to a university in a small town in Wisconsin in 1959.

The arrest, detention, interrogation, and trip to the past all take place very quickly in the first few chapters. This part of the book is suspenseful and fast-moving. I couldn’t wait to get on to the next part set in Middle America in 1959 and 1960. I thought that it was a terrific idea to send this young woman from an Orwellian future world back to a United States obsessed with the Cold War, the McCarthy anti-communist hearings, the struggle for civil rights for minorities and women, and other volatile issues of the time. I could envision all sorts of wild and absorbing plot possibilities.

Unfortunately, Oates does not explore any of these issues and in fact barely mentions them in passing. Instead, once Adriane is transported to the past and moves into the dorm that she shares with a host of white conservative farm girls from Wisconsin, the story slows way down. The description of her period of adjustment from the future to the past and her paranoia about making a wrong move and perhaps being killed by the oppressive government that sent her there is interesting. Apart from this, though, Oates ignores the fascinating era she has chosen as background and focuses on an infatuation that Adriane develops for a teacher who she discovers is also an exile. Chapter after chapter describes Adriane pining for and stalking this teacher; most of this could have been omitted and the book would have been much more powerful for it.

At the end of the novel, which I won’t disclose, the pace picks up again a bit. I can’t help but think, though, that there was so much historical material that Oates ignored, which, if it had been incorporated into the book, would have given it greater intensity and depth. I’m abruptly reminded of another time travel novel that takes its protagonist back to within a few years of this one, 11/22/63 by Stephen King. In contrast to Oates, King takes full advantage of the historical era to enrich his story. Although King’s novel is much longer than Oates’s, it moves faster and is a much more absorbing read.

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