Corrupting Dr. Nice

by John Kessel

A light look at exploitation of history

June 2001

The premise: Multinational, multitemporal Saltimbanque Corp. has commercialized time travel, and they've worked around the pesky lots-of-people-showing-up-at-the-same-time problem and the interference-with-the-future problem.

Or have they?

Some of the "historicals" (the natives of the eras which the time-hopping thrill-seekers have set up bases) are getting restless. In particular, Simon the Zealot, an apostle of Jesus left without a cause when promoters kidnap Jesus at age 23 from his particular time line, is tired of his 30 C.E. Jerusalem being held in thrall to these tourists from the future. He and a few others of the Zealot cause are using automatic weaponry to try to eject the time travelers and the Romans (the now-puppet rulers, bought off with antibiotics, air-conditioning, and Air Jordans, it seems) in one fell swoop.

Oh yes, a rich-boy paleontologist trying to carry a rare dinosaur back to 2062, and a father-daughter team of grifters are accidently caught in the middle of this (while the father of the pair attempts to abscond with Wilma, the dinosaur). Oh, and the rich boy has a bodyguard implanted in his brain which can make his body kung fu fight, when need be.

Had enough yet? The whole thing is ridiculous, but it's ridiculously fun. Though there seems to be some weighty pondering on exploitation of natives, more or less, it's never taken too totally seriously. Those who are annoyed by sci-fi authors who use time travel as an excuse to write about their favorite historical figures - will be only minorly annoyed, perhaps. Those who are tickled by a little Christian blasphemy will be amused, and those not overly adoring of Abraham Lincoln will snort at a particular moment in the novel. There are no =big ideas= in here, as one might get from Heinlein, there are no =new ideas= for that matter, but there's plenty of good humor in here. Nobody and nothing can be taken totally seriously in this book, except for Simon the Zealot. He's the only seemingly real person, with real worries, regrets, and passions, and I found his part of the story more interesting than anything else (from a serious point of view).

For those who complain that there are logical holes in Kessel's particular time travel premise: get over it. You simply cannot have time travel to the past and not have logical contradictions. You can travel to the future and not have problems (sure, you'll never get to go back where you came from, but just think -- personal jet packs! castles in the air! free computers for all!), you can even posit something that will let you =see= what happened in the past, but you can't travel to the past and not have absurdities popping up every place. Kessel himself knows this, and so has funny things like a 20-something pre-Christian St. Augustine running into a middle-aged, very devout St. Augustine at a 20th century academic conference, ending with them duking it out. Time travel is such a silly idea in sci-fi plots, and absurdity is Kessel's forte.

In any case, I think it's a great book for the beach (I read it while doing the laundry) - very light, no depressing thoughts, and smirks on every page.

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Mary Pat Campbell, last updated 19 June 2001