(Vibrant Village Media; September 2011, Amazon Kindle 560 km, $2.99)
By the close of the 1800s, with European explorers steadily whittling away the last blank spaces on the map, Earth's geography held few remaining enclaves of mystery and darkness. And this was reflected in the fiction of the time, with stories of fantastic voyages in the manner of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels increasingly giving way to tales set in the future. A popular narrative approach was to have the main character be someone from the reader's own time who somehow fell into a protracted sleep, often of many years, and awoke to a drastically changed world. Well-known examples have included H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), Orson Scott Card's Hot Sleep (1979) and Peter Seidel's 2045 (2009).
Since its beginnings, the sleeper-awakes scenario has been one of the most commonly used frameworks for introducing fictional utopias and dystopias–yet somehow it doesn't feel overdone. The reason, I suspect, is that the sleep is incidental to the story, the true focus being the new world order and how it compares with the old. That's certainly the case with Patricia Frank's Falling Through Time, the story of a woman who travels into the future and takes us on a sort of guided tour of it. Her name is Summer Holbrook, and she's a prominent advertising executive who goes missing while vacationing in Alaska. After suffering a spill down a glacier crevasse, she freezes, falls into suspended animation and is found and rescued by a band of expeditioners in the year 2084.
She revives in rural Happy Camp, California, and the novel is largely a study of the contrast between her materialistic ideals and the pastoral anti-materialism of the town. If Happy Camp is any indication, this world of 2084 is a resource-depleted salvage society in which luxuries like motorized transport and electricity are unheard of and everyone adheres to a strict conservation ethic. People would never make something from scratch when it could be found in nature, nor use machine power where muscle would suffice. They wouldn't think of drying something with a mechanical dryer when it could easily dry on its own. Nor would they dream of consuming beef, given the harsh toll that raising livestock exacts upon the land. In short, stewardship of the Earth is no longer simply a nice thing to do; it's a matter of sheer survival.
But Summer refuses to accept any of this upon waking, believing instead that she's been plunked into a remote hippie community by a backstabbing coworker named Jason. She's determined to find a phone, call the office and return home to San Francisco as quickly as possible. But she's still too weak to leave on her own, so she secretly plots her escape while patronizing the loony townspeople.
Like Bill Murray's displeasing weathercaster in Groundhog Day, Summer can be quite funny when cursing the fate that stranded her in Happy Camp. And also like Murray's character, she alienates those around her with her rudeness and intolerance of their ways. For her, every new place is a potential market segment, and every new person a consumer in a marketplace. In her former life, she flaunted her designer clothes and BMW, saw nothing unseemly about the excesses of the profit motive, had little time for romance and alleviated the stresses of her lofty position with wine and antidepressants. In short, her nickname at the office, "Summer the Plunderer," pegged her perfectly.
Of all the people at Happy Camp, Summer reserves particular contempt for the healing professionals assigned to her care. Their methods draw on psychic healing, herbalism and other once-fringe practices that have become part of accepted medicine. When Summer first requests an MRI scan, she's told matter-of-factly that it's totally unnecessary because the town's "Mistress of Touch" is all the scanner she needs: she can magically peer inside people's bodies on account of being a "Sensitive." Summer is not impressed, and she begins taking careful notes on the treatments that these people are giving her so that she can sue them for malpractice.
Though she takes her pretty time doing it, Summer finally does grasp that this is the future and that the world that she knew is gone. She slowly becomes aware of a bleak period in human history through which she mercifully slept known as the Dark Times. Over a period of several decades, humankind was beset by a rolling wave of crises of its own doing, from pandemics to climate disasters to toxic buildup in our bodies. Summer's initial reaction once she understands the gravity of these times is to demand why those who saw them coming didn't do more to warn others. "We tried," she's told. "Oh lord, how hard we tried." But convincing others proved hopeless, so people focused instead on preparing themselves and their families by settling in sustainable communities like Happy Camp.
A peculiar but touching subtext of this novel has to do with the relationship that develops between Summer and a stray Collie dog that she adopts. Though it's hard at first to see her in a nurturing capacity, we totally buy it when she assumes the role of adoring, protective pet parent. It's one of several deftly interwoven threads in her development that give her a satisfying emotional arc.
The science fiction conceits that underlie Falling Through Time go against known laws of science, but are classic ones nonetheless. Psychic abilities and cryogenically induced human hibernation are not currently accepted science, yet both figure prominently in the work of Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Marion Zimmer Bradley and other major authors. If you're able to swallow the liberties that these writers take with science, you shouldn't have the least bit of trouble doing the same for Patricia Frank.
This novel's main defect is the inordinate amount of time that Summer remains in denial. Her Doubting Tammy repartee is fair enough at the beginning but quickly starts to wear on the reader. There was once a time when inserting a disbelieving character into a story helped readers suspend their own disbelief, but that time is long gone; the conventions of science fiction are now so familiar that such a character just seems like a stooge. Thus, I think that Summer's process of acceptance could have been dealt with in the story's first act, allowing us to more fully sense her entire transformation.
But this flaw is, I think, a pardonable one, and when Summer finally gets her chance to return to San Francisco in the novel's ending scene, we root for her. She's achieved true valor, and her redemption bodes well for our own. Falling Through Time finds little reason for optimism about the fate of modern civilization, but it's decidedly optimistic about the human race. Just because collapse is the only option left to us doesn't mean that we have to take it lying down.