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The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley review – a seriously fun sci-fi romcom
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The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley review – a seriously fun sci-fi romcom

For a book to be good – really good, keep it on your shelf for ever good – it has to be two things: fun and a stretch. You have to need to know what happens next; and you have to feel like a bigger or better version of yourself at the end. Airport thrillers are almost always fun; much contemporary autofiction is just a stretch, largely because it’s very hard for a book in which not much happens to be a page-turner. What a thrill, then, to come to Kaliane Bradley’s debut, The Ministry of Time, a novel where things happen, lots of them, and all of them are exciting to read about and interesting to think about.

Bradley’s book is also serious, it must be said – or, at least, covers serious subjects. The British empire, murder, government corruption, the refugee crisis, climate change, the Cambodian genocide, Auschwitz, 9/11 and the fallibility of the human moral compass all fall squarely within Bradley’s remit. Fortunately, however, these vast themes are handled deftly and in deference to character and plot.

Billed as “speculative fiction”, it is perhaps more cheering to think of it as 50% sci-fi thriller, and 50% romcom. The Ministry of Time is chiefly a love story between a disaffected civil servant working in a near-future London, and Commander Graham Gore, first lieutenant of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the Arctic. Gore, last seen grimly walking across the ice in 1847, has been retrieved from the jaws of death by a 21st-century government hellbent on testing the limits of time travel.

Gore is one of their “expats”: people brought through time and subjected not just to a barrage of tests but the tumult of the 21st century (traffic lights, acknowledging the atrocities of the British empire, Instagram). The expats have some problems with “hereness and thereness”: they don’t register, necessarily, on an MRI scan or an airport scanner. What is a person? What is time? How can the answers to these questions further our geopolitical interests?

Each expat has been assigned a “bridge”: part companion, part zookeeper, part researcher. The bridges share their homes, their lives – and perhaps more – but must file complete reports on every aspect of their new “friend” to an increasingly sinister HQ. Ursula K Le Guin wrote that the job of sci-fi was “to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire”. It is impossible to read The Ministry of Time and not feel that we are, in fact, mere years from “nose-bleeder” heatwaves, microchipped refugees and a government at war with itself.

One test of good sci-fi is how quickly the central premise, however fantastic, becomes so obviously true to both character and reader that the plot is permitted to move itself without any further conscious suspension of disbelief. The space blasters, or whatever, must feel as real as the people; and the people must not be left behind in the author’s quest to accurately describe (to quote Raymond Chandler) the poltexes and disintegrators and secondary timejectors. The Ministry of Time needs no such ritzy shortcuts: when the blue lights and lasers emerge, we have earned them.

The test of a good romance novel is, in some ways, the same. Cliche is a feature, not a bug; readers expect a certain set of beats, played to a certain rhythm. Girl meets boy; boy and girl fall in love over one hot summer; complications (in this case, guns, governments and an age gap of 200 years) ensue. The couple must kiss; and, while a happy ending is not mandatory (luckily for Bradley), there must be some sense of hope.

This is – astonishingly – a hopeful book. Much as our narrator would like us to believe chiefly in her failures, ultimately she exists around them and through them as a person in her own right. A nameless bureaucrat, through the course of the novel she (as she puts it of Gore) “fills out with attributes like a daguerreotype developing”. This is our hope, then, in the novel as in life: that people should become more than they thought they were. Life is worth living; and love is worth fighting for; and our characters – hereness and thereness notwithstanding – can and must do it. Won’t they? Would you? These are the big questions, and Bradley smuggles them in, concealed amid a breakneck plot just as the time outlaws hide among suburban London streets.

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For, despite its vast scope, The Ministry of Time reads like a novel that was written for pleasure. The acknowledgments reveal that the story began life as a joke for a handful of friends – and while it is not always true that a joy to write is a joy to read, this is the kind of summer romp that also sparks real thought. While Bradley’s writing can veer towards the glib, go with it: give in to the tide of this book, and let it pull you along. It’s very smart; it’s very silly; and the obvious fun never obscures completely the sheer, gorgeous, wild stretch of her ideas.

Source: theguardian.com