The enduring appeal of fiction that asks: what if…?

A classic sci-fi reissue and a debut novel are testament to the enduring fascination that speculative fiction possesses for us all.

An enormous image of the Statue of Liberty on show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1986. The statue plays a crucial role in Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel Time and Again. Charles Frattini / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images / May 2014
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In the preface to this new edition of Jack Finney's classic time-travel novel, Time and Again [], the novelist Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife) cites the first line of The Go-Between by L P Hartley: "The past is another country; they do things differently there." Historical fictions such as Hartley's novel or Tolstoy's War and Peace or, more recently, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall aim to bridge the present and past, to let their readers travel to that other country to see how things are done. Often, however, historical novels aspire to convey not only the "pastness" of the past but also its links to the present, demonstrating how both practices and events from the past shape the ways in which we do things now.

Novels of time-travel like Time and Again dramatise these concerns literally by crossing into the realm of speculative fiction, a genre that poses "what if" questions to the reader. "What if time travel were possible?" is the starting point for time-travel fictions, but this question often leads to others: "How would the present be different if things were different in the past?" "What if it were possible to change the past? Would we want to do it?"

These questions animate the plot of Time and Again. First published in 1970 during the Cold War, the novel dramatises a secret government project that is attempting to send people into the past by enabling them to understand Einstein's conception of the simultaneous existence of the past, present and future – and then act on it.

In the novel, the project’s director, a Harvard theoretical physicist named E E Danziger, tells Simon Morley, an artist being recruited for the project, that Einstein “said we’re like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can’t see the past back in the bends and curves behind us. But it’s there.” For men with potent imaginations like Morley, it should be possible, Danziger argues, “to be able to step out of that boat onto the shore. And walk back to one of the bends behind us.”

Morley goes back to the year 1882, because he's interested in understanding the meaning of an artefact possessed by his friend Kate, a letter to which an ominous note is appended: "That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World (a word seemed to be missing here at the end of the top line where the paper was burnt) seems well-nigh incredible". It isn't giving away too much of the plot to note that the "World" in question turns out to be the building housing the offices of the New York World newspaper, which actually did burn down in 1882.

That fire is one of the actual historical events on which Finney draws in weaving his tapestry of fact and fiction. (Another delightful fact is the storing of the arm of the yet-to-be-assembled Statue of Liberty in Madison Square, which makes it a convenient place to stage one of Morley’s returns to the present, this time in the company of a friend from the past, who is stunned to find herself in the arm’s 1970 location atop the statue on Liberty Island in New York harbour.) Finney wrote in a footnote to the novel that he “tried to be factually accurate in this story”, making sure that such details as the routes of horse cars and description of the lobby of the famous Astor House are correct. “Occasionally,” he writes, “my efforts at accuracy became compulsive,” but his attention to detail gives the novel a texture that makes the past palpably present. The new edition reproduces the original illustrations that accompanied Finney’s book, based on actual period drawings but presented as part of Morley’s documentation of his experiences, further adding to the novel’s “historical” texture.

The year 1882 is only one of the novel’s two time periods, however, and no secret government project in a Cold War novel can be as benign as Danziger suggests. Morley is eventually sent back (over Danziger’s objections) to alter the past in order to prevent one of America’s enemies from ever coming to power, which leaves him with more than one moral dilemma.

Stephen King has said that Time and Again "is the great time-travel story", and that's true. In fact, it's doubly true, because the novel has now become something of a period piece itself, recreating not only New York in the 1880s, but also America during the Cold War – both of which offer windows into our present moment.

Alena Graedon's first novel, The Word Exchange [], makes an excellent companion to Finney's Time and Again. It's also a speculative fiction set in New York – not in the past, however, but in a not-too-distant future in which individuality is threatened by the ability of large corporations to manipulate our lives through technology. Like Finney's novel, The Word Exchange is also interested in the relationship between the past and present, which it approaches through the idea of language. On the novel's first page, the central protagonist, Ana Johnson, writes: "Words, I've come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. … Without words, we're history's orphans."

Graedon extrapolates from some of our current habits – our increasing reliance on smartphones and social media; the ability to download information, songs and apps from the Cloud; the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores and with it the slow but inexorable decrease in demand for printed texts – to create a dystopian vision that has the feel of present reality.

In The Word Exchange, smartphones have morphed into devices called "Memes", manufactured by a single sinister company called Synchronic, Inc. Memes supply us with "limns", pieces of text that have become substitutes for both printed books and today's e-books, although they do much more. Memes are what Google Glass promises to be: a virtual reality interface to which we are constantly connected and that supplies us with the data we think we need to get through the day: appointment reminders, phone contacts, payment services and the like.

It soon becomes clear, however, that rather than simply assisting us, the Meme subtly begins to control us: it doesn’t simply learn our preferences and desires; instead, it actively shapes them, taking advantage of the passivity that afflicts users who are used to having everything supplied to them without thinking about it

Synchronic is like a malevolent amalgam of search engine, retailer and hardware supplier: it seeks to corner the market on information, down to the very definition of words. “The Word Exchange” turns out to be an app that can supply you on the fly with the meanings of words that you’ve forgotten or never learnt – for a fee, of course.

Cornering the market means eliminating competitors, and the novel begins with the disappearance of Ana's father, a genius named Douglas Samuel Johnson, who (like his 18th-century near-namesake) is the editor of a dictionary. Doug Johnson's North American Dictionary of the English Language is one of the two dictionaries not controlled by Synchronic (the other is the OED), and it's in its last print edition, which means it will soon only exist in the digital domain that Synchronic has come to dominate.

The Word Exchange mixes Ana's point of view with that of her father's assistant, Bart, who discovers that Synchronic is replacing the words in the NADEL with nonsense words, which then slowly infiltrate the speech of Meme-users. The novel takes up one of science-fiction's abiding themes: what happens when the technologies that we create get out of our control and have consequences that we hadn't foreseen? Synchronic's nefarious corporate strategy backfires when the creation of nonsense-words goes viral and begins to infect Meme-users – sometimes fatally. The world threatens to devolve into a version of the Tower of Babel, in which communication becomes impossible.

Graedon's novel is a delightful mash-up of noir, cyberpunk and novels about post-collegiate angst. Its treatment of language as a virus will remind science-fiction aficionados of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet, while its exploration of the relationship between memory and identity recalls such films as Blade Runner, Memento and Inception. And its inventive use of language, as both its narrators begin to succumb to word flu, evokes the playful linguistic experimentation of Anthony Burgess.

The classical Greek philosopher Plato worried about the technological change called writing: he feared that over-reliance on writing would weaken our memories and make us think that we know more than we do. The Word Exchange takes Plato's fear about the harmful effects of reliance to another order of magnitude, although the philosopher who seems most to be on its mind is Hegel: Graedon playfully structures the book according to a pseudo-Hegelian model of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It's a brainy sort of book about what happens when we stop using our brains.

Cyrus Patell teaches literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and is the author of Emergent US Literatures: From Multiculturalism to Cosmopolitanism in the Late-Twentieth-Century, forthcoming this autumn from NYU Press.