Curious Notions: a novel of Crosstime Traffic
by Harry Turtledove
Hunger and energy deficits rocked the Home Timeline until the creation of Crosstime Traffic. Its purpose: trade with alternate universes to secure food and energy supplies.
Paul and his father have been stationed in a reality where Germany won the First World War and eventually conquered the world. This is a universe that bears careful watching, because it is one of the few advanced enough to be able to figure out the secret of cross-universe travel. If the Germans discover the technology, they could spread their rule to other realities.
Paul and his father run Curious Notions, a shop that sells trinkets from their reality that are all too strange in this one. They’ve caught the eye of the German secret police. To throw them off the scent, Paul’s father reports that they purchase the devices from Chinatown. When the German police arrest Paul’s father, he flees—but now the triads want him as badly as the Germans do. In a universe not his own, can Paul survive – or even get home?
Harry Turtledove has written a lot of books. He’s generally regarded as the master of alternate realities. I own a fair amount of his books and have enjoyed the few I’ve read.
This is not his best work.
The plot sang to me. Turtledove has created a likable protagonist in Paul. The world has all the gritty realism I’d expect from Turtledove. Yet, the first few chapters read like an amateur’s attempt at writing a novel. Turtledove infodumps with an amazing amount of tell-not-show. Then, to top it off, he gets annoyingly repetitive. Every time a character exchanges money, Paul thinks about the exchange rates between worlds – here twenty-five dollars will get a truck full of garlic, while back home a burger costs three benjamins (or about three hundred dollars). Every. Time. He. Buys. Something. Oh, and that happens a fair amount.
I mentioned this to my wife, and she asked me if the book was written as a serial. If it was, that would certainly explain some of the repetitiveness, but I don’t see anything in the indica that would make me think it was published as anything other than a novel. Was Turtledove aiming for a teen audience and decided to “write down” to them? I find that more likely; the protagonist is likable but encumbered with many teen protagonist clichés.
To top it off, I never felt any danger in this story. Of course, I just finished reading a Shusterman novel, and Shusterman is a master of encroaching dread. Yet, this was a world where Big Brother wasn’t that far off from reality. I should have felt a claustrophobic terror, yet I never got the sense that the characters were truly in danger. At one point, Paul is arrested by the secret police and held captive. Nope; no sense of danger. Nothing bad really happens to him.
Perhaps this is a case of Turtledove playing it safe. Perhaps it’s a case of him writing for teens and thinking that they can’t handle reading about pain. If that’s what happened, Turtledove gravely underestimates his readers.
It’s really too bad. I love the set-up of Crosstime Travel. He’s got several more in the series; I’m hoping to try another soon to see if Curious Notions is just a dud in the set. I’m hoping so.