A twist on time travel | Author Scott Alexander Howard on his new speculative fiction novel, ‘The Other Valley’

In his debut work, Howard bends the rules of reality without taking on the burden of explanation

Updated - July 05, 2024 12:51 pm IST

Published - July 05, 2024 09:55 am IST

In the novel, there is a valley to the east that’s 20 years in the future, and the same valley in the west, set 20 years in the past. The same valley, the same people, but separated by time.

In the novel, there is a valley to the east that’s 20 years in the future, and the same valley in the west, set 20 years in the past. The same valley, the same people, but separated by time. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

I wanted the novel to feel like an extremely vivid dream,” says Scott Alexander Howard, talking to me from his home in Vancouver, about his first novel The Other Valley (Atlantic Books). 

The premise of the book is simple yet evocative: we are introduced to a picture-postcard of a town, ringed by high mountains and pine forests, with a lake that “stretched like a finger”; a bucolic vista like something from a Bradbury or a Narayan. Soon however we realise that something is off — there are strange visitors wearing grotesque masks. And we see a map with the same valley repeated in a longitudinal endlessness. Except, the valley to the east is 20 years in the future, and the valley in the west is 20 years in the past. The same valley, the same people, but separated by time.

Author Scott Alexander Howard

Author Scott Alexander Howard

To prevent people from wandering back and forth, altering reality at will, the border between the valleys is policed by a brutal paramilitary force, given to on-the-spot executions. And overseeing this is the Conseil, a sort of mofussil guardian of the timestreams. They decide visitation — who gets to go back, for instance, parents catching a final glimpse of a lost child; or go forward, a grandfather wanting to find out how his grandchild turned out. You can see, but you can’t change.

The story is told by Odile Ozanne, a shy 16-year-old girl, “never spoken to and seldom spoken of”, at the moment when she blooms and makes a doomed bid to be a part of the ‘cool kids’ clique. I ask Howard, a first-time novelist, whether taking on the voice of a teenaged girl was a challenge. “I was confident early on that she was a believable character regardless of our gender difference,” he says. “I based a lot of Odile on myself and my personality, so I actually feel closer to her than the men in the novel.” Howard did make some oversights in some scenes (“small physical details, not big psychological ones”) but his wife helped improve the first drafts, he says.

Odile falls in love with a classmate, a violin virtuoso, while also applying for admission into the Conseil, and sets up a situation for a lifetime of regrets. We would have nothing but the empty phrase “to move on”; but Odile, as she grows older, is permanently haunted by the thought that the past is just there, in the other valley, waiting to be changed.

Mysteries of the universe

Mathematician Kurt Gödel conceived of a strange rotating universe, with regions in space so curved that you will meet yourself on the same path, walking the other way. Howard reduces this to a simpler equation — hike across a pass in the mountains and you will step into the same valley, but 20 years displaced in time.

Time travel through mere ambulation is not too common. I can only recall ‘Palely Loitering’ by Christopher Priest, which features a park with two bridges, one into the past and another into the future. Howard explains: “...because most time travel stories tend to be futuristic sci-fi, it was appealing to give this novel a rustic, almost rural, setting. I wanted to experience hiking across the mountains to the past and the future with my characters. I wanted to explore how they would feel the first time they physically entered the valley where they’re a child again”.

As a conceit, Howard however realises the implications fully. As the Conseil states, “Risk is asymmetric and depends on the direction of the movement.” A traveller going to the west, into the past, puts the “home” valley at risk by changing the foundations of the past that led to their present. Howard, whose day job is a philosopher, also almost does away with an omniscient Almighty. “The concept of god is teleological: god gives a singular purpose to our lives. The Conseil believes the opposite: there’s no such thing as purpose or destiny. In their view, the timeline is fragile and could easily be otherwise, which is why they grant themselves the authority to protect it.”

Creating a vibe

Critics like Gary Wolfe have pointed out that time-travel, once the prize jewel of science fiction, has now been assimilated by the literary mainstream. Do the devices of speculative fiction offer more possibilities? “Personally, I would categorise The Other Valley as literary fiction,” says Howard, going for an approach “which bends the rules of reality but refuses the burden of explanation in favour of evoking an atmosphere”.

Early on, a character feels a kind of “thrilling sadness”, an “emotion that lives on the desolate edge of the known”. This mood predominates throughout the novel, intensifying in the third act. Paradoxes in time travel stories are like Chekhov’s gun, they must go off. And it does, with a device that is not technological but literary. The outcome is a simultaneously low- and high-stakes narrative, where just the chance to have a better life will also completely alter the reality of the character’s universe. 

The Other Valley is one of those novels that leaves a pleasant afterglow, where you are buzzing with questions and replay the scenes in your head to figure out what exactly happened.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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