Our Future Is in the Air by Tim Corballis – book review

by Sam Finnemore / 08 November, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Out Future Air Tim Corballis

Tim Corballis.

A New Zealand time-travel story reshapes 1975 to avoid 9/11.

There’s a well-trodden path for time-travel fiction that explores our relationship to the future: it leads forward from a present day that we can treat as a sensible baseline. So it’s a refreshing and ambitious move to craft a doubly speculative novel – one that looks forward from an alternative past towards a future that closely resembles the present day, but which might, just, be open to negotiation. And to have all that happening in Wellington, no less.

Compared with the world in James McNaughton’s dystopic Star Sailors, also released by Victoria University Press this year, Tim Corballis’s reimagined 1975 seems relatively idyllic: after the invention of time-travel photography brought back images of 9/11, the global aviation industry has collapsed.

Ten years later, the rush of worldwide social disruption kicked off by “temporal contour” technology has faded. But in an even more isolated New Zealand, there are still currents of intellectual ferment, and an underground movement interested not just in seeing the future, but also in reaching out to touch and shape it.

The plot of Our Future Is in the Air unfolds among a downbeat, informal society of activists and former activists in Wellington, built around low-key experiments with communal living and gender politics – all informed more by a belief in shaping the future than by direct contact with it.

Beneath this, however, lies a subculture of illicit and risky time travel. It’s a shock for one loose group of friends and family when one of their number disappears, apparently drawn into a world of political radicals and intelligence operatives wrestling over the future and its uses.

All these elements are wonderfully handled: Corballis has an easy, natural way with dialogue and characters (conversations involving children are a particular delight). The occasional time jaunts are suitably giddy and thrilling. Blizzards of fractured language book-end brief glimpses of a contemporary “future” world that’s unfamiliar, confounding and sometimes sinister.

Overt period elements are kept to a minimum in the 1970s setting, reinforcing the sense of time adrift. So is exposition, most of which is smartly quarantined into a meta-text at intervals through the novel, providing much of the technical and political world-building that underpins the core story.

Our Future Is in the Air is well-suited to an age of technological disruption and increasing forecasts of catastrophe. The various responses to the future on show – ranging from fatalism and paralysis through to active resistance – will be familiar to anyone with an eye on contemporary culture and politics.

But there’s a strong element of possibility here, too: a sense that there are paths to be taken beyond what established wisdom suggests, and that people are capable of finding the courage to seek them out. It’s a message that’s all the stronger for being embodied in a provocative and thoroughly absorbing novel.

OUR FUTURE IS IN THE AIR, by Tim Corballis (Victoria University Press, $30)

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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