Hazards of Time Travel Follows a Girl’s Harrowing Journey from the Future to the Past

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Legendarily prolific, multi-award winning author Joyce Carol Oates hasn’t left too many genre stones unturned in her long career, but her latest novel, Hazards of Time Travel, marks her first foray into dystopian science fiction. It’s also her most pointed work of social commentary in ages. 

In Adriane Strohl’s world, exceptionalism is curtailed in the name of government-imposed harmony. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 paved the way for an increasingly authoritarian and oppressive government that maintains control by generating fear and by nurturing ignorance as the highest form of patriotism. Outside-the-box thinking is quickly quashed, and achievements above the average are treated as a threat. Though egalitarianism is the stated goal, an exception is made for citizens of color, with skin tone ranked against strict criteria, and the lowest jobs reserved for those with the darkest of skin. Presidents are automatically selected by determining which candidate would likely raise the most money. (Saves time, anyway.)

It’s an unsubtle dystopia but, then, these are unsubtle times.

Though Oates’ world has all the hallmarks of a time-tested literary dystopian future, it’s conspicuously now-ish (give or take a decade). A heightened version of our present, anyway. It’s a sign of the times that our dystopian novels are increasingly happening not in a nebulous future, but all around us. George Orwell prognosticated nearly 40 years into the future in 1984. Oates doesn’t give us nearly that long.

With a curious mind and a father who had already run into trouble with the government, Adriane draws the attention of the Youth Disciplinary Division of Homeland Security relatively early. Her good grades are enough to put her on the government’s radar, and she’s not helped by the fact that she asks an awful lot of questions. Her arrest, just before graduation day, could entirely probably lead to a public execution or, even worse, “deletion,” a process that entails one’s entire identity and existence being erased from the record thoroughly enough that everyone else eventually comes to doubt whether the person ever existed. People disappear, never to be spoken of again.

Being a young offender, Adriane is given a lesser sentence: exile via time travel, a journey to the past intended as a sort of forced rehabilitation. To the year 1959, to be precise, for enrollment in a private school in rural (and fictional) Wainscotia, Wisconsin. As in Adriane’s own time, exceptionalism is curtained in Wainscotia, particularly among women. She is advised, on pain of death, to keep her head down and learn what it is to be a socially well-adjusted, accommodating, and utterly cookie-cutter member of society. And where better for a woman to learn those skills then in the midwest of the late 1950s? In the present, excellence marks one out as a potential threat. In the past, excellence in a woman is more than enough to make her a social pariah, at the very least.

So Adriane becomes Mary Ellen, an awkward, fearful young student, at first desperate to avoid attention, then finding herself standing out for precisely that reason. Without making too many assumptions about the author’s own academic history, there’s a verisimilitude to Mary Ellen’s experiences of life at school likely born of Oates’ time at a Wisconsin university in the same era. Mary Ellen finds it increasingly hard to avoid getting good grades and can’t help questioning her instructors, eventually developing a crush on one in particular, a psychology professor whom she suspects of being a fellow exile; he is well-meaning, but fearful, controlling, and self-centered. None of it is enough to keep her from pushing the boundaries of her new (old) world, but this isn’t the story of a plucky heroine who defies the odds at every turn. The hazards she faces aren’t strictly related to her time-travel: the world of 1959 works well enough to break down her resiliency on its own.

Oates has crafted a novel of conspiracy, one between past and present rather than amongst a clandestine group of people. History has long proven that progress is often illusory, or at least subsumed by the consequences of acts and attitudes that existed well before we were born. Adriane/Mary Ellen is frequently at sea over the details of life in 1959, but the broad strokes of what she experiences are all too familiar. Oates chooses the work of real-world behaviorist B. F. Skinner as an apt subject of Adriane’s study: his work focused on conditioning as a primary driver of human behavior with free will an illusion. With our past always rising up to oppose our efforts to change and grow, can we ever become more than the sum of our collective experiences?

That’s the question at the heart of Hazards of Time Travel, explored through the carefully observed experiences of a young woman struggling to find herself in a time (then, as now) when society is far more interested in drawing boundaries than in celebrating individuality.

Hazards of Time Travel is available now.

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