Living on Borrowed Time

This article was originally published in Vector #288.


By Erin Horáková

More than anything else, Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s science-fantasy novel A Tale of Time City (1987) is about the eponymous micro-civilisation: a city-state outside of time. Time City monitors the events of the whole anthropocene, trades with sufficiently advanced civilisations, and partakes of the best of every era. This article conducts a ‘world factbook’ style survey of this economy, to the extent that’s possible based on the information the book gives us (and with markedly less dodgy CIA involvement). We’ll look at the state’s sources of income, labour within it, economic immigration to the city, and finally the ultimate effects of Time City’s colonial trade relations with what its citizens call ‘history.’ Via this case study, I hope to provide a way into thinking about time travellers and other agents outside of time as economic actors.

I’m acutely conscious of Jones’ own cautions against forgetting that worldbuilding is primarily a means to tell particular stories rather than a practice of generating sociologically consistent artefacts—a contention expressed eloquently and at length in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. This parodic guidebook to the archetypal locations of genre fiction mocks authorial lazy thinking, but in doing so it reminds us of the constructed nature of fantasy worlds and their total involvement with narrative aims:

INDUSTRY. Apart from a bit of pottery and light metalwork or some slagheaps around the domain of the DARK LORD, most Tours encounter no industry at all. Even the EMBROIDERY factories are kept well out of sight.

See also ECONOMY [1].

So I’m not going to shake the book down for its demographic data and jeer at any irregularities therein, as though the point of a novel was to provide me with material for a sociology thesis. Instead I’m going to think about what this economy, as an inherently fictive narrative artefact, says about the underlying thought that enabled it to be written, and that then enabled it to be cogently read. Though she is in many ways an extraordinarily tight plotter, Jones’ novels often ask questions she can’t answer, and suggest messy externalities [2].

Time City has, for instance, ‘automat’ machines that can produce food seemingly from nothing in the fashion of Star Trek’s replicators. Citizens almost universally possess a belt that functions rather like a smart phone, enabling contactless monetary transactions within the discrete economic sphere of the city itself. The city’s energy supply, explicitly predicated on ‘energe functions’ rather than fossil fuels, seems infinite. Given that the city’s forward-looking planner designed its original key buildings to withstand even the pressures of the city’s final cataclysm, we might also assume that it was at least constructed with the capacity to feed itself. Yet despite its unparalleled access to technology, Time City does not appear to be self-sustaining in this most basic capacity, opting to engage in trade rather than attempt to produce everything that its citizens need (let alone want). Jones imagines Time City as part of ‘global’ economy—which is, of course, the ultimate fantasy of the late capitalist post-imperial corporation.

During one of several tours of the city-state (sometimes the novel feels a bit like News from Nowhere in this respect) we see significant expanses of farmland. These might almost be ornamental—their description is pastoral rather than reminiscent of industrialised agriculture. There are no reeking, crammed chicken barns or processing plants. On that same tour we also pass a vast barge carrying ‘meat from Forty-two Century.’ Is this a luxury good? Neither the conversation about the barge, nor the scale of the operation (‘a great barge as high as a house and nearly as long as a football pitch’) imply that it is. The relationship between the farmland, the automats and the meat shipments is not obvious.

Perhaps Time City could improve its agricultural infrastructure and become self-sufficient or exclusively use automats, but simply finds trading for such commodities a better use of its resources. Why make something yourself if you can get more in exchange using the same amount of effort [3]? The manufacturing processes involved in producing certain complex consumer goods might be too difficult or expensive to replicate in-house. Perhaps the city trades for cultural reasons, as well as ‘purely’ economic ones. Or perhaps, as with contemporary humans and global warming, a matter that could be addressed by current technology and infrastructure isn’t because people lack the will to do so, or struggle to coordinate their efforts.

Trade in commodities is far from the only way in which Time City’s economy is intertwined with ‘history.’

Vivian sat beside him, watching tourists walk through the square and cluster to look at Faber John’s Stone in the middle. More tourists sat at the other tables or went in and out of the rich-looking shops under the arcade. Vivian had never seen so many peculiar clothes and strange hairstyles in her life. She heard strange languages, too, jabbering all around her.

“Time City relies a lot on the tourist trade,” Jonathan said.

“Where do they all come from?” Vivian asked.

“All the Fixed Eras,” Sam said, quite cheerful now. “A hundred thousand years of them.”

“There’s a tour for every ten years of every century, except when there’s a war on,” Jonathan said. “The Time Consuls arrange them. Time Patrol checks everyone who wants to come, but almost anyone can come really.”

“How much does a tour cost?” Vivian asked. But the waitress arrived to take their orders just then.

It’s as if the book is dodging the question. ‘Relies’ seems a significant term here. Even Vivian Smith, a Londoner, finds the quantity of tourists swarming the city’s major landmarks remarkable [4]. Are Time City’s many historical monuments (some with expensive entry costs) and byzantine civic rituals for the city’s technocrat inhabitants, or are they at least equally serving, and perhaps designed for, the active tourist trade?

These visitors do more than look. Some use the situation of Time City, at a fixed point in time, as a resource in itself for their own ends.

“What happens,” Vivian asked, “if a tourist meets his own grandchildren and hates them and decides not to get married? Wouldn’t that change history?”

“There’s a whole branch of Time Patrol checking to make sure that won’t happen,” said Ramona. “Hush, Sam.”

“But quite a lot of people come here specially to meet their ancestors or their descendants,” Jenny said. “We have conference rooms in Millennium where they can get together.”

One wonders how dynastic arrangements and cross-temporal business deals figure into this. Not to mention the shopping opportunities: “Secular Square was […] crowded with stalls under red and white awnings, where people were buying and selling everything from fruit and meat to tourist trinkets.” The ability to buy items from the relative future, however, would seem to contravene Time City’s information brokerage policies:

“There goes meat from Forty-two Century,” said Ramona.

“All that!” said Vivian. “Who pays for it?”

“We all do,” said Jenny. “Time City trades in exchange—only what we trade is knowledge, Vivian. There are records in Perpetuum, Erstwhile, Agelong, and suchlike of most things the human race has ever known or done. Students come to study here. And anything anyone in history wants to know, we can tell them for a fee—provided it’s something from before the date they ask, of course.”

“Oh, we stretch a point sometimes, Jenny,” Ramona said. “My department gives weather forecasts, remember?”

Jenny laughed. “Yes, and Ongoing Science quite often gives hints to make sure science goes the right way. But we do have to be careful about sending history wrong.”

“We can’t have all of it going unstable,” agreed Ramona.

It is unclear if Time City barters knowledge with the outsiders or uses some form of money as a mechanism of exchange. Time City could also use its historical observers as purchasing agents. How Time City interacts with financial markets, if at all, also goes unaddressed; presumably it would be possible to move money back in time to capitalise off yet-to-happen inflation.

Jenny’s conception of her people’s ownership of the past is predicated on universality, a sort of interchangeability between histories and peoples. While Time City is interracial, the idea of all humanity’s past being somehow a powerful group of humans’ rightful heritage is linked with a particular western Enlightenment tradition of thought. The trans-historical idea of knowledge underpinning and legitimising this trade is thoroughly decoupled from the contexts and trajectories of those knowledges’ development. Time City holds its antiquities as comfortably as the British Museum holds the Rosetta Stone and pieces of the Parthenon.

They moved to the right, and Vivian found herself facing a shining thing, misted with more violet light, that seemed to crown the end of a row of seats. It was like a winged sun, and it seemed to be studded with jewels.

“The Sempiternal Ensign,” Jonathan whispered. “Solid gold. That’s the Koh-i-noor diamond in the left wing, and the Star of Africa’s in the right.” He gave the thing a fond pat as they passed it.

This was too much for Vivian. I must be dreaming! she decided. I know both those diamonds are somewhere else.

“Given to Time City by the Icelandic Emperor in Seventy-two Century,” Jonathan added as he undid a small heavy door. But Vivian felt too dreamlike to attend. She went dreamily down a long dark passage, through a door that creaked horribly, and out into a place like a Stately Home, where they hurried up what seemed endless dark wooden stairs.

Given these mentions of particularly historically loaded gems and the evocation of a stately home, Jones almost seems to be drawing a deliberate parallel between this collection and British imperial hoards, and thus between the methods of their attainment – what about the items on display that aren’t explicitly gifts? Given the relative power of impregnable Time City, can we take the assertion that these treasures were gifts (historically often a dubious claim) at face value? And how did the Emperor obtain the diamonds in the first place? Can the passage of time naturalise bloody appropriations if all of time is equally immediately accessible?

Is it merely narrative convenience that the people of Time City speak modern English? Jones could easily have given some excuse for it, or invented some translation device. It’s even easier to simply dismiss their doing so as an enabling fiction or an overlooked detail. But I think, as much as a question of narrative convenience, their doing so is a matter of fit. Time City speaks 20th century British English because that’s the language its citizens think in: they are, similarly and crucially, the heirs of imperial trade relations they seem unwilling to understand or acknowledge. A dash of multiculturalism seems to excuse rather than challenge the deeply hierarchical capitalism at work here.

This fantasy of totality also offers a consoling fiction, plaster with which to cover over the irrevocable sins of history. Lose something valuable in the genocide of the Aztecs? Not to worry, it needn’t be lost forever. You can still access those cultural productions. Find the formula for Coade stone or Greek fire, settle the question of the composition of the mob in the French revolution. Sell your findings to builders, arms manufacturers, political pollsters or bookies. Jones’ vision of the anthropocene involves several periods of devolution, so we’re talking about lost ‘high’ technologies as well as historical curiosities. The villains of the piece only economically differ from Time City’s legitimate capitalists in that they’d like outsiders to pay more for such knowledge.

Since finance is so intimately bound up with the passage of time, and since Time City’s economic activity seems almost wholly dependent on its temporal status, it’s really rather surprising that their business dealings seemingly aren’t all that different from simple expressions of modern capitalism. By and large, Jones is uninterested in more extrapolative, SFnal approaches to the premise of a society and economy outside of time [5]. Time City’s currency is instead rather straightforward, and seems deeply involved with those ubiquitous smartphone-like belts:

“How many units credit did he give you?” said Sam. “No—that stud, stupid!”

Vivian put her finger on that stud, and the palm of her hand lit up. VSL/90234/7C TC Units 100.00, she read, rather awed.

If the belts are a consumer good (“And mine’s made in Hundred-and-two Century, so it’s got a low-weight function”), in a way Time City is like a country that’s reliant on other nations’ currency to carry out internal transactions. It’s hardly unheard of: many medieval nations used Florins, and in several modern countries the American dollar is a preferred and sometimes even official method of exchange. Time City theoretically has its own digital currency, but the only or chief method for accessing and interacting with that currency is ‘foreign’ and as vulnerable as paper money, if not more so. We see that the system can be hacked by even a clever child. The transactions are cashless, though Jones imagines the exchange as something more like a cashier working a register than like a contactless card payment:

“I’m paying,” said Jonathan, and recited a string of numbers. “Yes, but are you in credit?” said the waitress. “Show.”

Jonathan pressed one of the buttons on his belt and held his hand out with a row of signs shining on his palm. The waitress looked, nodded, and pressed buttons on the pink matching belt round her pajamas.

The existence of a waitress in Time City becomes jarring when we consider another of Jones’ key plot points. Students from history’s advanced civilisations (or perhaps simply the comfortable, stable eras—it’s not clear whether all stable eras are technologically advanced) are allowed to temporarily live in Time City and then to compete in exams with children born there. Good results earn students the right to live and work in this safe-haven, with its access to near-infinite and atemporal resources. Failure results in banishment: even Jonathan Lee, a privileged native and the last scion of the most important ancient family within the city, has an obsessive fear of being exiled, as his uncle, aunt and cousin were. The meritocratic, classed brutality and pedagogic antiquarianism of UK school qualifying exams is apparently to be thus preserved throughout time. Jones doesn’t discuss how one applies to study in Time City. She also doesn’t mention whether this educational opportunity and chance of a work permit benefit Time City’s economy. They’re certainly important to that of the UK, which, again, is very much the model for this micro-civilisation. Perhaps educational tourism is another thing the city ‘really relies’ on.

What happens when people from the City and student-visa-holders from other eras fail to make the cut? How can their knowledge of the future and its technology avoid disturbing the timeline when they return to live in it? The three villainous Lees, Jonathan’s aforementioned uncle, aunt and cousin, speak of having been made Observers and forced to ‘live in history’ against their preference, if not their will. (Though they have retained their inherited property in the city, are apparently allowed to visit home at long intervals, and there are several indications that Jonathan’s cousin will be allowed to compete for citizenship in her own right.) The dubious wisdom of making the prime agents of your control over the timeline a disgruntled Roman auxilia aside, does one need to master complex temporal science to be a waitress? (Having been a waitress I’m inclined to say yes, but not in quite this fashion.) What about the domestic servants in Jonathan’s home, or the people working in this very developed tourist industry? Did they all pass these daunting exams? What for? Or are they economic migrants, occupying something like the ‘conditional, limited citizenship’ status that workers from poorer EU countries currently do in the UK?

As far as we can judge from the text (though granted, Jones’ choice to focus on the city’s ‘first families’ does influence who we’re exposed to in the course of the narrative), Time City’s economy seems primarily organised around the state. The Observers dwell outside the city but work for it, and are presumably remunerated. There are also related law enforcement officers, government officials, ‘departments’ involved in selling information to ‘history’, teachers, scientists, and people working in the tourist trade for the government, or what could in some cases be private enterprise. There must also be people involved in processing and distributing the domestic and foreign goods from the farms and meat barges the narrative sails past. (Does the butcher have a degree in quantum theory too?) It seems an almost entirely white-collar economy with a heavy knowledge focus, and while we see no class tension in the story, traditionally classed jobs like domestic service are very much in evidence. I’m not sure anyone actually pays the singular sentient ‘android’ butler. 

The city seems strangely depopulated. Tourists cover the place, but there’s a Harry Potter-ish sense of a world as sparsely peopled as Wyoming (and, like that of the Potterverse, this economy doesn’t quite make sense). Time City could clearly fit more people into the fields, and/or those fields could feed more people. Living in Time City seems very desirable, and demand seems very high, yet the city’s hardly bursting at the seams. The villains of the piece are Time City natives who didn’t make the grade and are thus sent to live in history as time-stream monitors, but nonetheless Jones doesn’t evince more general interest in the broader social implications of this highly restricted citizenship. There’s almost no anti-immigrant sentiment against foreign students, for example. There seems to be no institutional bias against their success, and the citizens seem not to resent that their children could be banished to a ‘foreign’ era with fewer resources and limited opportunities for contact with their family in the city.

Jones’ strong anti-authoritarian streak gives us a critical reading of the city’s privilege relative to other eras, but despite making that privilege the lynchpin of her plot and a major feature of the book’s climax, Jones doesn’t touch on the power relations involved in the current balance of trade as a whole. A crisis arises when the child main characters inadvertently bring back a trainload of evacuees from an alternate World War II London.

“That’s not fair,” said Sam. “Those children would be dead if we hadn’t been there. Their train blew up.”

“What’s that got to do with it? These children are history!” Mr. Donegal shouted, waving his arm around the crowding evacuees. All of them heard him. They stood and looked at him wonderingly.

“Is he an Air Raid Warden?” one of them asked.

Vivian found herself shouting back at Mr. Donegal, “They are not history! They’re real people! You people in Time City make me sick the way you sit here studying things. You never raise a finger to help anyone! This is all Time City’s fault anyway! It was you that tinkered with history. And now it’s gone critical, and people like these kids are getting hurt all over time, and all you think about is getting your beastly Observers out!”

“What do you expect me to do about that?” Mr. Donegal roared back. “There must be over five hundred damn children here!”

The evacuees were now in a ring all around them, staring and listening, but Vivian was too angry to feel shy. “Then look after them!” she screamed in Mr. Donegal’s face. “You’ve got things in Time City to help the whole human race! It won’t hurt you to help just these few. There are far too few children in this city anyway. It’s a disgrace!”

Time City’s control over history can’t escape being a political and economic act, even, as Vivian suggests, in the action of non-intervention (a non-intervention that is always framed, however, by other significant interventions that apparently enable the situations Time City subsequently ‘impartially’ refuses to involve itself in).

The narrative suggests that the smooth running of history is a quantifiable, scientific question, but in addition to science’s being quite vulnerable to subjective, self-advantaging perspectives, Time City also has economic reason to keep the development of technology going ‘how it’s supposed to go.’ They have reason, too, to keep intact the stable eras with which they trade, and on whose tourism they rely. If helping the wrong bit of the human race might jeopardise that, Time City-zens are clearly willing to watch a few eggs break in order to wait for the omelette they want. We know almost nothing, really, about the laws or moral codes that govern Time City’s interactions with history.

Jones is less interested in the SFnal potentialities of creating a place out of and adjacent to all of time than she is in the social ramifications of such a place’s existence. She understands colonialism and can deal with it startlingly deftly, as in Dark Lord of Derkholm [6], illuminating the social fallout of unequal power structures in a way that can vex post-colonial scholars. Here Jones sees her world (or worlds—both the one she occupies and the one she’s written) clearly enough to make this aspect of its infrastructure its key problem. And yet she simultaneously doesn’t seem to understand the dimensions of that problem quite well enough to grasp its whole shape, much less know how to rigorously answer the question she’s posed.

We’re treated instead to a signature Jones messy ending [7] — a Return of the King scenario where the city’s reborn founder Faber John re-assumes power. The denouement tells us that a great deal of the city’s population has escaped into history, and that the group left is comprised of refugees, tourists and ‘natives’. These remaining people seem startlingly cavalier about how they’re going to run the city with this random lot they’ve half kidnapped, and uninterested in fetching back their co-workers (and family members?), who are probably out there inventing illicit technology willy-nilly. The resurrected Faber John approves of Vivian’s interventionist leanings, but no one really mentions that the villains of the piece responded destructively to having actually been somewhat hard done by, nor brings up the fact that their accomplice had real reason to cheat his way into the city and to help them, nor substantively addresses the difficult paradox of the City’s relationship with the outside world.

We leave the city in a time of flux, not knowing quite what comes next. While Jones’ economy can be usefully held up against the generality of more individualist time traveller narratives, giving us a model with which to think about the economic fantasies embodied by Doctor Who, Back to the Future et al., it doesn’t offer many answers to the core problems of their colonial situation. Because Jones focuses on a civilisation rather than an individual actor, certain generic assumptions about time travel rise to the surface, are strained more than is usual, or have different pressure on them. What A Tale of Time City does with its core conceit, the fantasies of recuperation and universality and colonial power it its time travel enables, speaks to important aspects of a motif in various texts. In looking at how Jones uses time travel, we can begin to see the same logics and affective pulls strongly at work in, for example, the long-serving British national epic Doctor Who.

Ultimately, Jones has not written an ‘imperfect novel’—or rather, no one has ever written a perfect one. The idea of such a text is a bit horrifying, and said text would probably be about as much use to anyone as teats on a boarhog. Jones has instead offered up a mechanism with which to approach issues, which is valuable in itself. Her ambitious questions—how do we negotiate power to ethically interact with others economically, for one—are so vast and vexed that they are probably to a degree insoluble, but the very process of wrangling with them can be morally necessary, productive and salutary, like meditating on a koan. “And that,” as Rosa Dartle would say, “shows the advantage of asking—don’t it?”


[1] Jones, Diana Wynne. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Firebird, 2006,. p.34.

[2] In Jones’ Chrestomanci series, for example, it’s not clear what Christopher Chant was offering to do for Cat Chant’s parents in order to prevent their children from being, like him, iterations in the multiverse, and thus, physical laws, extremely magically powerful. Neither is it clear how Christopher’s own children, born of a ‘singular’ parent and a woman from another world, could possibly avoid being singular ‘Chrestomancis’ themselves. The book that focuses on Christopher’s own childhood, however, features a plot-important weapon that has the power to strip magic from a person. Thus we have in-universe means, motive and opportunity: a plausible explanation for both what Christopher could have been offering to do for Cat’s family and for what happened to his own children. (in part rather than in full—the children still have some magic). Given what we know of how this world works (though our information is, granted, incomplete), this is the only explanation we can offer. But given how the weapon is described, even its partial, ‘benign’ use is a rather frightening prospect. I can’t speak to whether Jones intended it to be, and indeed the question’s hardly important as such. My point is that when establishing the mechanics of her worlds, Jones sometimes (and intentionality or the lack thereof is, again, the wrong thing to focus on here) creates snarls at the structural level that have the potential to give rise to troubling and interesting intellectual and emotional conflicts. (Horáková, Erin. “The Afterlives of Christopher Chant: Handing Down Formative Trauma in the Chrestomanci Series.” Diana Wynne Jones: A Fantastic Legacy. 6 Sept. 2014, Newcastle.)

[3] The third chapter of Farah Mendleson’s book on Diana Wynne Jones deals with her various time-travel fictions, and has substantive information on the temporal mechanics of Time City. “Time Games”. Mendlesohn, Farah. Diana Wynne Jones The Fantastic Tradition and Childrens Literature. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

[4] Admittedly Vivian’s 1939 London was not as developed for tourism as either the city Jones knew when she published the book in 1987 or the London of 2018, but to a significant degree the point stands.

[5] An entry in the Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy database draws attention to “the Days currency in Terry Pratchett’s Strata (1975), and the Oubliette’s currency in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2011). Also compare real-life LETS currencies and the Economy of Hours, which can in principle use demurrage (naturally dwindling value) to encourage circulation.” None of these monetisations of the stuff of time itself, or attendant opportunities for speculation, catch Jones’s eye. (Walton, Jo Lindsay. “Falk, Lee. Time Is Money.” Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy. time-is-money.html.)

[6] Subramanian, Aishwarya. “The Colonisation of Fantasyland.” Diana Wynne Jones: A Fantastic Legacy. 6 Sept. 2014, Newcastle.

[7] Readers often comment on Jones’ endings, and a paper at the Fantastic Legacy conference specifically addressed them (Bar-Hillel, Gili. “Shark-Infested Custard: On chaos as a force for good in the works of DWJ.” Diana Wynne Jones: A Fantastic Legacy. 5 Sept. 2014, Newcastle).

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer and academic who lives in London. She blogs at, where you can find information about her other SFF, historical fiction and nonfiction publications. You can also find her on twitter, but she wouldn’t recommend it.

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