Living on Borrowed Time

By Erin Horáková

TimeCity

This academic article explores Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City, focusing on worldbuilding and in particular the economic arrangements, overt and implied, of Time City’s peculiar temporalities. How might time travel ask us to reimagine the horizons of economic possibility? What lacunae and anomalies do we encounter in the economic life of a city unbound by linear time? Jones has offered up a mechanism with which to approach issues, and to pose large questions: how do we negotiate power to ethically interact with others economically?


  • Review: This article underwent editorial review by two editors.
  • License: Copyright Erin Horáková, all rights reserved.
  • Citation: Horáková, E. 2018. Living on Borrowed Time. Vector #288. https://vector-bsfa.com/2019/02/01/living-on-borrowed-time/
  • Keywords: Diana Wynne Jones, speculative economics, temporality, worldbuilding

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.

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.

Continue reading “Living on Borrowed Time”

New Reflections

If you enjoyed the excerpt from the interview with Diana Wynne Jones which appeared in Vector #268, then you may be interested to know that the volume in which the full interview appears, Reflections, will be published in the next few weeks from David Fickling Books.

Early copies may be available this weekend at the celebration of DWJ’s life and works being held this Sunday, 22 April at 2pm, at St. George’s in Brandon Hill, Bristol. Details of how to get to the venue are available here.

Vector 268

The latest BSFA mailing arrived with the post this morning! I’d been expecting it any day now for the last week or so, after it been sent off to the black box of the publisher. And here it is, Focus (TOC) and Vector both.

This quarter’s Vector is primarily devoted to Diana Wynne Jones, who died in March this year. When I started putting the issue together, I’d hoped she would be with us for years to come, that she would be able to see the issue for herself. Instead, it became a memorial issue to a much-missed author whose influence was formative for many (including me).

Vector 268 contains…

2011 BSFA Awards – Donna Scott
An Excerpt from a Conversation with Diana Wynne Jones – Charlie Butler
Translating Diana Wynne Jones – Gili Bar-Hillel Semo
Diana Wynne Jones in the Context of Children’s Fantasy – Jessica Yates
The Mistress of Magic – Meredith MacArdle
On Screen: Two Filmed Versions of Books by Diana Wynne Jones – Gill Othen
Diana Wynne Jones: A BSFA Discussion – Farah Mendlesohn & Charlie Butler, transcribed by Shana Worthen
Infertility in Science Fiction as a Consequence of Warfare – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo & Ivan Callus

Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Kincaid in Short: The Heat Death of the Universe – Paul Kincaid
Foundation Favourites: Forbidden Planet – Andy Sawyer
Now and Then: Invisible Words – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis 

My apologies to Meredith, whose first name is missing an ‘h’ in the table of contents.

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

I was so sorry to wake up to the news that Diana Wynne Jones died early this morning. It was not unexpected – she came off of treatments for cancer last year when they were no longer really helping her – but I am still sad that it’s actually happened.

Over her many books (more than 50), the one which has most influenced me in recent years was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, thanks to its discussions of food. Her parodic skewering of lazy and derivative fantasy writing begins each chapter with a ridiculous ‘Gnomic Utterance’ (“no Utterance has anything whatsoever to do with the section it precedes. Nor, of course, has it anything to do with Gnomes”). Here is the one for D, by the fictional sage Ka’a Orto’o, as most of them are:

Doras II was a somewhat absentminded king. It is said that, when Death came to summon him, Doras granted Death the usual formal audience and then dismissed him from his presence. Death was too embarrassed to return until many years later.

But Death did return.

London Meeting: Diana Wynne Jones discussion

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is a discussion of the work of Diana Wynne Jones, featuring Charles Butler and Farah Mendlesohn.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

There will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Vector #140

Why devote an issue of Vector to something many BSFA members said goodbye to years ago? Why should adults read something written for 10 year olds? Who is children’s SF actually written for? And why? Why should children read it? Does it have any value? Why should there be such a thing?

David V. Barrett

In writing SF, you try to achieve the shock of the new by inventing or distorting the world of your fiction. Children’s writers do not have to try with the externals, the readers’ inexperience is enough. The journey they must make is into their own past. But the technique is the same: a kind of cleaning of the needle — re-cognition of a world that is strange but also your own.

Gwyneth Jones

But the main thing I set out to do, at the start, was to break the two really restrictive old taboos. Taboo One stated that all adults, particularly parents, must be shown as wise, powerful, kind, understanding — in fact, faultless. Adults with faults were Baddies and had to be killed or reformed on the last page. Taboo Two permitted one child in each book to have one fault in order that he or she could be punished horribly, thus making the book Moral.

Diana Wynne Jones

So I decided to recognise this and treat every character of whatever age as a real person. The resulting freedom astonished me. The battle-line stopped seeming grim. I saw it as just a set of people with fears and foibles like anyone else. And there was no need to wonder what children wanted. I knew, since children are people too. I could write about the whole human race (ad any non-humans I cared to devise) and the only limit turned out to be that anyone reading the book has to be able to say, “Oh yes, we would react just like that!”

Diana Wynne Jones