Imagine that traditional, causal time is the seabed, and that you can leave causal time by jumping up into the ocean. Then, imagine that waves in that ocean cause changes to the seabed. Oh, and imagine then when you jump into the ocean you cease existing as a physical, humanoid entity, and instead become an eel-like creature of atemporality whose size is dictated by the amount of your life that jumped up into the ocean. Now, those waves that change the seabed? They can also cut your new, atemporal, serpentine body. Following me so far?
Alternative world (or secondary world) fantasy gets all the attention these days as the quintessential owner of the steepest learning curves, but those expositionary slopes are molehills compared to the mountainous terrain to be conquered in the hardest of science fiction that the genre has to offer, like Garfinkle’s All of an Instant. There is perhaps no more appropriate descriptor for this book than “ambitious,” because Garfinkle is not just playing around with time travel in the loose, shallow, ambiguous ways of more popular treatments in Star Trek, Dr. Who, or A Sound of Thunder; he dives fully into a novel dedicated to a vision of acausal, atemporal reality in which human existence is so foreign to our lived experiences as to be more alien than most of the actual aliens dreamt up in other authors’ fiction.
You can feel, as you read through the book, Garfinkle struggling on the edges of his capabilities as a writer to convey this vision he has of the Instant, an acausal, atemporal reality conveyed through an extended metaphor comparing it to an ocean, and the flux, which is the causal, temporal reality with which we are familiar. It is how I’ve often felt when attempting to write a truly alien perspective, but Garfinkle sticks with it, and it works, barely. This is not a book for the impatient – I think I had to read through fully a third of the book before I could begin to understand what the plot was, how the Instant and the Flux worked and interacted, and found any characters to follow – but by its conclusion I not only was immersed in a fascinating vision of temporality, but also sympathizing with characters more interesting and complex than populate the pages of less ambitious hard science fiction like Rocheworld or Heavy Planet, and enjoying a plot almost as engaging as Foundation‘s.
I will readily admit that this book is not for everyone; you have to want to read this book to appreciate it, and not just because it seems to be out of print – I had to buy a used copy from a library that was offloading it. Though Garfinkle does an excellent job of leveraging his chosen extended metaphor for description, to really understand what’s happening and all of the intricacies All of an Instant contains requires taking the time outside of the reading to think about the concepts, wrestle with the ideas, and craft the visualizations. That will by time well spent, however, because All of an Instant is one of the most interesting science fiction novels I’ve read in a long time. I hope you consider giving it a read this Instant.