Time Riders: Day of the Predator [Time Riders 2] Alex Scarrow, Puffin (Penguin), 434 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99 ISBN 978-0-14-132693-1
Alex Scarrow has written the best young adult science fiction novels since Robert Heinlein was producing ‘juveniles’ like Citizen of the Galaxy. Time Riders: Day of the Predator – the second in a series which begun with a resuscitated Nazi Germany using flying saucers – has the ingenious concept of time agents, who are trying to stop history from being destroyed, functioning from a time-bubble base that hides by endlessly experiencing the same two days in New York: the 10th and 11th of September 2001. The agents themselves are young people recruited from unexpected disasters – crashing planes and collapsing buildings – so they are never spotted as missing.
Liam, formerly a steward on the Titanic, may not have picked up modern nomenclature yet – popsicles and Mickey Mouse are a mystery to him – but he’s intelligent and adaptable. These are survival skills for time travellers, especially when a disaster on a routine mission sees Liam fighting dinosaurs in the Cretaceous. These are smart dinosaurs which are able to learn from experience and may just possibly be capable of conquering the planet. In fact at one point in the story it seems they might have succeeded (or will succeed; time travel is tricky).
Alex Scarrow provides a handy diagram to let readers distinguish the various possible timelines but he does not write down to his readers. In fact he draws them in to the conspiracy to keep time travel a secret. Human footprints turning up in Cretaceous fossil beds are covered-up as hoaxes, complete with references to genuine conspiracy websites. There are paradoxes but he meets them head on. Not every death in this novel is forever but all of them are genuinely moving. This is because, as well as providing lots of high tech action, Scarrow has created people who engage our emotions.
Even minor characters have depth. We don’t just feel sympathy for the time agents as they struggle to save the life of Edward Chan, one the creators of time travel; we also feel sympathy for Chan’s would-be assassin, who has travelled downstream in time to destroy time travel forever. Even the bloodthirsty dinosaurs manage to tug our heart-strings as they begin to master tools and weapons (in order to rip our hearts out).
Even more remarkably, Scarrow has created a likeable robot – or rather, Becky, a support unit incorporating a genetically enhanced human body and artificial intelligence. Becky is learning about being female and human but – in one of the book’s inspired running gags – she is learning from books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
“I am about to kiss you,” she said. “This would be an appropriate gesture of gratitude. I have references.”
The Time Riders is lively, intelligent fun which rewards readers for their prior knowledge. Reading these books may be the smartest thing a teenager can do.
30 August 2010