Screwball comedy time travel: John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr. Nice

Corrupting Dr. Nice is about time travel and con games, it’s fast paced and funny, the chapter titles all come from classic screwball comedies, and it contains a cute dinosaur called Wilma. If you don’t want to read it already, you probably won’t care that it also has one of the best courtroom scenes ever, the trial of the apostle Simon for terrorism.

Corrupting Dr. Nice is the kind of book that’s either your kind of book or it isn’t. I bought it because the British edition had a very striking cover. It shows red car whizzing past a row of Roman legionaries with rifles standing by a city gate, plus an Ursula K. Le Guin quote—the combination got me. It doesn’t matter that this moment doesn’t occur in the book, it accurately represents the story, as does Le Guin’s comment “brilliantly intelligent, light-handed and warm hearted”.

There are a lot of different ways of doing time travel stories. What Kessel does here is to take the idea of a very large but finite number of universes (137 splitting off every second) which he calls “moment universes”. Time travel to different moment universes, whether settled and exploited from the future or “unburned” and never visited before, is easy but controlled—you usually move from one stage to another, stay in tourist hotels, and visit the sights.

This is in one sense a satire on tourism and exploitation of the third world, but along with that come the deeper implications of what it means to exploit different versions of the past. In the second half of the book we see what it’s doing to the future—it’s very hard for the ordinary people of the future to get a job when famous people from the past are available. The past might be full of locals begging for bacteriophages and televisions, but the future isn’t a nice place to live either—people are selling off organs to survive. This is a comedy, and it is full of comedic set-pieces, but it’s a better comedy for being set against a dark background.

Dr. Owen Vannice (“Dr Nice”) is the son of very rich parents, a klutz, and a palaeontologist who spends most of his time in the Cretaceous. He has a trusty bodyguard and sidekick, Bill, who happens to be an AI inside his head who can take over his body from time to time. Genevieve Faison and her father August are con artists. Owen steals a baby apatosaur and illegally takes it forward through time. He meets Gen and August in the tourist hotel in first century Jerusalem. They decide to scam him and things get complicated from there on, with the story involving true love, revenge, disguise, and of course the baby dinosaur.

With this set-up, Kessel is potentially facing the “Riverworld problem”—if you can have anyone from any time in history, all mixed together, then what do you do with them? What he does works very well—he sticks to his protagonists from the future, Owen and Gen, and to Simon the apostle, who when we first meet him is working in the kennels of the hotel.

We see Jesus, Lincoln, Mozart, Freud, Jung, etc. in passing, enough to pull off the joke and create the illusion of a world full of people that people in the near future would think are worth the trouble of “rescuing” from their own contexts, but we don’t see enough of them to get bogged down. Feynman being recruited as the drummer for Mozart’s band is a good one line joke, that’s all it needs and all it gets. Same with Jesus’s talk show—Kessel mentions it, we don’t need to see it. This is a believably complex future world, with time travel and with protesters against time travel, with neo-Victorians, with downloadable personalities and implantable AIs, and with James Dean working as a receptionist because he got fat at forty. You sail through it so quickly that it all glitters past.

On the human emotional level, I am seldom convinced that characters in romantic comedies who have decieved and tricked each other will be redeemed by love and remain together happily, and this is no exception. It isn’t a problem, especially as the Simon strand ends so well, but I think Kessel was right to stop where he did and not a moment later.

I picked this up now partly because I was staring at my “K” shelf for the Where do I start? series and partly because I was thinking about time travel. Them Bones and Household Gods both have time travel that doesn’t work very well. Corrupting Dr Nice has time travel that’s well understood and works really well and can bring people and objects from the past, and is still not helping. This is in the Paratime tradition though it doesn’t have alternate universes until time travelers have started to mess them up.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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