Recent Reading: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

In the near-future of Bradley's debut novel, the British government has developed a form of time travel. The newly-formed, titular ministry decides to test the technology (and discover any nasty side effects it might have) by reaching into the past and plucking from it several people who were on the verge of death—a near-victim of the great plague of London, a woman about to be sent to the guillotine in 1793. When these "expats" fail to immediately expire, the ministry establishes a program to slowly acclimate them to their new era by matching each one with a "bridge", with whom they will live for a year. The nameless narrator, a British-Cambodian woman, is assigned to Commander Graham Gore, a member of Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. 

As Bradley writes in her foreword to my ARC copy, the inspiration for The Ministry of Time came from being locked down during the pandemic and binge-watching AMC's adaptation of The Terror, which dramatizes the expedition's grisly fate. If that combination of circumstance and influence conjures up something cozy and lighthearted, perhaps reminiscent of the early 00s rom-com Kate & Leopold, the opening chapters of the novel seem to confirm that impression. Gore and the narrator gingerly navigate his culture shock and survivor's guilt; she introduces him to pop culture, with mixed results (he hates television, but finds the ability to call up any piece of music at the press of a button miraculous); some social and technological developments shock him (why can't he smoke wherever he wants?), while others he takes to like a duck to water (he falls in love with motorcycles at first sight); all the time, a powerful attraction grows between them. 

The result is an almost irresistible romantic premise. True to his pop culture antecedents, from Hornblower to Captain America, Gore cuts an alluring figure—a gentleman, and a man of action, who nevertheless respects and is willing to be guided by a modern-day woman. It's vicariously thrilling when the narrator hits on something from the 200 years that separate them that he resonates with—Motown music, Sherlock Holmes, Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male. But Gore's charm is such that even when he recoils from the crassness of Top of the Pops or Midsomer Murders, one feels amused, rather than rejected or insulted. The enforced closeness of the bridge-expat living situation is a familiar fanfic trope, made all the more delicious by Gore's Victorian sexual mores, which create the slowest of slow burns without ever seeming to judge the narrator for her own more permissive values. The narrator describes Gore as a refugee, and likens his sense of displacement and alienation to her own mother's, who fled the Cambodian genocide. But his easy temper, self-deprecating humor, and stiff upper lip mean this damage is more often attractive than disturbing. It's as if the readers are being courted, as much as the heroine.

Before long, however, darker notes begin to intrude, as when Gore casually boasts about playing an integral role in the seizure of the port of Aden. Soon it becomes clear that part of the bridges' job is to offer gentle correction to such attitudes, to suggest that acts of colonial conquest are no longer viewed as unalloyed positives, or that one should say "Inuit" rather than "Esquimeau". Gore—curious, intelligent, self-possessed, and always up for a challenge—is willing to be taught and to change his mind. But he sometimes digs deeper than the narrator intends him to, wondering, for example, whether colonial ambitions have really gone away, or merely changed their form. Which makes it easier to notice how shallow the education that the bridges expose their charges to actually is. 

The expats are taught not to use words like "negress" or "half-caste", while at the same time being subtly discouraged them from delving any deeper into the actual state of modern race relations. Even as she insists to Gore that people in her era have learned better ways, the narrator recalls the confused, questioning glances from contemporary Britons trying to suss out her racial identity, and reminds us that her colleague Simellia is the only black woman in her department. Her narrative occasionally refers to worsening climate emergencies, or slammed-shut borders, but it seems to be ministry policy to steer the expats away from gaining a well-rounded sense of what these changes mean and how they intersect. The fact that the bridges' training includes amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of the "Life in the UK" test eventually comes to seem like both an indication of things to come, and a dark joke.

Control handed down a series of pre-written presentations and they were so didactic as to be oppressive. They made me read a lecture on multiculturalism, the bastards, leaving blanks for insert own experience here. I gave it in a monotone without lifting my eyes from the page then drank 250ml of white wine at a quaff; Simellia gently clinked her full glass against my empty, her jaw set (she'd been asked to deliver a lecture on post-war migration from former colonies and the Windrush generation). Control's lectures were nakedly about getting the narrative right. In their much-edited correctness, their placid-voiced hectoring, they bankrupted the energy in the room. Ideas are frictional, factional entities which wilt when pinned to flowcharts. Ideas have to cause problems before they cause solutions.

By this point, we have begun to feel an uneasy suspicion of our narrator, who keeps being distracted from her romantic plotline. Raised on her mother's tales of fleeing genocide, and having witnessed her country's growing hostility towards refugees from war and climate change (it is one of the novel's unacknowledged but very present ironies that the government expends so much time and effort on welcoming and caring for the expats, while viewing refugees of its own era as subhuman and unworthy of life), she is deeply suspicious of identity politics. When her sister publishes an essay recounting an incident in their childhood in which they witnessed their mother being subjected to racist abuse, the narrator is incensed. What use is there, she asks us, in showing your belly? Do you really believe the result will be sympathy, rather than violence? Her own approach is to ally with power. When Simellia tentatively tries to forge an alliance based on their shared sense of being outsiders within the ministry, the narrator coldly shuts her down.

The great project of Empire was to categorize: owned and owner, colonizer and colonized, evoluƩ and barbarian, mine and yours. I inherited these taxonomies. This, I think, was the reason I played fuck-about-Fred with my ethnic identity as much as I could. 'They' are still in charge and even when 'they' are saying marginalized instead of mongoloid they are still acknowledging that we are an issue to be dealt with. When would it be my turn to hold the carrot and the stick? My sister had grandiose chat about dismantling the carrot-stick complex altogether, but this manifested in being upset all the time, tweeting enthusiastically about debut authors of color who never seemed to publish second novels once the publicity cycle ended, and being underpaid.

One of the novel's most impressive accomplishments is how it manages to hold us in suspense between rooting for the narrator as a romantic heroine, and recoiling from her as an operative. Her connection with Gore is real and extremely winning, with quippy, rom-com-y exchanges in which his fussiness bumps up against her modernity in charming and ultimately deeply compatible ways. But Gore, we eventually realize, is missing the whole picture. For all his openness to the ideas of the 21st century, he is ultimately blinded by his own era's gender prejudices. He can't help but see the narrator as a radical—a woman with a degree, with a high-ranking government position. We are the ones who realize that she is actually conventional, careerist, a cog in the machine—and that she is obscuring from him the extent to which he is being controlled, manipulated, and spied upon by the ministry. It's a disconnect that can't help but reflect on the romance, especially when it becomes sexual. No matter how often he's assured otherwise, Gore can't help but see himself as the seducer. A reader who has, by this point, grown a little less starry eyed over the whole affair might wonder whether the narrator's near-total control over Gore's movements and access to the outside world renders his consent dubious at best. 

At the same time, we also begin to observe that something is off with the ministry. It eventually becomes clear that some of the expats—Margaret, rescued from 1665 London, who becomes an instant fashionista and film buff; Arthur, retrieved from the Somme, a gentle, anxious man who nurses an unrequited passion for Gore—are being put on the backburner, while others, like Gore and 17th century soldier Cardingham, are being brought further in, trained as agents and taught to manipulate their control of their "hereness and thereness", which allows them to fool electronic surveillance (that Margaret and Arthur are queer, and the others are not, seems bleakly significant). The narrator's superiors scatter dark hints; one of them disappears and then returns, only to be killed in front of her; a mysterious figure in a Brigadier's uniform wanders through the ministry's offices, but the narrator later learns that no one knows who he is; and the woman who recruited her, Adela, takes an outsized interest in both her and Gore, while dropping increasingly perplexing hints about her own past.

The result is a cross-cutting of genre influences—romance, thriller, political SF—that tantalizingly refuses to resolve into the story we expect it to become. We know how this sort of narrative is supposed to progress: the narrator will come clean with Gore, he will forgive her, they will go on the run together. But in order for that to happen, she has to first admit what type of story she's in, and pick a side. Instead, she remains determined not to rock the boat, even as other operatives keep strewing breadcrumbs in front of her. Eventually, it starts to feel as if the purpose of the romance is to distract us—as if, like the narrator, we are focusing on love so as not to have to look at what's actually happening around us.

When the inevitable crisis does come, it raises a question that both the narrator, and the ministry, have spent the novel determined not to ask. Why time travel? Why this specific form of time travel? Why pluck people out of time and teach them to live in the 21st century? Is there not something a bit desperate about this, a bit narcissistic? Is the whole point maybe to get the expats to admit that the present is superior, while all the time, their bridges and handlers are massaging the information they get to see ("don't tell them about Auschwitz" is a constant refrain)? "There was something hauntingly young about [the expats]," the narrator tells us, "a scarcity of cultural context that felt teenaged, and I didn't know if my fascination with it was maternal or predatory. Every time I gave Graham a book, I was trying to shunt him along a story I'd been telling myself all my life." 

We eventually have to wonder if the targets of that manipulation aren't the people from the past, but the ones in the present. As Adela observes, telling someone like Gore, who participated in one of the first incursions of Western colonialism in the Middle East, and who despite his good cheer is adrift and desperate for purpose, about 9/11 might radicalize him to the ministry's side. Cardingham, the most unreconstructed of the expats, who, the narrator tells us "thought I should be below his boots and ashamed to meet his eye", is even quicker to sign up with the ministry as one of its operatives. Maybe, in a world of dwindling resources, failing government services, and growing refugee crises, the point isn't to teach the past how to live in the present, but to give the present permission to behave like the past.

As the narrator learns, the ultimate result of this sort of narcissistic courting of the past is to sleepwalk into the worst possible future—one whose representatives are in her present, courting her in the same way she courted Gore. It's only at this point that the narrator finally awakens to both the role she has played in the story, and her power to change it. Bradley leaves it unclear whether her heroine has made any meaningful change to the path that the ministry has set humanity on, choosing instead to focus on the personal—on the narrator's refusal, at the last possible moment, to choose the path of least resistance and greatest safety, and on the question of whether she and Gore can find their way back to each other. One might argue that this is a happier ending than the narrator deserves. But as the she herself tells us, moving forward from your mistakes is the only choice that offers any real hope for the future.


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