Return to Sender by Fred H. Holmes
I recently read an interesting discussion on the Goodreads time travel forum about the Do’s and Don’t’s of time travel novels. There seemed to be two overriding concerns: (well researched) historical accuracy and an interesting time travel component (i.e. the method of time travel, time loops, paradoxes etc.).
Return to Sender by Fred H. Holmes has the lot! 🙂
Carleton Venable is recruited by Rumfeld Dixon of Dyna-Tyme Genetics to go back to the American Civil War and carry out two tasks to change the course of history; to lose Special Order 191, and to save Stonewall Jackson. As you’d expect, getting thrust into a civil war is clearly not without danger, but returning to the present sees unexpected events unfold with unforeseen hazards.
The first paragraph of Return to Sender mentions RNA. Whereas most people have heard of DNA (and so come across it in sci-fi) RNA (RiboNucleic Acid) is often overlooked despite it being involved in a multitude of important biological processes. I’m no biologist, but when I read the first paragraph I realised that Fred has done his ground-work.
And quite literally that’s a good start!
I’d describe Return to Sender as a novel with three parts – time travel, historical detail and character interaction. The first and second components are strong and mighty elements…though I should say upfront that I didn’t understand the history; but that’s my failing.
Time travel is introduced right in the first chapter. How it works, how it’s achieved and the experimentation carried out to test it are described in delicate but complete and logical layers which build upon previously introduced foundations, culminating in a first class method of time travel.
Junk DNA contains both temporal and spatial mapping information which can be reprogrammed to initiate time travel. Reprogramming is done so via injection of a fluid which is able to completely permeate the host body within 20 seconds. There is a question of how all of the DNA within the body is reprogrammed simultaneously to prevent different parts of the body zooming off in time at different moments but I assume that this is take care of in the intricate cell programming.
No machines, mechanics, trinketry or black box stuff; just pure biology. Brilliant!
To return to the present the time traveler undergoes the same procedure, although with no medical staff to administer the reprogram fluid, capsules containing the compound are inserted into the body. As these capsules are made from bone tissue they incorporate the DNA of the bearer so are able to travel in time. I’d guess that this would effectively make them non-transferable as they are configured to individual host bodies but it turns out that this is not the case, I guess because the DNA is being reprogrammed it can be made to ‘look like’ the new bearer.
A really neat thing about how this method of time travel works is that time travel occurs in ‘real time’, that is to say, when Carleton goes back in history for 1 day, 1 day will have passed in the present. I like this idea because it accounts for the body ageing at a consistent rate…time travellers will display an age in their ‘own’ time commensurate with the duration of their life experience. Increased wisdom and experience comes with age! 😉
It also provides a nice way for those remaining in the present to ‘see’ whether changes in the past were having any effect.
Actually this is an important point. When Carleton comes back to a changed present he remembers the original history (and present) whereas those around him don’t because they’ve experienced a different version of history. Carleton’s memories remain intact; I don’t know how memory is ‘stored’ in the brain, but it’s certainly at the cellular level which is consistent with the method of time travel.
In this sense I don’t know how the present is played out in real time when history changes. The usual explanation is a divergence of a (or multiple) time line(s), but here the case is different because of the real time element. Then again, I don’t like the time line model (more specifically the creation of multiple time lines) so having something to think about on the back burner makes for some interesting reading!
The plot revolves around making changes in the past and seeing their effects in the future. It’s explicitly stated that some changes are small enough that they don’t affect the future at all. This reminds me of the river of time as presented in The Anubis Gates (Tim Powers). It’s only when a number of small changes accumulate that things can go chaotic and we get the well-known butterfly effect.
I think the time travel paradox is clear – a less violent version of the grandfather paradox. Present day is seen to be bad enough that the past needs to be changed (parallel: grandson goes back in time). History is changed (grandfather is killed) thus leading to a new future (no more grandson in present). The need to alter history no longer exists so no there’s no requirement to back to the past (grandson can’t / doesn’t go back as he doesn’t exist), so there’s no time travel…which means that history wasn’t changed for a better future (grandfather wasn’t killed).
Return to Sender is heavy on the history.
Carleton has 2 missions to complete back in the time of the American Civil War, namely to lose a letter containing “Special Order 191” and to save Stonewall Jackson. The latter mission had a nice unexpected approach (though with a hint of embarrassment I must admit that I thought at first that Stonewall Jackson was a place and not a person, but yeah. That’s his photo on the front cover of the book, and I now know that he died 152 years and 9 days ago…)
OK, so clearly I’m not a history buff and I admit that understanding how and why intricate changes in the American civil war would affect present day America is well beyond me. That aside I did at first question why the CEO of Dyna-Tyme Genetics felt he was able or qualified to make decisions about the course of present day America, but this became clear towards the end of the novel. Besides, if you think something needs changing and you are able to change it…why not?
I have the feeling that I missed a lot and this aspect of the novel was wasted on me; the novel contains a map and Fred mentioned to me that it is important to the plot…which again I must admit was completely lost on me. It is more than likely I looked at the map in the same way that my ageing and stubborn mother-in-law clutches a mouse in her hand and stares gormlessly at the computer monitor and wonders what it’s all about.
In this sense I’m sad. Not because my mother-in-law is lost in an ethereal cyber space but because I’m missing out. A phenomenal amount of research has gone into not only setting the historical scene, but also in thinking about possible outcomes of alterable events. Whilst I can’t vouch for historical accuracy I can however tell you that the phases of the moon as described in the text tally with online resources. Yes, I checked. (Just as I had to check who Stonewall Jackson was… 😉 )
The underlying plot and the characters within it are essentially the glue which binds the novel together. A book about just time travel is either a (wishful) reference book, and likewise, so too is a book about history. It’s what people do with time travel (and how and why) and what they do once they’re in a new temporal setting that make a story.
Return to Sender has a number of minor characters and sub-plots which help to fill out an otherwise fairly simple mission. I say “simple” because the time travel method for the most part takes care of the when and where, so there’s little else for Carleton to do unless he’s been tasked with some additional activities and gets to interact with local folk.
The strength of this novel lies in the time travel and history, so these areas tend to overshadow the plot’s twists and character interactions. For example, as a parent I found Bertha’s behaviour difficult to buy into; perhaps more description into her thought processes may have helped me. Likewise, I was surprised at Dyna-Tyme Genetics’ limited medical capabilities towards the end of the novel when they were able to achieve so much at the beginning. Like with Bertha I’m sure that a little more description over this aspect will have nullified my observation.
These are minor observations though, and generally speaking the writing style is strong enough to carry it through.
A few final thoughts about the writing style.
The writing is fast paced and weaves between the areas of time travel, history and moving the plot forwards. For example, Carleton requires training so that he not only blends in with the locals of the time but also in cultural and military training so that he has a chance of survival in the midst of a war.
Whereas the training / aclimatisation in Finney’s Time and Again was a stagnant and festering quagmire of viscous lethargic non-eventful mind numbingly sluggish words on a page (I hope that gets the point across…) Fred H. Holmes takes on a different approach in Return to Sender. By describing the strategy of winning the war Fred covers the historical aspect (what had happened previously), the time travel element (what the hoped outcome will be) and the character interaction (Carleton and his trainers). It’s really well done and moves the plot forwards nicely.
Whilst I’m throwing compliments around I’m also going to give a thumbs up to a final section towards the end of the novel which describes a history by using newspaper cuttings. Although I found it quite long, it was a refreshing alternative to the more traditional dry epilogue-style narrative.
Rating * * * *
I’m rating this 4 stars – ‘losing’ a star only due to my own lack of historical knowledge which meant that I didn’t glean as much from this novel as most others would.
Return to Sender: A time travel novel with a solid method of time travel and a plot which is firmly rooted in historical accuracy.
Disclaimer: A copy of “Return to Sender” was sent to me free of charge so that I could read and write my honest thoughts and opinions. These are they!
| 5* Excellent! | 4* Good | 3* OK | 2* Not good | 1* Crud |