Very good science fiction novels place the reader in world that will make them consider their own lives and their own world. In Dennis Danvers’ revealing time-travel novel, The Watch, he does just that; he presents a world that is familiar in a new light. He takes the reader through a journey via the displaced Peter Kropotkin, the father of Anarchy theory. Kropotkin is the narrator of this tale, as the story is taken from his supposed journals. A mysterious figure known only as Anchee visits Kropotkin on his deathbed offering him a chance to live again, albeit in a future Earth, specifically 1999. With little hesitation, Kropotkin accepts and the novel takes off from there. Kropotkin initially appears on an airplane bound for the US with his final destination as Richmond, Virginia. The reader need not be knowledgeable of Kropotkin and his theories, I was not and this lack of knowledge did not reduce my enjoyment one iota. Richmond is one of the more deeply divided racial cities in the United States, considering its history as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Anchee’s reasons and purposes for offering Kropotkin this chance at a second life are not truly clear, but with Kropotkin’s outspoken past added the tensions that are a part of Richmond, it can only lead to a boiling pot of Anarchy. As the novel progresses, we learn about Kropotkin and his various treatises on society and a bit about his life. While Kropotkin was initially awed by much of what he saw of our world, he was able to adapt rather quickly. This may be the only part of the novel that was a bit of a stretch, but given Dead Peter’s (Kropotkin’s reference to his first life) worldliness, it was a minor stretch at that.
As he arrives in our time in the US, Kropotkin meets up with a bunch of musicians with whom he becomes quick friends. Peter soon settles into Richmond, first in the city park, then eventually in an actual home. Being the resourceful man he is Kropotkin, is able to make his way in the new world he has been thrust into, with a few bumps here and there and a little help by Anchee’s occasional visits. The mystery behind Anchee involvement deepens as more people come together with Kropotkin and as Kroptokin begins to become a more prominent figure in Richmond. Throughout the novel, and more so as it draws to a close, Kropotkin is continually asking himself, how he can change things and what kind of control a person should have over others.
I enjoyed a number of things about this novel. Danvers was able to convey our world through the fresh and unacquainted eyes of Kropotkin very well. Kropotkin’s marvel at many things we take for granted was an early strength of this novel, from his awe at being on an airplane, to the modern bicycles to computers, Danvers was able to make the ordinary seem magical. The tension was also a strong aspect of the novel, whether regarding Kropotkin’s thoughts or how Anchee became involved, the tension was there. The pacing of the novel should also be commended; Danvers style in using Kropotkins’ voice made the words go fast and the plot move at a good pace. As I said, I knew very little, if anything of Peter Kropotkin before reading this book, but now I’ve found him to be a rather intriguing figure I want to learn and read more about. In comparison to other Time Travel novels, at least the one I have most recently read Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick, Danvers succeeds. Both novels give the protagonist a chance to use their knowledge to change things at some point in the novel, as foreknowledge is power gained. How the wielder of this power chooses to act may not always be the same, but the questions of foreknowledge are ones people ask themselves everyday. Like the planes and bicycles in Danvers novel, these questions of “If I only knew” or “If I knew then what I knew now” are uttered often enough to be taken for granted, but truly considering these questions and how we would truly act are left only to ponderings. All told Danvers has succeeded in illuminating the daily things and our daily thoughts in a new light. Danvers presents a thought-provoking tale of time travel, anarchy, romance and tough choices. The questions and decisions raised by Kropotkin are well thought out and ultimately ones you may keep asking yourself after you have finished the novel.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford