Even with a time machine, undoing the terror attacks of 9/11 turns out to be harder than you’d think, according to this knotty sci-fi drama.
When his research project, a helmet-like gizmo that stimulates wearers’ memories until they seem as vivid as real life, gets defunded, Columbia University medical student Mike Zweistein continues his work, using childhood buddy Sal as a guinea pig. The gadget has an odd quirk, Sal discovers—if you imagine your memories working out differently, the past changes accordingly. The stage is set for Mike and Sal to “remember” picking today’s winning Lotto numbers yesterday, but instead the high-minded Sal insists on using the helmet to forestall 9/11—his firefighter dad died at ground zero—and ropes his saucy sister Cecelia into the mission. Suiting up with twin helmets, the siblings go back nine years to a past in which, alas, no one believes a pair of goofy teens who claim knowledge from the future about an impending terrorist spectacular. Cutting the Gordian knot, they drive south from Long Island with a rifle in the trunk, heading for the Florida flight school where a terrorist cell is plotting mayhem. The result is an epic road trip; the journey stretches out over many three-hour helmet sessions, and the shifting timelines that link Sal and Cecelia’s past, present and future selves become so tangled that Sal gets shrieking headaches just thinking about them. Readers may also get a bit of a throb when contemplating the plot’s many time-travel paradoxes, but Lange embeds them in a resonant story that plays on the emotional power of memory. There is some fairy-tale schmaltz here—disembodied souls keep swooping over Manhattan—but Lange generally writes with a supple, understated prose, and stocks the novel with appealing characters whose reactions are as believable as their situation is contrived.
An entertaining piece of magical realism.