Even after you’ve finished Caleb Carr’s futuristic new thriller, Killing Time, it isn’t clear what the title has to do with the rest of the book – except perhaps to indicate the highest artistic function the latter is likely to serve. Oh sure, there’s plenty of killing: The novel’s climax is the nuking of Moscow. But the random annihilation and perfunctorily pragmatic murders you get in this amateurish satire of the Internet Age are wholly beside the point here, and exhibit none of the Hannibal Lecter-esque charm or specificity of the serial killings that gave Carr’s 1994 gaslight-era bestseller, The Alienist, its lurid appeal. You can only assume that the new book’s title is an act of forgivable desperation on the part of Carr’s publisher, who clearly wants us to think that his latest novel is similar to the first. Would that it were.
Like its predecessors – The Alienist was followed in 1997 by a far less successful clone, The Angel of Darkness – Killing Time is a period piece; the difference is that the period has moved from the past to the future. It’s a disastrous shift. What made The Alienist so much fun to read was Carr’s enthusiasm for the past – for a period in New York history he’d clearly spent a lot of time obsessing about. Carr may have tried to suggest that New York in 1896 was, essentially, the same as New York in 1996 (drugs, crime, neuroses), but what caught the imagination of so many readers was the abundant evidence that New York back then was so entertainingly different. The reason we read historical fiction is, after all, to revel in precisely that difference: the descriptions of strange-looking clothes and menus, the knowledgeable disquisitions on the arcana of social comportment or the intricacies of political intrigues. Carr gave you these – sometimes in such abundance that you suspected he’d included them simply because he couldn’t stand to let any of his research into the details of daily life in 1896 go to waste. (Why would the murder-mystery narrator mention the kind of toothpaste he brushed with?)
The sense that Carr had unloaded everything he had on The Alienist was borne out by the failure of its successor, which felt desperate and carbon-copy-ish; it was pretty clear after The Angel of Darkness appeared that whatever the author did next had to be something completely different. But while Killing Time may look different from the others – it’s 2023, and people whiz around in spaceships made of transparent resin instead of horse-drawn calashes – it is, beneath the ill-fitting Battlestar Galactica drag, the same story all over again. (Sometimes the same characters too: Killing Time features a pair of supersmart Jewish brothers, a nobly suffering black man, an eccentric genius, and a rebellious female, just as The Alienist did.)
“Story,” I hasten to add, is a fairly magnanimous way to describe what happens between page 1 and page 272 of this book. Like its predecessors, Killing Time opens with a hard-boiled New York-based psychologist hunting down a madman. The hunter this time is Dr. Gideon Wolfe, a criminal profiler and the acclaimed author of something called The Psychological History of the United States (“Do you really think that the death of Jefferson’s mother had something to do with his writing the Declaration of Independence?” an admiring fan asks Wolfe), and his prey, at least at the outset, is the person who murdered President Emily Forrester in 2018. At the vaguely Maltese Falcon-ish beginning of the novel, a “handsome, mysterious woman” enters Wolfe’s office and hands him a computer disk showing that the only video record of Forrester’s assassination was doctored to implicate an Afghani national; the actual murderer turns out to be Chinese. Since we learn this on page 45, it’s fairly clear that the real mystery here isn’t who killed Forrester, but who altered the video – and why?
This is where our deranged genius comes in. His name is Malcolm Tressalian, and he really, really hates the Internet, which in its 2023 version is largely the creation of his father, a not very nice man who subjected his young son to gruesome gene-therapy treatments in order to, as it were, increase the boy’s ram. A vengeful Malcolm sets out to expose the weaknesses of Internet culture and its naïve “belief that by logging on to that Internet, one was tapping in to a vast system of freedom, truth – and power.” He does so by perpetrating a series of elaborate hoaxes that, he argues, Internet-era people are too soft-minded to see through: the discovery of a Fifth Gospel, say, or the election of “an imaginary, digitally generated candidate” to the U.S. Congress. (Plus ça change …) And, of course, the doctoring of the Forrester-assassination video. Wolfe is so taken by Malcolm’s reasoning that he ends up joining the Tressalian gang, which spends the rest of the novel zipping around the globe spreading disinformation with increasingly lethal results, until Malcolm goes back in time and fixes everything once and for all.
Malcolm’s – and Carr’s – point is that information, of which we have much, isn’t the same as knowledge; our “utter reliance on information technology” is leading us to madness and destruction, “a high-tech dark age.” (We’re meant to perceive the wisdom of this after a renegade Israeli agent, who’s been led by the Tressalians to believe that Stalin was responsible for Dachau, flambés Moscow with a stolen nuclear warhead. Oops!) That’s a good point, one for which a book like this is ideally suited: Science fiction has, after all, long served as a vehicle for cultural and social commentary and critique. (Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, or Ray Bradbury’s eerie fable “A Sound of Thunder,” both of which are, essentially, eco-fables.)
The problem is that Carr’s attempts at social and cultural satire – obvious gags about what the future holds (a 24-hour Bowling Channel: “all bowling, all the time”) and comatose clichés (“that rarest of Angelenos, a person with style”) – are embarrassingly sophomoric. The high-school-skit tone isn’t improved by the If-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium plotting and a cast of hilariously cartoonish characters that includes a Muslim strongman who says things like “A terribly amusing game, my infidel friends, this bowling!” while having the Israeli’s feet flayed. And as for fascinating futuristic gizmos you crave, there’s nothing here you couldn’t dream up after watching a few Star Trek: Voyager reruns. Carr never provides the authentic-sounding, how-all-the-gadgets-work stuff that grounds even the lamest of Michael Crichton fantasies – the kind of ingeniously realized details that make you want to read science (and historical) fiction in the first place. It’s as if Carr had been so intent on offering his Important Cultural Insight that he figured we wouldn’t care as much about how the future looks as we did about how the past looked in those earlier, more careful novels. The result of his carelessness is a book about which you don’t care, either.
At the end of the novel, Malcolm finally tells Wolfe about the secret time-travel invention he’s been working on in between hoaxes: “a tale so bizarre and unbelievable that it would force me to the conclusion that he had, in fact, lost his mind.” But by this point you’re past caring what this tale could possibly be – although it clearly has a lot in common with the author’s latest adventure in time travel. Readers who do have Time on their minds, as well as on their hands, would do well to find some other way to kill it.