The title, Tempus Fugit, has a double meaning…because not only does “time fly” for its protagonists, it also flies for the reader who turns its pages.
I do have to start off by admitting that it is regrettable that it was advertised by spamming. [Note: Since writing this review, I have heard from the author. He noted that the spam was sent without his authorization by an overzealous employee, who is now an ex-employee.] Indeed, I found myself in a bit of a moral quandary as to whether or not to purchase it when I found the solicitation in my email box. On the one hand, I intensely dislike rewarding spammers; on the other, the premise was completely fascinating, and one about which I had often wondered, and if not for the spam I would never have heard of the book. And at least it wasn’t another ad for prescription pharmaceuticals of uncertain provenance and even less certain spelling.
To resolve this quandary, I searched Google for reviews, figuring that if it got good reviews, I would spring for it; if it was decried as tripe, I would not. As reviews of people who actually read the book were uniformly positive, I was now insatiably curious, and so I sent in my order right away. Now, having obtained and finished the book, I am very glad indeed that I compromised my principles a tiny bit just this once.
The premise on which Tempus Fugit begins is that three of our Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—are duplicated out of time by some unknown agency, a year or two before their respective deaths, and deposited together in the modern-day United States at the Mount Rushmore monument with $100,000 in seed money. The story follows their adventures as they learn to cope with and try to blend into this brave new world and find answers to the primary question on their minds: what sort of nation has their fledgling Republic grown up to be? They also wonder about the identity of the strange agency that brought them to this new time, and what its purpose might have been, though answers to that question are less forthcoming.
Tempus Fugit is quite well-written, structurally and dramatically. The prose is neither amateurish nor impenetrable. Even the 18th-century-idiomatic dialogue of the Founding Fathers is surprisingly readable; where context does not suffice to illuminate meaning, the author provides convenient footnotes to explain obsolescent usages or historical contexts. In fact, there is so much historical information that the book sometimes seems like 2/3 novel and 1/3 political history textbook. However, it manages to present the history very naturalistically, only resorting to footnotes when character dialogue does not cover it completely.
Reading the book, one has the sense that Rowe put a great deal of research into its writing, learning our Founding Fathers inside and out. He does not pull any punches, either; the threesome are presented as human beings with feet of clay, rather than the idols whose faces we carve into mountains and put on currency. Washington is a man of more action than thought, who can act impetuously and without mercy when necessary. Franklin is a genius, but a very lecherous and bawdy one who is prone to earthy humor and whose occasionally scathing wit can cause even his best friends to cringe. And Jefferson is a childish, hypocritical racist who can’t change his thinking no matter how hard he tries—and his attitudes get both him and the others into trouble more than once. The trio of Founding Fathers do not get along perfectly; they sometimes bicker over group decisions, and an old grievance causes tension between Washington and Jefferson despite Jefferson’s attempts at reconciliation.
It should be noted that the book doesn’t pull punches where obscenity is concerned, either. The F-word is used from time to time, and “nigger” is used frequently. This may seem jarring to modern readers, but “nigger” was simply a word in common usage in the Founding Fathers’ time, and even in Mark Twain’s; it was only later that it came to be considered an epithet, and the book does make this clear. There is also some graphically-described violence, as the threesome are accosted by a pair of thugs who discover the hard way that it’s not wise to mug even a 65-year-old George Washington. And at times the book’s humor becomes a touch earthy, especially on the part of Franklin.
But despite these unpulled punches, the book is great fun. The Founding Fathers come across as real people, with their little foibles and idiosyncrasies. It’s amusing to watch them make guesses based on incomplete information and get some things wrong, but a lot of things remarkably right. Rowe doesn’t present them as some kind of backwoods bumpkins; he reminds us that Franklin and Jefferson were among the brightest intellects of their time, classically educated and keen thinkers—and if Washington wasn’t as brilliant, he was at least blessed with abundant common sense. Placed into this strange new situation, their reactions are clear-minded and rational as they set out to learn as much as they possibly can. And some of the situations they get into along the way are absolutely hilarious—for example, the Founding Fathers’ reactions to daytime television are not to be missed.
If the narrative has any serious flaws, they are only that from time to time incidental characters spout off dialogue that sounds incredibly artificial, almost like they were giving a prepared speech. People don’t talk like that in real life, but it is necessary that the points they make be overheard by the Founders so that they can discuss what people think of them, or of events that happened after them. Also, the book is obviously the first in a series, so it does not so much end as come to a good stopping point.
All in all, Tempus Fugit is a great work of historical speculative fiction, and much the sort of thing I would have expected to come out of a political SF house like Baen, rather than being self-published. I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, which is apparently due sometime in spring, 2007.
The first chapter may be read in its entirety online.