Branch Point, by Mona Clee
310 pages, Ace Books, New York $5.50
Review score: ** out of *****

Time travel stories are some of the oldest in science fiction, going back to H.G. Wells. Over the years there have been many variations on the time travel story. In Vernor Vinge's excellent Marooned in Real Time, the time traveler can travel forward in time using a "status field", which stops time in the space enclosed by the field. The traveler sets a timer, activates the status field, and is instantly transported on a one way trip to the future.

As Vinge shows, traveling forward in time does not create a huge suspension of disbelief. Travel backward in time is a different matter and raises all sorts of logical problems. One of these has been labeled "the grandfather paradox". In the Grandfather Paradox the time traveler goes back in time and kills their grandfather before he meets the woman who would be the time traveler's grandmother. Since the couple never met, the time traveler could not have been born to commit the murder in the first place.

One way to deal with the Grandfather Paradox is to assume the time traveler creates an alternate universe by traveling back in time. This universe diverges from the history the time traveler knew at the time when the time traveler arrives. Mona Clee's book Branch Point resolves the time travel paradox in this way. In Branch Point, three eighteen year olds, Anna, Daria and Jeffery, from the year 2062 are sent back in time to avert a nuclear war. The story is told as entries in Anna's diaries, completed when Anna is old and near death.

For Anna and her friends, the world ended on October 31, 1962, as the result of total nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The event that led to the war was the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the placement of missiles in Cuba. In Anna's history, John F. Kennedy, egged on by Curtis "bomb them back to the stoneage" LeMay, invades Cuba during the missile crisis. Cuba retaliates by launching the missiles they have. The war escalates and total nuclear war ensues, producing a nuclear winter that destroys humanity and other large animals.

Only those who made it to "The Bunker" survive. The Bunker is a huge underground installation built in the hills near the Lawrence Livermore Labs. Most of the survivors are American scientists and, ironically, a few Russian scientists, who were traveling in the United States at the time. The Bunker is largely self sufficient and the scientists who survive there obsessively work on the creation of a time machine that will send travelers back to change their awful past. As the resources of the Bunker begin to wear out, the three teenagers are chosen to travel back in time, in a last attempt to change history. Anna, Daria and Jeffery were chosen for the mission when they were only a few years old and since then have been trained in the skills their elders hope will be useful in completing their mission. After the age of twenty two or so, the adults in the Bunker develop an obsessive fear of the outdoors. Since Anna, Daria and Jeffery are still young, it is hoped that they can adapt to the foreign world they will find in the past.

The characters in Branch Point are well drawn. Mona Clee shows us the toll taken on them by playing "God" with history. They are also warped by their upbringing in the Bunker. But the book is mainly the story of one person, Anna. the other two time travelers are weak players in the story. After saving the world in the first few chapters, the book settles down to being a travellogue of the twentieth century. As time goes on we find that history, as we know it, is the result of the intervention of these three time travelers. By the middle of the book this superhuman feat and the logical problems of time travel pile up and I only finished the book to find out how Ms. Clee finally brought the story to a close.

Ian Kaplan - 2/96

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