Unhappenings by Edward Aubry is a terrific novel. You should read it.
Unhappenings by Edward Aubry is the best time travel story you’ve never heard of.
It was published in 2015. In an alternative universe, it was the recipient of many awards. It was raved about by popular personalities who drive book sales (it’s an alternative universe, so instead of Oprah or Reese Witherspoon let’s say Channing Tatum). It’s studied in universities as one of the 21st century’s first great works.
Unhappenings is narrated by Nigel Waldon. He’s a time traveller, and the plot follows him as he goes back and forth in time.
As the story progresses, he learns more about his involvement in developing time travel, his motivations for doing so, and the astonishing consequences. It’s a personal story, but the consequences of his actions go well beyond Nigel and the people he cares about.
This article is partially a review of Unhappenings.
But in part, I’m using Unhappenings as a starting point to meditate on a variety of tangentially related topics.
The book has a small cast of characters, including Nigel, Athena (who goes by several different names), Helen Clay, and Carlton West.
Although she’s central the plot, Helen doesn’t make an appearance until a third of the way through the book. Likewise, Carlton isn’t even mentioned until half way through.
This reflects how the story works: layer upon layer of information is added as the story goes on. It’s artfully done.
Unhappenings is a unique kind of love story, on several different dimensions. It’s a unique kind of tragedy, too.
There are significant twists that reward the virgin reader. As mysteries unfurl and tables turn, the stakes increase and accelerate.
It rewards repeated reading as well. I’ve read it four times in 18 months and enjoyed it each time.
Every time I finish the book, it stays with me. It asks tricky questions about agency and self-determination. About relationships. About our obligations to one another and the world at large. It has nestled its way into my soul.
Unhappenings asks some ethical questions.
Sitting at a bench with Nigel, a character asks him: “If you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you do it?”
Nigel replies: “Of course not”. And explains:
“That was two hundred years ago... Killing that boy would save millions of twentieth century lives at the expense of hundreds of millions of twenty-first century people who would never be born under other circumstances”.
Another question the novel raises:
To what extent can someone with good intentions be responsible for the actions of another person with bad intentions?
I've also been thinking about this book in light of the current conflict in Ukraine. What is happening to the people of Ukraine is appalling and, to my mind, indefensible. In response, many of our Governments are imposing extremely tough sanctions on Russia, which won't just impact Putin and his enablers, but many innocent Russian people who didn't want this occupation to happen. These innocent people are suffering for the actions of others. Livelihoods are being lost and lives will be lost, but this suffering we are imposing is abstract, and not nearly as direct as the suffering of the Ukraine people (who I hurt for). This is relevant to the decisions of one character in this novel who, in some ways, makes the most important decision in the book, but doesn't really understand the ramifications of this decision until everything is done.
The book moves back and forth over two main periods of time. It begins in the 2080s and early 2090s and most of its time is spent in the 2140s. There are jumps before, after, and in between as well.
At one point, I got so obsessed with the book that I created a spreadsheet noting the time periods described in each chapter. Based on this data, I created several charts.
The chart below outlines the year each successive chapter is set in. (There are a small number of outliers that I’ve removed. Some chapters cover more than one time period, in which case I’ve put included them both as separate points.)
Below is a chart outlining the times, but in chronological order, rather than narrative order:
Seeing these time lines visually, I was surprised. I thought there was a lot more time travel in the story. I also thought there was a lot more variety in terms of when events were set. I suspect that’s a quirk of human psychology. We probably haven’t evolved to grok the idea of time travel.
The book has twists. You could almost serialise it.
It consists of parts:
It has short chapters. A few people who reviewed the book complained about that. But I thought it was a feature, not a flaw.
The novel consists of 125 chapters (including the epilogue). I like novels with short chapters. It feels like I’m achieving something as I race through chapter after chapter. It makes it more digestable.
If I wrote a novel, it would probably have short chapters. It makes the prospect of writing something big seem more achievable. As the saying goes: the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
There are few authors who are self-recommending to me.
After reading Unhappenings, I felt that way about Edward Aubry. I read Candice. It’s one of the most experimental novels I’ve read.
I started reading Prelude to Mayhem but it’s a genre that doesn’t appeal. I will return to it, however. He has earned my trust.
We all have kinks. Time travel fiction is one of mine.
Fundamentally, I think it’s because it aligns with my belief that nothing was, or is, inevitable. Many of the events that have lead us to today, collectively and personally, have been influenced by luck.
I suspect this is why history as a subject has never captured my imagination. It’s just one way that things turned out. We can learn lessons from history and be inspired by it. But there's nothing inevitable about history.
In the same way that there’s nothing inevitable about the future.
In fact, I think it’s often a misnomer to refer to “the future” in the singular sense. It’s more accurate to think of it as “futures”, plural. There are all sorts of possible and plausible futures that lay before us.
In my bones, I think that good decision involves making good predictions. To make good decisions, we need to try to extrapolate possible consequences over time, and make decisions that increase the probability of good outcomes and minimise the probability of bad outcomes. (Broadly speaking.)
Time travel fiction makes this explicit.
Is Unhappenings a perfect novel? Of course not.
Does that stop me from loving it? Of course not!
Every novel, or series of novels, is flawed.
The Harry Potter series of books might be beloved by tens or hundreds of millions of readers, but you can’t think too hard about Harry’s universe or decisions made by major characters before cracks become hard to ignore. But that doesn’t stop our enjoyment and love for the series.
There are aspects of the novel that might have made it better.
- One character is described as “a woman of ordinary breeding, and extraordinary character”. I see glimpses of this, but this could have been more convincing, especially if we’d seen her in a wider variety of situations.
- One character gains information in a way that is too convenient.
- The novel is set in the future, but I don’t get much of a sense of the world being different to today. Having said that, I think this is intentional. The purpose of this book isn’t to speculate about the future. It’s to tell Nigel’s story.
- At times, Nigel comes across like a wet blanket. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of agency (although I guess if I were subject to unhappenings I might be the same). He could have gone almost anywhere and anywhen, and I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t be inclined in using that power in more interesting ways. (This is a criticism I have of most time travel stories.)
- The novel is populated with very few characters. Nigel’s parents pop in and out but have little depth. Helen’s mum is mentioned a handful of times. Helen, in particular, is the sort of character who I’d expect to have a lot of friends, but this is barely alluded to. It’s hard to criticise this, because developing other characters wouldn’t have added to the plot and would have slowed things down. But I think more could have been done in terms building the world these characters lived in, and developing their characters further, which would have increased the emotional stakes.
- One of the characters is almost too... complex. After reading the novel four times, I’m still not sure how to interpret this character’s behaviour near the end of the novel, although I think the ambiguity is intentional. We need that person’s story. (For what it’s worth, I reached out to Edward Aubry and he said that a sequel focusing on this character is in the works.)
- I wish the epilogue hadn’t been as final. I would have preferred to hold out hope!
- I can’t shake the sense that there is a version of this novel that really kicked me in the gut and brought me to tears. It got me most of the way there, but not all the way.
Unhappenings isn’t especially popular.
It is popular in the sense that people actually read it. As the saying goes, the key to success as an author isn’t whether you’re a best-selling author, but whether you’re a selling author. Many books don’t sell 100 copies, let alone 1,000. Which is better than most.
However, it feels criminal how little money I assume it makes. Publisher Rocket suggests that sales of the book would buy Aubry a couple of coffees each month. It feels wrong.
I find it interesting to contrast my feelings for Unhappenings with a popular recent-ish time travel novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. I really enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife.
However, Unhappenings has my heart. And I think it’s because I can think of it as my little secret.
One of the reasons I love this book is because I feel like it’s my little secret. I didn’t come across it through a recommendation engine or by reading a review or because someone suggested it to me. I was simply searching for time travel fiction, read the first couple of ages, and, despite my hesitations, thought I’d give it a go.
I remember a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was cool to like Coldplay. There was a period where they were an indie band who had released an incredible debut album, Parachutes, and followed that up with A Rush of Blood to the Head.
Now, being a Coldplay fan feels like a guilty pleasure rather than something to advertise. This is despite the fact the band has over 50 million monthly listeners on Spotify and no other band from its era comes close.
There was a time where I thought Jordan Peterson was an insightful guy. When you watch his early videos about clinical psychology, it really seems like he was excellent in his field. Then he started talking about topics had no expertise or special insight and I reconsidered. On the whole, he wouldn’t have bothered me. However, Peterson reached an incredible level of popularity, and his worst characteristics have been magnified so that they’re hard to ignore. Now, I can’t help but dislike him.
Another selfish bonus for works that don’t achieve astronomical success: you can reach out to the author. I’ve sent messages to Edward Aubry a couple of times and he has personally replied.
There’s even a chance he’ll read this article. If that’s the case: thank you, Edward Aubry, from the bottom of my heart, for writing such a terrific book. You’ve enriched my life.
Another gem of a time travel story: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Catherine Webb. Like Unhappenings, I found it myself. It also has my heart.
I went as far as looking at the number of ratings and reviews Unhappenings has received on Amazon.com and on Goodreads.
On Amazon.com, the book has 590 ratings with an average rating of 4.3. It has 514 written reviews.
On Goodreads it has 2,120 ratings and 383 reviews, with an average rating of 3.99.
Contrast this with The Time Traveler’s Wife. On Goodreads, it has a similar average rating (3.98 versus Unhappening’s 3.99). However, this is based on a much larger sample set: over 1.6 million ratings and over 49,000 reviews.
Compared to Unhappenings’ 2,120 ratings and 383 reviews on Goodreads, this means that there are 787 ratings of The Time Traveler’s Wife for each rating of Unhappenings. For every review of Unhappenings, there are 128 reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
On Amazon.com, The Time Traveler’s Wife has 5,174 ratings and 3,306 reviews. It’s still more popular than Unhappenings, but interestingly, the order of magnitude is much similar: for every rating of Unhappenings there were 8.76 ratings for The Time Traveler’s Wife, and for every rating of the former there were 6.43 reviews of the latter.
I’m not sure what to make of the discrepancy between Amazon and Goodreads there. I’m sure there’s an explanation. Whether it’s a good explanation is another question.
I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read it in 2005, read it to my now-wife soon after, and re-read it in 2020. It felt like returning to an old friend. I hope beyond hope that Audrey Niffenegger eventually finishes her planned sequel, The Other Husband, following the life of one of the characters introduced late in the book.
However, it feels wrong for The Time Traveler’s Wife to be so much more popular. And weirdly enough, it makes me more critical of aspects of The Time Traveler’s Wife. (For example: I don’t especially like Henry, or at least the decisions he makes; and there is something off about the story’s main relationship. It’s kind of “groomy”, if that makes sense.)
If the tables were turned and Unhappenings was the book that was wildly successful? This article would probably be about The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Writing this article has made me think more deeply about the different ways that time travel works in different forms of fiction.
A basic taxonomy includes time loops, immutable timelines, semi-mutable timelines, and fully mutable timelines. Below, I’ve summarised these time travel mechanisms and included examples.
One version of time travel is the time loop. The most simple version is where a character wakes up one morning, and then lives out the day before falling asleep or dying, and then waking up again to relive the same day.
This is a common movie trope. For many people, the OG of this genre is Groundhog Day. In recent years, this type of movie has become more common. More recent movies include The Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Happy Death Day, Palm Springs, Boss Level, and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.
One thing that is striking is how many of these movies are excellent. It’s hard to think of a movie that uses this premise that is bad. (Premature, maybe? But even that was entertaining, even if it already feels dated and its humour is an acquired taste.)
Novels seem to have more complex variations of time loops. In Replay, the protagonist lives a full life, before dying and waking up as an earlier version of himself. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is similar: each time Harry August dies, he is born back into the same life.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle does a more complex version of this: the protagonist lives the same day over and over and experiences the same events, but does so in a different person’s body.
Timelines that vary in mutability
In these timelines, characters can’t change anything. Or, any changes they’ve made have always been incorporated into their timeline.
The first Terminator is based on an immutable timeline. Sarah Connor survives the ordeal with the original T100 because she was always going to survive, and her son John Connor was always going to send a man back in time to protect her, who also turns out to be his father. The outcome might have been inevitable, but the ride is thrilling.
One of the final “holy s#!t” moments of Game of Thrones (before it went downhill) was based on an immutable timeline. (“Hold the door! Hold the door!”).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban incorporates time travel through an immutable timeline. Other examples are 12 Monkeys and The Time Traveller’s Wife.
These timelines allow for change, within limits.
11/22/63 by Stephen King is a good example. In this novel, time is basically a character, protecting itself by preventing too much change. This is sometimes known as “rubber band history”, where certain events “spring back”, or occur in some altered way.
The Terminator franchise changes from immutable into a mutable timeline at some point between the second and third movies. In Terminator 2, the protagonists take steps to stop Skynet from ever happening. Their success in preventing Judgment Day is implied fairly heavily. (“No fate but what we make”.) Terminator 3, however, states that Judgment Day is inevitable, even if the details change. I suspect this is one of the reasons the subsequent movies struggled to be as successful as the first two. It removes a great deal of intension that is inherent in the first two.
In some stories, characters can change almost anything about the future. Within these, there are two main approaches: where the original timeline can be overwritten, or where there are branching timelines.
Stories where the original timeline can be overwritten tend to be the ones that are laden with paradoxes. They need to be really entertaining so you don’t think too hard and turn your critical lens off.
The most famous example is probably Back to the Future (which was was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar). Marty McFly can take actions that have dramatic effects on the future, including fading himself out of existence. That movie is magical – lightning in a bottle – but it had to be, because if you stop and think at all about the time travel mechanics, it will take you out of the experience.
(Fun fact: Tom Holland based his Peter Parker character in the recent Spider-man movies on Marty McFly.)
With branching timelines, the original timeline stays in place, but changes essentially create new timelines. This is how the Bump Time trilogy operates. This is where I’d put Unhappenings (with one or two significant caveats).
One challenge with branching timelines is creating stakes from one timeline to the next. Usually this requires some mystery or relationship between timelines.
The taxonomy above isn’t comprehensive. Then there are times where characters can experience time in reverse, for example. Like in Tenet, or in a memorable plot point in the novel All Our Wrong Todays. There’s also situations where a character can see into the future and make decisions based on what they’ve seen (Next).
As you can gather, “time travel” isn’t just one mechanism. It’s a bunch of different mechanisms that work in very different ways.
This got me thinking: what time travel stories lend themselves to the screen?
That’s an easy one. It’s the stories that take place in the same sets, where the characters are the same age, over and over again. It’s the day-based time loops.
Time travel that takes place over a lifetime can be problematic.
If you write a time travel novel, and you want to increase the likelihood that it will be made into a movie or TV series, my guess is that it’s best to set it within a narrow time frame.
I love covers of original songs.
One of the classics is Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah”. Others include The Beatles’ “Twist and shout” and “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston (written by Dolly Parton on the same day she wrote “Jolene”!). Others are Obadiah Parker’s rendition of “Hey ya!” or Lily Allen's "Somewhere only where we know".
I also like it when stories are retold in a different way.
There are a number of modern movies that are based on older works. West Side Story is based on Romeo & Juliet. The Lion King is based on Hamlet.
Sometimes, artists remake their own works. Alfred Hitchcock directed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and directed it again in 1956. Or others remake existing work – like Spielberg remaking West Side Story, or Bradley Cooper directing a new version of A Star is Born.
Sometimes, English-speaking versions are made of foreign movies. Like Let the Right One In becoming Let Me In, Open Your Eyes becoming Vanilla Sky, or Internal Affairs becoming The Departed.
(Fun fact about The Departed: the original plan was for Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise to play the roles eventually played by Leonardo DiCaprio and and Matt Damon.)
Then there a stories influenced by other works. 50 Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fan fiction.
There’s something about time travel that feels sacred, so it seems there have been very few alternative takes on great concepts. After Groundhog Day, it seemed like the idea had been taken and it is only in the past 5 to 10 years that the idea has been embraced in newer films.
It’s almost like there’s a prohibition for an author to use the same time travel mechanism or conceit as what has been used before.
I wish that weren’t the case. I mean this as the highest form of flattery to Unhappenings. But I would love to read a different version of the story. Even if it had the same beats and the contours of the relationships were the same – but the characters had different personalities and some of the subplots were different. I don’t think it would detract from this book, but I’d be fascinated to see it executed in a different way.
In an alternative timeline, where I’ve got more time than I do now, all of this would prompt me to write a series of short stories using different time travel conceits, borrowing from other time travel stories, with the working title “Bubble stories”. Ie, time travel stories that would convert to the screen in a cheap, effective manner. I would borrow generously from mechanisms used elsewhere, but inject my own take on them.
Unhappenings is a terrific book. The plot is complex. The relationships are complex. The questions it asks are complex. It has worked its way into my soul.
My greatest hope is that this book will have sequels. There’s a story about Athena there. And Andrea. Perhaps even Helen.
My hope is that these books get written. And that they gain a large audience. In doing so, I hope Unhappenings will be rewarded the audience it deserves as well.
In the meantime, I hope this article has encouraged you to buy it and read it. Once you’ve enjoyed it, recommend it to friends and loved ones.
To your future self, I say: you’re welcome 🙂