History in the Making
Though his background is in military history, with his bestselling thrillers The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, Caleb Carr proved he could walk the historical-fiction walk on the streets of old New York. In Killing Time, a high-stakes technothriller that will leave your head spinning, Carr turns a new corner, conjuring up a haunting vision of the future that is as much a meditation on modern technology as it is an ominous glimpse of technology's consequences.
The year is 2023. Since the E. coli breakout of 2021, hamburgers have become a luxury, the oceans have become lifeless masses of brown sludge, and the air in New York has grown so polluted the mayor advises citizens to stay indoors for anything less than an emergency. But that's not all: A staphylococcus epidemic decimated 40 million people worldwide in 2006, and a devastating stock market crash leveled global economies in 2007. More importantly, the information age has not made good on its promise of a "free exchange of knowledge." Instead, societies have fallen victim to a "love affair with information technology," and their citizens have been virtually brainwashed by information under control of the nations' leaders. The structure of society itself has undergone an immeasurable shift, and only those countries whose poverty has kept them unwired have been spared.
But even a world in chaos can be turned upside down. Dr. Gideon Wolfe, a successful criminal profiler and professor of psychology at John Jay University in New York, is visited by the widow of John Price, the famed special-effects wizard who was murdered only days earlier. Mrs. Price gives Wolfe a computer disc with now-famous footage of President Emily Forrester's assassination, proving the footage had been tampered with and the Afghani accused of killing the president was nothing more than a digital image concealing the true culprit's identity.
A few short hours after Wolfe brings the evidence to his old friend Max Jenkins, a private detective, Jenkins is murdered. Wolfe is then swept onboard the amphibious ship of a small group of resistance fighters led by Larissa and Malcolm Tressalian, who soon catapult him into a new understanding of the world. The Tressalians reveal to him their responsibility for a number of historical "discoveries" that in recent years have discredited everything from the New Testament to human evolution to Winston Churchill. What began as mischievous tampering now threatens to yield disastrous global effects.
Reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, with a tip of the hat to The Matrix, Killing Time combines traditional elements of the mystery and thriller with Carr's unique historical and psychological insight. Although at times Carr lapses into preaching about the dangers of runaway technology, this novel is ultimately a reflection on the vulnerability of history under the control of those in power. And although we can't predict the future for Caleb Carr, we can certainly commend him for offering us this terrifying glimpse of history in the making.
Elise Vogel is a freelance writer living in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
SOMEWHERE IN THE MITUMBA MOUNTAIN RANGE OF CENTRAL AFRICA, SEPTEMBER 2024
We leave at daylight, so I must write quickly. All reports indicate that my pursuers are now very close: the same scouts who for the last two days have reported seeing a phantom airship moving steadily down from the northeast, setting fire to the earth as it goes, now say that they have spotted the vessel near Lake Albert. My host, Chief Dugumbe, has at last given up his insistence that I allow his warriors to help me stand and fight, and instead offers an escort of fifty men to cover my escape. Although I'm grateful, I've told him that so large a group would be too conspicuous. I'll take only my good friend Mutesa, the man who first dragged my exhausted body out of this high jungle, along with two or three others armed with some of the better French and American automatic weapons. We'll make straight for the coast, where I hope to find passage to a place even more remote than these mountains.
It seems years since fate cast me among Dugumbe's tribe, though in reality it's been only nine months; but then reality has ceased to have much meaning for me. It was a desire to get that meaning back that originally made me choose this place to hide, this remote, beautiful corner of Africa that has been forever plagued by tribal wars. At the time the brutality of such conflicts seemed to me secondary to the fact that the ancient grievances fueling them had been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth alone; I thought this a place where I might be at least marginally sure that the human behavior around me was not being manipulated by the unseen hands of those who, throughmastery of the wondrous yet sinister technologies of our "information age," have obliterated the line between truth and fiction, between reality and a terrifying world in which one's eyes, ears, and heart can no longer be trusted.
There are no newspapers here, no televisions, and above all no computers, which means no damned Internet. Dugumbe forbids it all. His explanation for this stance is simple, though no less profound for its simplicity: information, he insists, is not knowledge. The lessons passed on from one's elders, taught by the wisest of them but recorded only in the mind, these, Dugumbe has always said, represent true knowledge. The media I've mentioned can only divert a man from such wisdom and enslave him to what Dugumbe calls the worst of all devils: confusion. There was a time when I—a man of the West, the possessor of not one but two doctorates—would have laughed at and disdained such beliefs; and in truth, during the time I've been here the laws and folklore of these people have come to trouble me deeply. Yet in a world stuffed full of deliberately warped information, of manufactured "truths" that have ignited conflicts far greater than Dugumbe's tribal struggles, I now find myself clinging to the core of the old king's philosophy even more tightly than he does.
There—I've just heard it. Distant but unmistakable: the thunderous rumble that heralds their approach. It'll appear out of the sky soon, that spectral ship; or perhaps it will rise up out of the waters of Lake Albert. And then the burning will begin again, particularly if Dugumbe attempts to forcefully resist the extraordinary brother and sister who command the vessel. Yes, time is running out, and I must write faster—though just what purpose my writing serves is not quite so clear. Is it for the sake of my own sanity, to reassure myself that it all truly happened? Or is it for some larger goal, perhaps the creation of a document that I can feed out over what has become my own devil, the Internet, and thereby fight fire with fire? The latter theory assumes, of course, that someone will believe me. But I can't let such doubts prevent the attempt. Someone must listen, and, even more important, someone must understand . . .
For it is the greatest truth of our age: information is not knowledge.
From the Hardcover edition.