There is certainly no shortage of science-fiction novels exploring the myriad possibilities of time travel. Coincidentally, just as many ultimately conclude that meddling with the fabric of time is a bad idea—but knowing that crash is coming doesn’t make the ride any less fun.
With that in mind, let’s talk about New Pompeii, the rollicking debut from British author Daniel Godfrey that should fill a void in the hearts of many a Michael Crichton reader: it’s an alt-history techno-thriller about a literal clash across aeons, a story so irresistibly entertaining, it should be accompanied by a bottomless bucket of popcorn. It is downright cinematic in its urgency, with all the humor and heart of a vintage summer blockbuster.
Refreshing in its straightforward appeal, Godfrey’s plot rests largely upon the shoulder of Nick Houghton, a down-on-his-luck history scholar who, through mysterious machinations, is offered the job of a lifetime. Novus Particles, one of those monolithic corporations that seem to exist solely to manufacture ethical quandaries, has long mucked about with controversial technology able to transport matter from the past to the present. To varying degrees of success, Novus has brought forward things and people from events at least 30 years in the past. (Time travel, in this world, has its limitations, chiefly in the form of tinkering with the recent past.)
Now, the company has covertly created its crown jewel: a replica Pompeii, populated by residents transported in time moments before their preordained deaths at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Hapless, brainy Nick has been tagged to take over as the company’s historical adviser, a position designed both to study the displaced culture of Pompeii and to subdue the natives’ unease by maintaining the pitch-perfect authenticity of their surroundings.
Up until Nick’s arrival at the secluded settlement, Novus employees have maintained a delicate balance. Pompeii’s citizens know they were “saved” from destruction, but they’re unclear on the mechanics of that salvation. To them, the foreigners in their midst are of divine origin, a belief propagated by some creative pyrotechnic wizardry from New Pompeii’s overseers.
But the Romans didn’t conquer the world by being gullible. Many of the city’s elite are beginning to ask questions and take actions to find answers. This tense fragility permeates the atmosphere when Nick arrives, still wary of his corporate overlords but awe-inspired at the historical treasures before him.
Godfrey has set up the ultimate clash of civilizations, pinning the dubious masterminds of Novus against the calculating schemers of Old Pompeii. Largely, we see these events unfold through the eyes of Nick, whose devotion to the culture and the people under this unusual microscope colors every interaction. He is the earnest ethicist who peeks behind the curtain, attempting to find out not what is happening, but why. To do so, he must become part of the murky machine he has long despised. His discomfort with his situation—tempered by his insatiable curiosity—render him an appropriate vessel for our exploration.
The results of Nick’s inquiries are often ugly, a lesson reinforced by a peculiar and intriguing side plot—the only portions of the book not directly focused on Nick and the action in New Pompeii. As events in both timelines unfold, and certain mysteries unravel, the two stories weave together into a beautiful mess—a word I use intentionally, because each time you scratch the surface in New Pompeii, you uncover a new riddle—and a new reason to turn the page. Not to mention, a new reason to eagerly await the sequel.