Tales of time travel have been around at least since the heyday of H.G. Wells. The trick, however, is to find a fresh concept that hasn't been overworked. You can visit Jesus Christ or save John F. Kennedy only so many times.
With his debut novel, "Here and Now and Then," East Palo Alto writer Mike Chen finds a new wrinkle in time. Instead of frolicking with dinosaurs or witnessing the heat death of the universe, his characters focus on more mundane, though no less compelling, near-future conflicts, those between parents and children, friends and lovers.
"Here and Now and Then" focuses on the adventures of Kin Stewart, a secret agent for the Time Corruption Bureau (TCB), based in 2142. It's his duty to preserve the integrity of recorded history and hunt down anyone who would attempt to alter the past for their own personal benefit. When a mission goes awry, he finds himself stranded in the Bay Area of the 1990s.
With little choice but to adapt to his predicament, Kin builds a comfortable life for himself in the past, getting married and raising a daughter, Miranda. But then the TCB finds him and returns him to his proper time period, where he has a devoted fiancee who knows nothing about the 18 years he subjectively spent with someone else.
Chen, a San Jose native who grew up in the Almaden Valley neighborhood, earned a mechanical engineering degree from University of California, Davis — but it was a close call. In addition to the requirements for his major, he enrolled in creative writing and comparative literature classes.
One of his Davis instructors — Wendy Sheanin, now with Simon & Schuster publishing company — advised him to change majors. She told Chen:"If you're not going to do that, keep writing. Take classes, find a critique group," he said.
Chen followed her advice. He kept writing after college but concentrated on sport journalism, covering the National Hockey League as a freelancer and starting his own hockey blog.
He would eventually write for markets such as Fox Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports and NHL.com.
Chen said his career highlights as a sports journalist include interviewing Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky, the leading scorer in NHL history, and discussing guitars and guitarists with NHL goalie Sean Burke.
In addition to working as a full-time engineer, technical writer and project manager, Chen started his own tech/marketing writing business. He said he feels the copywriting makes him a better fiction writer.
"It's kind of like how an athlete has to work out and practice before they compete in their event. The tech and copywriting is like training, They work out those muscles for craft. When it's time to write fiction, I find that I'm a much more efficient writer."
After deciding to step away from writing about hockey, Chen maintained his geek cred by contributing to various high-profile science fiction sites. He also reignited his interest in writing fiction.
"Here and Now and Then" is the fifth full-length novel Chen attempted. After his daughter was born, he handled late-night feedings by watching classic episodes of "Doctor Who." One particular episode, "School Reunion," intrigued him with its use of time travel. He also was fond of "The Inner Light," an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in which Capt. Picard spent decades in the past.
"Both of those really deal with the impact of missing time on relationships and friendships," he said.
In developing his own style, Chen also took inspiration from mainstream writers, including Nick Hornby, author of "About a Boy" and "High Fidelity."
"I really loved his (literary) voice and how he could express the moment in an interpersonal drama without it becoming too cheesy or melodramatic," Chen said. "I wanted to take that feeling and apply it to science fiction."
"Here and Now and Then" definitely straddles genres, mixing comedy, drama and good old "sense of wonder." Beset by memory problems and warned that another trip to the past could be fatal, Kin embarks on a rogue mission in defiance of TCB guidelines. He is horrified to learn that after he disappeared from her life without explanation, Miranda also endured the cancer death of her mother. The two traumas pushed her onto a path that eventually led to a prison sentence.
Determined to undo his mistakes, Kin starts a conversation across time with his daughter, but the more he meddles, the more he endangers her. When TCB agents are dispatched to kill Miranda to protect the integrity of time itself, Kin knows he must prepare himself to sacrifice everything to save her.
Despite the availability of time travel, Chen's vision of 2142 isn't radically removed from the present time, but it does differ in some significant ways.
"It's making some minor assumptions about the overall temperature being a little bit warmer and the coastline being affected by climate change."
Chen said, "You can probably tell that I'm a pretty progressive person. I've tried to make it clear that in the future gay people can be married and have children and it's no big deal. I want to write the future I want to see for my daughter when she grows up."
Chen said that he builds his characters "in layers." They may start out as "stick figures," but over the course of many drafts, they acquire traits that give them substance and originality.
"It's a good exercise to put the characters in the most extreme situations and see how they react."
Chen currently has a two-book deal with his publisher and he has already turned in his second manuscript. Scheduled to be published in January 2020 and tentatively titled "The Pause," it is set in the aftermath of a global pandemic. It should given Chen the chance to lend his personal touch to another tried-and-true sci-fi trope — the end-of-the-world novel.
Freelance writer Michael Berry can be emailed at [email protected]
What: Mike Chen will talk about his new book with author Maggie Shen King.
Where: Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real #74, Palo Alto.
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 30.
Info: For more information, go to Booksinc.net.