Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield
Published November 6, 2018
The titular Alice Payne, a thirty-something woman in Georgian England, moonlights as notorious highway robber The Holy Ghost and gets swept into an adventure that will have far-reaching consequences in this quick-paced and utterly delightful timey wimey novella.
With two of this year’s Nebula-nominated novellas telling stories about time travel and imagining humans in a distant devastated future, it invites comparison. Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, which I reviewed here last month, has the edge; Its characters are given greater depth and its world-building is more comprehensive, but Alice Payne Arrives is clever, queer, and a whole lot of fun! While Robson takes a “Google Street view of the remote past” approach to time travel, in which trips back in time do not alter or change the future, Heartfield does the opposite, focusing on the consequences that individual decisions can have on the future.
In Alice Payne Arrives, time travel is largely restricted to two militaristic sects: the Farmers and the Guides (short for Misguideds) who work endlessly to change turning points in the timeline, including the Mayerling incident and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and so change the world. Major Prudence Zuniga is no closer to achieving her goal though, so she looks for something, or someone, new and finds it in 1788. Enter Alice Payne and her darling Jane.
I love reading science-fiction where women feature prominently and this was no exception. Alice is an independent, resourceful protagonist used to taking matters into her own hands. She’s also a mixed-race, bisexual woman living in Georgian England with her companion/lover, the more pragmatic and scientifically-minded Jane. I was less taken with Major Prudence, but I did find her concern for her family and the choices she ultimately makes to secure her future sympathetic.
Alice Payne Arrives can be confusing at times, but that’s only because keeping track of a story that not only covers multiple points in time and the wide-ranging consequences on the timeline of an individual choice, but also the smaller-scale changes that impact characters’ backstories is a challenge! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to plot this novella and Heartfield does it brilliantly. I wished there had been more exploration of the Farmers and Guides and their conflict throughout the story, but nonetheless this was an enjoyable and intelligent read and I look forward to picking up the sequel, Alice Payne Rides, soon!