A Spy In Time
By Imraan Coovadia
California ColdBlood, 2018
296 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Bailey Drumm
Imran Coovadia’s A Spy in Time (California Coldblood, 2018) exemplifies Afrofuturism at its most innovative, immersing readers in a multiverse that is both tangible and obscure. Coovadia, a South African author of South Asian descent, creates a post-apocalyptic world where fair-skinned people are not common, and have not been for centuries. In the novel, Enver Eleven, a twenty-five year old case officer starting to work his first time-traveling job, is able to navigate through times that span varying opinions on skin-tone and discuss the role it plays on his confidence. In the Agency, everyone’s mission is to, “preserve the past in its perfection and imperfection; to protect the narrow route that led humanity as a species through the blinding dark of the supernova; to prevent the splitting of the unity of time into endless contradictory strands.” At one point, Enver Eleven says: “I could tell them they would get what they wanted in the end: a sky full of fatal stars.”
As the novel starts, Enver is set to leave Johannesburg, and travel to Marrakesh, 1955 with his mentor Shanumi Six. In Morocco, their task is to eavesdrop on a man by the name of Keswyn Muller. From here, Coovadia creates remarkable cliffhangers for each chapter that throw the reader into another time. Each chapter is structured with a title, (Marrakech, 1955/Jupiter 10^5/Constitution Hill, 2271/Rio, 1967/Underground, 2489/The Day of the Dead, 11 March 2472), directing the reader from the point of where the chapter will begin to where it is going.
The action from one assignment to the next shifts quickly. Once Enver realizes that Shanumi has been captured, he speculates it was Muller, and the plot thickens. He is forced to fake his own death, and dig his own grave. When he slips under, he believes he has actually died, until he is discovered, buried after 100 thousand years. Later in the novel, after he has traveled a few times, Enver explains, “I had the feeling of having stepped from one dream into another, and another still more distant, so that by now I was so far away I could never make it back to my origin.”
Coovadia uses intense, descriptive language to allow the reader to suspend disbelief and be submerged into the world he has created. At one point, Enver observes, “on a silver plinth near me was bolted the severed head of a calculating machine, a literal brass head which had been deprived of its means of locomotion. It was as odd to see her there as to find the head of a statue in a garden of holographs, something truly out of place.” Though as readers we can’t see this image, we can visualize this machine and how it relates to this world.
Enver’s father is an inventor and Enver thought of his father’s inventions as a prank, a way to play jokes on the universe by distorting machines. His father lives in a home where everything is taken care of for him. “The air was recycled for your own good. The temperature was kept at seventy-five Fahrenheit, day or night, for the good of the body, in the middle of winter and in the slow months of summer. Everything was done for your comfort and protection, consistent with the constitution.” Rather than a feeling of self-protection, Coovadia creates an undertone of obligation in this luxury of protection by machines. As the story progresses, it is apparent that these machines are becoming increasingly more important, be it both positive and negative, to the depth of the plot.
In the end, the novel comes full circle. The veil of mystery lifts only so slightly as Coovadia’s writing becomes more direct. The reader is able to see Enver taking control of a situation and using his knowledge to carve a path in history. He’s been through a whirlwind of experiences that forced him to grow; but he’s realistic in being a hero with self-doubt. He is a prophet of knowledge, not guidance.