Now let me start by making it clear, it's not the intrusive, rambling narrator that pushes these novels into Bizarro World status. Palma is deliberately using a Victorian-era technique for a Victorian-era novel. The self-conscious omniscient narrator talking directly to the reader with discursive asides and deliberate story manipulations will drive some of you to distraction, but whether you like this approach or not is more of a taste thing. Some readers will love it, while others will loathe it.
It's also not the grab-bag of real-life historical characters that Palma throws into his plot. H G Wells eventually becomes the central character in The Map of Time after being a minor character at first. There's Jack the Ripper – and the Elephant Man is thrown in for no discernible reason. The Map of the Sky also includes Edgar Allan Poe, again with no obvious rationale for doing so.
It’s not even the lame time travel mechanism used in the novels. I can live with half-baked explanations that it’s simply all “in the mind” of some people. And I’ll even swallow that H G Wells is one of those people.
The twists of logic in both books are also a problem and would be highlighted and criticised in any SF writing workshop for beginners. Much of the story line is contrived and disjointed. Palma writes whole scenes, only to backtrack at the end to say that they didn't happen, using the excuse of an all-knowing and all-powerful narrator to paper over large plot fault lines. But even these don't push these works fully into Bizarro World.
No, what makes the incredible success of these novels so bizarro is the way they shamelessly appropriate science fiction tropes, devices and themes and present them as if the author was the first person to have used them.
The good bits: the ideas behind time travel, the paradoxes, the concept of parallel timelines, the ways that timelines can be influenced – the bits that Palma presents as if he has come up with them – have been used many times before by science fiction authors and in much cleverer, moving and more profound ways.
And the problem is, judging by many of the reviews of the books – which are obviously often by people who have read little or no science fiction – Palma's getting away with it. He's getting credit for, and attaining best-seller status on the back of the ideas and work of others, and snubbing his nose at the science fiction community in the process.
There' a whole section in the The Map of the Sky, for example, set in the Antarctic which is a blatant rip-off of Who Goes There?, the classic 1938 science fiction novella by John W Campbell Jr (the man credited with shaping the Science Fiction's Golden Age) where an alien is revived that can assume the shape, memories, and personality of any living thing. (More people would be aware of the number of movies based on this story, including John Carpenter's The Thing.)
Okay, so The Map of Time and The Map of the Sky are pastiches. I get that. The Map of Time is an homage to H G Wells’ The Time Machine, and The Map of the Sky to his The War of the Worlds. But the result is for the most part indistinguishable from fan fiction. And the people praising these novels are barely aware of how much Palma has appropriated. Only in Bizarro World would these books be best sellers. I can only hope that the readers of these books move on to some of the great time travel novels such as Ken Grimwood’s Replay and Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates.