11 March, 2015

Review: Next Stop: Nina

Next Stop: Nina Next Stop: Nina by Robin Raven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tale of suffering, loss, and hopelessness, followed by a chance at redemption. Without spoiling anything past the first few pages, Next Stop: Nina is about a woman with a troubled past of child abuse who has reached the point of suicide, only to find herself thrust back in time in the body of herself as a young child. She’s given the chance to live her life again, and she makes the most of the experience.

I really liked this book. It’s a light read in the sense that the story progresses quickly, but even without being dense with plot, it includes heavy themes and concepts that require a careful reader to stop and think between chapters. This is rare among novels; usually light stories are light both in thematic concepts and plot growth, and heavy novels have both deep conceptual ideas and complex story threads you have to keep track of. Next Stop: Nina manages to straddle both by using complex ideas while keeping the story itself light with an easy-to-follow narrative structure.

At first glance, Nina seems to be a Mary Sue, but this is an artifact of the book being told in the first person. As an outside reader, we’re able to explore the deep themes that Nina herself sometimes seems to miss. As each new complex idea is introduced by the author, I found myself upset with Nina for not munchkining an optimal solution – but this is exactly what the author intended. Nina is flawed in terms of how she executes her intentions, but her ideals are strong. I think this is why Nina almost appears to be a Mary Sue at first; her intentions are pure, but she’s far from perfect in how she goes about achieving her goals.

At heart, Next Stop: Nina is about Nina’s journey from the brink of suicide to some form of potential happiness. There is an aspect of wish-fulfillment here, when you consider that the story is about a child abuse victim who travels back in time to her childhood, but it doesn’t go the way you might expect, and the form that happiness might take has grave implications. Despite the quick pace and undeniably light thematic elements, the philosophical underpinnings of the story imply a harsh reality bubbling underneath. The concept of suicide, accomplishing good through charity, and the power of art are all turned on their head in a universe where time travel of this type is possible.

A subtheme of the book revolves around animal welfare and effective altruism. Nina’s brief explanations for why she is vegan and why she is an effective altruist really hit home in how obvious these concepts are from her point of view. Interestingly, this might be the very first time that the term “effective altruism” has appeared in published fiction of any kind.

My strongest criticism is probably the chapter lengths, which are short and numerous. We see Nina speed through years of her life in an instant, and we hardly get any time to see what happens in each iteration.

Given that the book is such a short read while at the same time introducing complex concepts that will make you want to think in-between chapters, I’d recommend this book, especially if you’re into time travel, romance, and the chance of redemption beyond child abuse.

I’d also like to say a few words about some of the deeper concepts introduced in this book, but that means SPOILERS are ahead. Stop reading here unless you’ve already read the book.

At first, when Nina gets her chance to relive her childhood, it’s unclear how the time travel in this universe works. Nina appears to believe that she’s gone back in an ‘A’ theory of time situation (though she doesn’t use these terms), and is specifically regretful for not having paid more attention to world events other than 9/11. But she never bothers to mark world events, perhaps because she was assuming at first that the time travel would only occur once. When it happens again, there is no longer an excuse for her to ignore world events, but it seems that she is focused instead on Lens, rather than the world at large. At first, this seems to conflict with her adherence to effective altruism, but if there is only one ‘A’ theory timeline that keeps recurring, then this is a groundhog day scenario, and future goods can’t be achieved past the time jumps. Her charitable efforts appear to be erased at each jump, and so helping present individuals gets prioritized over future ones. This explains why she’s focusing on altruism in the way that she is.

But then Nina meets other time travelers and becomes aware that others might not experience the same realities that she has so far experienced. At this point, the reader realizes that Nina’s consciousness has been jumping between alternate realities, overwriting her younger version of herself each time. What was before a simple ‘A’ theory situation becomes a ‘B’ theory multiverse, and the implications are staggering. Yet, Nina doesn’t seem to even notice. While Nina is oblivious, we the readers suddenly realize that the earlier decisions made were not ideal, and the entire story takes on more weight as a consequence. This is a great twist on the George Bailey idea; in this story, Pottersville wouldn’t just be erased when Nina echoes again.

There were a few weird parts where story threads were hinted at, but never got picked up again. I would have preferred if the religion aspect were explored more deeply. Despite a human character being introduced who briefly explains why Nina began time traveling, Nina nevertheless seems to believe God may be a part of it, and she even remarks at one point that It would be good to experience the feeling of accepting Jesus. Strangely, this was not brought up later to either reinforce or dismiss the thread; it just hung loose at the end of the book.

Also, sex was handled very strangely in the book. Not just because Nina appeared to go on several dates over the course of weeks (maybe months?) before having sex with Lens, but also because Nina seemed to place so much emphasis on sex being a part of feeling happy and comforted. This is a weird combination; Nina is idealized as both being in praise of virginity, and yet also quick to turn to sex for comfort at the five year point of her relationship with Lens. This didn’t feel entirely realistic to me.

The time traveling explanation was weird, and a little confusing. She was killed unjustly, so he put her in what she thought was a time loop to make up for it? Since he did this on purpose, he must realize it’s a ‘B’ theory multiverse, so why not explain this to her? If she continues to mistakenly believe it is an ‘A’ theory timeline, then who knows what she might wreak on some unsuspecting universe?

Finally, Nina never seemed to learn how to properly munchkin her time travel opportunities, even after multiple jumps. Instead, she pursued Lens each time and was content with the money and love she received from him. But even in pursuing Lens, she refused to use any techniques for getting him to be with her. Nina instead relied on what looks like mostly luck when it came to Lens, and each time, she continually felt as though she did not even deserve the happiness she got from him.

Despite these small gripes, I really enjoyed the book. It was an easy short read and really made me think about how I’d react if I were in this situation. Plus, any book with effective altruism in it is worth a look, in my opinion. Thanks to Robin Raven for writing something so fun to read!

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