The Mosaic Novel – Guest Blog by Richard Bowes

When I decided to call From The Files Of The Time Rangers, a Mosaic Novel, I thought that the term was one that Jeff VanderMeer had invented for his brilliant multi-layered Veniss Underground. But when I ran into Jeff at Worldcon in Boston, he said it had originated with someone else but he didn’t remember who that was.


My agent prefers the term ‘integrated collection’. But not only do I like the way Mosaic Novel sounds, I like the idea of a book created, as a visual mosaic is, out of bits of glass, of tiles, of colored stones.

That’s kind of how I see From The Files Of The Time Rangers with chunks of fantasy and pieces of science fiction, myth and politics, ancient gods and cable TV, embedded side by side.

In this book, runaway and abandoned children get molded into a police force that patrols the Time Stream, Mercury and Cupid walk in Twenty-First Century New York, an 18th century English Lady cavorts in a post World War Two U.S. suburb, a powerful American family arises on a magic island off the coast of Maine, and a future devoid of anything we might recognize as human marks a possible ending for the long reign of gods and men.

I was raised in a city of juxtapositions. One of the pleasures of the recent Worldcon was taking Kage Baker and her sister to see Old Ironsides. I haven’t lived in Boston for over forty years. It was my first visit to that two hundred year old frigate since I was a school kid. This time I was very aware of the contrast between the wooden ship and the active navy base in which it’s berthed, between the snappy routine of the Chief Petty Officer who conducted the tour and his description of ten year old boys carrying cannon balls forward under enemy sniper fire.

From the deck, I could see the Bunker Hill monument rising above Charlestown. But when I turned and looked across the harbor at the gleaming sky scrapers and waterfront condos of Boston, I saw no sign of the town of twenty-five thousand inhabitants who stood on rooftops and wharves to watch husbands and sons, rebels and royals, fight and die a mile away.

We returned by harbor ferry and from the water, in tiny, dark silhouette against the glass and steel, I saw bits and pieces of the brick, low rise Boston of my childhood. That decaying 1950’s city, studded with old churches, meeting houses, relics of the Revolution, was completely at ease with its past as the Cradle Of Liberty and utterly unprepared for the Civil Rights crisis that gripped it in the next decade.

In the city I knew – Irish Catholic and intently inward looking – March 17 was a holiday. Officially it was Evacuation Day and celebrated the British withdrawal from the city in 1776. But no one I knew called it anything but St. Patrick’s Day. And the noisy parade that snaked through South Boston celebrated a conquest more lasting than anything General Gage and General Howe could ever have imagined.

In that Boston, rival calendars, folk, Church, political, existed side by side. And as a kid it seemed a natural thing that Halloween was followed by All Saints Day and that Election Day was the logical outcome of this.

A jumble of times and traditions surrounds me still. When I go out my door late in the morning, busboys hose down the streets in front of the tourist cafes, ornately decorated ladies and men open up their tattoo and piercing parlors. In the evening sidewalk barkers promote comedy clubs and the low roar of voices goes on until three and four A.M. even on quite ordinary Tuesday nights.

On that Greenwich Village street, Bob Dylan first shoved his way into our attention; Eugene O’Neil’s earliest plays received their premiers. Around the corner where the NYU law school now stands, Aaron Burr, after he almost captured Quebec but before he shot Alexander Hamilton, once stabled his horses.

A lot of the material which you will read here is original to this book. But the large majority of it appeared over the last few years as stories. This is a tradition, perhaps not quite as old as our genre itself, but old enough. In the days of my youth, such a book would have been referred to within the trade as a ‘fix-up’. But it would have been marketed as a novel, plain and simple with no special description.

That was certainly the case with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles with Simak’s City and others which I read as a kid. In the 1950’s the genre market was ruled by the pulp magazines and the short story was the dominant form. With no insider understanding of how they had originated, I was especially fascinated by those books in which each chapter was a separate reality linked by an overall concept to those around it.

Those books seemed to cover more territory, have more depth, than through-written novels of the same size. They took a subject and presented it at various times and from a variety of vantage points. They seemed a better bargain for my 35 cents or for my 10 cents if they came out of the pile of paperbacks with their covers torn off on sale at the local variety store/numbers drop.

With the 1960’s, the balance had begun to shift and there was more emphasis in the genre on the novel. Simple ‘fix-ups’ faded. But because New Age speculative fiction was more open to experimentation with form and subject, the mosaic novel flourished.

Keith Roberts’ Pavane evoked rather than explained an alternate English Renaissance and Technological Revolution. Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus used a mélange of post colonialism, artificial intelligence and mind games to display a rich and deeply alien culture in three linked novellas. Thomas Disch’s 334 offered a dozen different viewpoints of a near future New York every bit as complex and conflicted as the one the passage of time has given us.

Tending to show and not to tell, these books managed to avoid the horror of the information dump. If Speculative Fiction is a literature of ideas, they were more like symposia than lectures.

Recently, Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman series of graphic novels was in many ways the ultimate fictional mosaic. In the contemporary mainstream, the diverse chapter settings of David Mitchell’s mainstream Booker Prize favorite Cloud Atlas and his first novel Ghostwritten are instantly familiar to someone who had in his youth pawed through piles of remaindered paperbacks.

It amuses us to trace the origins of Speculative Fiction back through history to the The Golden Ass by Apuleius and Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon. In that spirit, and who’s to deny me, I’d like to claim Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its dozens of legends, each a separate incident but all joined by the author’s chatty commentary into a portrait of his world and its beliefs, as the original mosaic novel, the ancestor of From the Files of the Time Rangers.

The Mosaic Novel is represented here with the author’s permission. All rights remain with Richard Bowes.