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‘The Ministry of Time’ Makes Readers LOL as the Sci-Fi/Rom-Com/Thriller Takes on British Imperialism

Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel was born of an online obsession with the doomed Franklin expedition and one particularly dashing naval officer, Graham Gore / BY Alyanna Denise Chua / May 17th, 2024


Living with a roommate is fraught at the best of times, with inevitable squabbles over dirty dishes, splitting the bills and overnight guests. Now, imagine you have to teach a new housemate about smartphones and the concept of dating, while preventing them from shooting squirrels in your backyard. This is the premise for The Ministry of Time, the wildly popular and slyly irreverent debut novel from British author Kaliane Bradley, who plucks Commander Graham Gore from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition and plops the Arctic explorer down in a near-future London. The book, which came out May 7, is already being lauded by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, while the BBC has ordered a six-part TV series based on the novel. 

 

Kaliane Bradley

 

The story centres on the titular new government ministry, which is testing the effects of time travel on the minds and bodies of five people saved from the brink of death in four different centuries. It’s narrated by Gore’s newly minted “bridge,” a young unnamed and unmarried British-Cambodian woman, one of five civil servants chosen to assist the “expats” with their acclimation and assimilation into modern society while monitoring them for signs of physical and mental distress. She dutifully explains germ theory, the collapse of the British Empire and how “text” is now a verb. To cope, he chain-smokes and cooks around the clock.

“I love the comedy of forcing Gore to deal with all these outlandish 21st-century things,” Bradley explains in a Zoom interview from London, listing examples like Spotify, Instagram, feminism and multiculturalism. When the bridge tells Gore nearly nine million people live in London, he says: “That’s far too large a number to be real. I am going to forget that you told me.” He pales when he discovers there are no maids or cooks in their house. Soon, the housemate dynamic evolves into a romance, the time-travel project begins to unravel and men carrying blue-light weapons are hunting down the expats. 

It comes as a surprise that Bradley, known for her prize-winning short stories, hadn’t intended to write a sci-fi/rom-com/spy-thriller mashup, nor had she intended to write a novel at all. “It all happened organically,” she says. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she took a liking to the AMC TV series The Terror, a fictional account of English explorer Sir John Franklin’s mission to find the Northwest Passage (which included two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror). She came across Gore’s name as she was reading the Fandom Wiki, and discovered the Royal Navy officer had completed one successful Arctic exploratory mission before he set sail on the Erebus. The commander died sometime after he went ashore to King William Island from the icebound ship in June 1847 with a  small search party, in an area now called Graham Gore Peninsula.

 

Kaliane Bradley
“I have never lived with a Victorian polar explorer, sadly,” says London author Kaliane Bradley, a biracial British Cambodian woman like the narrator of her book. Photo: Robin Christian

 

“Gore wasn’t really in The Terror. He just briefly appeared in two of the 10 episodes,” she says. “But it was such an interesting name. Then, I saw a photo of him on Wikipedia and thought ‘this guy seems really hot.’” She went down a rabbit hole, reading about the history of polar explorations, and discovered an online group of Arctic expedition enthusiasts. She began writing the first version of The Ministry of Time as a joke to entertain them. “What would it be like if your favourite polar explorer lived in your house?” was her hilarious starting point.

Those posts morphed into a novel brimming with incisive takes on British imperialism. “These men were not in the Arctic for good reasons,” she says, pointing out that polar exploration was a colonial project that encroached on Inuit lands. “They wanted to find a trade route to the Arctic to enrich the British Empire.” 

She wondered how a mixed-race narrator – British-Cambodian like herself – from the present could handle the anxiety that comes with living with an imperialist housemate, and if so, could they fall in love? 

Indeed, Bradley’s novel jumbles fun and wacky fantasy with serious, modern concerns in equal measure. There is no end to time-travelling stories in our pop culture canon – from Doctor Who to Back to the Future, as well as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, even the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but Bradley’s take on the trope stands out for its contemporary flavour. “Cross-historical immigration is still immigration,” she writes in the novel.

“Time expats like Gore are pulled from disasters, at the point of their deaths, and forced to assimilate to 21st-century Britain,” she explains. “Refugees and forced migrants from different countries are also pulled from their homes and forced to assimilate to 21st-century Britain.” Her Khmer mother, like many minority émigrés, left her homeland during the Cambodian War and could never return, which prompted Bradley to explore the emotional and psychological similarities between her characters and modern-day refugees. 

Although there are five expats in the book, only Gore – known as 1847 – has a real doppelganger. Bradley invented 1645 (army lieutenant Thomas Cardingham, who fought in the English Civil War) and 1793 (Anne Spencer, an Englishwoman living in Paris during the French Revolution), because these disasters had “really high body counts.” That made it easier to save them from certain death, since few people in their era would notice they were missing among the carnage. 

She also brought the witty and brash lesbian Margaret Kemble from the 1665 Great Plague of London and the shy, shellshocked Captain Arthur Reginald-Smyth from the First World War. “I chose historical periods that loom large in the British cultural imagination. Then, you meet Margaret and Arthur, and they defy the expectations you have for how people in their eras are like,” she says. “The idea of questioning the narrative of history is important to me.” 

Bradley also wants to set the record straight – she is, in fact, not the bridge in the book, despite sharing the same British-Cambodian background. “My narrator has a complicated relationship with the British state, and the easiest way to explain this was to make her biracial. Obviously, the reason I think that’s the easiest way to do it is because I’ve got experiences that I can draw on.” she says.

“I’m afraid I do not work for a top-secret, time-travelling ministry. I have never lived with a Victorian polar explorer, either, sadly.”

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