The novel “Millennium” by John Varley was published for the first time in 1983. It’s based on his 1977 short story “Air Raid”.
Bill Smith leads an investigation team charged with shedding light on a terrible plane crash in which a DC-10 and a 747 collided causing hundreds of deaths. Some strange details, an even stranger discovery in the debris and the encounter with a woman will reveal a disconcerting truth.
Louise Baltimore is the Chief of Snatch Team Operations that work from a distant future. Through the Gate, she and her team travel in the past to take people but only those who are about to die because they have to be very careful not to create paradoxes that may destroy history. Something unexpected happens and triggers a series of events that could cause a catastrophe.
“Millennium” is a novel centered on time travel, so much that the chapter titles are almost all homages to previous stories in this subgenre. In this case, the trips are made through a portal called the Gate opened in the distant future called the Last ra. It’s a bleak future, the result of millennia of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare with the consequence that the Earth is heavily contaminated.
The descendants of the survivors have a low life expectancy despite their technological level because of serious inherited genetic damage. Parts of their bodies get gradually replaced with artificial parts until, at least for those who manage to live long enough, little remains of organic.
From the beginning of the novel it’s clear that time travel is dangerous because changing the past can create paradoxes. The consequences can be catastrophic because a tear in the fabric of space-time can totally destroy history. Or at least that’s what the protagonist Louise Baltimore believes.
There are loopholes around the dangers of time travel exploited by the Snatch teams like the one led by Louise Baltimore. They take from the past healthy people who are about to die carrying them to the future and replacing their bodies with others to avoid arousing suspicion.
A plane crash is an excellent opportunity to take many people at once but the snatch must be set up in an appropriate way because time travel have limitations and the teams have only one chance to work at any given time. A crash between two aircraft is at the center of a snatch but an unexpected event complicates things a lot and in the end a stunner remains in the past with serious danger to the timeline.
The story of the snatch that caused the time problem and its consequences is told mostly in the first person alternately by Bill Smith, who in the 20th century leads the team investigating the crash of the DC-10 and the 747, and Louise Baltimore.
“Millennium” begins with a significant amount of action but the two protagonists, who are by far the most developed characters, also tend to be wordy in the description of their work and their life in general. The consequence is that the pace is slowed down but this allows John Varley to make us get to know them thoroughly and, in Louise Baltimore’s testimony, to reveal something more about the Last Era.
In the distant future, the situation is so bad and expectations so limited that human beings seem to tend to nihilism. Louise Baltimore smokes a lot but lung cancer isn’t a concern compared to the health problems she can expect. Other of her personality traits are strongly affected by her situation, even more so because she has to deal with death also during the snatches, made sometimes particularly difficult by unforeseen events.
The plot is complicated because Bill Smith and Louise Baltimore’s stories are out of phase. To make it even more complex, there are several elements of the story and of the Last Era that are unclear. Some of these elements are clarified at the end of the novel. Perhaps.
If you like stories in which eventually everything is explained accurately, honestly “Millennium” isn’t for you. This is a novel based heavily on mystery, ambiguity, half-truths, lies and twists that can greatly change a certain perspective. For example, some characters receive messages left in the past that are used as a guide to make certain decisions, but their reliability is far from certain.
“Millennium” is the kind of novel that you may want to re-read to understand a little better the story knowing how it ends. John Varley puts a lot into a story that is not particularly long for a very good novel that in a plot based on an adventure through time contains various profound themes.