Submerged in ‘An Ocean of Minutes’

Photo courtesy of Pikist

Some contemporary science fiction has begun to predict the near future with an almost eerie accuracy. Several colleagues have discussed how fiction such as Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have gained new connotations in 2020. Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, published in 2018, fits this description to a tee. Although the novel takes place in America in 1981, there are some chilling resonances with the America of 2020 in Lim’s novel. 

When a virulent flu strain causes a worldwide epidemic that begins in the United States, Polly is forced to unexpectedly quarantine with her boyfriend, Frank. In a cruel twist of fate, he becomes sick while Polly avoids the virus and remains healthy. In order to save Frank’s life, Polly agrees to work for a company called TimeRaiser. Their offer is simple: they will cover the costs of any medical treatment Frank needs; in exchange, Polly has to travel to the future in their machine and work for them until she has paid off her debt.

Of course, things go wrong… and quickly, too. Polly thinks she is going to 1993, but TimeRaiser reroutes her to 1998 without her consent. She emerges alone and confused, with no way of meeting Frank.

In an era when 1980s pop culture is experiencing a renaissance, reading a novel in which a woman living in 1981 travels in time to 1998 is an uncanny experience. Just as a college student today yearns for the neon lights and denim outfits of Stranger Things, Polly is nostalgic for the life she left behind, and she frequently tries to acquire any carefully preserved objects that somehow survived the pandemic.

Everyone in the novel is trying to reclaim a sense of stability in an uncertain time by diving head-first into the past.

However, Polly is not the only one clinging onto the past. She has been brought into the future to restore old furniture salvaged from various hotels around America, and with one goal and one goal only: to bring rich Northerners down south for a vacation. While the company claims to work towards health or clean living, nostalgia is definitely the driving factor of these hotels. To a degree, everyone in the novel is trying to reclaim a sense of stability in an uncertain time by diving head-first into the past.

Unfortunately, the nostalgia ends up ringing hollow for the workers of TimeRaiser. Lim uses their discontent as a springboard to tackle America’s oldest demon: capitalism. She mercilessly skewers the manipulative practices of TimeRaiser, which is a fictional mashup of several different American mega-corporations.

All the workers brought into the future by TimeRaiser have no choice in what they do. They go where they are assigned and eat what they have been given. They must pay their debt to the company — including extra expenses for “luxuries” such as electricity and toothbrushes — before they are allowed to do anything else. They are not even considered American citizens, and they will only be able to apply for citizenship once their debts are paid and they have finished working for the company.

The spiral of debt imposed on TimeRaiser’s workers is unfortunately a reflection of modern corporations function today, in which those in power trick people into spending money and giving away information and freedoms while providing little of value in return.

Lim illustrates the workers’ lack of agency in one of the most disturbing scenes in the book. On her frantic quest to find Frank, Polly goes to a TimeRaiser office that claims to help locate friends and family members. The clerk she meets takes her ID and immediately charges Polly the fee for one missing person’s search, although Polly wasn’t even sure yet if she wanted to proceed. She suddenly has more debt piled on her without her consent. To make the expense worthwhile, she is forced to give away more personal information for a search that will likely be futile. The emotional manipulation of dangling a reunion in front of someone only to charge them for a limited search over a small area is absolutely disgusting. The spiral of debt imposed on TimeRaiser’s workers is unfortunately a reflection of modern corporations function today, in which those in power trick people into spending money and giving away information and freedoms while providing little of value in return.

While the TimeRaiser workers are united in their struggle to free themselves from what amounts to legal slavery, this is not as simple for the other characters in the novel. Lim’s novel comments on issues of privilege and migrant workers. Specifically, Lim implies that Polly is in a privileged position because she is a white woman. There are two classes of work visa in this alternative, dystopian society: an H-1 visa for general workers, and an O-1 visa for highly paid, specialized workers. Polly is lucky enough to acquire an O-1 visa, but she is initially misdirected into a group of H-1 workers. She immediately notices the difference between her and the other women: they are all dark-skinned, and the officials all speak to them in Spanish. Of course, Polly feels bad for noticing their race, but Lim’s point has already been made.

The general labour that TimeRaiser is using is the same type of labour that the United States—and much of the Western world—uses today: exploitation of poor people of colour who do not speak the native language and are forced into horrible working conditions. In America specifically, the exploitation of migrant workers specifically for the profit of corporations is already a well-documented phenomenon. These groups are especially at risk during the pandemic, and would be in danger if they tried to come forward. Don’t think Canada is off the hook either; we have our own issues with the exploitation of migrant workers, especially during the current pandemic.

Lim further emphasizes the racial makeup of TimeRaiser’s staff through the way in which immigrant workers are treated later in the book. Due to her supervisor’s selfishness, Polly ends up being demoted to an H-1 visa, forced to live in a crowded camp, where a lot of the women are black, Asian, and LatinX. It is infuriating to read how women in these camps are barely paid a dollar for every hour of backbreaking work they endure, and how they are forced to live in squalor. At the same time, the treatment of these fictional women holds a disturbing mirror up to present-day society.

Another masterful detail is Lim’s frequent mentioning of people speaking in Spanish to Polly once she starts working as an H-1 employee. When Polly asks why, an Asian woman laughs and tells her: “it’s because you’re a labourer”. For these women, laughter is the only way in which women can hold onto their agency in the face of discrimination and misery.

Lim truly is a master of her craft. I was amazed by the way in which she effortlessly weaves details of her story together, creating a profoundly dystopian portrait of a society trying to build itself on a crumbling empire. Her vision of America is unfortunately becoming an increasingly likely future, and I can only hope things will end as well in our modern day North America as it did in Polly’s story.

Reading this book and hearing about these women’s struggles made me cry. Lim is an amazing writer, and she knows exactly how to portray flawed, well-rounded, human characters. Seeing Polly adapt to her circumstances and find a way to make peace with them was truly something inspirational.

This world might not be pretty, but it is possible to survive the hardships in this life.

When it seems like society is falling apart around me, novels like Lim’s keep me going. An Ocean of Minutes isn’t about a romantic reunion or Polly living out her dreams. It has one simple, powerful message: this world might not be pretty, but it is possible to survive the hardships in this life. It is alright to remember the dead and mourn lost relationships, but eventually we have to move on. As tempting as it may be, nostalgic yearning for the past will not beget any productive change in our present world. 

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