What is it about air travel that makes it so ripe for speculative storytelling? Maybe it’s the improbability of flying 30,000 feet above the earth in skinny metal tubes. Or as a passenger, the complete surrendering of any sense of control over your fate.
A recent French novel and an American television series both rely on a similar premise about air travel.
In the NBC series Manifest (now on streaming platforms), a plane mysteriously lands at its destination five years after takeoff. Talk about a late arrival! The people onboard return to a world that has moved on without them and they face strange new realities.
In The Anomaly, by Herve Le Tellier, a flight from France to the U.S. flies through awful turbulence and eventually lands successfully. But get this: the exact same flight with the exact same people on board successfully lands again three months later.
In Manifest, you get the woman on the flight whose boyfriend, presuming she was dead, marries her best friend. You get the dad whose adolescent daughter is now a teenager and a stranger to him, while his wife is secretly interested in someone else. You get the doctor whose research has resulted in a new standard of care for treating leukemia, and you get the kid who was dying from leukemia but comes home to a potential miracle cure that didn’t exist five years ago. Some of these passengers develop strange psychic powers.
It’s mildly entertaining but held back by cheesy melodrama. The concept is cool, the writing is average, and they milked four seasons out of it (I watched less than one).
With The Anomaly, every passenger on the original flight gets a doppelgänger who’s three months behind them in life from the second flight. That means the dissatisfied midlist novelist from the first flight who pens a final, authentic diatribe and throws himself off a building, gets a second chance at life when the second plane lands. Guess what? That last book made the author famous posthumously. Welcome back, celebrated author! I love when writers are characters in fiction—they’ve always got mental issues.
There’s also a contract killer whose two selves aren’t going to get along so well, but there’s also Slimboy, a Nigerian pop star who teams up with his better half (positioned as a long-lost twin brother), safely comes out as gay, and together they become a rockstar duo.
The television series is standard, relying on little dramas to keep the momentum going. The novel is more daring. It spends almost half the novel setting up the characters from the first flight, a middle section in which scientists/philosophers/others try to figure out how a second flight could possibly have landed, and a third and most interesting section getting the body doubles together. The prevailing theory is that all of humankind is a simulation performed for the amusement of a greater power. Bloody unlikely, I say.
The great thing about these kinds of speculative stories is they can go in so many directions, leaving the reader/viewer guessing—and I like to guess. If you’re going to go for one of these time/air travel stories I’d recommend The Anomaly. It sold over a million copies in France and has received positive reviews. It’s different and interesting. Manifest is typical television fare with pretty people.