Upon first reading Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, I was struck by the intersection of two of my prevailing scholarly interests: music and time. The closing chapters of the novel describe a live DJ set—part entertainment and part sound-art installation—mounted by Elizabeth Méndez during a showcase of experimental twentieth-century Dominican art. She creates “a three-hour mix” that “would trace the flow line” of an incredible range of song samples from disparate genres, tempos, historical moments, and even global origins, a mix that allows her fictional audience to travel in mere seconds to distant times and places:
During the third hour’s climax and before leaping from a hammering beat to the cyber-hippie ocean of a repetitive trance, she’d throw in a little of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Jacques Cousteau’s voice from the Haiti: Waters of Sorrow documentary. The effect would be tragic, inspiring, and contradictory: the French explorer’s predictions about the future of the island’s marine life would hang in silence for a few seconds until the bass came down again, like a tsunami, over the dance floor.1
The future ravaged Hispaniola presaged by Cousteau in his 1986 documentary has both already but not yet arrived for the time-traveling protagonist witnessing the scene. As the music plays, Indiana draws our attention to the future fictional president of the Dominican Republic, a twenty-two-year-old Said Bona, who is moved by the music to breakdance in the middle of the dance floor: “He was going in circles at a breathtaking speed, posed on the axis of his back while holding a fetal position, . . . [and] his figure seemed to become a lotus flower in a cloudscape” (129). As Bona describes a spiral with his body, Indiana gestures to a way to unthink Caribbean time. In the same way that Bona’s back remains anchored to the ground while enabling him to spiral in the air, so too do Elizabeth’s turntable and needle anchor her time-traveling music to the present and to place. Appearing in the very moment when the time-travel plot is about to be resolved—or more accurately, undone—this description of both the music and its effects is crucial for what it reveals about the novel’s larger temporal aesthetic: the novel describes a spiralic Caribbean time that is anchored to one physical location but with tentacles of the now reaching into various other moments in the past and future.
This scene takes place in 2001, the past for one of the novel’s two protagonists, Acilde Figueroa, who in 2027 is given a mission to travel back in time and prevent the ecological disaster that follows a tsunami in 2024. Acilde cannot stop the tsunami, but he has been tasked with stopping future-president Bona from allowing foreign governments to store the biological weapons that will be swept up in the future flood and poison marine life in the Caribbean Sea. Acilde gains time-traveling abilities when, after transitioning to a man, the tentacles of a sea anemone are attached to his head to initiate him into the cult of Olokun, the orisha of the deep sea, realm of deep time where the now covers vast tranches of otherwise disparate eras as measured by conventional clocks and calendars. As a result, another iteration of Acilde washes ashore in 1991, takes the name Giorgio, marries a marine biologist, and establishes in 2001 the Sosúa Project, an artist residency whose proceeds will fund a marine sanctuary and replant the coral reefs in northeastern DR. Among the members of the Sosúa Project collective are not only DJ Elizabeth but also Argenis, a troubled but talented artist who is stung by sea anemones while snorkeling in the Playa Bo reefs and is thereby likewise gifted with retro-time-traveling abilities. Imbued with Olokun’s situatedness at the vector of everywhen, each of Tentacle’s travelers becomes quantum-entangled with the activity of various avatars in different centuries in that same location: a local area around Playa Bo in Sosúa Bay. With its base narrative comprising (at least) two time travelers who are able to occupy and take simultaneous action in three distinct moments in time, the plot of Tentacle, I argue, requires new time constructs and time-shapes to trace its nonlinear temporality and how characters move through it. The novel expands the now, multiplying the moments for corrective climate action, while opening up questions about the impact of capitalist exploitation on the shape of the region’s spacetime.2
Bodies in Time
Since travel to the past or future is ordinarily foreclosed by the laws of classical physics, science fiction writers often invent mechanisms, machines, and worlds that enable so-called travelers to breach the linear arrow of time. Time is relativistic even in real-world physics; as Einstein explains it, the rate that time passes as measured by the local clock of a moving traveler will not match that of a stationary observer. Consequently, their understanding of what time it is now will differ when they compare clocks. This discrepancy is the operating metaphor of H. G. Wells’s 1859 novel The Time Machine, considered the time-travel narrative’s prototype: a nineteenth-century scientist invents a machine that can fast-forward through time, allowing him to visit distant futures and then return to his initial present to find only three hours have passed for his companions. Key in this definition of time travel is the technicality that both the traveler’s body and psyche move out of the original timeline, along the way creating various paradoxes of causality, free will, and ontology. One such paradox is what I call the double body paradox—for instance, traveling to the past and making any alterations there purportedly would create alternate timelines “splintering” from that moment and effectively multiplying one’s body in spacetime.3 If such travel overlaps with one’s own past, the big “travel alert” is to not interact with one’s past self so as to preserve causality and free will.
Although both travelers in Tentacle, Acilde and Argenis, make sense of their experience by stacking various familiar time-travel tropes and paradoxes, Indiana creolizes these tropes to reveal the incompatibility of mainstream sci-fi and temporal models for the Caribbean region. Instead of inventing a mechanical time machine, Indiana, like other Caribbean sci-fi writers from Nalo Hopkinson to Marcia Douglas, draws on Caribbean flora and fauna and Afro-Caribbean cosmology to reconceptualize time and causality.4 In this way, the novel bears out Nicola Hunte’s conceptualization of a Caribbean speculative tradition that merges hard science with magico-spiritual elements, and that pays particular attention to the captive body as it is impacted by science, technology, and capitalism.5Tentacle explicitly names its sources by alluding to a “fake unpublished manuscript” by Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera about Olokun, “a certain marine creature” revered by Afro-Cubans. “It could travel back in time, dude, very Lovecraftian,” claims one character (105). But even as Tentacle’s time travel bears some resemblance to American writer H. P. Lovecraft’s alien futuristic time-traveling beings, the novel’s version of the double body paradox both derives from and furthers the queer ontology of the deep sea orisha. Instead of Santería copresence—in which the orisha’s and initiate’s psyches merge to create a shared consciousness in one body—when Acilde is mounted by Olokun, his already queer body sprouts additional avatars connected to a single consciousness.6 Indeed, at the moment of encounter with the anemone, both Acilde and Argenis develop new bodies, birthed from the ocean, in multiple past times. The queer psyche becomes the axis that connects multiple bodies in time into one self.7
For Indiana, then, being trans is a form of time travel even before ocean deities are involved. Echoing Kara Keeling’s definition of queer time as alternative worlds and futures that are “here now,” coexisting with and accessible from the undesirable present, pretransition Acilde lives simultaneously in the present female and future male body.8 Passing as a boy for sex work partly funds a new, male body to match his gender identity. Post-transition, his initiator tells him, “We gave you the body you wanted and now you’ve given us the body we needed” (51). Rendered in the past tense, the phrase “the body we needed” affirms that this new body is required in the past to correct the present and future. In what I call a kind of temporal dysphoria that maps to his earlier body dysphoria, Acilde realizes he has a “window to the past that ha[s] opened in his mind” and an “other self,” a “clone there whom he maneuver[s] by remote control” (85, 83). The sea anemone therefore activates new ways of being in spacetime for the travelers, imbuing them with the ability to perceive and take advantage of the entanglement of times and to intervene in pasts and futures normally foreclosed to human activity.
The Caribbean Spiral
Anchored in space, both Acilde and Argenis can “tune in,” as it were, to circa 1607, 2001, and 2027, as if these time periods were different channels broadcasting simultaneously at the temporal vector of now. If for the travelers “now” always includes all three time periods, what time-shape might be at work here instead of the linear arrow of time? One shape that recurs in descriptions of Caribbean geography and time is the spiral, a type of fractal or irregular shape that describes “an open curve, made up of a succession of connected arcs.”9 While the spiral and spiral conceptions of time are not unique to the Caribbean, Antonio Benítez-Rojo famously proposed that the spiral perfectly “sketches in an ‘other’ shape” the Caribbean’s geopolitical mutability.10 In a study of three Haitian writers (“spiralists”) whose spiral narratives evoke the disruptive temporality created by traumatic Caribbean histories, Kaiama Glover argues that this shape visualizes the “collapsing [of] past, present, and future realities into a single frame—urgent and immediate”; instead of normative notions “of time’s progression, . . . subtly altered reiterations of moments in time broaden and deepen the present, inextricably embedding the past and the future within it.”11 Similarly, in Wilson Harris’s Jonestown the time-traveling narrator remarks, “When one voyages back from the future into the past it is not just time that changes, it is the spatialities inserted into time that are different.” Both the spiralists and Harris therefore suggest that the Caribbean experiences “another shape to time,” an elastic time that expands as one interacts with it and where the fabric of space between different time periods stretches and contracts, creating dynamic relationalities and proximities.12
Tentacle’s spiral temporality upends the sci-fi trope of causal paradoxes—what happens to causality when the body moves out of its original time period. Unlike the real-world arrow of time that only grows the now forward,13 the spiral expands causality into realms ordinarily considered past or future—properly understood as tentacles of the now—and opens or reopens otherwise closed eras to the exercise of free will. Even as the travelers experience all three time periods simultaneously, something like retrocausality occurs—effects precede cause—when one traveler’s killing of a dog in 2001 results in his murder in 1607. In other words, because he killed a dog in the “future” (simultaneously, in 2001, a short while ago), he is himself about to be killed in 1607, centuries before he kills the dog. The retrocausality here involves the free will conundrum: Do you have free will if knowing what will happen makes you take the actions that cause the prophesied actions to happen?14 Backward time travel also raises questions of morality: If you know the outcome of past actions and events before they happen, what are the implications of not intervening to prevent them?
This causality conundrum bears on the environmental disaster at the heart of the novel. If all the time periods occupied by the two men are entangled in a simultaneous, spiral now, is the disaster inevitable? Can any action in any time period change future-now, if from the proper frame of the travelers the future disaster has both not yet happened and already happened? Indiana suggests that the free will conundrum is really a human nature conundrum; since our present circumstances confirm that nothing has yet impelled us to change our disastrous climate futures, even if we could time travel, we likely would not change the outcome. How, then, can we, even with science-fictional tools and technologies, predict how any change to the timeline in the past might affect the present and future?
Futures Speculation, Speculative Futures
Tentacle’s spiral time allows us to interrogate whether changing even one small aspect of the past or present could result in a major “butterfly effect” on the future of the Caribbean oceans. But framed by the chaotic histories of the Caribbean, the evolutionary history of our biosphere, and the wildcard of the human heart, the novel remains skeptical of the romantic possibilities of such a project.15 The term chaos recurs in Caribbean conceptions of the spiral and connects to Olokun, who evokes the “imperfect” and “chaotic” qualities that human consciousness shares with the ocean.16 Chaos theory—one application of fractal mathematics—emerged from attempts to predict the long-term behavior of dynamic systems such as hurricanes or stock prices. In very broad terms, it deals with the probabilities of various outcomes based on the impact of small localized changes. Chaos theory connects a number of phenomena that contribute to the Caribbean’s unstable spacetime: the spiral-shaped hurricanes that periodically interrupt and set at zero economic and social development in the region; the natural disasters that are only echoes of the outsize human disaster of a slavery-and-plantation machinery built on speculation on the value of Black bodies and a futures industry based on the value of King Sugar. Indeed, the term speculation bridges fictive and financial futures and the economy and ecologies of predictive modeling at the heart of the novel, of climate science, and of Caribbean history.
One way the three time periods in Tentacle are entangled is that a key event in Acilde’s plot to change the future is to “discover” in 2001 a trove of avant-garde engravings from 1607. In the seventeenth-century timeline, we find Acilde-as-Roque among buccaneers transacting with pirates to purchase and cure the buffalo hides on which Argenis-as-Côte-de-Fer will create valuable artwork recording the devastation of indigenous people, lands, and culture by the Spanish in that era. Using his knowledge of the future to enact futures speculation and a type of insider trading, Acilde’s long game across the vast expanses of spiral time is to make decisions based on the value of Argenis’s artwork in all three time periods, even changing the value of commodities and human resources in the past(s) to his (future) personal benefit. One of my pet peeves with mainstream time-travel stories is that their salvific enterprises often fail because of travelers choosing individual gains over mass humanitarian ones. Even cognizant of the various temporal paradoxes that risk their own erasure from time, travelers cannot resist going back to change the one thing that would be personally beneficial rather than to preserve causality for untold millions.
In Tentacle, it is similarly the chaotic human heart that disables corrective environmental action: instead of taking action to change the future, Acilde-as-Giorgio collapses the spiral and confines himself to the time period in which he has the most power and success. Having Acilde-as-Giorgio justify this choice with the language of temporal tourism, of “accumulating” wealth and “experience,” Indiana amplifies how capitalist speculation and greed fuel ecological violence and rapacious actions. Becoming “king of this world” and accumulating the “trophies” of time travel rely on Acilde creating scarcity by exploiting indigenous communities and the labor of others throughout time, even as it is precisely the few surviving Taínos who caretake the coral reef pool where Olokun dwells and who transmit the subaltern knowledge that enables Acilde’s time travel to begin with (128). The tragedy of Tentacle, then, is not the initial disaster of the tidal wave—which cannot be averted—but that even those with foresight, opportunity, and technologies to prevent the unnatural disasters that follow it are largely uninterested in doing so.
The novel’s spiral time thus illustrates how the region’s temporal instability is caused by the centuries-long, repeated exploitation of the Caribbean’s natural and human resources.17 Whether in 1607, 2001, or 2027, this single location archives cycles of selfish exploitation that repeat in the past, present, and future, broadening and accumulating sociopolitical and ecological effects with each recursion. The spiral now is simultaneously the time of colonial exploitation (circa 1607) that sets in motion the marine devastation of tomorrow, and the time of that devastation (2024–27)—of entire marine species already disappeared and human bodies already suffering from ingesting polluted fish and air. Now is also the time of preservation: creating marine sanctuaries and investing in the ocean (2001).
Sci-fi writers often deploy backward time travel to speculate on what-if scenarios, to test out alternative solutions to events we cannot really change, to offer narrative catharsis in place of agency. Cli-fi writers deploy imaginary time for a different purpose: to speculate on how to address future ecological disasters in the real world. Rather than offering hope or escape, Indiana’s spiral novel subverts both cli-fi and sci-fi time travel to craft a mind-bending interrogation of the possibilities for preventative climate action in the Caribbean. My own optimistic reading of Tentacle’s decidedly pessimistic ending is that perhaps Acilde’s initiation invocation—“You are Omo Olokun,” son of Olokun, “so . . . save the sea”—was meant for us (83). Indiana’s time-traveling characters might not have changed the future, but her exquisitely crafted novel has certainly changed us in its reading. The future, fictional disaster of 2024 is still ahead of us as I write in 2020. We readers can change the future—no time machines necessary. In Tentacle, as in the real world, investing in Caribbean reef resilience is key to reversing or averting what Linda, the Cassandra of impending environmental disaster, warns us of in the novel: “The increase in the water temperature and the coming crisis that would result from the fatal bleaching of coral” (55). But it is art, not mechanical time machines, that inspires real-world environmental intervention in the novel. In the same way that Elizabeth’s DJ mix becomes “an environmental call to action” that inspires future-president Bona to move his body, Indiana’s amplification of the queer, spiral nature of Caribbean time calls readers into allyship, both with time and with the author, to act already—now—before it is too late (128). The novel itself becomes a time machine, designed to convey the reader both through time and into action in the real world, a spacetime beyond the novel’s ambit, a now not far from but causally connected to the time of writing. Inspiring readers to follow up the time of reading with a time of action could ensure that the disastrous events in Tentacle’s pages remain fictional rather than become prophetic.
Njelle W. Hamilton is an associate professor of English and African American and African studies at the University of Virginia. She specializes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Caribbean literary and cultural studies, especially narrative innovations on the postcolonial Caribbean novel. She is the author of Phonographic Memories: Popular Music and the Contemporary Caribbean Novel (Rutgers, 2019), and her essays on sound studies, trauma theory, and the physics of time have appeared in Anthurium and Journal of West Indian Literature, among others. Her current project, tentatively titled “Caribbean Chronotropes: The Physics, Poetics, and Politics of Time in Contemporary Fiction,” reads recent time-bending novels through the lens of physics, phenomenology, and Caribbean theory.
1. Rita Indiana, Tentacle, trans. Achy Obejas (Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2018), 113; hereafter cited in the text. Originally published as La mucama de Omicunlé [Omicunlé’s Maid] (Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2015).
2. As I have argued elsewhere, time-bending Caribbean fictions by René Depestre, Erna Brodber, Wilson Harris, Marcia Douglas, and others reveal the Caribbean region as an unstable space with irregular time(s). See “Jamaican String Theory: Quantum Sounds and Postcolonial Spacetime in Marcia Douglas’s The Marvellous Equations of the Dread,” Journal of West Indian Literature 27, no. 1 (2019): 89.
3. The term splintering, for timeline branching, comes into prominence most notably in 12 Monkeys, the SyFy television series (2015–18), created by Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas—a remake of the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name.
4. See, for instance, the recurrence of trees doubling as time portals and time machines in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (New York: Warner, 2000) and Marcia Douglas’s The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim (New York: New Directions, 2018).
5. See Nicola Hunte, “Encountering Others across Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, and Anglophone Caribbean Speculative Fiction,” Journal of West Indian Literature 27, no. 2 (2019): 17.
6. On Santería copresence, see Aisha Belisio-de Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 9.
7. See Paul Humphrey, “‘El manto que cubre el mar’: Religion, Identity, and the Sea in Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé,” Sargasso, nos. 1–2 (2016–17): 109–25. Humphrey, like Alison Glassie and Charlotte Rogers in this issue, draws attention to Tentacle’s foregrounding of “the multivalent nature of the many bodies—of water and people alike—that both join and divide the islands of the Caribbean” (121). See Alison Glassie, “Into the Anemone: Ocean, Form, and the Anthropocene in Tentacle,” and Charlotte Rogers, “Rita Indiana’s Queer Interspecies Caribbean and the Hispanic Literary Tradition,” this issue of sx salon.
8. Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: New York University Press, 2019), ix.
9. Frankétienne, quoted in Kaiama L. Glover, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), xxii, note 6.
10. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 11.
11. Glover, Haiti Unbound, 103–04.
12. Wilson Harris, Jonestown (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 105, 5.
13. See Richard A. Muller, Now: The Physics of Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 10.
14. On the free will conundrum of backward time travel, see ibid., 55–56.
15. See Guillermina De Ferrari, “Science Fiction and the Rules of Uncertainty,” Small Axe, no. 61 (March 2020): 1–10.
16. Awo Fá’lokun Fatunmbi, Yemoja/Olokun: Ifá and the Spirit of the Ocean (Bronx, NY: Original Publications, 1993), 11.
17. In the only extant study of hemispheric time-travel narratives to date, Rudyard Alcocer has suggested that time-travel fictions from former colonies of Spain are often attempts to grapple with the Conquest and its traumatic legacies. See Rudyard Alcocer, Time Travel in the Latin American and Caribbean Imagination: Re-reading History (London: Palgrave, 2011), 7–9.