Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In some respects, Voices in Time is devoted to showing the public the error of its ways. The novel is structured in a way that records a variety of voices from the past, voices intended to help prevent or delay impending catastrophe. Underlying the conflicts in the novel is one that is common to many of MacLennan’s fictions: the Oedipal revolt of son against father. Timothy is in full revolt against his father, a former army officer. The main assignment on which he is working at the beginning of the story is an expose of one of his father’s oldest friends, a general at the Pentagon who has been justifying the Vietnam War. John Wellfleet, too, has been in revolt against his father, which he expresses in his devotion to drugs and promiscuous sex. MacLennan sees the revolt against the father as the ultimate cause of breakdown in Western society. Unfortunately, the generation of the fathers seems to be too confused to muster the necessary authority against the revolt of the young, and the love of mothers seems also to be ineffectual.

A breakdown in communications underlines this breakdown of relationships between the generations. Ironically, John studied communications but has evidently profited little from the experience. He has to learn painfully how to assemble and link the documents in order to communicate to the next generation what it was like to live in the days before the apocalypse. The novel is full of broken telephone conversations and interrupted talks. The nuclear war that destroys civilization itself is not caused by any intentional act but by a sort of nervous breakdown of the computer communications system that spans the world.

Although MacLennan sometimes adopts the role of a lecturer in this novel, he has certainly come to grips with one of the most appalling and haunting possibilities of our time—a possibility that human beings are all too eager to sweep under the rug of the collective unconscious. Yet despite his sense of doom, MacLennan has not lost his faith in man’s ability to learn, in time.