Mad Max by Diana McGinnis

*Spoiler Alert* This article contains spoilers that, barring your access to a time-travel machine, will be impossible to unlearn.

Rarely, if ever, does a time come to mind where I’ve read a children's novella using 16-point font that delves into the topics of time dilation, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and intra-nuclear chain reactions.

Hailing from the class of 1970, University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumna Diana McGinnis explores these brain-rattling theories in her latest novella, “Mad Max and His Time-Manipulation Machine,” released Aug. 3.

Alongside all the science jargon, McGinnis’ writing ventures into 1955 to tell the tale of a 16-year-old boy, Duane, from a small town in Iowa who enters a time-manipulation machine for a mere six minutes. However, time inside the machine is slowed down considerably compared to everything else outside. Due to time dilation, a short six minutes inside the machine translates to a whole 60 years for the rest of the world.

While on his way to visit his aunt and uncle’s house before his little brother’s birthday party,    Duane stumbles onto a driveway belonging to mad scientist, Mad Max.

Max, posing as Dr. Albert Einstein, is the inventor of a new time-manipulation device. He aims to capitalize on his scientific apparatus, but the machine requires a human test subject to prove it is fully functional.

The Einstein impersonator explained to Duane that, by using time dilation and microscopic movements at the speed of light, he could make days pass by like minutes.

Mad Max proves his theory of time dilation to Duane on a smaller scale with stop watches, showing how one moves at a considerably slower pace than the other. This showcase, plus an offered cash reward of $600, was enough to persuade Duane for a short trip in the manipulator.

Regardless of the plausibility of time-manipulation, McGinnis does a fairly decent job of explaining how it could theoretically work. She spends pages overwhelming the reader with scientific terminology I don’t even think was covered in high school physics. While I understand paragraphs of theories and experimentation are necessary in a book about time-manipulation and a faux-Einstein, the long winded chunks seemed out of place in a tween-friendly short story.

Once Duane spends his six tension-filled minutes in the time-manipulation machine and finds himself not just one year ahead in 1956, but rather 60 years ahead in 2015.

For Duane, this causes a great deal of shock, as he was not expecting to be launched six decades in the future to find he has no living friends or family. During these parts of the story, McGinnis accurately depicts the heart-wrenching emotions anyone would experience if they were to find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of losing the people closest to them. However, he is given a sliver of hope by his old physics teacher’s friend and successor Mr. Horton, who offers, with little avail, to help Duane return to 1955 and live his normal life.

Because the story is only 126 pages, there isn’t sufficient development of Duane’s character. Instead, McGinnis opts to provide more lengthy explanations as to why, for Duane, returning to 1955 is impossible. She reiterates the idea of time-manipulation rather than time travel, explaining time travel indicates movement in either direction, whereas manipulation only involves altering the rate at which time is perceived.

The novella ends rather abruptly after supposed CIA agents fly into the area in blacked-out helicopters, seizing all information related to Mad Max’s time-manipulation device, essentially putting Duane and his physics teacher comrade Mr. Horton back to square one. From there, Mr. Horton offers for Duane to live with him and his family. He takes Duane to a shop nearby where he interacts with an old once-classmate of his, to whom he doesn’t explain his adventures to.

While not the longest or most thrilling adventure story I have read, it’s one book I wish my teachers read aloud to me when I was in grade school due to its engaging and heart-racing moments. “Mad Max and His Time-Manipulation Machine” examines the thought-provoking ideas of time-manipulation and facing unavoidable consequences, all while providing a peculiar lesson in physics. 

Although, I’m not sure that as an elementary school student I was quite ready for the existential thought of involuntarily leaving behind my friends and family and being forced to live over half a century in the future.