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The Time Travelers: A Science Fiction…

The Time Travelers: A Science Fiction Quartet (1985)

by Robert Silverberg (Editor), Martin H. Greenberg (Editor)

Other authors: Isaac Asimov (Contributor), Henry Kuttner (Contributor), Murray Leinster (Contributor), C.L. Moore (Contributor), John Wyndham (Contributor)

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I read the Donald M. Fine edition, which seems to have slipped through GoodReads's net.

A quartet of novellas, all well known, on the theme of time travel.

I'd forgotten how good Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy" (1958) is. Scientist Hoskins has devised a technique not of travelling through time but of creating "Stasis" pockets into which physical objects from the past can be imported and which can be accessed by people from the present; although people who've entered the pockets from the present can exit them again without palaver, to bring a past-originating item out of the pockets can only be done with truly extraordinary energy costs -- indeed, just maintaining an historic item within the pocket uses a great deal of energy/expense. The triumph of Hoskins's experimentation is the plucking of a Neanderthal boy out of the past. The scientist hires a middle-aged professional child-carer, Edith, to look after the boy, whom she names Timmie; despite Timmie's extraordinary ugliness, she grows inordinately fond of him, and discovers he's as intelligent as any Homo sapiens child. Yet the day comes when simple economics decree he must be returned to his own era . . . where he'll be vulnerable through having been long separated and reared in a different world . . . The tale of Edith's and Timmie's growing love, and of her attempt to save him from this fate, is startlingly moving -- not an attribute one would generally expect to find in an Asimov tale.

The way that Stasis works is interesting: "We detect indirectly, something on the principle of radar, except that we use mesons rather than radiation. Mesons reach backward under the proper conditions. Some are reflected and we must analyze the reflections" (p19). So in a sense Timmie isn't so much really there in the Stasis pocket as constructed holographically from interference patterns of "mesons". (Substitute tachyons, as Asimov would undoubtedly have done had he been writing a couple of decades later, and you get a pretty workable idea!) There's more, as Hoskins explains:

"[. . .:] In Stasis, time as we know it doesn't exist. Those rooms [the Stasis pockets:] are inside an invisible bubble that is not exactly part of our Universe. That is why the child could be plucked out of time as it was."

"Well, wait now," said the gentleman from the News discontentedly, "what are you giving us? The nurse goes into the room and out of it."

"And so can any of you," said Hoskins matter-of-factly. "You would be moving parallel to the lines of temporal force and no great energy gain or loss would be involved. The child, however, was taken from the far past. It moved across the lines and gained temporal potential. To move it into the Universe and into our own time would absorb enough energy to burn out every line in the place [. . .:]" (p33)

In this story, Asimov declines to ascribe to the "Bradbury scenario" whereby the tiniest change in the past can have huge consequences for the present; rather, the effects of alterations to the past tend to damp down fairly swiftly: "Take that chalcopyrite from the Pliocene. Because of its absence for two weeks some insect doesn't find the shelter it might have found and is killed. That could initiate a whole series of changes, but the mathematics of Stasis indicates that this is a converging series. The amount of change diminishes with time and then things are as before" (pp45-6).

The Asimov story is a hard act to follow, and the next two tales in the book disappoint by comparison. Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" (1934) shows a world afflicted by a sort of time dissonance: different areas around the globe are "contemporaneously" undergoing different eras. Much later the same (inherently silly!) notion was realized much better by Fred Hoyle in his novel October the First is Too Late; in Leinster's tale, though, the mechanism differs:

"Then these shiftings of time-paths -- well -- they're the result of something on the order of tidal strains? If another star got close to the sun, our planet would crack up from tidal strains alone. You're suggesting that another closed space has gotten close to our closed space in hyperspace . . . It's awfully confused, sir."

"I have calculated it," said Minott harshly. "The odds are three to one that space and time and universe, every star and every galaxy in the skies, will be obliterated in one monstrous destruction when even the past will never have been! But there is one chance in four, and I planned to take full advantage of it. I planned -- I planned --" (p135)

This Minott is a genius mathematician stuck in a low-grade job in a lower-grade university somewhere even lower-grade than that. Because he's a genius, he worked out in advance that this disruption was likely to happen, and recognized that it represented an opportunity for a low-grade academic, with the aid of a seven-strong posse of his students, to make himself the master of a virgin world . . . and of a presumably virgin female student, this being a part of the, er, master plan. ("You will marry," he explains to one of the girls when she says that, y'know, all in all, she'd like to go home. "Then you won't mind" [p93:].) After he and his band have lots of adventures among various hostile primitives, six of the students find a way back to the world they knew, leaving Minott and one especially impressionable lass to forge whatever future they can for themselves somewhere across the unbridgeable gulf of time, or whatever. What would anyway have been a reasonably long novelette is bumped out considerably, to short-novel length indeed, by lots of irrelevant background colour -- scenes of ocean-going liners encountering craft from a different era, etc. This is widely described (including in Silverberg's Introduction to this book) as an important classic of time travel, but I'm afraid it's never spoken to me.

And neither has John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (1961), although I enjoyed it far more this time than when I first encountered it decades ago. A woman from our own time, Jane, finds herself locked into the body of a far-future woman whose function is to be one of the breeders -- the Mothers -- in an all-female society; men were wiped out centuries earlier when a stratagem to eliminate the brown rat went horribly wrong. Slowly, slowly our heroine's memories return to her: she was a young medic, widowed tragically early, who volunteered herself to test an experimental drug, chuinjuatin, based on a narcotic that shamans in Venezuela have used since time immemorial to set their spirits free to roam anywhere in space and time. Well, it's certainly worked for Jane. The only trouble is that, so far as anyone else within this future society is concerned, it's not so much that they have a visitor from the past, more that one of the Mothers has gone nuts. She does eventually prevail, however, sort of -- although there's a long and entertaining (for us) section during which a historian explains sternly to her all the mistakes Jane's making in her descriptions of her and our present: the historian, being after all a professional, Knows Better. Eventually Jane's consciousness does get back to now, and she does her best to scupper the research into the rat-extermination project.

As I implied, I was pretty dissatisfied with this story when I read it in my teens or twenties, and was expecting to dislike it this time round; instead, I quite enjoyed it.

The final tale in the book is rightly a classic: Lawrence O'Donnell's "Vintage Season" (1946). This is one of those stories it's difficult to say much about, because all I really want to do is point at it and say, "Go read." The story is itself: description can't add to it, qualify it, enlighten it. But . . .

There are strange people in town, and a trio of them want to rent rooms in Oliver Wilson's house for a few weeks for an extraordinary fee -- a sum of money that could obviate the need for himself and fiancee Sue to wait months and years before getting married. Sue would actually prefer him to sell the house for the fortune that a different group of the strange people are offering, but by then he's given his word . . . and anyway has fallen for the allure of one of his tenants, Kleph; the two of them drift through their days drinking the exotic tea she brews, listening to the bizarre, disturbing "music" of the composer Cenbe, and making wild, dreamy love. Slowly Oliver discovers that the strange people are tourists from the far future, here as part of a package trip that will take them also to such spectacles as the coronation of Constantine the Great. And it dawns on him that something truly dreadful might be about to happen, but by then he has been so immersed in Kleph's corrupting decadence that he hardly cares . . .

And in the end the composer Cenbe, whose works are parasitic upon past grief and catastrophe, explains:

"Yes, the past can be changed, but not easily. And it changes the future, too, necessarily. The lines of probability are switched into new patterns -- but it is extremely difficult, and it has never been allowed. The physiotemporal course tends to slide back to its norm, always. That is why it is so hard to force any alteration." He shrugged. "A  theoretical science. We do not change history, Wilson. If we changed our past, our present would be altered, too. And our time-world is entirely to our liking. There may be a few malcontents there, but they are not allowed the privilege of temporal travel."

Oliver spoke louder against the roaring from beyond the windows. "But you've got the power! You could alter history, if you wanted to -- wipe out all the pain and suffering and tragedy --"

"All of that passed away long ago," Cenbe said.

"Not -- now! Not -- this!"

Cenbe looked at him enigmatically for a while. Then -- "This, too," he said.
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  JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Silverberg, RobertEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Greenberg, Martin H.Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Asimov, IsaacContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kuttner, HenryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Leinster, MurrayContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Moore, C.L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wyndham, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Introduction: For me there is no more satisfying kind of science-fiction story than the one that involves travel in time.
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