Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Threshold Of Eternity: Conclusion

This post, copied from Poul Anderson Appreciation, is a sequel to Poul Anderson Update, also on Poul Anderson Appreciation:

OK. I have struggled to the end of John Brunner's Threshold Of Eternity (New York, 1959). I now think that this work is a text book example of how not to write about time travel. Both the narrative and the dialogue present a series of statements that are at at best incomprehensible and at worst incoherent with an apparent assumption that all such statements are clear and unproblematic for the reader.

For example:

"'Assume that the universe has a strong tendency to remain unified. Our original researches into four-dimensional existence suggested that probability. Then my going-double might have been firmly under the impression that he had remained in his own present and was giving information to the [another character] of his own present. However, if that information had been acted upon, it would have ironed out one of the distinctions between the two time-streams. Follow me?'

"'I do indeed...'" (p. 118)

Do you?

I was going to check how Brunner described his characters visiting a historical period. Not as well as Anderson. Brunner's characters dip in and out of the seventeenth century and quickly return to their preferred environment of spaceship interiors. Anderson often evokes the feel of an era by listing the sights, sounds and smells encountered by a time traveler on entering an ancient city. Brunner approaches this in just one paragraph about The Hague:

"Passing men laden with goods, men selling fresh water from barrels, itinerant vendors of needles, distinguished citizens with attendants, rough artisans, slatternly women, they were predominantly conscious of one thing - a stink which was almost nauseating...from upper story windows maidservants were casually tossing night slops into the streets, horses padded through the muddy pools leaving the inevitable signs of their passage..." (p. 85)

But we need far more than this to give us any sense of people, including visiting time travelers, living in that period.

Also, as I suspected, the men of different epochs fighting the space-time war on planets of different cultures exist only in the blurb and not in the text.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Space Time Wars

Although a war fought throughout space and time sounds like a straightforward idea, it is anything but. Doctor Who would have us believe that the Doctor is the last surviving Time Lord with no access to fellow Time Lords since they all died in a Time War. However, if they all died at a particular time, then surely he is able to travel to before they died? And, before dying, some of them would surely have traveled into their future? Therefore, some may exist now or, failing that, will in a while? And, if, as its name suggests, the Time War is fought at various times, then some of it is happening now or will in the future? Thus, even if all the Time Lords are to die in that war, they need not be all dead yet and, even if they were, a time traveler could still have access to them?

I am reading John Brunner's Threshold Of Eternity and expect some surprises before the end. The blurb informs us that:

"...there was a war going on throughout space and time. A war fought by men of different epochs, on planets of different cultures..." (Threshold Of Eternity, New York, 1959, p. 1)

So far in the text, however, the war, in our future, is only against an alien enemy in space. The time element consists of the fact that a battling spaceship can suffer a "...temporal surge..." that scatters its crew throughout history although they have a mechanism by which they can instantly return to their present (pp. 10-11). I expect that there is going to be more to it than that but I wonder if the "...men of different epochs, on planets of different cultures..." exist only in the blurb? (I will soon find out.)

As always, Poul Anderson comes to the rescue. His time travelers move through real history, not through abstract "space and time." In his The Corridors Of Time, rival human powers on a future Earth dispatch agents throughout history and prehistory. Unable to change events, they nevertheless recruit supporters and try to influence long term historical tendencies in order to determine an outcome in their future from which both sides are barred by their successors who, we learn, have transcended the conflict.

That really is a war fought throughout space and time.

Sunday, 24 November 2013


Places coexist. Thus, someone who has traveled from place 1 to place 2 can then ask, "What is happening now at place 1?" However, times, e. g., 4.00 am and 4.00 pm, do not coexist but precede and succeed each other. Thus, someone who has either lived or "time traveled" from 4.00 am to 4.00 pm cannot then meaningfully ask, "What is happening now at 4.00 am?"

However, HG Wells writes, of his Time Traveller:

"He may even now - if I may use the phrase - be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef..." (The Time Machine, London, 1973, p. 101)

- and John Brunner writes of men affected by an as yet unexplained "temporal surge":

"Now - if one could say such a thing - they were scattered across history..." (Threshold Of Eternity, New York, 1959, p. 11).

It would be interesting to know if Brunner realized as he wrote that he was echoing Wells on this precise point. However, Poul Anderson, who wrote three independent novels, one long series and several short stories about time travel, never made the mistake of referring to different times as if they were different places existing at the same time.

Addendum: In a film adaptation of The Time Machine, after the model time machine has disappeared, the Time Traveller says that by now it may be several years in the future.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Summits Of Time Travel Fiction

Mark Twain: a novel about "transposition of epochs" to the Arthurian period.
HG Wells: the story of the Time Traveler's journey to the future.
Robert Heinlein: two stories and one novel about time travelers experiencing circular causality in the future.
Harry Harrison and Tim Powers: one novel each about time travelers experiencing circular causality in historical periods.
L Sprague de Camp and Ward Moore: one novel each about time travelers experiencing causality violation in historical periods.
Poul Anderson: a long story about a traveler around the circle of time.
Poul Anderson: a novel about time travelers experiencing circular causality in Atlantean prehistory.
Poul Anderson: two novels about time travelers experiencing circular causality in historical and future periods.
Poul Anderson: a series of stories and novels about an organization of time travelers experiencing both causality paradoxes in many historical periods.
Jack Finney: one collection and two long novels about time travelers to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States.
Richard Matheson and Audrey Niffenegger: one novel each about circular causality in romantic relationships.

I do not rate A Connecticut Yankee highly but Twain was there before Wells and before the Wellsian phrase "time traveling." I had thought of Anderson's Time Patrol series and Finney's two Time novels as the two peaks of time travel fiction but later had to add Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. Adhering to a single consistent timeline, Niffenegger avoids the incoherencies that Finney generates with his causality violation.