Friday 28 February 2020

Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound, edited by Mike Ashley

This is one of a number of anthologies in the Science Fiction Classics series published by the British Library, this one (as you may have guessed) dealing with time travel. As usual in this series, there is a long introduction by the editor, supplemented by biographical notes on the authors at the start of each story.

The 24 page introduction covers the history of time travel in fiction. It explores the classic paradox in many time travel stories – the question of what happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your parents are born – and the alternative approach of constantly branching time lines as different decisions are taken, which ties in neatly with the scientific multiple universe hypothesis. The single universe approach, in which there is only one history which is vulnerable to change by time travellers, leads to many stories focusing on battles between those who would like to change history and those whose interest is in preventing this – a "time police". There is also the notion that even the smallest change in pre-history might have unforeseen consequences  millennia afterwards. This brings in the concept of the Jonbar hinge – a crucial moment in history in which the future can be drastically altered by one minor change.

The earliest ideas of the nature of time can be found in some ancient religions which include a belief that time in heaven passes at a different rate than time on Earth. This idea survives in folk tales of visits to fairyland in which the visitors, on returning to our world, discover that time has sped by and everyone they knew is much older. Also ancient is the notion that some people (usually national heroes) do not die but are merely sleeping somewhere until their country needs them; conversely, some legends (e.g. the Flying Dutchman) concern people who are cursed to live and travel forever.

A further and very popular category involves a "timeslip" in which people – accidentally or deliberately – step through some kind of portal or fracture in time and find themselves in a different period – usually in the past. Ashley points out the advantages of this approach to authors, as scientific explanations are not needed. One rather surprising example is given – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which includes visions of the past and future, plus the notion that people can alter their futures by changing their behaviour.

Various devices can be involved, often clocks or watches with the power to alter time, backwards or forwards. This leads on to the concept of a time machine, most famously in the classic novel of that name by H. G. Wells which introduced the concepts of time as the fourth dimension and the continuing evolution of humanity.

Obviously, this review can only provide a brief summary of Ashley's introduction which explores many more approaches to time travel, plus mention of a large number of stories to illustrate the points being made, and is by itself worth the price of the book.

The short stories included in the anthology are as follows:

The Clock That Went Backward, by Edward Page Mitchell (1881). The title indicates the nature of the plot, with an old timepiece involved in the sending back in time of the protagonists to the Siege of Leyden (Leiden) in 1574 when the Dutch city was attacked by the Spaniards. A thoughtful and well-written story.

The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper, by H. G. Wells (1932). A newspaper is delivered as usual, but it turns out to be an edition from 1971 – decades too soon. Wells spins an entertaining tale around this anomaly in time.

Omega, by Amelia Reynolds Long (1932). This includes a theory of "mental time": a method of hypnotising subjects and sending their minds through time to experience other lives. At first, this is limited to events in the past, but the professor who has developed the technique is now trying to extend this to the future in order to discover the fate of the Earth. He succeeds – at a price.

The Book of Worlds, by Miles J. Breuer (1929). A professor involved in researching the fourth dimension has gone insane, and the narrator (his assistant) tries to explain why. The professor has invented a device which enables him to see scenes from the past – but it is the views of the future which cause him to lose his sanity.

The Branches of Time, by David R. Daniels (1935). The narrator bumps into an old friend who tells him that he has been working on an atomic-powered time machine and has used this to visit the remote past and the far future. He tells of a 21st century world war of unimaginable destructiveness, leading to the extinction of mankind. This had caused him to intervene to prevent the worst effects, eventually resulting in an advanced civilisation. He learns that any change to historical events would result in a different "world-line" which would exist in parallel with the original: basically, the multiverse idea. An intriguing tale with some advanced concepts.

The Reign of the Reptiles, by Alan Connell (1935). A story about evolution; a man is hijacked by experimental scientists who have developed a time machine, and is sent millions of years into the past in order to observe the age of reptiles. He discovers that intelligent, telepathic reptiles have built a civilisation and are experimenting with the controlled evolution of early humans.

Friday the Nineteenth, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1950). A tale of a failing marriage, in which the husband is drawn to the wife of his friend, but some mysterious force keeps interfering in their attempts to get together.  Effectively, Friday the Nineteenth is Groundhog Day…

Look after the Strange Girl, by J. B. Priestley (1953). As you would expect from this author, this is a literary tale, teasing the reader with a mystery which is only gradually revealed. A man from the 1950s finds himself at a social event taking place in the early years of the century. In observing their careless gaity, he is acutely aware of the shadow of the Great War that would dramatically affect the lives of the people.

Manna, by Peter Phillips (1949). Synthetic food is developed – Miracle Meal – so delicious that no-one wants to eat anything else. A UK factory is established in an old priory, to the concern of a pair of ghosts who haunt it. Then the factory's output starts vanishing overnight, so a psychic investigator is called in. An unusual and amusing story (there's not much humour in most of these tales).

Tenth Time Around, by J. T. McIntosh (1959). Second Chance is an organisation which offers people a second chance at their lives; their consciousness is sent back in time to occupy their younger bodies, complete with their memories so they can change their actions to suit themselves. Gene Player had only one aim – to persuade the woman he loves to choose him instead of his best friend.

The Shadow People, by Arthur Sellings (1958). An odd couple take lodgings in the house of a young man and his wife. There is something very strange about the lodgers, and the young man becomes increasingly curious about their background – but comes to regret his inquisitiveness.

Thirty-Seven Times, by E. C. Tubb (1957). A famous professor dies in a laboratory accident – or does he? His successor struggles to identify the nature of his secret research and his apparent reappearances. Time travel seems to be involved – but what about the paradoxes?

Dial "O" for Operator, by Robert Presslie (1958). A telephone box is the central feature of this story, together with the night-time staff responsible for maintaining it and a young woman trapped inside. She calls for help after taking refuge inside the box from a terrifying monster, but when the staff arrive, there is no-one inside – despite the fact that she is still on the line.

An interesting and varied collection, none of which I had read before. Manna and Look After the Strange Girl appealed to me the most, with The Clock That Went Backward also intriguing me enough for a second read.

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