I really don’t remember how Jack Finney’s time-travel fantasy Time And Again made my Self-Doctorate Reading List. I have a vague memory of hearing the book referenced as the basis for a Malcolm McDowell movie that I wanted (and still want) to see. Once I started reading Finney’s book, however, I even began to wonder if I had jotted down the wrong title. Still, it was not a waste. The prose is what I call “workaday”—it suffices. There was however a lengthy section about a fire that went on waaaay too long. Nevertheless, the book must have been better than mediocre, because I finished it (though I did skip over a bit of it), and some of you may know by now that, if a book bores me, I’ll drop it like a hot potato. Life’s too short for bad books (I had to learn this; I was originally taught that it was sinful not to finish a book one has started).
Time And Again’s premise is pretty basic for the genre: man travels through time, meets love interest, has an adventure. Ho-hum. In this particular story, the man is Simon “Si” Morley, and he is traveling back in time almost a hundred years from his 1970s life (kinda funny when I think that as a reader I, myself, traveled back in time to learn about travelling back in time from an author writing over thirty years ago).
Si begins the story as an artist, but he’s a working man’s artist, doing sketches for advertisements. He’s a regular bloke. Did his military service, has a steady gal. But he is bored and unfulfilled (including, he figures out later, with his ladyfriend); as Si puts it: “So all in all there wasn’t anything really wrong with my life. Except that, like most everyone else’s I knew about, it had a big gaping hole in it.”
Due to his psych profile from his military days, Si is recruited by a mysterious and secret government agency for a time travel project. I won’t go into the plot very much, only to say that Si also has another reason to go back in time: to solve a mystery concerning an heirloom of his girlfriend’s. The way the mystery is wrapped up at the end is silly and disappointing and I actually groaned aloud about a page before I saw it coming and I thought as I continued reading, “Oh no, please don’t do that to me, please don’t do it that way, please don’t—you bastard! That was a cheap and easy trick.”
What was unusual and most impressive bout this book was the mode of time travel that Finney came up with— completely original to my knowledge (and I’m sure it wasn’t easy to invent a truly new notion of how to time travel after fifty years’ worth of science fiction stories written for the pulp presses before Finney wrote Time And Again). There is no physics hocus pocus involved at all in Finney’s conception.
The theory is this: in any and every location, ALL the times (past, present, and future) are actually there, but we can’t see them in our normal state of mind. However, Si is trained by the government to concentrate very hard on one particular time period and then to take himself into a deep trance via self-hypnosis. By doing this, his mind can be opened up to see another portion of the time spectrum occupying a given location. He can then physically walk through that other-time world as real as anyone else there. Though Finney, quite properly, is vague about what happens physically to Si, I’m ninety-nine percent sure that his body follows his brain, and he disappears from his present time completely.
Before attempting the deep self-hypnosis, all the candidates (Si is just one of several making the attempt to time-travel) live a Truman Show style existence in a monitored fake world created to look exactly like the time to which they will attempt to travel. The difference from the Truman Show (which was filmed at least two decades later) is that the candidates know their world is fake, but they are supposed to try to forget about it, to help them get the ol’ alpha waves lined-up or what have you for their attempt (you gotta allow for a little hand-waving when it comes to time travel, folks).
Another nice angle concerning the tired time travel plot is how Finney handles all the paradoxes and dangers that most time travel stories twist into pretzels over. Instead of worrying that the least change in the past will ripple forward and drastically alter the present/future, Finney simply shrugs it off. He’s come up with the “twig in a river” theory about time travel. According to this theory, time is an enormous river, and a person travelling back in time will have no more effect on the stream of time than a twig would have upon the course followed by the Mississippi.
Just to be on the safe side, though, each time Si returns from his short visits to the past, he is made to spend half an hour or so rattling off trivia he remembers about his own time before he travelled to the past. If he names things that are no longer true, then they can figure he did something that actually changed the present.
Like I said, the prose is workaday, except when it’s painfully not (like with the overlong burning building section). Also, as a mystery writer, Finney’s no Agatha Christie. Additionally, I did not like the way the author deals with the fact that Si meets a love interest in the 1800s even while he still has a gal in the 1900s. The resolution was downright lazy. Bad author! Disapprove!
And also, there was this bizarre little experiment that Finney attempted: he inserted into the book public domain photographs from the late 1800s and pretended that they were photographs Si took of the people he met and the places he visited while time travelling. It really just did not work, although I applaud the creative chance taken, and I have a sweet spot in my heart for anyone attempting to take a step closer to the Wagnerian dream of spectacle as full body entertainment.
Lastly, although Finney usually refrains becoming preachy about how the world has went to hell in a handbasket over the last several generations, there are several passages in which he waxes nostalgic for the simpler, purer days of the past. He speaks rapturously of the taste of the food in the 1800s, making sure to point out that it was before the days of additives, preservatives chemical fertilizers, heavy duty insecticides, and chlorinated water.
At one point he even has Si mentally exclaim: “Lord help us all, what New York City has lost through the years!” And on another page, Si says of the people from his own time: “We hate each other. And we’re used to it.”
Later, talking more in depth about the 1970s, Si says: “We’re a people who pollute the very air we breathe. And our rivers. We’re destroying the Great Lakes; Erie is already gone, and now we’ve begun on the oceans. We filled our atmosphere with radioactive fallout that put poison into our children’s bones, and we knew it. We’ve made bombs that can wipe out humanity in minutes, and they are aimed and ready to fire. We ended polio, and then the United States Army bred new strains of germs that can cause fatal, incurable disease. We had a chance to do justice to our Negroes, and when they asked it, we refused. In Asia, we burned people alive, we really did. We allow children to grow up malnourished in the United States. We allow people to make money by using our television channels to persuade our own children to smoke, knowing what it is going to do to them.”
Actually, he has a point. If I ever self-hypnotize my way back into the past, I think I’ll steer clear of the 1970s.