Friday, 12 January 2001

Robie Macauley: A Secret History of Time to Come (1979)

Edition: Corgi, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 712

A double apocalypse hits the US in the early eighties in this science fiction novel. First, racial tension escalates into civil war between black and white; then, Russian and Chinese bombs destroy the cities when it looks as though the blacks are going to win. There follows a dark age of hundreds of years, during which the existence of men with dark skin is seen as one of the many unbelievable myths about the times of the ancients.

The narrative is, to start with, the diary of the commander of a black commando unit in the war. He has visions of a traveller from the future, and these visions come to dominate the second half of the novel completely. This is quite an interesting way to do things, as it creates doubts in the reader's mind about the reality of the traveller and his world. It makes for a somewhat unsatisfying structure for the novel, however, as the diarist - who is actually, from a science fiction genre point of view, more interesting and unusual - disappears completely soon after the middle. Little is made of parallels between the nature and situations of the two central characters, and no explanation is given of the connection between the two of them (unless, of course, one is just a fantasy of the other). There are ironies in the post apocalypse scenario, as well as the standard ones where people dismiss as myth true stories about the capabilities of twentieth century technology. The man from the future is, for a large part, involved in tracking a gang who have kidnapped a woman to sell as a slave in the south - with no black people left, whites are selling one another.

The later sections of A Secret History of Time to Come are reminiscent in places of the greatest post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz. It is mostly a fairly standard adventure story, with some excellent writing (the very first vision of the future is an example of this). The diary sections read rather like a John Brunner dystopia. Basically, the writing is good but the vision is neither original nor broad enough to make this novel a science fiction classic.

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