Tuesday, 15 April 2003

Jack Finney: Time and Again (1970)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 1152

Because of the famous film, Finney is best known for (Invasion of) The Body Snatchers, but he wrote a dozen or so novels over about four decades; Time and Again is probably the next most famous. It is still, after thirty years, a time travel novel with many differences from the ideas on the subject which have become commonplace in the science fiction genre, and thus it remains worth reading for any fan despite its obvious flaws.

Si Morley is an artist, but feels as though his current job in advertising (drawing bars of soap) is a dead end. So he is interested when approached by a stranger with an interesting proposition - how would he like to become involved in a government project so secret that Si can't even be told what it is about until he joins it?

The secret is, of course, time travel. The discovery has been made that position in time is a subjective thing, that it is the knowledge we have of past events that determines when the present is. (For example, knowing that Kennedy was assassinated places the present after 1963, knowing I'm 34 means it's 2003.) The point of this is that by appropriate training and self hypnosis time travel becomes possible; if you can forget everything which happened after a particular date and will yourself into the mindset of a person of that time, then suddenly that date becomes the present for you. Si uses this method to travel to the New York of the early 1880s, before the skyscraper, before the automobile. There, he investigates a minor (invented) historical mystery, and is strongly attracted to a young woman of the time.

There seem to me to be serious flaws in the premise by which this method of time travel is supposed to work, starting with the philosophical one that it makes the fundamental nature of time simultaneously subjective and objective - position in time depends on our knowledge of events, and yet the relative orderings of these events is given by their position in time, which is determined by what? Even if we allow the passage of time to be subjective for a conscious being and yet objective for an unconscious object, it seems to me that it is impossible for such changes as are required for time travel to occur in our minds, particularly given our consciousness of alterations in our own bodies. A good example of this problem is that Si grows a beard to fit in to the male fashion of the 1880s, and surely he would have been unable to get away from realising that it was only a few weeks old.

More seriously, to travel in time leaves the traveller on a tight rope, surely to be bounced back as soon as any conscious thought of future events intrudes. For the sake of the plot, Finney must ignore this, so that Si is constantly aware of who he is and of the changes due to take place in the century he has travelled - he even makes a sketch showing how one of the streets will look. Finney is also self indulgent, in that he is unable to resist displaying some of the fruits of his research, which makes Time and Again seem in places like a guide book complete with photos and drawings.

Having catalogued some of the flaws, what are the strengths of this novel? The main one is that Finney conveys far more of how different the world of even the relatively recent past would seem to a time traveller; in its usual Wellesian, machine driven mode, time travel fiction is often very blase about how easy it is to fit in, and certainly about how little culture shock the traveller would suffer even from the details of their new environment. The open acknowledgement of two different times being involved gives Finney an advantage over the traditional historical novel, too; Si can comment on things in a way not possible outside the science fiction genre.

The two foci of the novel are the rapid pace of change since 1882 as exemplified by Si's reactions to nineteenth century New York, and the character of Si as narrator. Little room is left to flesh out the other characters, who are left as ciphers. The interest of the novel is rather along the lines of collections of old photographs of landmarks, as commonly seen filling up space in local papers; this lessens the impact of the novel for someone with no particular interest in New York.

Time and Again could be better, even if most of its flaws are integral to the way that Finney has set up his mechanism for time travel. It is, as I have said, of interest to aficionados, but is not really going to convert anyone not already interested in the science fiction genre.

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