Malzberg, Barry N. (ed.). The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time.

NY: ibooks, 2002.

I’ve been reading science fiction since discovering Heinlein’s juveniles in my elementary school library in the early ’50s. I’ve read all sorts of SF in those sixty years, but certain categories of the genre have become my favorites — especially alternate history and time travel, two themes that often overlap. Probably this preference is due partly to my deep interest in history generally.

Nancy Kress is highly regarded among serious SF readers, and has won several awards, though she’s never really made it to the top tier in terms of public consciousness, possibly because her work is more “literary” than most. “The Battle of Long Island,” which has been one of my favorites since it first appeared twenty years ago, is about the Hole that spontaneously opens in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the appearance through it of random participants on both sides of the battle that took place there in August 1776. Most of them are dead within minutes, but not all. The modern U.S. military, of course, immediately assumes a terrorist trick and cordons off the site, but the senior Army nurse on the project declines to obey the Pentagon’s paranoid protocol. And that’s the set-up. It’s about people, and how different — really fundamentally different — those in the past are from those in our present. Or perhaps they’re really all just alike. A beautifully written and very thoughtful story.

I remember reading Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” in F&SF when I was in junior high, and I immediately began tracking down every other book of his I could find. (As I quickly discovered, Poul had been voted a Grand Master for a reason.) This classic is about an American GI stationed in Iceland during the Cold War who gets struck by lightning and finds himself floundering around in 998 AD, trying (with notable lack of success) to adapt his modern skills to life on a Norse farmstead. It’s a useful antidote to DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, featuring an improbable polymath, who also is thrown back in time by a bolt of lightning, but who never fails at anything. “Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket,” by James Tiptree (who was really psychologist Alice Sheldon, and who had far too short a career), somewhat reminds me in style of Cordwainer Smith, but slightly raunchier. Dovy Rapelle’s problems all stem from the fact that he’s such a nice person, but one has to wonder just how Loolie ever fell in love with him in the first place, since she set herself up for it via a time loop. A nice bit of writing.

Damon Knight is another of the Great Names of SF and the author of a staggering number of short stories, nearly all of them above average in the field. “Anachron” is the story of two Italian brothers, one a scientist, the other a collector of antiquities, but both dedicated amateurs, and what they do with the accidental “hole into the future” one of them invents. Not Knight’s best but certainly worth reading. Bill Pronzini is generally identified with mystery thrillers rather than science fiction, but “On the Nature of Time” suggests a new solution to the standard Temporal Paradox. Physicist Geoffrey Landis is not as well known as some authors in this collection, but he deserves to be. “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” is a study in solipsism, about a man fleeing into the past to escape death in a hotel fire in the present. And then being forced to do it over and over again, coming a little closer to the final seconds of his life each time. Somewhat depressing, but a strongly-written story.

Every breath Philip Dick ever took was an original, and his classic “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” is no exception. It’s another time-loop story, about what happens to a trio of government-sponsored time-travelers who are killed on “reentry,” only to find themselves alive again, and trying to explain their entirely temporary survival to their loved ones — even while the big public memorial service is being planned. An interesting situation, and with a typically Dickian flavor. (Attending your own autopsy? And doing TV interviews?) Fredric Brown is perhaps the only author as well known and highly regarded for his mystery novels as for his multitude of SF short work. “Hall of Mirrors” focuses on the inventor of time travel who finds he must stand guardian over the process far into the future, leaving the job to each subsequent iteration of himself. Karen Haber (who is also Mrs. Robert Silverberg) is another author who is not as well known as she ought to be. “3 Rms Good Vue” is about the effect, sort of, of commercial time travel on housing costs in the Bay Area. It starts out kind of lighthearted but soon turns serious. Very nice stuff.

Charles Harness had sort of an odd career, writing some well-received stories in the post-World War II years — because he needed the money — and then dropping it for several decades to pursue a career as a patent attorney. Unfortunately, I have to say “Time Trap” (published in 1948) strikes me as dreadfully overplotted, confused, and excessively purple in its prose style. It was supposedly very influential to the later work of people like Phil Dick, but I can’t imagine how. William Tenn’s “Brooklyn Project,” from 1946, starts out as a cautionary tale about life in a country where “national security” trumps everything, but quickly turns to a different sort of caution altogether. Interesting but kind of lightweight. “Timetripping,” by Jack Dann, Malzberg says, is the sort of thing Bernard Malamud would write if Malamud wrote science fiction. It just seems rather self-consciously “literary” to me, and Dann lays on the yiddishkeit far too thick to be enjoyable.

The couple of novels of Paul Levinson’s I’ve read I didn’t think were particularly successful, but “The Chronology Protection Case,” about a forensic physicist working for the NYPD, isn’t bad. The point here is that if the universe decides it doesn’t want you messing about with time, you’d damn well better listen to it. Robert Silverberg later expanded “Hawksbill Station” into a short novel, but I thing this even shorter version works better. Time travel here is used not for academic exploration, or trade, or even tourism, but simply as a way for the government to rid itself of political malcontents, by dumping them irretrievably in the late Cambrian. Not one of his major works but an interesting take on the theme.

Finally, there’s “Time Travelers Never Die,” by Jack McDevitt, both the longest piece in the collection and the best. Physicist Adrian Shelborne has managed to invent a wristwatch-sized time machine in his basement lab, and he and his friend, the narrator, use it almost entirely as tourists, talking aerodynamics with Leonardo, drinking schnapps with Einstein, gambling with Julius Caesar. The past can be changed but nothing they do amounts to much, so there are no problems. Until Adrian returns from the past to witness his own solemn funeral and decides he’s not ready to die just yet, especially since he’s due to be brutally murdered. McDevitt has a very fluid and easy style and his prose is a joy to read.

Despite the rather fatuous title, this is actually a barely average collection. Though there are a number of winners, there are also more than a few clunkers. (Malzberg’s peculiar intros aren’t terribly helpful, either.) That may be just a matter of taste, though, and I recommend this volume to anyone with a penchant for wandering through time.

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