Finney, Jack. Time and Again.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Although he was also the author of The Body Snatchers (basis of the cult movie and its remakes), Finney is not widely known outside a relatively small circle of fans — especially aficionados of time-travel stories. And in that connection, he is generally considered to have written one of the most masterful novels on the subject ever.

Simon Morley is a commercial artist working in a New York ad agency and while he doesn’t actually hate his job, he’s certainly bored to tears with it. And then he’s approached by a very friendly Army major, an ex-football player, who tells him “they” have been checking him out, he seems to meet all the indefinable criteria, and now they have a proposition for him: There’s a secret, government-sponsored project involving time travel. No machinery involved. You just have to have the right sort of mind and the right sort of grasp on reality, both of which are very rare. But Si seems to be one of the lucky ones, one of those the project wants to send on trips back into the past. For his own reasons, mostly having to do with the family history of the girl he’s involved with, Si convinces them to let him shoot for New York City in January 1882.

And so his preparation begins, learning about the minutiae of the past (as much as he needs to know, anyway, since not even those living at the time knew everything), getting a feel for the place and the period. “Feel” is the right word, too. You have to be able to really, really, convince yourself you belong there. And then, in some unknown fashion, your mind will take care of the details of transporting you physically back in time.

The plot is only partly science-fictional, though. Mostly, it’s a romantic mystery/adventure, and it’s very well thought out. Political blackmail, thuggish cops, violent jealousy, murder, it’s all there.

But Finney is also concerned with trying to get the reader to understand not only how very different the 1880s were from the 1960s, only eight and a half decades later, but also how alike the two times were. You see the city through Si’s eyes as he comes to feel very much at home there, especially with the people at the small boarding house where he’s staying. Technology changes but people are still people. And yet, . . . the people of New York have also changed.

Finney’s opinion is that modern Americans — those of 1970, when this book was written — have lost something of their humanity, their joy in simply being alive, that New Yorkers of the 1880s still had. He’s not saying it was an idyllic time; he knows full well it wasn’t, in a great many ways. But still. And Finney’s attempt to make it possible for the reader to accompany Si on his travels into the past is enhanced by the contemporary drawings and photographs you will find scattered through the narrative, purportedly Si’s work. The style and the story will hold your attention, I guarantee it.

As you approach the end of the story, by the way, you begin to worry how Si is going to solve his most terrible problem — the nature of which I won’t go into, though if you read a lot of this stuff, you should be able to guess. And then, almost out of nowhere, the perfect solution presents itself. And then you realize you received the key clues to it long ago and had nearly forgotten them. Very slick, sir. Very.

But there’s something else that Finney had no way of predicting, and that’s how much our world has changed in the forty-five years since this book was published. Much of what Si regards as the quintessence of modernity, both good and bad, is now gone — as vanished as the horse-drawn streetcars of 1882. A reader (especially a younger one) discovering this marvelous book for the first time in 2015 is likely to look on 1970 in much the same way that Si looks at 1882. It’s an interesting perspective.


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