That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World seems well-nigh incredible. Yet it is so, and the Fault and the Guilt mine, and can never be denied or escaped. So, with this wretched souvenir of that Event before me, I now end the life which should have ended then.
This strange passage sends our protagonist on a journey from his present-day (circa 1970) to the early 1880s – and we get to go around for the ride.
Jack Finney is probably best known as the author of the novel which inspired the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, he has also written many time travel stories, the most notable of which, Time And Again, was referred to by Stephen King as “THE great time-travel story” and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with him. It clearly was an inspiration for his novel 11/22/63.
Time And Again is moderately sized (around 400 pages in my Kindle edition) illustrated novel. It is filled with photographs, drawings, magazine/newspaper reproductions, and the like of 1880 New York City. These drawings are supposedly by the protagonist and narrator, Simon “Si” Morley but are actual contemporary images from the era.
Si is a commercial artist in the advertising industry. He likes his work, but not passionately. He has a romantic interest, Kate, but he’s not passionately attached to her, with an impression that the relationship is not long for this world. It’s not a bad relationship, but neither is it a lasting one. He’s a man looking for something.
He gets his opportunity from a secret government project. I’m going into some minor spoiler territory, but not much more than what you would get from reading the back cover of the novel. I’m not going to be giving away the ending or any major twists.
This government project is based on the theory that the past has an actual existence and it can be traveled to. This is done via psychic time travel. The idea is you use a simulation of the past as a focus – in Si’s case, he lives in the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West – a place that existed in his destination time and still existed (and which is where John Lennon lived at the time he was murdered). Instead of electricity, he has gaslights. He has period food and newspapers delivered to him. It takes a long time, but eventually, through the use of self-hypnosis, he is able to make the trip. And as he gets more proficient he is able to trigger the transition much easier, though always needing some “gateway” – some setting present in both time periods.
The 1880s are of interest to him due to a mystery in Kate’s past. Her adopted father’s father, Andrew Carmody, was once a wealthy man but he killed himself long before her birth. His suicide note was scrawled on the back of a letter he had received in January of 1882:
If a discussion of Court House Carrara should prove of interest to you, please appear in City Hall Park at half past twelve on Thursday next.
Needing something to focus on in his time travel effort, he chooses this – to identify the sender of the letter and to understand the context of it.
Going beyond this would dive into spoiler territory. Suffice to say he makes multiple trips to the past, the trips getting longer, with him beginning to live in the past for longer periods. He, of course, gets into all sorts of trouble, as he dives deeper and deeper into the mystery, running afoul of both criminals and the police (who are not in the habit of giving Miranda rights).
What makes this book so compelling is the way Finney brings the two periods to life. First, he does a masterful job bringing the project in 1970 to life. Charismatic army officers, an elderly scientist, other recruits, his love interest, Kate – all of these people come to life with their own motivations for doing things. Sometimes Si gets blindsided, such as not recognizing different officials in charge of the project have their own goals that begin coming into conflict. From the vantage point of the 21st century, it is interesting seeing the contemporary 1970 scenes – a time that is nearly fifty years away from today – not quite as far as the eighty-eight-year journey Si makes, but an appreciable chunk.
However, the true joy is in the way Finney brings the year 1882 to life. In Finney’s hands, the people of 1882 are people, not props. We learn what motivates them, how they entertain themselves, what they value, what they fear. We get to appreciate how they live – yet he does so without resorting to the dreaded “info dump”. He drives home these people are not primitives, despite their lower level of technology. As Si settles into a boarding house, we get to meet a variety of people, from an over-the-top rival/antagonist to an earnest young lad who quickly befriends him. New York City comes alive with steam-driven elevated trains, construction crews in buildings, horse-drawn omnibuses, the Brooklyn Bridge nearing completion and the torch for the as-yet-unbuilt Statue of Liberty on display in Madison Square. Characters sing and play games after dinner, they see shows, they work jobs. In a lesser writer, this could be terribly boring – but in Finney’s hands, it is anything but.
I primarily read this book through Paul Hecht’s excellent audio narration, but if you were to go that route, I’d strongly suggest also getting a digital or physical copy of the book as well so you can appreciate the artwork. The audio narration has a few awkward moments where the narrator describes having drawn the scene.
Who should read this? If you enjoy time travel it’s a gimme. If you want to get inspiration for the 1880s it’s a superb read. In fiction and gaming, when one considers the 1880s one usually thinks of either London or the American West, but Finney brings Gilded Age New York to life for us.
It also provides some great inspiration for a time travel game. It provides a rarely used method of time travel – psychically willing oneself back in time by means of some focus. It is also great for games like TimeWatch, an investigative time travel game – this is a superb example of a mystery plot using time travel – without any aliens or other interference.
Time And Again is one of my favorite books and one that I reviewed once before in my previous blog. I wrote this review anew without reading my old blog entry, but looking back at it as I complete this, unsurprisingly, there’s definitely some overlap. Take a look if you’d like.
Finney also wrote a sequel, From Time to Time which deals with many of the same characters, with most of the action taking place in 1911. It’s an enjoyable read which presents some new ideas. I’d say the original is better, but it is a worthy sequel (and one which I may review at some point).
~ Dan Stack
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