Saturday, 30 June 2007

Rereading Favourites - June Update, Part 1

After Soldier, Ask Not, I decided to expand the challenge to include an "also-ran" each month... just in case the favourite failed to make the grade. For June, the favourite was Gwyneth Jones' Kairos, and the also-ran was Time and Again by Clifford Simak.

Time and Again was first published in 1951 under the title First He Died. It's also one of the earliest sf novels I ever read. I can distinctly remember reading it when I lived in Dubai - likely borrowed from Dubai Country Club's subscription library. That would be sometime between 1976 and 1979. Thirty years ago! And yet I could recall some of the details of the plot - there was a time war; and a man who landed a wrecked spaceship despite it having no drives, nor even being airtight. One image from the novel which had stayed with me was of a car that had crashed into a tree, and which contained a book from the future.

I suppose disappointment was inevitable - I certainly hope I'm a more discerning reader now than I was when I was eleven years old. The novel opens with a typically Simakian scene: a man is sitting on his porch, the crickets are chirping, the brook is burbling, night is falling... Another man walks up, tells the seated man he is from the future, and that Asher Sutton is returning to Earth tomorrow and must be killed. It's a great set-up for a story. And it gets better. Twenty years ago, Sutton was sent to 61 Cygni in an attempt to break through the mysterious barrier guarding the system's seventh planet. He is the first and only person to have done so. And now he is back - travelling in a spaceship that has no spacedrive and isn't even airtight. Sutton will write a book about something he learned on 61 Cygni. This book will be used as a rallying cry for a movement to emancipate androids (vat-grown humans, slaves in all but name). Others, however, will interpret Sutton's revelations to refer to humans only. And so there will be a war.

Time and Again is set some 6,000 years from now, in a future when humanity has a galactic empire - which appears to be ruled by a bureacracy. Time travel has only just been discovered when Sutton returns to Earth, but factions from the future representing both sides have travelled back in time in an effort to influence events.

The great ideas promised by the novel's opening, however, never really appear. Simak is more concerned with the character of Sutton, and the nature of his revelation, than he is with the ramifications of the situation Sutton creates. The world-building is poor - the Earth of the 81st Century comes across as no different to 1950s America, but with silly clothes and a code duello. The time travel, and any paradoxes it might create, never really kicks into gear. Early in the story, Sutton finds a letter written by an ancestor in 1987, and which has remained unopened since then. Ignoring the fact that paper would never last 6,000 years, the letter itself is written in a style of English which seems more 1900s than 1980s. It all adds up to a novel which is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it's for good reason it's not as well-known as some of Simak's other works, like Way Station or City.

So, cross off one also-ran. It drops off that list, never mind being promoted to the favourites list. And on we go with the rereads...

Incidentally, you'll notice that my editions of Time and Again and the Dorsai trilogy - see here - all feature cover art by Tony Roberts (who was recently famous for being "sampled" by Glenn Brown in his Turner Prize nominee, The Love of Shepherds 2000). I wonder if it's the art that made me believe the books were favourites - because I really do like those covers. Perhaps it's because I began to identify myself as a sf fan around that time, but I find the cover art of the late 1970s more appealing than that of sf books today. Tony Roberts, Angus McKie, Tim White, Bruce Pennington and, of course, Chris Foss... Stewart Cowley's Terran Trade Authority books: Spacecraft 2000 - 2100 AD and Starliners... Spaceships. Cool spaceships. Book covers then always seemed to exude an air of mystery - something sadly lacking from today's cover art. It seems almost irrelevant that those wonderful covers rarely had any link to the contents of the book. But they made you pick it up.

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