From Time to Time, Jack Finney

Simon & Schuster, 1995, 303 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-671-89884-1

Time travel is, by now, one of Science Fiction’s most well-worn themes. In steady use since at least H.G.Wells’s The Time Machine, is it still possible to do something, anything new with it? Whatever the answer, it won’t be found in Jack Finney’s From Time to Time, a disappointing novel that illuminates more by its failure than its qualities.

It is perhaps unfair to attack the novel with the cognitive tools of SF criticism. From Time to Time is, after all, primarily a sequel to Finney’s own Time and Again (1970), a time-travel fable that mishandled its SF element in much the same fashion, for much the same goals.

Finney, despite non-trivial genre credentials (he was the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mind you) isn’t terribly interested in the verisimilitude of time-travel in either novel. In Time and Again, protagonist Si Morley discovers through a government agency that he, alone among perhaps billions, is able to self-hypnotize himself in an earlier time. The hand-waving explanation involves individuals being “bound” to their time-lines by countless details, but immersing themselves so completely in another time that they literally project themselves in the past. No, it doesn’t make sense. No, you’re not supposed to think about it.

Your not supposed to nit-pick the time travel mechanism because the whole point of both books is to allow a contemporary character the chance to experience another time. Both books are historical novels in disguise, wrapped in some mubo-jumbo science-fantasy and structured along the lines of a thriller. Both books sometime stop for entire chapters as Finney spends his time describing this or that aspect of the period. I suppose that fans of New York in 1882 and 1912 will be delighted at the amount of period detail. For others, it can be all a big bore.

This isn’t to say that Finney is unsuccessful. If his goal was to deliver a hidden chronologue, it works: He’s got an eye for detail, and there are a number of small culture shocks that are reasonably striking. Unfortunately, Finney’s romantic vision of the past is so often selective that it loses its credibility. His rose-tinted nostalgic vision of past New Yorks really grates after a while.

It goes without saying that his protagonist is a healthy white male: One suspects that Si Morley’s enchantment with long-gone New York wouldn’t last as long had he been part of any oppressed minority, or had he found himself in need of medical treatment. The past may be an interesting place to visit, but one would definitely want to avoid living there. Alas, that’s exactly what Morley comes to prefer at the end of Time and Again, taking the opportunity to destroy the government’s time-travel project after some unconvincing moustache-twirling from the book’s antagonists.

But don’t worry: Time appears to be as resilient as the author’s thirst for sequel dollars, and so From Time to Time begins with an intriguing coda in which time anomalies are studied. This notion of a “correct” time-line isn’t terribly convincing, but at least it’s some real SF content. But as Si starts travelling again, as is the case, from time to time, he discovers the unremarkable elasticity of time and finds himself unable to change the past, or the future. As an SF concept, it’s not terribly original (nor carefully explored), but it’s better than nothing at all.

On the other hand, the lengthy digressions are maybe even more obvious in the sequel, as Finney stops the action for a chapter and takes us to vaudreville, or flying around 1912 New York. Again: history buffs will be taken. Others will skip ahead.

Reading Time After Time, it occurs by contrast that the vast majority of written SF often treats time-travel as an instrument for change, as a way to explore other ideas. Here, time-travel is merely a device to blanket oneself in comfortable nostalgia, a quick way to describe historical details to modern readers. Should you find yourself obliged to explain why Finney’s two books aren’t science-fiction despite featuring time-travel, begin with this difference in intention.

Obviously, this book -like its prequel- isn’t written for the SF audience. The cheap candy-coated nostalgic sentimentality, the eye-rolling time-travel mechanism and the lack of willingness to engage in serious speculation makes it a failure as a genre novel. Given the book’s continued longevity in print, mainstream readers obviously had a different reaction.

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