Time Travel Times Two: Jack Finney’s Time and Again

While book-shopping Buenos Aires last week, in a hole-in-the-wall bookshop on Avenida Estados Unidos, I happened upon a battered and ancient copy of Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a book I hadn’t read but had heard of. Famously—or so I thought—Finney was 80 years old when he wrote this debut novel about time traveling back to nineteenth century New York, and had subsequently even written a sequel…

…except that that turns out not to be the case. The “Also By Jack Finney” page included a dozen other titles, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He did write a sequel to Time and Again at age 80—was that what I was thinking of? Did I have a different author entirely half in mind? Or had I perhaps slipped without knowing it into a different timestream with subtly different time-travel books?

As pleasingly meta as that might be, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation as I regarded the book. But when it failed to vanish and be replaced by a slip of paper labeled Book (time-travel), I decided to my deep relief that I at least was not living in a Philip K. Dick novel, and bought the book, and read it. And boy, is it ever a weird and wonderful and deeply problematic piece of work.

The story: in 1969, a professional illustrator named Simon Morley is identified as one of a rare breed of people capable of time travel, recruited into a secret government project, and sent back to New York City in 1882. The mechanism: a combination of self-hypnosis and environmental control. Among other things, it’s necessary to recreate and re-enact the target setting exactly before you can go there, down to living in a building that existed in both eras, wearing period clothing, and acting the part of a resident of that era; any anachronism, physical or mental, makes travel to the past impossible. (Returning to your own time is, fortunately, considerably easier.)

Time and Again comes with a free bonus for the modern reader: two distant eras for the price of one. In the book’s “present”, Simon works in an ad agency a la Mad Men, it’s a rare day when you can see the whole Empire State Building through the smog, Rosemary’s Baby and John Lennon have not yet made the Dakota famous, secret and nigh-omnipotent governmental organizations can still seem to be populated entirely by fundamentally decent fellows, irony has not yet crossed the Atlantic, questioning the President is unthinkably un-American, the ambient sexism is as casual and breathtaking as Kipling’s racism, and civil rights and Vietnam are just beginning to tear America’s glorious facade asunder. An interesting era to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Neither would Jack Finney. The author’s heart clearly belongs to 1882, not 1968. He depicts New York’s Gilded Age with loving detail, in both words and pictures: Morley’s profession is used as a pretext for filling the book’s pages with sketches and photographs. Time and Again may be the first illustrated novel I’ve read since The Hobbit; it’s certainly the only novel I’ve ever read that includes photographs of the protagonist and half the supporting cast. Much of the actual text is primarily illustrative as well, serving only to illuminate the era, not the plot. Especially—amazingly—many of the most gripping sequences.

Long descriptive sequences are usually death to narrative drive. I write books set in places no less faraway and fascinating than 1882 New York, and I constantly have to check the urge to add more details, and show more of what can be seen in those places, lest the story stagnate. (And even so reviewers occasionally ding me for verging on travelogue in parts.) Similarly, a friend of mine mocks the dimension-walking sequences in Zelazny’s Amber books as the “oh, the colours, the colours!” parts, and flips through them without reading. If Zelazny couldn’t pull it off, then who can?

Jack Finney, apparently. Somehow, Simon Morley’s detailed time-travelogue journeys along Fifth Avenue in a horse-drawn cab, and Third on an elevated train, and the Ladies’ Mile on foot, are unputdownable. He somehow infects the reader with his own fascination with that era, and makes that world seem real, and therefore riveting. It’s a fairly staggering achievement. I’m a former New Yorker with a passing interest in the city’s history, so I’m sure it affects me more than most, but I dare anyone to read those sequences and not be drawn in. A good thing, too, because while the time-travel plotting is skilfully managed, the suspense-thriller storyline that eventually develops becomes contrived and unconvincing.

The real story of Time and Again is the clash between the two worlds it portrays. The 1880s are repeatedly shown (in probable contradiction to reality) as far more appealing and exciting and vibrant than the 1960s. “The faces are different” back then, says Simon repeatedly; more alive, more engaged with the world. Even the food tastes better. At the same time he’s deeply uncomfortable in the 1960s, in which everything he knows seems to be slipping into poisonous anarchy. There are only a very few references in this book to what we think of today when we think of the sixties, and they are highly illustrative:

A group of young Negroes was walking toward Lex, so I didn’t hang around to encounter them and explain how fond I’d always been of Martin Luther King.

Not until Vietnam did I realize that some of the most important decisions of all time can be made by men knowing really no more than, and who are not more intelligent than, most of the rest of us.

He would rather live in the 1880s, in a world he understands, where he’s on top of a social order which has not been overturned and where everyone knows their place, than in his complex, fast-changing present. This is time travel as cozy catastrophe, to use Jo Walton’s term for the mid-20th-century subgenre in which social mores are preserved by the end of the world.

Interestingly, though, this is definitely not “inoculated time travel,” as Douglas Coupland puts it in Generation X, meaning the desire to live in a different time so long as you’ve had your shots and can be guaranteed your health. Finney pulls few punches when portraying the grinding misery of the nineteenth century for everyone not lucky enough to be rich. Smallpox, doctors who have never heard the word antibiotics, sky-high infant mortality, pervasive corruption, vicious brutality, soul-destroying poverty—they’re all there. But at the same time:

On the streets of the eighties I saw human misery, as you see it today; and depravity, hopelessness, and greed; and in the faces of small boys on the streets I saw the premature hardness you see now in the faces of boys from Harlem. But there was also an excitement in the streets of New York in 1882 that is gone.

Contrast that with his take on the moon landing:

It doesn’t seem to mean anything […] Somehow the project almost seemed to lack dignity. Because it didn’t have any real purpose or point.

I expect you’re appalled by that contemptuous dismissal of the first moon mission—you’re an SF reader, after all—but I can understand it. I encounter similar attitudes fairly often, when traveling, in people who have performed the economic equivalent of time travel by moving to the Third World. To them, modern western society is plastic, empty, pointless, full of futile posturing and trivialities, while the developing world is full of vitality, struggle, intensity, richness, and far more life than the wealthy West. And you know what, they’re not all wrong … so long as you have money. Just as not even Simon Morley would live in 19th century New York if he couldn’t be rich.

He’s a troublesome character at best. In his own mind, a good and decent man, but really, even for a product of his time, a huge jerk. When he discovers a corrupt official being blackmailed, he uses that to justify committing any number of crimes of his own, although in truth it’s all to win a girl he just met from a rival. He quickly disregards his strict instructions to watch the past without interfering, and near the end of the book, without so much as a qualm, he actually erases a man he greatly respects from history, largely for his own satisfaction. Indeed he’s more sympathetic villain than hero—which makes the book even more interesting, but I doubt was what Finney intended.

It’s an uneven book, but I plan to read the sequel. In part to have that long-gone New York City resurrected once again by Finney’s considerable talents, and in part to see if Simon regrets the decisions he made. Many of those I’ve met in self-imposed exile in the developing world did not seem particularly happy there. I suspect the same would ultimately be true for any of us in 1880s New York, no matter how thrilling it might seem at first.


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