What is living for? Poul Anderson’s The Corridors of Time

Poul Anderson really was an amazing writer. It’s good to be reminded of that by reading something relatively unfamiliar, because I’m much too close to most of his best books to be able to see them with anything like a fresh eye.

The Corridors of Time is a short novel published in 1966. I was initially disappointed, when I first picked it in 1977, that it wasn’t another Time Patrol book, and then I was delighted that it was what it was. I remember finishing it and thinking “Wow” and reading it again straight through before taking it back to the library. I’m not sure I’ve ever read it in between then and now, I’ve certainly never owned a copy until I picked up this Lancer Books edition (with a truly bad cover, not pictured above), for a dollar in last year’s Worldcon in Reno.

Re-reading it now, I was again struck by how very good it is. It’s a time travel novel in which two groups of time travelers from the future are fighting it out through the timeline, recruiting locals and trying to encourage their philosophies. A twentieth century man is recruited from his prison cell and travels as part of the conflict to the Bronze Age, to the Seventeenth Century and to the future. So far so ordinary, but what makes this extraordinary is the subtlety. “Evil is good turned cancerous,” one of the characters says, and Anderson sees the good and evil of both sides in this time war. It’s also beautifully written — Anderson’s best writing reaches an almost mythic level.

You can compare this to Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1955) (post) and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1957), both of which have organizations controlling time. But both of these are set entirely in the future, and the times they visit are possible futures and entirely imaginary. Also, they change time, whereas here time is fixed. I don’t expect this was the first book having rival time travel organizations fighting across the past, but it was the first one I read and I can’t think of an earlier one. And unlike John Barnes’s Caesar’s Bicycle series and pretty much everything else like this, Anderson doesn’t have good time travelers vs evil time travelers. You expect a certain kind of black and white simplicity in a book like this, and it’s really impressive when you get something much more interesting — two groups with different philosophies, neither of them right. It raises serious philosophical questions and doesn’t try to spoon feed you answers.

Anderson’s done his homework on the historical periods, as you’d expect, and he brings them to an impressive level of solidity. I expecially like the way the time travelers attempt to talk themselves into a town in Seventeenth Century Denmark goes completely wrong. The different time periods feel different, and real, and the two different home cultures of the time travelers also feel like real human cultures, if not with quite the depth that he brings to the historical cultures. Anderson has also worked out exactly how the time travel works and made me understand it exactly as much as I needed to for everything in the book to make sense. It feels like science, not hand waving.

I’ve talked about the appeal in fantasy of the passionate declaration. Corridors of Time is full of beautiful science fictional passionate declarations:

“Why do people in this age think their own impoverished lives must be the norm of the universe? Consider. The atoms that build you are clouds of sheer energy. The sun that shines on you could consume this planet, and there are other suns that could swallow it. Your ancestors hunted the mammoth, crossed oceans in rowboats, died on a thousand red fields. Your civiliation stands at the edge of oblivion. Within your body at this instant a war is fought without quarter against invaders that would devour you, against entropy, and against time itself. That’s a norm for you!”

Isn’t that enough to make you forgive anything? As for what you need to forgive — well, period (1966) attitudes to race and gender that were better than normal for their time but are grating now. They’re not a huge part of the story, but there were a couple of times I winced, though I don’t think I noticed them in 1977 when I was twelve. I was half expecting the ravages of the suck fairy to have been much more visible.

If The Corridors of Time were written now it would be three times as long and it would be the first book in a series, and it would be much the worse for that. Anderson manages to keep the whole story under close control and entirely complete in this one short volume. It’s impressive to come up with a science fictional idea like physical tunnels through time with fixed ends and a huge conflict between two ambiguous groups and to end it so neatly and satisfyingly. I don’t want to spoil it at all, but it has a really good ending.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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