Thu
Jul 1 2010 10:05am

The Society of Time: John Brunner’s Times Without Number

John Brunner’s Times Without Number is a surprisingly short book, and the ideas are the best part of it. It’s 233 pages, and was published in 1969. If it had been written today it would be at least twice as long, and it wouldn’t be any better for it. This is minor Brunner but I’ve always been fond of it, and it seemed to fit with all these other things I’ve been reading recently about useless time travel.

The Society of Time is an organization founded to take control of Time Travel. They’re kind of time traveling Jesuits—which isn’t surprising, as they live in a world where the Spanish Armada conquered England, with the Spanish thereafter getting kicked out of Spain by a second Muslim conquest, and where their allies the Mohawks are the dominant people in North America. Don Miguel Navarro is an obedient servant of the emperor of Spain, a licentiate of the Society of Time, and a good Catholic. He goes into time to observe, without changing anything even by speaking to anybody, because any little change could be disastrous. Of course, things don’t go as planned.

The thing about time travel here is that time can be changed, it has no elasticity or protective mechanisms, and nor are there multiple universes. Time travel works and isn’t useless—you can go back to the past and mine resources that are under your enemy’s control in the present, and bring them back to the future. But woe betide if you change anything—if you’re doing the mine thing, better go for seams not yet worked. You can also change your own personal timeline—if there’s a disaster you can avert it if you can find a place to change things before it happened—at the cost of having memories of something that never happened and no memory of the “real” past. And there are alternate worlds, made by careful experimenting and then putting everything back exactly the way it was, and for purposes of study only, as there can only be one world at a time.

Brunner introduces these ideas one at a time, and always through the devout and honest Don Miguel, who isn’t always all that quick on the uptake. This starts off seeming like a simple story of an alternate world, and gets more complex as it goes. The end, when you reach it, is simultaneously surprising and obvious.

It’s worth noting that here, as in Corrupting Dr Nice, but unlike To Say Nothing of the Dog, the life of Jesus is of central interest—but it has been placed off-limits except to popes, for fear of changing anything.

At one point Don Miguel muses that time travel is inherently unlikely, because once you have it there’s a temptation to make changes, and changes will eventually inevitably lead to a future in which time travel is not invented, like a snake swallowing its own tail. This is a view of the futility of time travel that I hadn’t considered.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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.

6 comments
Liza .
1. aedifica
I like the subtitle (or cover blurb, whichever it is) on the cover image shown: "Beware of the Masters of If!" I haven't read this one, but it sounds like I'd enjoy it.
Clark Myers
2. ClarkEMyers
time travel is inherently unlikely

No idea where that idea originated but it's kicked around a good deal - this from Wikipedia 1 July

Niven's Law (re: Time travel)
A different law is given this name in Niven's essay "The Theory and Practice of Time Travel":

Niven's Law: If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and of changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe.

Hans Moravec glosses this version of Niven's Law as follows:

There is a spookier possibility. Suppose it is easy to send messages to the past, but that forward causality also holds (i.e. past events determine the future). In one way of reasoning about it, a message sent to the past will "alter" the entire history following its receipt, including the event that sent it, and thus the message itself. Thus altered, the message will change the past in a different way, and so on, until some "equilibrium" is reached--the simplest being the situation where no message at all is sent. Time travel may thus act to erase itself (an idea Larry Niven fans will recognize as "Niven's Law").

(1)^ "Time Travel and Computing", Hans Moravec 1991.

There's a short The Arrow of Time in which time travelers are doomed to arrive only at their own instant death. See also Asimov The End of Eternity published 1955 and Crowley Great Work of Time
Bruce Cohen
3. SpeakerToManagers
There's a lovely description of the equilibrium effect on a small scale in James P. Hogan's "Thrice Upon a Time". Given a way to send signals from the present to the past, the protagonists set up a system controlled by a computer which, on receiving a message from its future will record the fact, then will send that message back when it reaches the future moment to do so only if it did not receive a message. The result is an oscillatory loop in the system's timeline as it alternatively does/does not send the message. The humans examining the system's log in the future of the time to send or not send the message discover that a low-probability component failure in the controlling computer breaks the loop, and decide that that's the only way such a loop can be seen from its future.
Rich Horton
4. Rich Horton
Some minor nitpicks ... TIMES WITHOUT NUMBER actually dates originally, in book form, to 1962. It's a fixup of three novellas that appeared in the UK magazine Science Fiction Adventures, also in 1962. In the late '60s and early '70s Brunner revised many of his earlier novels, mostly a matter of smoothing the prose, with some slight expansions on occasion, but never actually changing the story. The 1969 revision of TIMES WITHOUT NUMBER does expand the original slightly, with the only substantive addition I noted being some discussion of the theoretical concerns about the time travel stuff, especially the closed loop ...

I think the novel as a whole is very good early Brunner, but the third section, "The Fullness of Time", is better than that, one of my favorite time travel stories ever, a very moving piece.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Clark: Discussion of The End of Eternity in a forthcoming post. What is that short story about the guy who had a great insight when flying a hawk and ended up going back in time once too many times to tell himself things?

Rich: Thank you. I didn't know that, and my British edition just has the 1969 copyright.
Rich Horton
6. Sam Dodsworth
The story with the hawk is "Rainbird" by R A Lafferty. I read it in an anthology when I was kid... probably "The Seventh Galaxy Reader".

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