May 11 2012 12:00pm

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

The Corridors of Time by Poul AndersonPoul 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.

1. wiredog
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.
That, right there, is my problem with most writing today. Whatever happened to the 120 page novel you could read in an afternoon?
2. big k
Could not agree more regarding the entertainment value of the short novel. I haunt the used book stores / sales seeking out science fiction novels from the Sixties and Seventies that typically run 180 pages or less.
S Cooper
3. SPC
Are there publishing forces behind the longer books, or is it just reader tastes and what newer writers have grown up reading?
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
4. tnh
The most powerful force in publishing is behind that one: readers buy longer books. There are diverse theories about why that should be so, but the sales figures are inarguable.

I liked shorter books too.
Ursula L
5. Ursula
Are there publishing forces behind the longer books, or is it just reader tastes and what newer writers have grown up reading?

I suspect tht the biggest reason for the change is technological. Computers and word-processing programs make writing a long work much, much easier than when you had to write longhand and type it on a typewriter.

Even for authors who prefer to write by hand, a computer lets you turn the hand written text into an acceptable typed draft much more easily than a typewriter did.

"Oh, dear god, I have to type all that!" is a powerful motivator to keep things brief.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Ursula -- that just isn't true. Trollope wrote by hand with a dip pen, and He Knew He Was Right rivals Brandon Sanderson's Toebreaker for sheer size.And Neal Stephenson wrote the entire Baroque trilogy with a quill.

I think it's much more the thing I can recognise in myself where I am getting three books out of the library and I will get three long ones in preference for three short ones because three long ones will last me longer. There used to be marketing pressure to write short books -- those revolving racks -- and now the reader pressure is pushing towards longer books. I like long books. I just don't like padded books.

And Anderson could, had he chosen, have written another 24 volumes of the further adventures in the corridors of time, and sold them just as easily. He wrote the Flandry books as a series. It's not just marketing and all of that, it's what writers want to do. I think there's less pressure from everyone these days for complete things -- which is why I'm so pleased when I find something good and finished, like the Abraham Long Price Quartet, complete in four volumes. You wouldn't believe how much people want sequels to things they like -- I'd never have believed it before I became a writer. Tooth and Claw came out in 2003, and it's never been a huge seller, but I get email about once a month asking about sequels.
7. James Davis Nicoll
Lancer editions were generally pretty bad, although personally I prefer to complain about their terrible binding. It's annoying to me I have some books I have only been able to find in their Lancer editions.

I don't know that I'd describe The Big Time as set in the future. Wasn't the R&R base outside regular space-time? And wasn't the most recent mission something to do with messing around with 20th century history.
Clark Myers
8. ClarkEMyers
The Time Traders (Norton) is old enough to be in Project Gutenberg with sequels and collaboration through to the 21st century.

I'd say The Big Time is set in the future but the snakes and spiders conflict does cover the range including having at least one character duplicated on each side and so fighting himself for eternity - wasn't the guy who went back and prevented his own suicide by gunshot only to be killed by a meteor like a bullet as the timeline asserted control given a then contemporary setting?
9. Doug M.
"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've read Crowley's _Great Work of Time_, right?

It may or may not be the best short novel about time travel, ever, but it's certainly the most underread and underappreciated (but really quite excellent) short novel about time travel.

Doug M.
10. lampwick
Corridors of Time was the first Poul Anderson book I ever read, and after I finished it I went and got everything I could by him. The way I remember it (and this was a very long time ago) was that one side was somewhat more evil than the other, and that the not-so-good side was the one that choose communalism over individualism, and maybe even feminine virtues over masculine. But I could be wrong.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
Hmmm- clearly time to start re-reading Poul Anderson. Where's that copy of Operation Chaos?
Nancy Lebovitz
12. NancyLebovitz
I've heard a theory that the natural length of novels is long, and sf novels were forced to be short because they weren't respected.

Has anyone read All of an Instant by Garfinkle? I've only read about a third of it, but it didn't seem to be moving towards good vs. evil.
Clark Myers
13. ClarkEMyers
#12 - Or the theory that the first market was first (3 part maybe 4) serial smiley in Astounding and the mass market paperback rack was getting lucky. Attempts to bring back the back to back double have failed though.
14. James Davis Nicoll
Corridors of Time was the first Poul Anderson book I ever read

[i]For me I think it was one of his dour 1970s books (maybe A World Called Cleopatra) but aside from the general impression it left, I have no specific memory of it. The one that clicked and got me to buy & read seventy or so of his books was Satan's World, the Berkley MMPB with the Rich Sternbach cover, followed closely by There Will Be Time.
john mullen
15. johntheirishmongol
Almost anything Poul Anderson wrote was good. I did like the Corridors of Time, still have it in my library.

I really like short form novels but don't think they are very cost effective. When I was buying them, I could buy a book for $.75 then they went to $.99. Even though it seems likely that as a percentage of income a book costing $8.99 is probably less than it was back then, you still want to get more for your money. Funny thing is, when I started working, the minimum wage was .35 and now its $7.25 but perception is books cost much more.
Paul Howard
16. DrakBibliophile
Lampwick, we see one side as "good" at the beginning only to see it's bad part later. Also the "other" side is more obviously bad at first glance when we actually visit it.
Peter D. Tillman
17. PeteTillman
Hmm. When I think of Poul Anderson, what first comes to mind is that awful "Saturn Game", with bold Norse spacemen and women falling into RPG fugues. Ugh. 1981, it says at ISDB. Inexplicably, it won a Hugo.

Anyway, I've never read The Corridors of Time, and maybe I
should.... This is in the "No Truce with Kings" timeframe, and, for me, that's the single most memorable PA story.
18. politeruin
Here's a question. Does anyone remember a Poul Anderson novel concerning a soldier who gets sent back in time, to the dark ages i think, whereby he's recruited by some king to develop advanced weapons to fight their enemies? Of course, being a modern man (circa 1960s) he has no idea how anything fundamentally works so is pretty useless to them. At least i think it was Poul Anderson but for the life of me i can't find it anywhere though i'm sure i read a retro review it on here.
19. Narmitaj
@ polite ruin - You may be thinking of The Man Who Came Early, a short story from 1956 with a 20thC American finding himself back in 10thC Iceland.
20. politeruin
That looks like it might be it, thanks very much. All theory and no practical knowledge, impressively prescient there.
21. politeruin
I found the story on feedbooks if anyone is interested...
22. wiredog
An alternative to that is "Lord Kalvan" by Piper (at gutenberg), where a policeman who studied military history goes to an alternate timeline, invents gunpowder, saves the kingdom, and marries the princess. In 120 pages.
23. lampwick
@16 -- Right, but I was disagreeing with what Jo Walton said -- "Anderson doesn’t have good time travelers vs evil time travelers." The way I remember it, one side was presented as better than the other -- though I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers.

Obviously, I should read this book again.
Paul Howard
24. DrakBibliophile
Lampwick, I think the confusion is that the POV character believed that he was working for the Good Guys but he (and the readers) learned that the Lady's side was just as bad (in different ways) as the group her group was fighting.

I could say more but (like you) I fear giving spoilers.
Conrad Schumacher
25. lisiate
Totally pointless aside, but that's where the picture of the Proximan Tarantula in the Spacecraft 2000-2100AD Terran Trade Authority book
came from.
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
Lampwick, Drak -- exactly. One side starts off looking like the good guys, but it turns out to be more complicated than that.
brightening glance
27. brightglance
Amazon have done something strange to the Kindle availability of this. I was able to get a sample portion around the time this post was made - today I tried to buy the ebook and it's no longer available in my not-UK not-US Amazon ghetto.
Paul Howard
28. DrakBibliophile
Well Brightglance, I don't see it available on the US Amazon for Kindle or the US Barnes & Noble for Nook.

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