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.


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