Unlike the nearly contemporaneous Moon of Three Rings (1966), Operation Time Search (1967) didn’t impress itself indelibly in my mind. I remember two specific things about it: the tattoo on Ray’s arm and the villain seeing it and snarling, “Mu,” and the ancient evil called the Loving One. Other than that, all I can remember is that I enjoyed it at the time.
Also unlike Moon of Three Rings, this one did not hold up on rereading.
I actually wondered as I read if this were a trunk novel from the Fifties, pulled out and lightly revised but not otherwise altered. It has the boys’ own adventure aesthetic which she had mostly set aside by the late Sixties, and much of the plotting and the set dressing is straight-up Fifties sword-and-sandal epic, complete with elaborately decorated palaces, horrifically horrid slums, galley slaves, leering villains, and that classic costume-drama gesture, clapping for the servants.
She put a fair bit of effort into parts of it, but they don’t seem to fit together. One part, actually much less in terms of word count and character investment, is the “time search” plot, which features a standard-issue time-travel experiment with standard-issue scientists attempting to open a portal to the past and find Atlantis, with bonus neo-Luddite protestors and special bonus Indian mound. Ray Osborne, military vet and freelance photographer enlisted to help out with the protest, stumbles straight into the experiment at the very instant the portal opens, and ends up in an indescribably ancient forest.
At that point the story shifts to the other part, which is the costume drama. Atlantis is the Evil Empire ruled by wicked priests who serve the dark god Ba-Al, and Mu is the Good Empire ruled by the Sun-Born and their emperor, the Re Mu.
OK, so maybe this influenced me more than I knew. But it was subliminal by the time I started playing with sun-worshipping secondary-world empires. I definitely imprinted on the strong dualism Norton demonstrates here and elsewhere. Light versus Shadow, check.
Anyway. Ray (whose name is nicely coincidental) is quickly captured by evil Atlanteans and hauled off by sea—his little DIY tattoo gets him labeled a Sun-worshipper, and the fact he’s not from that time or place attracts the attention of the evil priests. Equally quickly, he meets and becomes sword-brothers with a captured sea captain from Mu, named Cho. The two of them manage to escape and find their way back to Cho’s ship, rescue another ship with a female! captain!—this a nod, I’m sure, to the changes in gender politics between the Fifties and the Sixties—and return, at some leisure, to Mu.
Mu and Atlantis are in the endgame of a long war between Sun and Dark. Atlantis is doing its best to get the upper hand. Mu is running defense, and is not happy to learn that in Ray’s distant future, everybody remembers Atlantis the wicked empire that fell under the sea, but nobody at all remembers Mu.
Ray voluntarily joins forces with Cho, but soon is trapped into involuntary service to the Re Mu and his priests. They brainwash him, disguise him, and ship him off to Atlantis to infiltrate the capital and open the way for an invasion. This is not consensual, and Ray objects as much as he’s able. But he can’t free himself from the compulsion until his whole mission is fulfilled. Even when he manages to escape with a small contingent of Murian warriors plus the true, Sun-worshipping heir of Atlantis (as opposed to the evil usurper), he’s forced to turn around and go back.
Ultimately he makes it into the heart of the evil, meets the Loving One, which is a giant slug from a hell dimension, and brings down the evil rulers of Atlantis. Then he slips away and tries to head back where he came from, intending to go home.
But that’s not really voluntary, either. He’s under compulsion from his own time, being called back to the portal by the scientists and their psychically powered associate, who have been trying to find him and get him back where he belongs.
This is presented as “we messed up and we need to fix it,” with a side dish of “this poor guy, we need to save him.” Nobody mentions the issue of time paradox. It’s implied, to an extent: they’re not trying to send anybody through, and Ray is pure accident. They just want to observe, and see if Atlantis really existed. It’s possible this is an alternate timeline, but that’s not clear, either, especially considering what happens at the end.
Ray doesn’t belong in the past, and feels emotionally isolated from it, but when he tries to go home, he can’t pass the portal. They see him as a man in armor with a sword, who vanishes when the time machine breaks down. Meanwhile he realizes he’s changed too much, and he’s stuck where he is; he goes back to the sea and builds a beacon, hoping the ship that brought him is still out there waiting for him. And that’s all she wrote.
Meanwhile, back in the future, the time machine is toast, the project is a bust—and two brand-new land masses have turned up in the Atlantic and the Pacific. With no other apparent changes or paradoxes, let alone effects on the planet. So Ray changed the past and therefore changed the future, therefore he wasn’t in an alternate timeline, but he can’t come back because he belongs in the past now. Even though he made it quite clear that he didn’t feel as if he belonged there. Except maybe that was the compulsion from the future to get back to the portal. Unless it had something to do with the compulsion from the Sun priests to destroy Atlantis. And what about the Loving One? That’s definitely from a hell dimension, and the Atlanteans are trying to open a portal and bring a whole swarm of them through to help them conquer the world.
It’s all very confused and not particularly well thought through—unusual for Norton, whose science was never sophisticated but she did work at her worldbuilding. It reads as if she never quite decided what the book was about, and missed a revision pass or two once she had the whole thing drafted.
She’s not usually so lazy about racial politics, either. She was so careful, so often, to honor and respect non-white and non-Western cultures; even when she missed the mark or failed to examine her assumptions, she clearly and consciously tried to give every character, and every culture, his due. But here, the racism is casual, reflexive, and for a reader in 2019, downright painful to read.
The Atlanteans are swarthy, thick-lipped, “dwarfish” in build though they’re normal height, and brutishly evil and cruel. Their emperor is physically deformed, mentally deficient, and worst of all, fat. The Murians are tall, mostly fair-haired, white-skinned, honorable and conscientiously Good—even when they’re mind-raping the guy from the future, they do it in order to save the world. Their emperor is handsome, regal, highly intelligent, and thin.
That’s a big giant NOPE. Ray’s sense of isolation, his lack of emotional engagement, almost seems like a representation of Norton’s own feelings about the book. She hasn’t invested her usual level of thought and care, and it shows. Not her best effort, no.
I’ll be back in the new year with a new reread, tackling a novel from the late Seventies: Quag Keep. See you on the other side!
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café and Canelo Press. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.