Review: Time and Again by Jack Finney

Time and Again

By Jack Finney

Most reviews of Time and Again by Jack Finney are glowing. About Time, a collection of short time travel stories by the same author is a fantastic piece of work. And miscellaneous short time travel stories by Finney in other compendiums are also excellent.

I had high hopes when I ordered my copy of Time and Again.

Synopsis

Simon Morley (or “Si” as he’s referred to) is an artist who is selected to take part in a government experiment with time travel. He goes back in time to New York in 1882 and is instructed to observe, and on later trips, to interact with characters who he finds there.

His motivation is to watch an envelope being posted. The envelope contains a letter with a cryptic message, and the story line loosely revolves around the sequence of events leading up to, and immediately after the event described therein.

The Time Travel Element

Si is able to use self hypnosis to transport himself back to a predefined date and time. To achieve this he needed coaching and practice – not just in the technique of the self hypnosis itself, but also in the lifestyles and culture of the New Yorkers of 1882 to facilitate his own belief in being in the new time (a method adopted in the movie Somewhere in Time based on Richard Matheson’s book Bid Time Return)>

At one point in the novel Si is able to wrap his arms around another character and take her on his travel in time too. The method of her solitary return to her own time is not revealed, though by the time that this point in the novel is reached the time travel method doesn’t see to be of much significance.

There doesn’t seem to be ‘fine control’ in the sense of a specific moment in time for arrival. Again, this doesn’t really seem to be an important point within the context of the novel.

Under his self hypnosis, Si is aware of his journey into the past, and is able to return to the present at will. Upon return he relays a stream of general information to the experiment leaders.

The idea is that if there is an inconsistency between his version of facts and the version that the non time travellers know, then this signifies a different – i.e. altered – history. In one case, another time traveller recalls a character who now no longer exists in the present. This indicates the importance of historical events and their impact on the future.

That said, a nice idea is presented where time flows as a turbulent river. In a similar way that small disturbances in a large river peter out into nothing, small events in the past won’t affect the future. In effect, nature snaps back to its normal position.

This is diametrically opposed to the idea of the butterfly effect where small events in a chaotic system (such as the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the atmosphere) can cause large events (such as a hurricane).

The case of the now-non-existent-character is therefore in disagreement to this premise, as is the paradox presented at the end of the novel…maybe…the question is left open.

Writing style and content

Like many time travel stories and novels, Time and Again is written in the first person. A writing style adopted often as a nod to H. G. Wells and The Time Machine, as nearly as often not adding much to the novel, the first person style in this case does give depth. This is because the novel is written as a journal, coming complete with pictures which are presented as sketches and photos that the main character has sketched or taken.

(On a very personal note I disliked the pictures; I prefer to use character descriptions and my imagination to visualise people and places. It also read rather childishly…Here is a sketch I made of the building etc..)

To the Finney’s credit, this substantiates the incredible amount of research that has gone into reproducing New York in that era, though almost to his own admission in an afterword this became quite overdone.

I never fully realised what the story line in this novel was. Si latched onto a character in 1882 new York, Julia, and this is probably the strongest case of a plot, turning a description of a historical New York into a disjointed and uneventful time travel romance.

But Si’s affair with Julia seems to be pointless – I didn’t find Julia a particularly deep character, and the fact that Si becomes attracted to her to the point of ditching his current girlfriend I think shows his own shallow and superficial nature. On reflection, I must have missed something because such a person wouldn’t have been selected to take part in this government experiment in the first place.

Having finally got to the end of the book I realised the thinking behind Time and Again – it’s a story woven around a number of known (researched) descriptions and events. Very clever. I loved the idea of the enormous river of time smoothing out earlier changes and I’m sure that this also has a founding somewhere, just as the detailed descriptions of places and signs and billboards in other parts of the novel.

That said, I found Time and Again to be a novel with a drawn out beginning, no middle and an end where things begin to happen.

The beginning

The beginning is where ideas behind time travel are presented. But it takes a lot of dreary reading and it really is spoon fed to the reader. It’s like pushing jelly through a keyhole.

The middle

Nothing much actually happens in the central part of the novel. Just pages and pages of description of a 1882 New York. Events are non eventful and descriptions of the area are overtly lengthy with no real significance. Very little actually happens. Page after page. Time and again.

For those living in New York or those who have a good knowledge of it, I think this might be a fascinating read. For myself, I found it tedious. I was waiting for the story to start, but the end came before I knew it, and by then, it was only just beginning.

The end

I’m not sure that there was a definite ‘end’!

The beginning of the novel starts near the end. By “beginning” I mean actions of note. These actions were full of suspense, though by now the dry style of writing had somewhat numbed the brain.

A key point is that things tend to be a little coarser in the past than in modern life (for example, less civil liberties and rights) and there’s a certain amount of sympathy for Si. But his hindsight of events never comes into play. This is faithful to the role of observer-only, but I think it would have made for some interesting angles.

There is very little to tell the (late and non exciting) action sequence in this book apart from an action sequence in a non time travel novel…except for Si’s disappointingly weak escape by travelling out of the time period.

To its credit there are two highlights to the final section of Time and Again.

The first is not just seeing a modern day New York through the eyes of a 1882 citizen, but how a modern day person would explain those things to a character from 1882. For example, how is it best to explain the world wars, or aeroplane contrails seen for the first time, etc.. It was during these scenes that I started to a deeper side to Si’s character.

The second point of interest is the final conclusion. The premise of the time travel element seems to be that events in history don’t effect the outcome in the future to a great degree, and yet…this is turned on it’s head. In order to avoid a spoiler I won’t divulge in this further. But it takes place only in the last 2 pages of the novel.

The future

I was expecting a lot from Time and Again but was bitterly disappointed. I’ve seen reviews on Amazon which indicate that the sequel isn’t up to much and doesn’t measure against Time and Again. I don’t think I’ll be giving any time to that novel.

Paul