So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.
There’s an awful lot going on in this volume and, to be fair, Baxter has his work cut out tying the events in with the other Xeelee universe narratives.
The Paradoxa organisation has evolved in the wake of Michael Poole’s original journey to the future in ‘Timelike Infinity’ and the subsequent discovery that there were powerful and inimical aliens out there. Paradoxa has now become a powerful body whose remit is to preserve Humanity. What has also been discovered is that someone or something is destabilising our sun. Paradoxa has bred an engineered human, Lieserl, who will grow at the rate of a human year every day and whose personality will be downloaded into an AI which will be able to function within the sun. The organisation have also commandeered a prototype interstellar ship to take a thousand year trip along with a portable wormhole so that on their return – like Poole – they will be able to return through the wormhole from 5 million years in the future.
Things don’t go according to plan though, and the crew – who may be the only humans left in the universe – devise a plan to head for The Ring, the vast galaxy-devouring structure built by the godlike Xeelee.
It’s certainly a tour de force of Hard SF. Baxter throws in an entire gallimaufry of complex physics concepts, such as the photino birds, creatures of dark matter who can live within stars, structures millions of light years wide built of cosmic string, exotic matter and extraordinarily detailed explanations of the lifecycles of suns.
The Ring itself, once we finally reach the beast, is the ultimate (as of yet) Big Dumb Object, woven of cosmic string and with a diameter of millions of light years.
One could argue that Baxter here has possibly over-egged the cosmic pudding and that the narrative could have possibly have been dealt with in two separate novels, to give space for some of the many characters to live and breathe.
Clearly the science can not be faulted and where excitement can be found here it is in the wonderful tour-de-forces of scientific hyperbole which here and there manages to recreate that sense of wonder that is all too lacking in most modern SF.
If it fails anywhere it is maybe in a lack of suspense, the peaks and troughs of emotional tension, cliffhangers, the things that make us want to read on. Certainly there are action sequences, but they lack a certain vivacity, something common to Baxter novels.
Overall though, it’s a marvellous conclusion (at least in internal chronology) to Baxter’s Xeelee universe.
‘DUEL IN THE ARENA OF THE STARS
Andalvar of the planet Argus, king of an interstellar empire, was dead and fear ruled in his absence. The dread of a power struggle between the treacherous Andra, and “Black Witch,” and the beautiful Princess Sharla showered panic upon the people and threatened to crumble the starry realm to dust. But their powers were restricted to the present, and before either could sit on the throne, they would have to come to grips with the man from the future who held the destiny of the universe in his hand. His name: Kelab the Conjurer – THE SPACE-TIME JUGGLER’
Blurb from the 1963 F-227 Ace Double Paperback Edition
Set in the same universe as The Altar on Asconel this inhabits that uneasy space between SF and Fantasy.
Following the death of the King of Argus, Andra, ‘The Black Witch’ has become regent on this colony world which has in the main reverted to feudalism. Her older sister Sharla – missing for seven years and presumed dead – suddenly reappears to claim her place accompanied by Landor and the swordsman Ordovic.
Another stranger also arrives, Kelab the Conjuror, a man who appears to command magic and, it seems, is interfering in court business.
It would be giving the plot away to explain anything further as it’s a brief read which is well-written but suffers from a lack of cohesion between the slave-owning and sword-wielding society and the hi-tech elements.
There is no individuality to this society. It is set in the mould of every other far future feudal planet favoured by the likes of Lin Carter and his contemporaries, which somehow always has to include some monarchist system. The characters are stock stereotypes with little light and shade. There is a decent enough surprise and plot twist bit one feels this could have been a far better novel given some thought to the world building and some space to develop characters.
‘ONE MAN VS. THE YEAR ONE MILLION
Time-traveling UFO’s jerk our hero one million years into the future and launch him on a trans-galactic venture, brightened by such incidental items as an attractive post-homo sapien race of evolved simians, and an Ultimate Spaceship.
Chasing mysterious celestial phenomena was part of Zack Halleck’s Air Force duties, so it wasn’t strange that he was assigned to assist in his brother’s experiment. For his scientist brother had devised a method of deliberately attracting and trapping any such sky objects. But the experiment backfired – and the Hallecks themselves were its victims.
When Zack opened his eyes again, it was on the Earth of a million years in the future. And Zack learned that the only way he could rescue his brother and return to his own time would be to accept a role as a human pawn in a conflict of galactic supermen.’
Blurb from the 1958 Ace Double D-286 paperback edition.
Zack Halleck is an Air Force pilot assigned to track mysterious objects in the skies above Earth. He is none too happy to be reassigned to a related duty, which is to assist with a project devised by his scientist brother Carl. The brothers had always been competitive. with Carl winning every competition, up to and including wooing and marrying Zack’s girl Sylvia when Zack went missing in action, presumed dead.
Carl has invented an electronic screen which can somehow attach a homing signal to the strange spheres of light that have been appearing in the skies.
When Carl and Sylvia are up a mountain fine-tuning the device, Zack is left in the laboratory; the only place from which the screen can be turned off. It is then that the green lights appear, seemingly heading straight for Carl and Sylvia. Zack, still angry from a lifetime of belittling, delays switching off the device which is attracting the mysterious lights. When he does, it is too late. Sylvia and Carl are gone.
He then flies off, determined to confront the UFOs, and crashes into one. When he awakes, he finds himself on an Earth of the far future, being looked after by humanoids descended from apes of our time.
Humanity, he soon discovers, has also evolved into two separate lines of beings of almost pure energy. Some appear as white spheres, and some as green. The white ones are benevolent. while the green ones have enslaved some humanoid races and are working towards a goal of a kind of mind-meld singularity by combining their consciousnesses to produce a single mind.
It is they who have kidnapped Carl and Sylvia (for reasons that frankly don’t make a lot of sense) and it is up to Zack, with the help of a Late Humanity thinking warship, to rescue them.
Wollheim’s attempt to explore the sibling rivalry aspect is a bit clunky but at least gives the tale a bit of depth.
Comparisons can be made to ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians in the Lensman series, since they were two races diametrically opposed in ideologies. One supposes that SF authors of the Fifities employed metaphors, either consciously or unconsciously to represent the struggle between Communism and The Free World, or at least, how they perceived it, or maybe I’m reading far too much into it.
‘They owed Mother Earth No Allegiance!
The first Corwinite in 500 years to visit Earth, Baird Ewing had been delegated by the desperate planetary colonists to seek the Mother Planet’s help against a destructive horde which would soon gall upon the planet Corwin.
But Earth… Earth had changed into a decadent, moldering world which could not even avoid her own destruction at the hands of the neighboring Sirians… much less help the distant and long-forgotten colony.
Earth had nothing to offer… except… maybe the secret of time travel!’
Blurb from the 1958 D-311 Ace Doubles paperback edition
The colony planet Corwin is under threat of invasion from the alien Klodni and Baird Ewing volunteers to return to the Mother Planet – with whom the colonists have had no contact in five hundred years – to beg for military aid.
Ewing discovers however that Earth had become a decadent world peopled by apathetic natives and no ships or armies to defend themselves.
His presence on Earth, despite this, has been noted. An academic researcher named Myreck contacts Ewing and asks if he will come to his College to give a talk about his colony world. He is also approached by citizens of the Sirius colony, the oldest of the Earth planetary colonies who are very suspicious of his presence and do not believe his claims of a non-human threat to human worlds.
The Sirians, who appear to exist in large numbers on Earth, are in the process of taking Earth over as a Sirian protectorate. They suspect Ewing of being a spy from the other colonies who may be plotting to move against them.
On his visit to Myreck’s college the scientists take Ewing on a tour of their laboratory which includes some working time travel equipment, although it is not until later in the novel that the significance of this comes into play.
It is worth noting that other Ace Doubles deal with issues of Humanity turning pacifist or at least non-military and suffering the consequences. (High, Bulmer). Although the subject is explored in different ways there seems to be a general sense of animosity toward the concept of a pacifist society. Silverberg does not outrightly condemn the concept but he certainly gives the impression that the males of Earth are listless and somewhat effeminate.
One has to consider whether these views of anti-pacifism (quite overtly hostile in the case of Bulmer) were a reaction to world events and changes in the social make-up of the time. The Korean War had only ended a few years before and the Vietnam War was ongoing. It’s difficult to say without further research if the issue of protests against war was a topic that authors consciously introduced in oblique ways into novels of the day.
After Ewing is drugged, kidnapped and interrogated by the Sirian Security Services, the pace steps up and Silverberg, to his credit, delivers up a pretty decent time paradox tale at the end of which Ewing realises how he can defeat the Klodni invasion and return to Earth to help throw off the yolk of the Sirian invaders.
It’s always interesting looking at early Silverberg novels. By this time he had already published three earlier novels for Ace and many short stories for various outlets. ‘Stepsons of Terra’ is certainly above the mean quality level for an Ace Double but does not give any hint of the high quality of writing he was later to produce.
Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.
‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’
There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.
Morton Cargill, a veteran of the Korean War, is drinking in a bar and gets friendly with a young woman who is as drunk as he is. Driving her back home, they crash and she is killed. Morton escapes unscathed and flees the scene.
Later he receives a letter purportedly from the dead woman, arranging a meeting. When he turns up he is abducted and wakes up in a room divided by a glass partition on the other side of which is a woman resembling the dead woman.
Cargill has been transported to the future where he is to be killed as part of a therapeutic process to rid his victim’s descendant of her race-memory issues.
However, he is later awakened by a woman called Ann Reece who has a portable time-travel device and persuades him to escape further into the future with her as he is important to a future political faction.
van Vogt has a recurring motif of different ‘classes’ of humans interacting to a greater or lesser degree with each other. In ‘Slan’ we have the humans, the Slans and the tendril-less Slans. ‘Mission to The Stars’ features Dellians, non-Dellians and the rest of humanity.
Here, Humanity has divided into three groups, the Tweeners, who continue to live normal lives in the cities, Floaters, who live a gipsy/nomad existence in solar powered ships, and the Shadows, a race of supermen who can alter the physical structures of their own bodies and appear insubstantial to everyone else.
van Vogt brings in the Lamarckian concept of race memory, since the descendant of Chanette is suffering mental instability because of the inherited effects of her murder.
The time travelling psychologists believe that witnessing the murderer’s death will cure her and negate her of the possibility of passing on any further angst to her offspring. van Vogt manages to make this seem plausible although I am sure that even in Nineteen Fifty Three it didn’t bear very close scrutiny.
It would appear that the author was attempting one of those time paradox novels which were done far better by Charles L Harness, Clifford Simak and Harry Harrison. van Vogt was never very good on structure and to construct such a novel would depend very much on a cohesive structure and a strong sense of internal logic, neither of which is the case. As is well-known, he tended to employ a ‘make it up as you go along’ style of writing which usually doesn’t make for a balanced structure.
He also brings in the concept of the soul, a subject he employed later in ‘Computerworld’ although here the examination is muddy even by van Vogt’s standards and not explored or exploited to any great degree. This is linked to an examination of reality which has its interesting moments such as a very Dickian moment when Cargill is transposed to a future civilisation which only exists in potential until Cargill has carried out a specific action.
The author’s attitude to women is again here sadly prevalent. It is sad that compared to his peers who, although the sexism was evident, tended to ignore or marginalise female characters, he actively promotes the concept of female inferiority and subservience.
van Vogt’s women can never resist the power of a dominant male and here, the two major female characters fall in love with Cargill for no apparent reason. Women are there to be subdued and used, as is clear from Cargill’s willingness to seduce Anne Reece simply because he has been asked to in order to further a convoluted plan. He does not even seem to acknowledge the fact that she has saved his life twice.
Oddly Cargill is not your usual van Vogt intelligent and logical hero, since his actions from the outset appear to be quite stupid and ill-thought out.
The Shadows, a faction of human ‘Supermen’ who can make their bodies insubstantial but many times more efficient, are interested in Cargill because his future can not be determined.
Cargill later discovers he has the ability to affect the structure of reality and can if he wishes, restructure the Universe.
In essence, van Vogt struggles with too many concepts here and it all ends up being a bit of a mess. There are glimmers of brilliance here and there but this is way short of van Vogt at his best.
One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.
Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’
These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.
The second of Willis’ excursions into the past via Mr Dunworthy’s Time Travel lab sees the entire team in a frazzle. Lady Schrapnell (an American tyrant) has employed all of Mr Dunworthy’s resources in an attempt to locate ‘the Bishop’s bird stump’ in order that it can be in its proper place for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
Meanwhile, one of the team, Verity, has accidentally brought something back from the 19th Century that should never have been brought back.
Ned Henry, who is suffering from time-lag, is sent by Mr Dunworthy back to 1888 to convalesce.
Thus begins a complex farce of manners and causality. Ned is approached by Verity as she fears that Ned’s arrival has pushed two people together who should never have been together, a pairing which may affect the outcome of World War II.
It is clearly a precursor to Willis’ much longer and more serious ‘Blackout’ and ‘All Clear’ which again features worries over increased slippage of time-travel arrival times.
On the whole this is a far more satisfying novel. There are mysteries to be solved, temporal wrongs to be righted, fake spiritualists to be dealt with, dueling professors, a cat, a dog and a pond full of fish.
Willis references Agatha Christie as she does in ‘Blackout’ where Agatha actually appears at one point, effectively showing her face briefly before disappearing.
In essence here, Willis distracts the reader by telling them they’re being wrongfooted, whilst neatly wrongfooting the reader in the process.
Willis throws in some curveball mysteries of her own. Some time in the future St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed by a pinhead bomb and, due to a completely unrelated feline pandemic, domestic cats have become extinct.
The title of course is part of the title of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of The Dog)’, another work which is quoted and referenced and is possibly the source for the style of the novel which is a lighthearted comedy of manners and errors.
There is a certain stereotyping, such as in the characters of Professor Peddick and the Colonel. This extends into the future Oxford where the Rottweiller-esque Lady Schrapnell is bullying everyone into her service. Willis rather missed a trick by not keeping Lady Schrapnell off the page as they do with the ‘unseen character’ TV archetype, whom everyone talks about but the audience never sees such as Niles’ wife Meryl in ‘Frasier’ or Mrs Mainwaring in ‘Dad’s Army’. One suspects that Willis was initially employing a literary version of this device with Lady Schrapnell – a tyrannical do-gooder US Socialite – until she appears in the denouement, after we have heard everyone’s tales of her terrifying demeanour. Her entry into the sightline of the reader therefore becomes something of an anticlimax.
Fortunately this is the only criticism I can offer. It’s a delightful novel which leaves one feeling quite joyous.
In his witty moments, Heinlein could be very funny. Certainly this is one of his lighter works which he apparently wrote within the space of a few weeks.
The title and the story were suggested by Heinlein’s observations of the family cat who, on snowy days, would go to every external door in the house and look out, before moving on to the next. Heinlein’s wife quipped that the cat was ‘looking for a door into summer’.
The cat in the novel is called Pete (short for Petronius) the faithful pet of Daniel Boone Davis, a talented engineer and inventor.
Danny and his partner have set up a business specialising in household cleaning robots. However, Danny has been hoodwinked by a femme fatale who has arranged for him to unknowingly sign over his stock and patents. She has hooked up with his partner and Danny is elbowed out of the business. Having already been signed up to be cryogenically frozen until the year 2000, Danny decides to confront the pair.
There is a showdown which ends up with Danny getting drugged and being taken to the deep sleep tank before he can take legal action against his partners.
Then he wakes up in the year 2000 in a strange new world where he discovers it just may be possible to travel back in time to get his revenge.
The oddest thing about this book is Danny’s relationship with his partner’s daughter, a young girl of about twelve who is determined that she will marry Danny when she grows up. That’s all very well but Danny ultimately seems just as keen. Because of the effects of time travel and cryogenics they end up at around the same age but the initial premise is a tad creepy.
Heinlein’s vision of the year 2000 is good in parts. We are still using typewriters and Danny has designed a mechanical ‘Autocad’ – to all intents and purposes – which draws plans, as well as a spellchecker and various other useful machines. Sadly he has not envisioned a world where women have any level of equality.