Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Almanac
Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
“The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that time travel is impossible” – so doggedly insisted steely Subcommander T’Pol in the unfairly maligned final TV instalment of “Star Trek,” Enterprise. And the irony certainly wasn’t lost on the show’s many very earnest fans, since it was “Star Trek” more than any other TV show (even, ironically, Doctor Who, which is about a time-traveler) that served to popularize the whole concept of time travel; not only is the idea at the heart of some of the best original episodes of the show (including the best “Star Trek” hour of them all, “The City on the Edge of Forever”), but it’s also the gimmick of one of the most popular of all the “Star Trek” movies, “The Voyage Home.”
Ask a civilian to thumbnail-describe the entire genre of science fiction, and time travel will likely be the very first thing mentioned after bug-eyed aliens. And yet, as Ann and Jeff Vandermeer point out in the preface to their incredible, sumptuous new anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, there’ve been very few collections that fully demonstrated the full depth and breadth of the time travel sub-genre (they actually say there’ve never been such collections, but then, if you’d just spent a mountain of sleepless nights and work-hours to assemble a 950-page anthology, you’d probably say that too).
“Full depth and breadth” is certainly covered here. The Time Traveler’s Almanac is definitely the greatest time travel anthology of, er, all time – and unless the folks at Oxford and Norton really bring their A-games, it’ll likely be the greatest literary anthology of any kind in 2014.
Virtually every permutation of the time travel story is present somewhere in this bounty of over sixty works by some of the greatest names in science fiction, but as Rian Johnson amusingly points out in the book’s Introduction, all of these stories tend to have some qualities in common that we might generously call “geeky”:
If someone hands you a kinked-up slinky, what do they expect you do to with it? Turn it over in your hands and appreciate the beauty of the tangle? Nuts to that. “Let’s see if we can untangle and make sense of this thing” is part of its purpose, and a good time travel story will have an interior logic that encourages and stands up to untangling, and smoothly slinks down the stairs when you’re finished. However, with time travel stories there’s also a unique danger to this untangling. There is, I believe, a right and a wrong way to do it, and the wrong way can very easily lead to becoming “that guy.” You know the guy I’m talking about.
But the story selections span the broadest spectrum of geekhood, and all the foundational pillars of the sub-genre are here, from Max Beerbohm’s oft-reprinted 1916 gem “Enoch Soames” to Connie Willis’s great “Fire Watch,” to the Ray Bradbury tale “A Sound of Thunder,” which widely popularized the whole preposterous idea that if a time-traveler were to so much as step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, the entire course of history might be altered. There’s an excerpt from H. G. Wells’s seminal novel The Time Machine, and there’s Cordwainer Smith’s oddly harrowing “Himself in Anachron,” and Michael Moorcock’s very sad “Pale Roses.” Delightfully, Douglas Adams’s beloved story “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe” is here, and of course there are representative works from those authors who’ve made their own cottage industries out of time travel – foremost among them being Kage Baker, whose “Company” novels feature heroic time travelers going back to the past in order to save as much as possible from the catastrophes of history, including disaster-prone places like 19th century San Francisco, in “A Night on the Barbary Coast”:
You could smell San Francisco miles before you got there. It wasn’t the ordinary mortal aroma of a boomtown without adequate sanitation, even one in the grip of cholera. San Francisco smelled like smoke, with a reek that went right up your nose and drilled into your sinuses.
It smelled this way because it had been destroyed by fire four times already, most recently only a month ago, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the place. Obscenely expensive real estate where tents and shanties had stood was already filling up with brand-new frame buildings. Hammers pounded day and night along Clay, along Montgomery and Kearney and Washington. All the raw new wood was festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting, and hastily improvised Stars and Stripes flew everywhere. California had only just found out it had been admitted to the Union, and was still celebrating.
There are plenty of modern writers represented here, but the bulk of the book consists of the work of giants in the genre: Isaac Asimov, Ursual Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, and their cohorts. And likewise the whole spectrum of sci-fi techno-babble is on display as well, from writers like William Gibson and George R. R. Martin, who approach their stories with an aim to untangling the slinky, as it were, to obscurantists like Norman Spinrad, who goes for full murk mode in his “The Weed of Time”:
What is it like for me to be born? How can I tell you? How can I make you understand? My life, my whole life-span of one hundred and ten years comes into being once, in an instant. At the “moment” of my birth I am at the moment of my death and all moments in between. I emerge from my mother’s womb and I see my life as one sees a painting, a painting of some complicated landscape; all at once, whole, a complete gestalt. I see my strange, strange infancy, the incomprehension as I emerge from the womb speaking perfect English, marred only by my undeveloped vocal apparatus, as I emerge from my mother’s womb demanding that the ship from Tau Ceti in the time-locus September 8, 2050 be quarantined, knowing that my demand will be futile because it was futile, will be futile, is futile, knowing that at them moment of my birth I am have been will be all that I ever was/am/will be and that I cannot change a moment of it.
It’s odd to be saying this about a science fiction anthology not edited by David Hartwell, but even so: The Time Traveler’s Almanac is essential reading for any fan of the genre. Make time for it!