Our book today is James Hogan’s 1980 time-travel novel Thrice Upon a Time – the one with the, um, interesting cover by Rowena, featuring a suit of armor, a cat, a gorgeous young man, and a big honkin computer. As some of you will know from visiting the Ancient History wing of your local Old Things Museum, computers in 1980 actually looked like that – they weighed fifty pounds, came in that uniform beige casing, and had those black screens with neon green letters. They made a strange, alien addition to, say, a small-town newsroom – sure, they were neat to play with, but it hardly seemed possible they’d ever actually be useful – unlike suits of armor, which once were useful (or even cats, which are at least useful in filling up the world’s ‘Bad Pet’ quotient)(as for gorgeous young men, well …), much less the focal point of anything like drama. And yet Hogan’s novel effectively centers all of its drama around just such a computer, and such is his plodding determination that the reader doesn’t really notice.
This is a time-travel story as only a working scientist could imagine one: it’s just information that travels through time. And while the plot concerns a small group of nerdy protagonists sending messages backwards in time, the most noticeable time-travel element involves not the book’s plot but the book itself: it was published in 1980, but it’s set in 2009. In these pages, Hogan is envisioning a future that’s now our past. It’s both jarring and deeply nostalgic to read how a very smart man envisioned a future thirty years from when he was writing.
You start barking your shins on things right away. In the book’s opening chapter, for instance, the main character (and cover-hottie) Murdoch Ross is waiting at a U.S. airport for the arrival of his friend Lee so they can both travel across the ocean to Scotland – trivial distances, we’re told, because the planes propel themselves sixty miles almost straight up and then come down in a tight parabola to their destination. The airport is buzzing with groundcars and also (inevitably) air-cars as Murdoch waits, but it’s tough to know which is more halting: the air-cars, or the fact that when Lee arrives, he lights a cigarette inside the terminal.
Murdoch’s grandfather in Scotland has had an amazing breakthrough. By harnessing something called ‘tau’ radiation, he’s managed to get his laboratory computer (powered by stacks of processors) to send a six-character message up to two minutes back in time. Hogan may be a thorough wonk, but he’s fairly effective at setting up a tense scene, and the novel’s first few moments showing our heroes receiving these cryptic texts from their future are very well done – especially when it becomes apparent that the future doing the sending isn’t their present, if you follow. The word ‘quantum’ is never used in Thrice Upon a Time, but much of the nonsense of quantum ‘physics’ is here just the same.
An eerily familiar note is struck – accidentally? – when Hogan tells us about young Murdoch and Lee directly after college:
Lee’s main interest lay with computers, an addiction he had been nurturing since an early age. He didn’t find the executive image challenging or inspiring and, like Murdoch, was preparing to go his own way; again like Murdoch, he didn’t know where to. After completing their courses at the university they had stayed for a while at FEC, and then left to set up the consultancy at Palo Alto, on the bay shore a few miles south of San Francisco.
You almost want to substitute the real-world names: they’d fit virtually without alteration. Except that nobody in Thrice Upon a Time actually owns a computer in 2009 – there’s no miniaturization, no conception on the author’s part that computers would ever be anything other than the heavy pieces of lab-equipment they are for Murdoch’s grandfather (it’s a mystery to me why Hogan felt he needed to set this thing in the future at all – perhaps he thought Del Rey wouldn’t consider it ‘sci fi’ enough if he didn’t).
Of course the book’s somewhat nominal plot involves a catastrophe that only the future can help the past prevent, and Hogan deploys half a dozen time-travel cliches to good effect. But a 21st Century reader will still find himself smiling at places the author didn’t intend. Like when our heroes get an expanded message from far-distant 2009 telling them they’ll need to increase the storage on Murdoch’s grandfather’s super-advanced computer in order to receive a bigger temporal transmission. Somehow, they’re going to have to get that baby up above 50 Megabytes …