‘I, Doctor Michael Claybridge, living in the year 1926, have listened to the description of the end of the world from the lips of a man who witnessed it; the last man of the human race. That this is possible, or that I am not insane, I cannot ask you to believe: I can only offer you the facts.’ – from ‘Omega‘, Amelia Reynolds Long
The fact that we cannot see the future is perhaps a very good thing. But it means that we sometimes find ourselves in surprising positions, doing things we never would have expected. For example, just a few short years ago, if you’d asked me if I enjoyed science fiction, I would probably have said ‘meh, not really.’ But I find myself currently on a writing residency working on a collection of, as I’m calling it, ‘science fiction poetry’ about cosmic wormholes, and reading books about astrophysics, and Einstein, and time travel.
One of the more interesting fiction books I’ve read during this period was called: Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound, edited by Mike Ashley.
This book is part of a series from the British Library that repackages ‘classic’ sci fi stories about one topic together in one anthology. In this case, the theme was time travel. So Ashley (author and historian of popular fiction) has compiled stories from the 1880s through the late 1950s. The book runs chronologically, so we see an evolution of the genre over time. One of the best parts is that he provides a really great introduction to the topic, and a little historical/biographical note before each story, as well. This was fascinating. While some of the authors are really well known (like H.G Wells), all of my favorite stories were by people I’d never heard of before. (I’ll let you know my favorite stories in a moment!).
Ashley has included various kinds of time travel: in the earlier stories, it’s often a machine or an object that takes someone back in time, but as we get later into the anthology we get ‘time slip’ stories (aka someone falls backwards or forwards in time, think: Outlander), stories about unexpected visitors from other times coming into ours, and stories of people stuck in Groundhog Day ‘time loops’ (forced to repeat the same events over and over).
As with any anthology, there were stories that I liked more than others. I didn’t really click with most of the earlier stories (which is odd because I love 19th century literature, as anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while will know!!). And there was one, more recent, story called ‘Tenth Time Around’ by J.T McIntosh that I found pretty obnoxious and tough to get through. Regular blog readers will know that I try to be really careful about what I say, as an author myself, and to find the positives in most stories. But this author is no longer with us and I have to be frank: this story was annoying. The narrator is a man who has gone back in time 10 times trying to win the heart of the woman he loves, who each time falls for another man. (Already I don’t love this premise. It’s almost comical, but I don’t think the comedy is intentional. I kept thinking…maybe leave this lady alone since she’s rejected you in nine different timelines?)
But what I found really annoying in this story was how a random gorgeous, young woman falls in love with our time-traveling narrator (for no discernible reason) on his journey and how condescending his thoughts are about her. For instance, once he actually says out loud, when she makes an intelligent observation: ‘You’ve got a brain too.’ As if it shocks him that an attractive woman could also be smart. It’s fine to have obnoxious characters, but I don’t think McIntosh MEANT for this guy to be obnoxious, which is the trouble.
I think Ashley knows that it’s uncomfortable too because he says in his intro that this story is ‘reflective of the sexual attitudes of the time’. And as someone who loves the past I have a LOT of tolerance for antiquated attitudes in books because, hey, these things do change. But this one was especially grating. I’d say skip it.
On the flip side, there were five stories that stood out to me as really, really strong. Friday the Nineteenth by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (about a couple trying to begin an affair that get stuck in a time loop before they can begin), Look After the Strange Girl by J.B Priestly (a time slip story that really plunges you into the action), Manna by Peter Phillips (the best story in the book in my opinion, more on this in a moment), The Shadow People by Arthur Sellings (a story about a pair of mysterious visitors with a very haunting ending) and Dial ‘O’ for Operator by Robert Presslie (wherein a bored telephone operator gets a frightening call from the future).
Manna was a remarkable story and honestly quite ahead of its time. It feels like it could be written by China Mieville or someone like that. It’s jaunty and imaginative and at times a bit tricky to follow, but you get there in the end. I don’t want to say too much about it because the twists are SO satisfying, but it’s about the supernatural occurrences that take place in a town where a company is building a factory to produce a canned food product called ‘Miracle Meal.’ We get erudite time traveling monks, we get subtle commentaries on the rise of industrialization and capitalism, we get religious miracles, we get ghostbusters. I LOVED this story. LOVED IT.
I’d definitely recommend this collection overall if you’re looking for an introduction to time travel stories. Or if you know you like these types of stories and want to find some that are slightly off the beaten path. Basically, if you enjoy things like The Twilight Zone, you’ll love this.
Thanks as always for reading and have a wonderful weekend!
PS Today’s Featured Image of the slightly blurry double clocks is from Wikimedia
Recommended Further Reading:
- Ghost by Louise Welsh (a giant and wonderful anthology of ghost stories through the ages, which I’ve reviewed here)
- ‘A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Revisited’ (one of my most popular blog posts about one of my favorite books of all time, which I consider to be a ‘time travel’ story)
- The Twilight Zone (a really great old TV series if you’ve not seen it)