Monday, July 12, 2010

Fantasy Masterwork #20: Jack Finney, Time and Again

It is the 1950s and the world is changing by leaps and bounds. Technology is developing faster than ever before and the US government is willing to try almost anything in the name of science if they can be the first to do it, which leads them to a very unorthodox time travel experiment. Simon (Si) Morley a designer/illustrator and former military man, living in Manhattan is recruited by a secret organization to be trained as a time traveler.

The first section mainly has to do with Si's training, which when all is said and done seemed over blown given the simple mechanism for his travel. This section also dithers about too much and was quite slow. But the themes of the story are what make this an engrossing read with its vivid and disarming ability to place you in the moment, especially when Si makes his way to the late 1800s in search of a simpler time. There was a gorgeous scene of a sleigh ride through Manhattan that was particularly well done. The descriptions of NYC during that time period feel real and spot on as Si explores the city he doesn't know and gets a taste of life as it was. Time and Again also features many period photos and drawings, which portray the places Si talks about and visits.

"I turned to look, and here it came straight for us, a team of immense white horses, manes flying, hoofs pounding, drawing a red-and-brass fire engine, the driver slashing his whip at the horses, a flat steam of white smoke link out behind it like the wake of a ship."

Si also bears witness to a famous calamity of NYC history, which is delved into with impeccable detail to history that is at time harrowing, but totally entrapping. There is no technological science involved in the travel although some psychological devices such as hypnosis are employed. This twist of the story makes the whole process of traveling too simple after all the training Si goes under to get to that point. That time is just a state of mind can be difficult to believe especially of hardened time travel story readers, but it somehow works as this is a story very much left open to interpretation as to whether Si's travels happen or are somehow caused by his training techniques. The idea of places being frozen in-time or being snapshots of how places once were is quite an intriguing as a time travel device.

"This park itself is something of a miracle of survival. Right here in the heart of what must be the world's most changeable city are, not just acres, but several square miles that have been preserved practically unchanged for decades."

Time and Again is in is essence a time capsule of a New York that is more than worth stopping in to see how the middle class lived, loved, and played. If you're not at all interested in life in New York at this time period, I wouldn't recommend the story. Also, the first part of the book moves very slowly and methodically with only a few what I'd call action scenes, but the descriptions and characters are richly woven. This is a journey for love and discovery about the true desires of yourself. Si never feels entirely comfortable in his life in the 50s. He is doing what is expected of him and when he has a chance to go to the past and almost start anew he grabs the opportunity for all that it is worth. Even though he is tries to be careful in the past he tries to experience the places and most importantly the people to the best of his ability. Si falls in love with the realness of the people of the 1880s often describing them as more human than in his own time. Their faces telling stories that would fill whole books.

"Now I saw her face clearly and glanced quickly away so that I wouldn't offend her, because her face was scarred with dozens of pitted cavities, and I remembered that smallpox was almost commonplace still. No one else paid her the least attention,"

At first glance, Time and Again does seem a little dated, considering how the main character‘s job seems so foreign for readers reading this for the first time in 2010. However, the most irritating part is the way women are portrayed and treated. There are two main female characters and one all but fades away from the story even after getting deeply involved with the secret project. The other woman, meanwhile, comes from the 19th century where she is already subservient. The latter is easier to accept since the last two-thirds of the story takes place in the past. In both cultures women are regulated to more playthings or support roles. One scene during the early days of Si's training was particularly annoying as three characters are involved with making jest about their light-hearted desires for a certain secretary. Little else would be different if the main character had traveled from our time period since it was about him trying to fit into the 1880s.

Is this a "Masterwork"? Time and Again does have a timeless appeal that has grown in the decades since its release, which makes it a Masterwork in my book. Having read Time and Again I can clearly see how newer Time Fantasies have been influenced by it, such as more recent greats like The Traveler's Wife or Forever by Peter Hamill, the latter of which also portrays a NYC of the past only more all encompassing as it travels through the founding of NYC to present time, but showing as much detail and love of the past as Time and Again shows us.


  1. I thought this was a very good book. The mechanism used for time travel was an interesting idea but didn't bear close scrutiny; the author was far more interested in the the destination rather than the process.

    And Finney's fascination with the time and place really comes through in this book. I got the feeling that one of his primary aims was to transport the reader there too. He really brings 1880's New York alive. And I don't think the reader needs to have any particular knowledge/interest of New York, I certainly didn't, but I agree that your enjoyment of the book would be enhanced if you do.

  2. Finney definitely brings you back to the 1880s. That was what hooked me. The story actually felt secondary to the experience of being there. I'm totally with you about the hypnosis angle, but that may have seemed more plausible in the 50s when this originally came out.

    I've always been a lover of NYC history and books placed there, but I worry some readers tire of NYC as a setting.

  3. I read this a couple of years ago and really loved it. The style of writing more than the plot I guess :)

  4. I loved this book mostly because of the vivid description of what New York once was. New York is a character in and of herself.


  5. The book came out in 1970. It is set in 1969/1970 and mentions Vietnam and also Bay of Pigs. It is not set in the 1950s. Did you actually read it?