Ace Double Reviews, 69: Times Without Number, by John Brunner/Destiny's Orbit, by David Grinnell (#F-161, 1962, $0.40)
by Rich Horton
This book pairs one of John Brunner's better early stories with the best David Grinnell story I've read yet. I'll grant that that last isn't terribly high praise, mind you! (David Grinnell, of course, was really Ace editor Donald A. Wollheim.) The Brunner novel is about 47,000 words long, the Grinnell about 35,000.
The three stories that make up Times Without Number appeared in consecutive issues of the relatively little-known UK magazine Science Fiction Adventures in 1962: "Spoil of Yesterday" in #25, "The Word Not Written" in #26, and "The Fullness of Time" in #27. They appeared roughly simultaneously in this Ace Double. However, the Ace version appears to be significantly cut -- at any rate, the one story I have in magazine form, "The Word Not Written" is over 18,000 words, but only a bit over 15,000 in the book (two chapters seem to have been cut). At any rate, Brunner later revised and expanded Times Without Number, in 1969, a version that is again changed and expanded somewhat from the magazine appearance.
This book is about Don Miguel Navarro of the Society of Time. It is set in an alternate 1988/1989 in which the Spanish Armada succeeded, and established an Empire. The Moors reconquered Spain, but much of Western Europe, including England, remained under Spanish rule, and the independent Mohawk nation in North America was also allied to the Empire. In 1892 the secret of time travel was discovered, and under the auspices of the Pope the Society of Time was established, and a strict rule set up that history could never be altered, only observed. Besides the aspect of time travel, the Alternate History aspect is interesting -- it's noticeable that in many ways this future, described on the face of it sympathetically, is really quite undesirable -- slavery persists, for example, and the level of technology is much lower.
The first story, "Spoil of Yesterday", concerns a foolish noblewoman who has bought an expensive golden mask of Aztec workmanship -- obviously, Don Miguel deduces, an illegal theft from the ancient Aztec empire. Don Miguel take risk of offending a noblewoman and unnecessarily disturbing his superiors by reporting this theft. Then he becomes involved in solving the mystery of who actually is responsible for stealing the mask from history, and in returning it. It's a lesser story than the other two -- it doesn't seem to be about much, rather, it's sort of a scene-setting work.
"The Word Not Written" is set on December 31, 1988 and January 1, 1989 -- the Quatrocentennial Year of the Spanish Armada's victory is just concluding. Don Miguel is regretting his duty of attendance at a boring party hosted by the Prince of New Castile, younger son of the King and head of the Society of Time. He meets a pretty and intelligent girl, daughter of the Ambassador from Norraway, and they sneak out for a better time on the town. But on returning they learn that there has been a disaster -- a foolish official has fetched Amazons from history, to prove a point, and the resultant chaos has led to the death of the King and near certain war. Don Miguel is recruited to help solve this problem in a terribly dangerous way -- by creating a closed timelike loop, going back in time just a few hours to prevent the disaster. Thus, the story ends up not so much an adventure as a rather serious consideration of time paradoxes.
The last story, "The Fullness of Time", is first rate, and brings the "novel" from "pretty good" to "really good" in my mind. In it Don Miguel, on vacation in California, uncovers what seems to be evidence that the Eastern Confederacy, rivals to the Empire, have been mining in California in the distant past. This seems obviously a violation of the prohibition on altering the past, which is enshrined in the Treaty of Prague, but by some literally Jesuitical logic, it seems that possibly no violation has occurred. However, the mining is stopped -- but it turns out that something much more sinister is going on. There may be a plot to go back to the time of the Armada and alter history so that England wins. Don Miguel, among a host of others, is sent back to 1588 to try to stop this alteration.
The ending is purely brilliant, to my mind. Brunner faces the implications of time travel directly and honestly, and comes to the only sensible conclusion. And he doesn't shy away from that conclusion. (It's a pretty original view, to my mind, though there are correspondences with The End of Eternity.)
"The Fullness of Time" has only been reprinted as part of Times Without Number. I note that there have been a couple recent anthologies collection "The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time" or something to that effect -- if I were to do one such, I'd try to include "The Fullness of Time", in among "The Man Who Came Early", "All You Zombies", "The Dead Past", and so on.
Destiny's Orbit was originally published by Thomas Bouregy in 1961, possibly as a juvenile. It's the story of Ajax Calkins, a young Canadian who grew up privileged in a fairly wealthy society. But he dreams of adventure and conquest, like the heroes of old such as Pizzaro and William Walker. (Wollheim mentions these rather ambiguously "heroic" cases on purpose -- he clearly knows that the conquering spirit they embodied was not exactly beneficial to those they conquered.) There are no such opportunities in the inner Solar System, under the rule of the Earth-Mars Space Administration, however. So Ajax jumps at the chance to conquer one of the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit -- the one named Ajax, natch! This chance is offered by a mysterious man named Anton Smallways.
However, the EMSA does not take kindly to Ajax's ambitions, and they also take issue with the claim that the Trojans, as officially not "inside Jupiter's orbit" are outside EMSA's control. Moreover, they are worried about conflict with the inimical Saturnians. So they assign a perky young woman to the case. Ajax refuses to obey her (while feeling a mysterious attraction), and runs off to Mars, where he picks up a sidekick in the form of an intelligent spider, and then, with Smallways, to the asteroid Ajax.
Of course Smallways is not who he seems (the reader will guess what he is instantly), and of course the EMSA woman follows Ajax to Ajax, and of course this asteroid has a mysterious secret and will prove crucial in the war with Saturn. It can't be said that there is anything much new here, nor that the plot is believable, nor that the science makes any sense. But even so, I liked it -- though the somewhat rushed ending was a bit too routine. But up to that point Wollheim has a lot of gentle fun with Ajax and his na´vetÚ, with his perky EMSA foil, with his loyal sidekick, and so on. It's not at all great stuff, but it's decent enjoyable stuff.