Time and Again by Jack Finney (Simon and Schuster, 1970)
I picked this book up as part of the 'Fantasy Masterworks' series, a library of some of the most original and influential fantasy novels, but it was originally published in 1970.
In essence, it is a feel-good time-travel story that leans heavily on nostalgia. This was intriguing to me because many time-travel narratives involve journeys to a future that hasn't yet unfolded.
Jack Finney is best known for his SF novel The Bodysnatchers, which was filmed as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. That dense, short novel required little alteration to make it fit for the screen. Some novels are just like that. Time and Again is something different entirely, but then Finney is a versatile writer spanning genres such as SF, fantasy and even crime novels.
Si Morley is bored with his work as a commercial artist in New York and has little emotional connection to the current world courtesy of his divorce. He barely hesitates when contacted by a well-known sports star and offered the chance to participate in a top-secret government project.
It soon becomes clear that this project involves time travel and is being heavily invested in by the US government as a way of changing that things about the past we don't much like in order to make today's world a better place.
Si trains along with other agents who are attempting to reach different locations and points in time. The time travel is expected to be possible via hypnosis. The idea is that if you believe you're in another time while occupying the same space you will finally actually be there. Si's portal is in an old apartment block in New York city, and he is initially conditioned into the world of 1882 via seclusion in his apartment while actors play the delivery boy and neighbours to make the role play feel absolutely real.
Then, quite simply, it happens, and he steps out of the building into a snowy January day in 1882.
Along with his various colleagues, whose experiments with time travel are merely referred to as background, Si has a very specific mission to undertake in the New York of 1882. He has to attend a rendezvous between Jake Pickering and Andrew Carmody late one night, overhear what transpires and report back to his paymasters in the present day.
Pickering is trying to blackmail Carmody over his shady business dealings. The connection is one of national importance, since Carmody went on to work closely with President Cleveland, as well as personal clearing up a family mystery that Si's girlfriend Kate longs to solve.
The idea behind Time and Again was very clever. The past is of importance to us personally, within the context of family, and also on a global stage where alterations to past events to change history can go on to affect the lives of millions.
Si is warned not to intervene in people's lives and instead to act merely as an observer, but the reader knows we simply aren't capable of that as human beings and very soon Si's influencing events in 1882 directly, both through casual comments about future phenomenon such as fingerprinting and the location of the future Statue of Liberty, and more personally when he starts to fall in love. These interactions have consequences for modern times, as the project realises when one time-travel visit by another participant ends with a person in the modern era never being born as a result of time-traveller actions in the past.
Jack Finney's theme that we can redo the past and make our present world better is interesting but very complicated. There's quite a patrician feel to it, a sense of our modern world's superiority. Yet we make mistakes in abundance, and our time may be better spent getting today right before we worry about fixing the past.
Jack Finney is aware of the trap of that sort of arrogance, and this is in part solved by his simultaneous focus on the many ways in which life in 1882 is an improvement on than that of today. Fruit and vegetables grown without chemicals taste better. Living in a boarding house without TV means that the boarders make their own amusements in the evenings and spend much more quality time together. Finney balances the nostalgia with comments about how homeless children work long hours and then sleep wherever they can find. The inequalities between rich and poor are vividly portrayed.
Si was very likeable, and the grand scheme of history was managed with a simultaneous focus on the personal. He will have to choose between Kate in today's world and Julia in 1882. Perhaps he will secretly continue relationships with both, though the fact that he takes each to the other time period may make that hard to achieve.
Time and Again by Jack Finney was a very satisfying novel and quite unlike other time-travel narratives. Highly recommended.
See you on Friday. Thanks for reading my review.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Timeless Simplicity by John Lane here.