Serial Review: The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson (Part 1/3)

(Cover by Charles Schneeman. Astounding, May 1938.)

Who Goes There?

Jack Williamson made his debut in 1928 with “The Metal Man,” in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. While not the oldest author we’ve covered so far (Clifford Simak is a few years older than him), Williamson is remarkable for his versatility and longevity, and he debuted before Simak, first being published when he was only twenty years old. Williamson started out as an SF author of the Gernsbackian mode, being close contemporaries with E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton, guys who wrote fast and often sloppily in the hopes of getting as many stories published as quickly as possible—and why not? The pulps generally didn’t pay well, and Gernsback was especially notorious for being slow to pay his writers. Still, Williamson persisted, and when Astounding Science Fiction started hitting its stride in 1934 he jumped ship pretty readily, giving us perhaps the most notable SF novel of that year, The Legion of Space. But whereas Smith and Hamilton remained most known for their grand space operas, and while Williamson was no slouch in that department, he would soon branch out and reveal an almost startling intelligence.

When John W. Campbell took over Astounding in late 1937, not immediately making his mark but gradually reshaping the magazine in his own image over the next two years, most of the Gernsback-era authors failed to adjust; Williamson, however, was not one of them. While he would never again reach the level of productivity of his first decade, Williamson not only survived the coming of Campbell but became one of the brighter (albeit relatively infrequent) stars in Campbell’s stable. From this period (1938 to about 1950), Williamson wrote the famous novelette “With Folded Hands…” and its follow-up novel …And Searching Mind (published in book form as The Humanoids), the equally inventive and deliciously atmospheric horror novella “Darker Than You Think” (published in Unknown, Astounding‘s arguably superior sister magazine), and the short novel that we’re starting today, The Legion of Time. Contrary to what its title may imply, The Legion of Time is not connected to the Legion of Space series, but is indeed a totally standalone work; the folks at ISFDB seem confused about it, since it’s classified as part of a series there—a series where it’s the only entry.

In the ’50s Williamson devoted much of his time to going back to school, where he would write a respectable thesis on H. G. Wells and would, in the process, become one of the first people to bring SF to the world of higher education. Still, he never strayed from the field as a writer for too long, with the occasional solo effort or collaboration (especially with Frederik Pohl) popping up to remind people that Williamson was still in the game. In 1985 he won a Hugo for his autobiography, Wonder’s Child, which details not only his early life but his long and ongoing relationship with SF. He won another Hugo in 2001, this time for Best Novella, for “The Ultimate Earth,” which became part of his novel Terraforming Earth. Williamson was 93 when he won that second Hugo. When Williamson died in 2006, he was still very much active, and he immediately stood out as having (to this day, as far as I can tell) the longest career of any SF author at 78 years. Like Hailey’s Comet, which can appear at the beginning and end of a person’s long life, Williamson lived to witness not only the prehistoric dawn of the Gernsback era but the neon sunrise of 21st century SF.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 of The Legion of Time appeared in the May 1938 issue of Astounding. It’s on the Archive. Despite being long enough to qualify as a full novel (albeit barely), The Legion of Time has mostly been printed in book form as part of a bundle, most often with another short work of Williamson’s from that period, “After World’s End.” It has also been collected in Spider Island, which is the fourth volume of Williamson’s collected stories. It’s worth noting that The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson has eight volumes, and stories published between 1928 and 1938 comprise the first four. Despite not being reprinted too often (I’ve never seen a copy in the wild), and despite not being one of Williamson’s most famous works (though it is undoubtedly considered major), it garnered a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novel. You could argue the pool for eligible novels (never mind the quality) from 1938 has to do with it, but I would also argue the nomination was well-earned.

Enhancing Image

We start out with a quartet of college boys: Dennis Lanning, Wilmot McLan, Barry Halloran, and Lao Meng Shan. Lanning passes the time by himself in the apartment he shares with the homies by reading a scientific paper by McLan, the latter seeming to be the most intelligent and well-read of the bunch, and of course it’s about time travel.

Deep-hidden in its abstruse mathematics, Lanning had sensed an exciting meaning. He leaned back, with tired eyes closing, trying to complete the tantalizing picture he had glimpsed through the mist of symbols on the page. The book began with Minkowski’s famous dictum: “Space in itself, and Time in itself, sink to mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two retains a kind of independent existence.”

Was Time, then, another extension of the universe; to-morrow as real as yesterday? What if one could leap forward—?

It takes all of three pages (I’m not kidding, three pages) for the plot to kick in as, in the midst of reading his friend’s paper, Lanning comes into contact with a mysterious woman—or rather the specter of a mysterious woman, who appears spontaneously out of nothingness. The woman is almost impossibly beautiful, and because Lanning is a young man circa 1927 who’s had zero pussy in his life, he instantly falls for her. The woman is Lethonee, someone from a future society called Jonbar, and while she can’t interact physically with Lanning, she stays long enough to warn him about her dark counterpart—an evil girlboss named Sorainya who comes from another future society called Gyronchi. Jonbar has milk and cookies while Gyronchi is a shithole, apparently. Lanning at first doubts the validity of this chance encounter, after Lethonee has vanished, but because this is a pulp SF story from the ’30s it doesn’t take long for him to get over that small hiccup.

A few things struck me immediately. The first is Williamson wastes absolutely no time in introducing the conflict, and he also makes no bones about who’s good and who’s bad. It’s not a spoiler at all to say Lethonee is the good girlboss while Sorainya is the bad girlboss, and that Lanning will, at some point, come to the side of Jonbar, which is obviously the goody-two-shoes side. What makes this interesting is that while Sorainya is a villain, she’s by no means unattractive or unappealing, embodying one of my favorite tropes in old-timey pulp fiction: the sexy villainness whose assertiveness and cunning makes (let’s face it) the female love interest look bland by comparison. While there’s no question that Lenning will ultimately end up with Lethonee, it’s not as quite as east as that, but more on that later.

Another thing that struck me is that we’re not given a totally conventional depiction of time travel here, and it still feels somewhat unorthodox in the year 2022. This is not like The Terminator or Back to the Future, or even Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” because future actors cannot directly impact the subjective present. When Lethonee and Sorainya appear to Lanning they appear as ghosts, being seen but unable to interact physically with the present; they can, however, influence the present in more indirect ways. Lanning and Halloran are both aviators, and Lethonee convinces Lanning to not go flying solo on a specific day, as she suspects Sorainya has a trap for him—a trap that seems to instead get Halloran, who dies in a freak accident but whose body is conspicuously not recovered. You probably have an idea as to what happened with Halloran, but I urge you to hold onto that thought. The point is that Sorainya basically tempts Lanning more than once to kill himself, or rather to put himself in a situation where he dies in an untimely manner. Good pussy will do that.

I’m not sure if The Legion of Time was bought by Campbell or by F. Orlin Tremaine, Astounding‘s previous editor. Sure, Campbell was in full control by then, but story purchases tend to be carried over between editors, and Tremaine had only been gone a few months; still, Campbell had say on what got published, and this feels out of character for him. I say this because Campbell, while he was undoubtedly a Promethean figure and an innovator in the field, was a puritan (among other things). Sex, even implicitly or metaphorically, rarely showed up in the fiction of Campbell’s Astounding, yet The Legion of Time stands out as being unquestionably and almost unapologetically horny. We get something like a love triangle where the two female leads (having two female leads, imagine that) each try to get the male hero to do her bidding, and at least part of this is done via sexual temptation. The descriptions of Lethonee’s physical beauty are one thing, but Sorainya’s sexual ferocity is not only undeniable but plays an actual role in the plot, as I’ll explain in the spoilers section.

This is not to downplay the story’s ingenuinity with its time travel mechanics, which are quite intriguing. Lanning, unbeknownst to himself, plays a pivotal role in the advents of Jonbar and Gyronchi, and Lethonee does an admirable job of throwing exposition at him to explain how these two societies are related and how the interplay between present and future works. Mind you we’re talking about the subjective present (Lanning’s present), and not some kind of past; the past has already happened, but conversely, the future is but a phantom of itself.

“The World is a long corridor, from the Beginning of existence to the End. Events are groups in a sculptured frieze that runs endlessly along the walls. And Time is a lantern carried steadily through the hall, to illuminate the groups one by one. It is the light of awareness, the subjective reality of consciousness.

“Again and again the corridor branches, for it is the museum of all that is possible. The bearer of the lantern may take one turning, or another. And so, many halls that might have been illuminated with reality are left forever in the darkness.

“My world of Jonbar is one such possible way. It leads through splendid halls, bright vistas that have no limit. Gyronchi is another. But it is a barren track, through narrowing, ugly passages, that comes to a dead and useless end.”

Not unlike how the Time Traveler in Wells’s The Time Machine jumps forward 800,000 years to see the grotesque future of mankind, divided between the feeble-minded Eloi and the ruthless Morlocks, Lanning glimpses into a future where mankind either flourishes or devolves into a kind of techno-fascism. The catch is that these are two different futures, and they do not exist on the same physical plane. It’s here that we are introduced to what has to be one of the first (if not the first) time wars in SF history, involving not just one future timeline but several conflicting timelines. That Williamson came up with this premise circa 1937 is astounding in itself, but it’s how he rationalizes what sounds pretty far out that gets me. It’s an adventure yarn, sure, but it’s an adventure yarn brimming with ideas, not to mention red hot blood in its veins.

There Be Spoilers Here

We only get something like a clear answer as to the mechanics of time travel in this story’s universe when Lanning dies—or does he? As it turns out, it was more important that Lanning live long enough to get to a certain point in his life than for him to perform a specific action; Sorainya spends much of Part 1 trying to kill Lanning, so as to prevent him from bringing about the existence of Jonbar, but conversely there’s a right time for him to die, and die he does, under circumstances not dissimilar from Halloran’s. As if by magic, Lanning finds himself recovering on a ship called the Chronion, a time-traveling vessel that picks up soldiers at the time of their deaths, revives them, and recruits them into the forces of Jonbar. Lanning reunites with Halloran, who hadn’t died (not permanently, anyway) after all, but rather was snatched up at the time of his death; while years had passed for Lanning, time had only gone by a few days in Halloran’s subjective present.

Two things here. The first is that I honestly have to wonder if Fritz Leiber found inspiration in this for his Change War series, because the time war in that series is eerily similar to the deal with Jonbar and Gyronchi, what with people from throughout history being recruited into both sides. The second is that while this has to be a coincidence, I can’t help but feel like the Chronion is a distant precursor to the Epoch from Chrono Trigger. Sorry, was that a video game reference? Pardon me. I’m curious about what influence this short novel has had on future time travel fiction, considering it doesn’t get brought up often, and yet it must be said that Williamson’s concocting of the time travel shenanigans here is genuinely innovative, even if the prose itself doesn’t indicate as such.

Not only is Halloran aboard, but so is McLan! Unfortunately, despite the fact that it had only been a decade for Lanning, many more years have passed for McLan, who’s been (from his viewpoint) in this fight for a long time. Not only that, but his own encounter with Sorainya was not a happy one; she fucked him up pretty good. Now a decrepit old man, McLan now acts as Mr. Exposition—which is an important title for this sort of thing. Lethonee had explained to Lanning how time works before, but McLan’s explains the situation more concretely and with 50% more technobabble.

“The crux of it all is this: If Jonbar exists, Gyronchi can not. And equally, if Sorainya exists—Lethonee never comes to be. Each of those cities—each of those women—represents a possible future, a possible epoch. And—they represent different possibilities of the same epoch

“Each has the secret of Time. But neither can, by any means whatever, reach the other! They can see each other—but they cannot reach or affect each other. Those doctors of Jonbar aboard the Chronion—they cannot reach Gyronchi, even though this ship goes down the geodesics that lead there. They cannot—for Gyronchi and Jonbar, and all things of either city are mutually exclusive. Either is possible—but not both!

“Each is possible—but because of my blundering, I know now that the geodesics of Gyronchi are far stronger. The probability of Gyronchi is far greater.”

Now, when it comes to time travel there’s always the big question: Is the future fixed or flexible? Are things predetermined to happen? Does everything work in a loop? A rule of thumb is that the more flexible the future is, the more optimistic the story is, in which case The Legion of Time is very much optimistic; the future in this novel is a work in progress. Williamson comes close to entering multiverse territory by playing with probabilities and divering paths, with Jonbar and Gyronchi trying to prevent the other’s existence by making that existence increasingly improbable. The reason why actors from the future aren’t able to physically interact with the present is because said actors are little more than theoretical in their existence. We very much want Jonbar to win because the alternative is a future where mankind is ultimately destroyed by a race of giant uplifted insects. That’s right, we get BEMs here, but Williamson gets away with it by focusing on the human drama.

A Step Farther Out

So far I’m excited about The Legion of Time, but I’ve been burned before. The two previous serials I reviewed started out strong but then weakened by the end, with the authors seemingly frontloading their stories with their best ideas and most disciplined writing. I suspect the same will be true of Williamson’s novel to some extent, but I hope it’s only minor. I honestly struggle to imagine how you’re supposed to top the latter half of Part 1, but then again, we’re only just being introducsed to a conflict that’s way bigger than any one person. While none of the three leads are complexly characterized, they don’t need to be; for one it’s unusual to have two thirds of your main cast be female in an SF story published in 1938, but it’s also appropriate to think of our leads as like sentient chess pieces on a board. Williamson’s treatment of sexuality is remarkably frank for its time, and his formulation of probability-based time travel is nothing short of prescient. Some will take issue with the super-brisk pacing and the gosh-wow style that defined pulp fiction of that era, but I don’t mind it really. I don’t feel like my time is being wasted.

See you next time.

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