Serial Review: The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson (Part 2/3)

(Cover by H. W. Wesso. Astounding, June 1938.)

Who Goes There?

Jack Williamson was the second person to be made a Grand Master of science fiction (after Robert Heinlein), which may sound weird to people nowadays because he’s a relatively obscure figure now. This is a shame, because Williamson has a pretty interesting career and if I did reviews of non-fiction books I would totally cover his autobiography, Wonder’s Child. Born in 1908, made his professional debut in 1928, and only stopped writing SFF with his death in 2006, which in itself is mindblowing, but there’s also the fact that while some authors from that same erakept being published based on their legacy value, Williamson did something considered nigh-impossible: he remained contemporary. Not only did he win a Hugo for Wonder’s Child but he would also win a Hugo and a Nebula for his 2000 novella “The Ultimate Earth,” making Williamson (as far as I’m aware) the oldest person to have won a Hugo. His 1947 novelette “With Folded Hands…” is still one of the most haunting robot-focused stories that I’ve read and that shit’s 75 years old.

Despite the fact that Williamson had not quite turned thirty yet when he wrote it, The Legion of Time came about a good decade into his career—a career that would ultimately span 78 years. You could say it marks a transition point not just for Williamson, who was coming out of his Gernsback phase, but also magazine SF at large, since John W. Campbell had taken over Astounding Science Fiction in late 1937, slowly but surely introducing his own eccentric vision into the field. More apparent in Part 2 than in Part 1, The Legion of Time feels like the missing link between adventure-based SF in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition (actually it reminds me more of Robert E. Howard, but I’ll elaborate on that later) and the cerebral high-concept SF of the Campbell era. For Part 2 we’re really leaning into the adventure part of the equation, but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the June 1938 issue of Astounding, which is on the Archive. If you thought Part 1 was short (only about thirty pages in the magazine) then you might be surprised by Part 2, which is even shorter, clocking in at a little over twenty pages. I’m starting to get the impression that maybe The Legion of Time is actually a novella, although it would definitely skirt the line between novella and novel assuming Part 3 is the same length as Part 2. I wish I had a book version to compare the serial with, but rarely has The Legion of Time been printed on its own, most often being bundled with another Williamson story, the novella “After World’s End.” Confusingly, this bundle of two stories is just called The Legion of Time, because those double paperbacks Ace did back in the day weren’t a thing yet and nobody knew what they were doing. You can also get it as part of The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, but those volumes aren’t exactly cheap. Despite getting a Retro Hugo nomination and despite being well-liked by the few who’ve read it (Brian Aldiss was apparently a fan of it), it has not been reprinted that often.

Enhancing Image

I want to start off with a bit of a rant. The Wikipedia entry for The Legion of Time states that there is no “Legion of Time” in the novel, and that the title was probably chosen as a marketing move, since Williamson was up to that point most famous for The Legion of Space, though the two are not connected in any way. The latter is probably true, but first point is false. Maybe this is not the case in the book version, but in the magazine version the time-traveling army Dennis Lanning joins is called the Legion of Time at one point in Part 1; mind you, it’s also called the Legion of the Dead, and these titles don’t seem official, but to say there’s no Legion of Time would be inaccurate. Now with that out of the way…

Part 1 had ended on a foreboding note, with the dystopian society of Gyronchi decreasing to the probable existence of the utopian Jonbar to such a degree that Jonbar starts to face out altogether—or rather, its likelihood of ever existing approaches zero. Part 2 begins with Lethonee, being herself only possible through Jonbar, fading out of existence, and it’s a bitter scene despite our intuition that Lanning, Our Hero™, will somehow bring his beloved back into existence by the end. The way time travel works here is that Jonbar and Gyronchi are mutually exclusive in that they cannot exist in the same timeline; if one comes into being, the other is booted out. Existence is based on probability, and the less probable a future thing is, the less it can interact with the past, or rather Lanning’s present. Once Lethonee gets wiped from the timeline, Sorainya (her evil counterpart) becomes solid. What’s important to note is that Lethonee has not exactly died, as Wilmot McLan (our resident mad scientist) explains:

The ship, in a moment, was back in her timeless blue abyss, driving through the ceaseless flicker of possibility. Fanning hastened to join Wil McLan beneath the crystal dome, and asked a breathless, tortured question: “Lethonee is gone—dead?”

The sunken, haunted eyes looked at him solemnly.

“Not dead,” rasped Wil McLan, “for she was never born. Jonbar was merely a faint probability of future time, which we illuminated with the power of the temporal ray. This last triumph of Sorainya has—eliminated the probability. The reflection, therefore, vanished.”

Sorainya and her army of giant ants (more on those later) have all but succeeded in making sure Jonbar never comes into being; there is, however, still another way. The villains have found an object which McLan and his crew have been unable to identify, which apparently represents a fork in the road leading to Jonbar and Gyronchi. Whereas Lanning had been previously led to believe that he was said object, this turns out to not be the case—but rather something else from the past. Ignoring all the technobabble about temporal rays and whatnot, the idea is simple enough: if Lanning can find this mysterious object and return it to its proper place in time, then Jonbar has a chance. Where could this object be? If Sorainya has it in her possession, and if the Chronion is capable of interacting physically with past and future (how, for instance, they were able to pick up Lanning and other members of the Legion), then Our Heroes™ have but one option.

An all-out assault, practically a suicide run, on Sorainya’s front door.

In a movie, typically, we have three acts, and what often happens is that there’s a turning point, you could say a bridge between the second and third acts, where Our Heroes™ are at their lowest point and it takes either a good pep talk or a deus ex machina to pull them out of it. Not so with The Legion of Time, where Lanning and company reach their lowest point about halfway through, and why not: Lethonee is dead, or rather un-alive, and Sorainya has basically won. Whereas Part 1 is high-spirited and briskly paced, Part 2 still has that pacing, but the tone is now much darker. I’ll get into this in the spoilers section, but I do have to wonder if Williamson was maybe inspired by Robert E. Howard when it came to writing… basically everything about Sorainya’s fortress. While the timespan of Part 1 was considerable, starting in 1927 and ending in 1938 (if I remember right) before Lanning gets picked up by the Chronion, the timespan of Part 2 is far more compressed. This is not a bad thing, mind you. Williamson can write pretty good action when he wants to, and most of Part 2 is straight action.

In my review of Part 1 I brought up the novel’s overt sexuality, at least by the standards of ’30s SF, and how Williamson injects as much lust into his weird love triangle as—well, love. We don’t get as much of that here, since Lethonee and Sorainya are off-screen for most of it, but that’s fine, because a different problem crops up: what to do about Sorainya. Because the whole point is that we have to kill Sorainya, or at least set things up so that she was never born in the first place, but this is easier said than done. Lanning knows he has to kill the bitch, and he’ll do it, but despite the fact that Sorainya’s tried to kill him several times over the years, he can’t bring himself to hate her completely. The pussy is too good. Speaking of which, you may recall that Sorainya had captured and tortured McLan for yeeeeears, and you’d think this would make it easy for him to hate her.

Not quite so.

“Fifteen years—” came the slow whisper at last. “Fifteen years since I found that she is a demon. Lying, treacherous, savagely cruel, as near a female devil as could be. And still—beautiful. Somehow, glorious!” Some deep-hidden agony throbbed in his whisper.

“I hate Sorainya!” It was a savage rush. “She tricked me, tortured me, maimed me forever ! She—she—” Something seemed to choke him. At last came the voiceless sigh: “But still—for all her hateful evil—could I kill Sorainya? Could any man?”

What interests me about Sorainya, especially as a symbol, is that while usually with a super-attractive evil girlboss we get maybe a passing mention from Our Hero™ about her attractiveness, and ain’t it a gosh darn shame that she’s evil (Robert E. Howard does this sometimes, come to think of it), this is not so with Sorainya. Not only is Sorainya noted as being some hot shit, but her personality also entrances the men she meets; her sheer force of will is intoxicating, and in that sense she’s the ideal fascist woman. She’s blonde and fair-skinned, for one, but she also thinks that action for the sake of itself is glorious, and of course she’s a total warmonger. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that Williamson is about the macabre eroticism of fascism, or rather fascism’s eroticization of death, and how that could be appealing for lonely white dudes like Lanning and McLan. The bitch must be destroyed, but we would be lying to ourselves if we said she was totally unattractive. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Gyronchi, Sorainya’s homeland, is not only a theocratic militarist state, but is (at least according to McLan) destined to destroy itself along with the rest of mankind.

There Be Spoilers Here

So, Lanning and a bunch of redshirts jump into the future and attack Sorainya’s fortress. The results are grim. Not to say these men are afraid of dying, they had already died before, but the ensuing carnage is fairly outrageous. Remember how I said Sorainya has giant ants for minions? Oh yeah. We’re talking ants the size of people, and they’re bipedal and intelligent; they use weapons, but they also have their big fucking mandibles that can cut off a dude’s head. Which yeah, that happens. Williamson started out writing for Hugo Gernsback, and he later became one of Campbell’s regular authors, but he also submitted frequently to Weird Tales in the ’30s. I just bring this up because Weird Tales occasionally published SF, but it was primarily a horror and dark fantasy magazine (the original horror and dark fantasy magazine), which where we saw a lot of Howard and Lovecraft and so on. The sequence that takes up the bulk of Part 2 of The Legion of Time reads like one of Howard’s Conan stories, but not as flamboyant. I’m not even sure what to single out here, since there are whole pages of gory man-on-bug action.

Okay, I’ve got one passage, and it’s not even one of the fight scenes. It’s this grim little moment in the depths of the prison—more of a dungeon, really.

A dreadful silence filled most of the prison. But from one cell came an agonized screaming, paper-thin from a raw throat, repeated with a maddening monotony. Glancing through a barred door, as he passed, Lanning saw a woman stretched out in chains on the floor. A crystal vessel swung back and forth, above her, pendulumlike. And drops of cold green fire fell from it, one by one, upon her naked flesh. With each spattering, corrosive drop, she writhed against the chains, and shrieked again.

The half-consumed body, Lanning thought, might once have been beautiful. Could this have been some rival of Sorainya’s? A cold hate turned him rigid, and quickened his step. A muffled shot echoed behind him, and the screaming stopped.

Not fun. Well, it does get fun later. When I reviewed Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On— I took issue with how the first-person narration not only diluted the stakes but gave us a fainter impression as to what’s going on during action scenes, which that novella has quite a few of, especially in its second half. Williamson gets around this by not having a first-person narrator, but he’s also simply more capable as an action writer, or at least he’s more brutal as an action writer. The brutality is not disturbing, but it is surprisingly extreme for a story published in Campbell’s Astounding, yet considering it’s basically not horror at all it probably would not have sold to Weird Tales. I’m reminded of an earlier story of Williamson’s, “The Moon Era,” which I liked, mostly for a female character who was a) an alien, b) an active player in the story, and c) not objectified by the male hero (who, admittedly, would not be quite old enough to objectify much of anything). But that novella is about a boy who takes a rocket ship to the moon and gets caught up in a war between alien races. That story was also heavy on action, and by the time he wrote The Legion of Time it seems like Williamson had gotten even better at concocting gripping action scenes.

A Step Farther Out

So far I’m liking this a lot. The Legion of Time is this combination of Campbellian big-brain SF with pre-Campbell adventure pulp, with a tinge of weird fiction thrown into the mix. I’m pretty sure Williamson frequently appearing in Weird Tales in the ’30s (making him contemporaries with Howard and Lovecraft, though I don’t think he interacted with either of them personally) had changed his writing philosophy somewhat by the time Campbell came around, and we can see this in The Legion of Time as well as the stories he would later submit to Unknown. Ultimately, though, we still have an ingenious time travel narrative that hardly ever stops to catch its breath, being too eager to either explore its mechanics further or to indulge in some swashbuckling action. The pacing may be too brisk for you, and I suspect a lot of modern readers will be put off by the sheer artlessness of the whole thing, despite the concepts it puts forth. Unless the final installment drops the ball, I suspect I’ll rate it pretty highly.

See you next time.


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