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

(Cover by Howard V. Brown. Astounding, July 1938.)

Who Goes There?

Almost like chameleon, Jack Williamson blended in enough with his surroundings during his long career, from his debut in 1928 to his death in 2006, having work published in Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, and other publications across a span of 78 years. While he is most known today for his novelette “With Folded Hands…,” truly one of the most haunting stories ever written about man’s relationship with robots, Williamson wrote a great deal of notable science fiction and fantasy. On top of his fiction, Williamson also pioneered the study of SF in academia, having earned his M.A. in the ’50s and writing a respectable thesis on the SF of H. G. Wells. Williamson remains the oldest (as far as I can tell) person to win a Hugo, having won the Hugo for Best Novella with his 2000 story “The Ultimate Earth,” which became part of his novel Terraforming Earth.

Williamson was the last of the Campbellian authors, even outliving other incredibly long-lived persons like L. Sprague de Camp and A. E. van Vogt (though van Vogt spent the last decade or so with Alzheimer’s), but more impressively, he was the last of the Gernsbackian authors. Having encompassed and taken part in virtually all of 20th century SFF, Williamson’s contribution to the field is nigh-incalculable.

Placing Coordinates

The final part of The Legion of Time appeared in the July 1938 issue of Astounding, which is on the Archive. This particular issue of Astounding is quite interesting. We have the final part of Williamson’s novel, but we also have “Rule 18” by Clifford Simak, the story which marked his return to writing SF (this time he would not look back), and which would win him a Retro Hugo. There’s Ross Rocklynne’s “The Men and the Mirror,” being an early example of what we’d now call hard SF. Then we have L. Ron Hubbard’s SFF debut, “The Dangerous Dimension,” marking the beginning of one of SFF’s great pulp adventure writers long before he became one of SFF’s great villains. To cap things off we get one of L. Sprague de Camp’s most memorable essays, “Language for Time Travelers,” which even got a follow-up essay from Willy Ley titled “Geography for Time Travelers.” All around this is an impressive issue, and I’m actually surprised it doesn’t get cited more often as being at least historically notable.

Enhancing Image

Since Part 3 is basically like the third act of a movie, in which the action comes to a head, it’ll be hard to keep the spoiler and non-spoiler sections separate, but I’ll try.

At the end of Part 2, Dennis Lanning and best buddy Barry Halloran had made it into the depths of Sorainya’s fortress, finding a black brick containing the object whose presence determines whether Jonbar or Gyronchi come into being, only to be trapped when Soraniya appears out of thin air. But that’s okay! The Chronion, the time ship which Lanning and Halloran had been rescued by before, manifests and comes to the rescue once again. We get a deus ex machina in the first five pages, which is whatever, but of course Our Heroes™ are far from out of the woods yet, as they have two objectives now: to return the mysterious object to its proper time, and to defeat Sorainya. With the help of former college friend and current mad scientist Wilmot McLan, Lanning takes the brick and escapes Sorainya’s wrath for the time being. Now, the question becomes: Where and when does this object go and what even is it? The object turns out to be a magnet, nothing special in itself, but it’s where and when the object is supposed to be that things get interesting.

The question burning in his eyes. Banning whispered: “Did you find—anything?”

Solemnly, the old man nodded, and Banning listened breathlessly. 

“The time is an afternoon in August of the year 1921,” whispered Wil McLan. “The broken geodesics of Jonbar had already given us a clue to that. And I have found the place, with the chronoscope.”

Banning gripped his arm. “Where?”

“It’s a little valley in the Ozarks of Arkansas. But I’ll show you the decisive scene.”

Arkansas, 1921. We meet a character who, it turns out, serves as the turning point for the story, despite not (as far as I recall) having a single line of dialogue. John Barr (get it, John Barr, Jobar…) is a twelve-year-old kid in 1921, but depending on whether he finds that magnet by happenstance or not he’ll go on to either become a revolutionary scientist or a still capable but unambitious good-for-nothing. We by now know why it’s vastly preferred for Barr to cause the existence of Jonbar than for his lack of action to cause the existence of Gyronchi so we don’t need much of an explanation beyond who Barr is in the first place. If you’ve been following things then you’ll remember that time travel in Williamson’s novel is based on probability, as opposed to predetermined futures, and it’s a sneaky way for Williamson to throw in this last-minute rally for the good guys so that the event of Sorainya stealing the magnet can be corrected. It raises the question, of course, of why Sorainya would keep the magnet locked away in a tiny vault and not, say, simply destroy the thing, but we’re not here to think about that.

I suppose you could poke a ton of holes in the narrative, but Williamson moves the action along so quickly that the reader is not incentivized to dwell on the story’s mechanics—a tried and true way to get over spotty exposition. Williamson would take the inventiveness apparent in The Legion of Time and fine-tune it for his remarkable werewolf novella “Darker Than You Think,” but he unquestionably set the standard for time war narratives with his earlier effort. Interestingly, while many novels (especially time-spanning ones) broaden in scope as they approach the climax, The Legion of Time shrinks, furthering a great shrinkage of scope that had occurred in Part 2. John Barr isn’t a character so much as a plot device with legs, and since Lethonee had “died” early in Part 2 and Our Heroes™ don’t fix things until towards the end of the final installment she’s also basically a non-factor here. If Sorainya is far more thoroughly characterized than Lethonee it has partly to do with the fact that she gets a lot more time on the page. I think it’s also because deep down we prefer the whore over the Madonna, which I suspect Williamson thinks as well; more on that later.

There Be Spoilers Here

The final fight with Soraniya is epic, brutal, and approaches some pretty weird and grotesque territory. While the solution for dealing with Sorainya is stupid (and makes McLan look like even more of a fool than he’s supposed to be), the result is quite… something. A dying McLan rolls a tube Lanning’s way as he’s also on his last leg, his fight with Sorainya not going in his favor, and tells Lanning to smash it, which he does. The tube, filled with a mysterious liquid, is connected to Soraniya’s past and how she was supposed to die young from a plague, only to be saved by the giant ants with an antedote. Once the tube breaks, Soraniya’s past is rewritten and she dies in a remarkably gruesome fashion. Why didn’t McLan use this much sooner……? Still, get a load of this:

The bright blade slipped out of her hand, rang against the dome, and fell at Lanning’s feet. The smile was somehow frozen on her face, forgotten, lifeless. Then, in a fractional second, her beauty was—erased. 

Her altered face was blind, hideous, pocked with queerly bluish ulcerations. Her features dissolved—frightfully—in blue corruption. And Lanning had an instant’s impression of a naked skull grinning fearfully out of the armor.

And then Sorainya was gone.

Lanning and Halloran are FOR THE LAST TIME rescued once the battle is over and Our Heroes™ are brought to the now-existing Jonbar where they can spend the rest of their days, since they’re not allowed to return to their own time periods. You can imagine my shock when the futuristic machinery that literally brought Lanning and Halloran back from the dead was not able to save the severely injured McLan.

But aside from that it’s a happy ending! The future is saved, and Lanning even gets his beloved back—only… Lethonee is not exactly as she was before. Their reunion is described ambiguously, but it seems that Lethonee and Soraniya were, in fact, the same person, or rather extensions of the same germ of a person. The resurrected Lethonee seems to have Sorainya’s voice and is even dressed in red, although her memories of Lanning were not erased. While the twist of Jombar and Gyronchi being the same place, made only different by circumstance, is predictable, the implied twist of Lethonee and Soraniya now being combined into a woman who bears Lethonee’s name but who also shares traits from both women is a far more curious choice. True, the whorish warrior queen is no more, but then so is the saintly love interest as well, and in a way it’s a shame that we get nothing like an epilogue for this story. Still, the ambiguity with Lethonee reuniting with her shadow counterpart borders on Lynch levels of surrealism and I’m here for it.

A Step Farther Out

Did The Legion of Time fumble the ball in the final installment? Maybe a little bit, but I still find it pretty memorable. Williamson pulls a deus ex machina or two, and pulls technobabble out of his ass to explain why some things happen and other things don’t, but the action which takes up the bulk of the installment is engrossing, the scope feels so epic despite actually being so compressed, and the very end gave me food for thought. I’m not sure if Williamson was consciously aware of what he writing the whole time, of what he meant by this or that, but it’s a pulp narrative that has a good deal more substance to it than one might expect. Williamson’s background as a Gernsbackian writer as well as a regular contributor to Weird Tales reveals itself in the brisk pacing and technobabble, but most importantly a willingness to get his hands dirty that would become largely unseen in Campbell’s Astounding, once that magazine under that editor further established its own voice. The result is a novel that feels both of its time and very much out of step, showing that Williamson was indeed one of the most capable of substantive genre authors of that era.

In the ’60s there was a very short-lived but prescient journal called SF Horizons, run by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, and the most well-known essay from that journal was about The Legion of Time, titled “Judgment at Junbar.” Aldiss supposedly makes an argument for Williamson’s novel as an excellent work of pulp fiction—I say “supposedly” because I haven’t been able to read the damn thing yet. I have, however, read parts of Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree, in which he calls The Legion of Time a delight but also “philosophically meaningless,” an assertion I don’t think I can agree with. Then again, Aldiss is eloquent and thoughtful as usual, even when he’s being disagreeable (which he often is), and you can bet I’ll get to him at a later date.

See you next time.


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