Serial Review: Destiny Times Three by Fritz Leiber (Part 1/2)

(Cover by William Timmins. Astounding, March 1945.)

Who Goes There?

Fritz Leiber spent the first phase of his career, from about 1939 to 1945, mostly published in Weird Tales and Unknown, and more precariously in Astounding Science Fiction. I say “more precariously” because Leiber, at least early in his career, was not too keen on science-fictional writing; he would write some stone-cold SF classics like “Coming Attraction” and “A Pail of Air,” but that was later. Destiny Times Three was Leiber’s third novel, and it basically closed out the first phase of his career, in that while he continued to write in the latter half of the ’40s, his output was more sporadic, and evidently he struggled to find outlets for his material. Serialized in two parts, this is very much a short novel, but as we’ll see it packs quite a punch. It was nominated for a Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the March 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Time has not been very good to this novel in terms of publication. It did not see print in book form until the anthology Five Science Fiction Novels in 1952, from Gnome Press, edited by Martin Greenberg (not to be confused with Martin H. Greenberg, not that I would ever make such a mistake). Five years later and it finally got a solo book release, as part of the Galaxy Science Fiction Novel series. Things went dark for a while and in 1978 it reappeared as one half of Binary Star No. 1, the other half being Norman Spinrad’s “Riding the Torch.” Apparently there are hardcover and paperback editions of the novel by itself from Wildside Press, but I’m not sure where you would find these. Destiny Times Three has the misfortune of being too short a novel (it’s arguably a novella) to easily justify printing on its own, but it’s also too long to be anthologized, especially in the current market. Your best bet might just be the serial version.

Enhancing Image

We start with Thorn, a psychologist, accidentally stealing an object which he struggles to describe and whose possession he finds inexplicable. “It was about two inches in diameter and of a bafflingly gray texture, neither a gem, nor a metal, nor a stone, nor an egg, though faintly suggestive of all four.” If it sounds like I’m just tossing you into the middle of things without explaining who Thorn is, or what it is he stole, or from whom he was taking it, that’s because Leiber does the same thing. Admittedly Destiny Times Three does not start on the best foot; indeed I’d say it starts out pretty confusing and gets gradually more understandable as it goes on, which I suspect was by design, but it also means quite a few readers are gonna bounce off the opening chapters. We’re given no context at the outset what kind of world Thorn lives in, which is important because it’s clearly not our world. As such I’ll have to tackle this synopsis shindig a bit differently from the usual.

The plot centers around Thorn and Clawly, lifelong friends and colleagues who study people’s dreams, as you do. Something they’ve noticed lately is that people seem to be having far more nightmares than to be expected, and what’s far weirder is that these people have amnesiac episodes in which they don’t remember or recognize the people in their lives. The amnesiac episodes are temporary, but still, there are too many of these cases to be ignored. It looks like there be trouble in paradise. Thorn and Clawly live in what could be called a better alternative to our world, being a world apparently free from mass starvation and war, along with top-down tyranny, despite the presence of what is called the World Executive Committee. The World Executive Committee is basically like if the UN actually did its job, and curiously this novel was serialized mere months prior to the UN’s founding.

I would say Leiber’s expectations of a world government were too optimistic, but this was also the same period when Robert Heinlein, during his flaming liberal phase, would have more or less agreed with such optimism.

This utopia is called the Dawn Civilization, but for reasons to be given later I’ll refer to it from now on as World I (mind the Roman numeral). What makes it such a smashing civilization is apparently the wide availability of what Leiber calls subtronic power, which is supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread and whose accessibility has allowed for a technological and political Good Future™. I don’t know what subtronic power is exactly, because Leiber doesn’t really bother to explain it, but it’s obviously supposed to be analogous with atomic power. So-called Golden Age SF can be broken into two groups: pre-Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima. A good deal of pre-Hiroshima SF was about the potential greatness of atomic power, whereas post-Hiroshima SF was concerned about its potential as a weapon, though there are exceptions; you can guess which group Destiny Times Three falls into. I have to wonder if Leiber would’ve made a thinly veiled substitute for atomic power the great tech of the novel had he written it even one year later.

So, Thorn has a mysterious object which naturally unbeknownst to him has more power than he is aware of, and Clawly is driven to desperation after failing to convince the World Executive Commitee that these bizarre psychological episodes have any tangible importance. Clawly goes to see Oktav, an oracle, about what to do about what he suspects to be attempts by some outside force to invade the Dawn Civilziation, though Oktav knows a lot more than what he tells the poor psychologist. You see, Clawly theorizes that when people have these memory lapses that they’re not actually losing their memories, but that their minds are being displaced—put elsewhere and replaced by something. It sounds outlandish and you can see why the higher-ups scoff at him, but if you’ve read the script like Clawly did then you would reach similar conclusions.

So he tells the World Executive Committee:

“It is my contention—I might as well put it in plain words—that alien minds are displacing the minds of our citizens, that they are infiltering Earth, seeking to gain a foothold here. As to what minds they are, where they come from—I can’t answer that, except to remind you that Thorn’s studies of dream landscapes hint at a world strangely like our own, though strangely distorted. But the secrecy of the invaders implies that their purpose is hostile—at best, suspect. And I need not remind you that, in this age of subtronic power, the presence of even a tiny hostile group could become a threat to Earth’s very existence.”

Meanwhile, Thorn experiences what can only be called a waking nightmare—a surreal passage that stands out as one of Part 1’s highlights, and a typically excellent bit of prose for Leiber. Of course it’s not just a nightmare: something is happening to Thorn, though he doesn’t realize it right away. Soon he finds himself in a place he doesn’t recognize, in a body which is still his but which at the same time he feels to be alien somehow, and that’s only the start of his troubles. Could it have something to do with the object he stole without remembering why he did that? Does it have to do with a possible mental invasion that Clawly has been talking about? Yes to both, but how exactly is left up to spoilers.

I’ll say here that I went into Destiny Times Three thinking it would be a time travel narrative, which it isn’t really; it involves multiple timelines but they’re more like alternate realities. That’s right, we’re dealing with a multiverse story, and from 1945! Despite it’s brevity, this baby is dense, not just with action but also with ideas, and while details do clear up as we understand more about the workings of World I, the significance of the object Thorn took (it’s actually called a talisman) and so forth, you might have to reread a few passages to get what’s going on. Leiber would venture into equally if not even more high-concept territory later in his career, such as his Change War series, but Destiny Times Three might be his most ambitious work up to this point, though I have to admit I’ve not read his earlier SF novel Gather, Darkness! Safe to say Leiber is pushing himself into new territory here.

A few criticisms at the end of this section…

If you’re expecting women to play any significant roles in this novel, too bad, at least for Part 1. There’s a very minor female character (I don’t think she even has a name) who shows up once and is never seen again, and all the characters who matter are manly men of action. I’m trying to remember where exactly this was, but I recall Leiber years later saying he regretted not giving women a bigger role in the narrative for this specific novel. If you’re looking for a character-focused work then you’ll also be disappointed, as Destiny Times Three is driven by action and ideas; it’s a wild ride that only gets wilder as it goes on, but it’s not psychologically complicated. I would say, however, that Leiber is chasing after a vision that is quite astounding (haha, I know) given how short the novel is, and if he was pressured to keep it brief for magazine publication then oh well, that’s how life is.

There Be Spoilers Here

Thorn has swapped minds with someone who both is and is not himself. Whereas Thorn is a law-abiding psychologist, Thorn II (the man whose body he now occupies) is a rebel, and he needs to be a rebel because the Bad Future™of World II is run by a tyrannical world government (as opposed to the good world government). Clawly II himself is a member of said big bad government, which complicates things when Thorn crosses paths with this alternate version of his best friend.

How did we get here? Not just the swapping of minds but the fact that there’s more than one reality. Going back to subtronic power, there are apparently three timelines which diverge depending on what the leaders of the world do with this new discovery that could shape the future of mankind. In World I, deemed “the best” timeline, subtronic power was made accessible to the public; in World II, it’s held hostage by what is now a fascist world government; in World III, the discovery of subtronic power is totally suppressed. We don’t meet anyone from World III—at least not yet; but World II is basically the antagonist of the novel, as we find out its government is plotting an invasion of World I. Yet there is an even greater discover than subtronic power, one which makes such an invasion even possible: the Probability Engine. Placed outside space and time, the Probability Engine is maintained by a council of experimenters, of which Oktav is a member, and it was Oktav’s talisman which Thorn had taken.

The Probability Engine was probably invented by a third party (let’s face it, it’s either aliens or far-future humans), and it has the power to create (and, conversely, destroy) alternate timelines; at least that’s how I understand it. For the purposes of the novel there are three timelines, though at least for now only two are important. Rather than jump across timelines via portals or a time machine, one’s mind is swapped with his/her counterpart’s, which kinda… reminds me of a certain movie. To be fair, I’m pretty sure the Daniels have never even heard of Destiny Times Three, but it just goes to show that these “nifty sci-fi ideas” are usually really fucking old and that nothing is original. And also Santa Claus isn’t real.

A gripe I often have with multiverse stories is that when we see someone’s alternate selves they’re too closely related, despite the fact that you’d probably turn out a different person if your parents conceived on this day instead the other day, never mind all these other factors. I even criticized Sarah Pinsker’s otherwise pretty enjoyable novella “And Then There Were (N-One)” for having dozens of different versions of herself (it’s that kind of story) that are not that different. Even Everything Everywhere All At Once, great a movie as it is, does not go far enough with presenting just how radically different multiple versions of yourself would be; we never, for instance, see a male version of Michelle Yeoh’s character, even though that seems highly likely to occur. Leiber dodges this gripe by having the big change occur after Thorn, Clawly, and the other major characters were already born, so they have the same physiologies, names, and even some of the same childhood experiences.

The question is, how do you fight an invasion of minds? How do you fight against an army when it’s an army of body snatchers? How do you protect your mind from being swapped with that of your counterpart’s? You’ll just have to wait a bit.

A Step Farther Out

Part of me feels that Leiber originally conceived Destiny Times Three as a fantasy, since it almost leans closer to that than SF. The council of experimenters are like sorcerers. Subtronic power may as well be magic. Yet given the lack of a viable market for fantasy, especially of this length, in 1945, I wouldn’t be surprised if Leiber tinkered with it enough to make it SF. Not much of a criticism, really. At the risk of sounding immature, Destiny Times Three works because it is so COOL. The notion of an invasion not happening through some portal or gateway or a time machine, but through our minds, is COOL. The notion that all it takes is one invention to change not just society at large but people’s individual personalities is COOL. So far we’ve only seen World I and II, but the possibility of encountering that third world (which does not sound like a picnic) and having all three intersect is COOL. It’s a cool novel, and I hope it only ramps up in Part 2.

I also have to wonder if Leiber had been reading any A. E. van Vogt and what he thought of it, because Destiny Times Three strikes me as conspicuously van Vogt-esque, for both good and ill. This is Leiber at his least lucid (now doesn’t that phrase roll off the tongue), and I certainly wish he could explain himself better here, something he normally does with elegance. But also like van Vogt, the vision is so grand, so close to the transcendent, that it almost feels religious despite being undeniably secular. It’s like a cosmic epic in miniature, and I’m here for it.

See you next time.


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