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

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

Who Goes There?

The first phase of Fritz Leiber’s career can said to have lasted from 1939 to 1945, incidentally overlapping with World War II. While Leiber would write the occasional short story from 1946 to 1949, there would be a five-year gap between novels, those being Destiny Times Three and You’re All Alone. It was also during this gap that Leiber more or less vanished from the magazines, with said occasional work getting published first in book form, perhaps most famously his modern vampire story “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novella “Adept’s Gambit.” But the war years saw Leiber as a regular contributor to Weird Tales, Unknown, and even Astounding Science Fiction, despite (at least at this early point in his career) being much more of a fantasist than a science-fictionist. Case in point, Destiny Times Three, which feels almost more like fantasy than SF, with its multiverse madness and dubious science-fictional elements. Even so, Leiber’s third novel (though it is quite short) would get a Retro Hugo nomination.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the April 1945 issue of Astounding, which is on the Archive. Because Destiny Times Three is so short, and yet too long to be considered a typical novella, it has not been reprinted often. It was first brought into book form as part of an anthology, Five Science Fiction Novels, in 1952, edited by Martin Greenberg, and it wasn’t published solo until 1957—more than a decade after its serialization. You could also get it cheap enough as part of Binary Star, No. 1, the other half of that being Norman Spinrad’s “Riding the Torch.” As far as I can tell it’s not possible to get a book publication of Destiny Times Three that’s in print currently.

Enhancing Image

We have two psychologists and best buddies, Thorn and Clawly, who live in the Dawn Civilization, not our world but a utopian world in which a benevolent world government (like the UN is it actually did its job) keeps everything in check—except for something peculiar that has been going on lately. People have been reporting more nightmares than usual, and there have been these amnesiac episodes where people don’t recognize themselves or the people in their lives. Turns out these episodes are due to the exchanging of minds, people being swapped with their counterparts from a world that is mostly the same and yet quite different from the Dawn Civilization. Thorn not only unwittingly takes a talisman which is connected with these parallel worlds, but his finds his mind spontaneously swapped with that of his counterpart.

There are three worlds, all of which share a point of divergence about thirty years prior to the events of the present day, and all have to due with the accessibility of an invention known as subtronic power, which is apparently the best thing since sliced bread. In the Dawn Civilziation, subtronic power is open for public use; in World II, which seems to be launching an invasion of the first world, subtronic power is only kept in the hands of what is in that world a totalitarian government; in World III, subtronic power is suppressed entirely. To further complicate things, these parallel worlds exist because of an even greater invention: the Probability Engine. Watched over by eight experimenters, the Probability Engine has the capacity to create and destroy worlds based on points of divergence, and the talisman Thorn took is needed to work the Probability Engine. Oktav, one of the experimenters, tries to warn Clawly of the impending invasion from World II without giving away the Probability Engine’s existence, though this has mixed results.

In World I Thorn is a psychologist, but in World II he’s a rebel, Public Enemy #1 against the totalitarian government, which Thorn finds quickly to be a huge change in circumstances; and whereas Thorn II is still a good guy, the same cannot be said for Clawly II, who is a fascist collaborator. At the end of Part 1 we saw Thorn, now in the body of Thorn II, be taken into custody and presented to the government of World II, who, sensing (correctly) that Thorn had swapped minds with his counterpart, think it better to kill Thorn on the spot, despite him being in Thorn II’s body. It’s at this point that Thorn spontaneously mind-jumps once again, he assumes because of the fight-or-flight response. Part 2 thus starts with Thorn in what he thinks to be his own body again, although we gradually find that this is not the case.

I said in my review of the previous installment that I suspected we would get to World III at some point, since that only made sense, although it was highly unlikely that someone from World III would jump into World I, given the former’s presumed lack of technology. Which turned out to be right. If you thought World II with its Orwellian nightmare was a tough piece of work then World III will utterly dismay you, unless of course you happen to be a Ted Kaczynski type. The world has basically gone to shit—not just from a political standpoint but from a basic physical one; it’s a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the people who are left live like mountain men and animals rule the landscape once more. Leiber being Leiber, his descriptions of this new desolate landscape are excellent; as weary as I am about the post-apocalypse subgenre, it pains me a little that we never got the Fritz Leiber equivalent of A Canticle for Leibowitz or I Am Legend.

A ruined world, from which the last rays of a setting sun, piercing for a moment the smoky ruins, struck dismal yellow highlights.

But recognition could only be held at bay for a few minutes. His guess about the ravine had been correct. That snow-shrouded, milelong mound ahead of him was the grave of the Opal Cross. That dark monolith far to the left was the stump of the Gray H. Those two lopped towers, crazily buckled and leaning toward each other as if for support, were the Gray Twins. That split and jagged mass the other side of the ravine, black against the encroaching ice, upthrust like the hand of a buried man, was the Rusty T.

It could hardly be World I, no matter after what catastrophe or lapse of years. For there was no sign, not even a suggestive hump, of the Blue Lorraine, the Mauve Z, or the Myrtle Y. Nor World II, for the Black Star’s ruins would have bulked monstrously on the immediate left.

So Our Heroes™, Thorn and Clawly, are split up, and Clawly has to contend not only with an invasion but with a “benevolent” world government that refuses to take him seriously. Admittedly I too would struggle to be taken seriously if I concocted a massive hoax about a Martian invasion because the actual invasion would be too crazy to believe. In Part 1 I was unsure about the credentials of the “utopian” society of World I, but thankfully I was convinced in Part 2 that, no, we’re actually not supposed to view this “utopia” as usfficient for human happiness and freedom. Partly what allows the invasion to happen is the complacency of the so-called benevolent world government, not to mention that while there is literally a world of difference between the governments of World I and II, they’re shown to not be all that different when the chips are down.

Part 2 is shorter than the first installment, so I feel I don’t have as much to say here, but I will say that the structure of this novel is a bit odd—sort of like a lopsided hourglass. We start out lost and confused, like we’re a kid who’s too small to be in the ball pit, before the sky clear and the scope of the narrative contracts rather than expands. At the beginning of Part 2 we’re still in the middle of that contraction, and we spend most of this installment torn between two relatively small subplots before, all of a sudden, the scope expands again, resulting almost more in an explosion than an expansion. If you’re expecting an epic threeway battle a la Lord of the Rings then you’ll be disappointed, but I would argue something even more astounding happens in the last few pages of this novel.

My criticisms of Part 1 are mostly still relevant, and at least one criticis has only gotten more severe, that being the lack of female voices among the cast; not only that, but the cast has seemingly only gotten smaller as we approach the climax. Destiny Times Three is a short novel, true, but the best novellas and short novels don’t need expansion to make themselves feel more whole, whereas this novel feels deprived of more characters, more character depth, more worldbuilding, generally more material that isn’t just action. I chock it up to the time in which it was written and where it was published, since (with exceptions, obviously) the SF of the ’40s very much leans more on the plot end of the plot vs. character spectrum. The bright side is that on top of fast-moving plots, the best SF of this period is rich in ideas, and Leiber has a pretty good one to throw at us right at the end.

There Be Spoilers Here

The Probability Engine is maintained by the experimenters, but it wasn’t invented by them—something that Oktav points out in an argument with his colleagues (mind you it was his talisman that Thorn took). The actual people who built the Probability Engine turn out to maybe not be a “people” at all, but something that even Leiber doesn’t have a word for. Easily the cleverest part of Destiny Times Three is that unbeknownst to us, what has been assumed to be a third-person narrative is actually first-person. One could argue that the narrative only becomes first-person once Thorn unlocks his talisman and gets in touch with his two counterparts, thereby getting into contact with the inventors, but I like to think everything we’ve up to this point is from the inventors’ perspective, who are, after all, revealed to be practically all-seeing. Thorn, who is reconciled with his alternate selves, gets the best ending of the characters, whereas the experimenters are rightly punished for their callousness and their treatment of the alternate worlds.

The ending of Destiny Times Three borders on transcendental, although it doesn’t quite get there, though it’s hard for me to articulate why. Transcendence within the boundaries of SF is a tricky thing simply because what makes science-fictional transcendence special is its marrying of the secular and the religious, or oftentimes finding the religion in the secular. The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the most famous example of transcendence—of conceptual breakthrough—in all of SF, but it’s not religious at all, at least not overtly. Similarly the reveal of the inventors could be compared to a meeting with the divine, but Leiber doesn’t decorate the moment with any religious symbolism; it’s a perfectly secular revelation. And yet despite Leiber’s talent as a wordsmith, its execution leaves me wanting somehow. I suppose Destiny Times Three has the same problem a lot of other early Leiber I’ve read has, in that while it has its high points, it feels half-baked compared to the formal elegance of his work from about 1950 onward, compounded by it being a longer work.

A Step Farther Out

Destiny Times Three feels like just the sort of short novel which could’ve benefited from expansion, though unfortunately it never was. Leiber’s vision is simultaneously grand and claustrophobic, featuring only a few characters who really matter in the drama while also doubling or tripling that factor when you combine those characters’ alternate selves. The action is fast-moving, and there’s a good dose of political intrigue, although we don’t get to know any of the three worlds too deeply, and thinking back on it the action might be there to take our minds off the fact that the characters themselves are not some of Leiber’s finest creations. Mind-blowing on paper, somewhat less so in execution, this is an early work which hints at more ambitious and more finely tuned outings which play with similar concepts, namely the Change War series. Still, on a sentence-by-sentence level it’s hard to fault Leiber, as even this early he shows himself to be more poetric than most (if not all) of his fellow Astounding writers. The biggest criticism I have of Destiny Times Three is that I wish there was more of it.

See you next time.


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