The clock turns back as Mike Ashley once again scours the archives of the British Library to compile another anthology in their ongoing Science Fiction Classics range, this time gathering thirteen tales dating from between 1881 and 1958 to make up Beyond Time, subtitled “classic tales of time unwound,” and offering a comprehensive analysis and history of the time travel genre and its many subdivisions and recurrent themes.
The oldest story is presented first, Edward Page Mitchell’s complicated family history which goes alongside The Clock That Went Backward, an antique two centuries old, the hands frozen in place, bequeathed in the will of elderly Aunt Gertrude which harbours an unexplained power; the events somewhat telegraphed, as an early example it sets the precedent to be explored and expanded upon through the volume.
In 1932, almost four decades after he published his novella which popularised the genre, H G Wells returned to the mysteries of time with The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper, set up as a mystery in which the narrator expresses that they themselves are dubious and have done all they can to investigate and verify the titular artefact, misdelivered seventy years early from its cover date of November 10th 1971. An excuse to speculate, Wells optimistically observes that in the headlines of tomorrow there is “not a word of patriotism or nationalism,” but cautions of “the threat of extinction of endangered species.”
Published in the same year, Amelia Reynolds Long considers Professor Mortimer’s theory of “mental time” in Omega where “time is a circle, all of whose parts are coexistent.” A tale which has aspects of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men from two years earlier and also points the way to the bodily transformations of Altered States, it would have fitted equally comfortably with the mad scientists of Promethean Horrors.
Another dedicated but misguided scientist is Professor Cosgrave, introduced by Miles J Breuer, who in 1929 opened The Book of Worlds, gazing through the fourth dimension with his hyper-stereoscopic instrument; “In the future lies man’s hope, in intelligence and science,” he proclaims, but despite the imagination of the premise it is squandered with nowhere to go other than madness and confinement to an asylum, looking back rather than forward.
More exciting are The Branches of Time as explored by David R Daniels in 1935, an epic adventure in twenty pages as a traveller recounts his discovery and subsequent exploration to the ends of time to his friend, and the changes he made to prevent that bleak future, while more primitive is The Reign of the Reptiles, by Alan Connell, published the same month, a breathless escapade which required a mechanism to trigger a story which is more an exploration of evolution than time travel, particularly the missing link between reptile and mammal.
1950 brings a change of approach as the idea of time travel becomes commonplace in Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s Friday the Nineteenth, as the unhappy marriage of Donald Boyce leads to a desperate affair with the wife of his best friend; the story slight, it accelerates as the loops tighten, but she effectively conveys the sense of change in how simple things are perceived depending on the mood of the situation.
It was in 1953 that the playwright J B Priestley implored his readers to Look After the Strange Girl, unusual in that no attempt is made to analyse the mechanism or the effect, only to observe the timeslip as a man from 1952 impinges on the events of his location fifty years before. The school building formerly a stately home belonging to a family largely destroyed in the Great War, it is possibly the best written of the selection, involving and subtle, though it flounders in the resolution.
The tone changes with Peter Phillips’ Manna from 1949, served with a dash of black humour and a new angle with which to explore time travel, through the haunting of Selcor Priory by the lingering spirits of Brothers Gregory and James who transport “Miracle Meals” back to their own age to feed the pilgrims. In terms of the actual attempt to explain the phenomenon it is probably the most interesting inclusion and would have pleased Nigel Kneale, paralleling his own attempts to reconcile science and superstition.
A “flashback” from 1986 to 1975, written from the perspective of 1959, which could not have depicted that destination decade more wrongly, J T McIntosh imagining a return of puritan values in fashion, Tenth Time Around sees the consciousness of a novelist return to his younger body to knock out a bestseller and change his life, not expecting that his fate will lead him in another direction entirely. While the illegality of gambling and investing with knowledge of the future is addressed, the presumed consent of the younger self to be entered by the future self is taken as a given, otherwise a can of narrative worms would be opened.
A sweet and sad story of those thrown out of time with no hope of return, The Shadow People of Arthur Sellings from 1958 is unusual in that it is told by the witnesses rather than the travellers, before E C Tubbs considers the idea of an immutable future in Thirty-Seven Times from 1957, let down by his heavy approach to his protagonists, almost as though they were a burden required to express his ideas.
Conversely, and from the same year, the concluding story Dial “O” for Operator is all about character, even if one is only a disembodied voice on the other end of the telephone, begging for assistance. Robert Presslie creating a sense of increasing desperation and helplessness as the hours march on and repeated police searches finds nothing at the address the call originates from, Ashley is to be commended for his diligence in assembling Beyond Time, a collection in which each author has crafted a different kind of story despite springing from the same deep wells of time.