" The things that make us happy make us wise" John Crowley, Little Big

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Time Traders

The Time Traders by Andre Norton, The World Publishing Company , Cleveland and New York, 1958, Cover by Virgil Finlay.

Since Andre Norton first editions can be a bit pricey
I have an ex-library copy that lived in several school libraries in Harrisburg, PA. As is obvious from my posts I love real books, not just the contents, e-text etc. but the books themselves as physical objects with a real history. I can look at a book like this and wonder how many little geeks have turned these pages before me marvelling at the adventures of Ross Murdock and his partner Gordon Ashe as they become time traders. I like to think that many of them took this copy off the shelf because of the wonderful
Virgil Finlay dustcover. The Time Traders, is the first of four books in the the Time Traders series. These books do not end in cliff hangers. but they should be read in order. The other titles are Galactic Derelict, The Defiant Agents, and Key Out of Time.

A number of science fiction authors, including Andre Norton, began producing collaborations with other authors based on existing works later in their careers. For example wikipedia mentions three other titles as part of the Time Trader series, I typically do not read these collaborations and will not consider them when discussing the series.

 Ross Murdoch is a trouble maker, a career criminal despite his relatively young age. So it is no surprise that he finds himself before the courts yet again. However this time he has gone too far and Ross faces being turned over to the dreaded Rehabilitation Service, unless he chooses to volunteer for an unnamed government project. So Ross agrees, planning of course to escape at the earliest opportunity. However this may be more of a problem than he expected. Major John Kelgarries of the project immediately whisked Ross off via atomjet to a camp located in a mysterious snowy location.

Ross is immediately placed in a locked cell/room, here one wall appears to disappear and he witnesses a  projection of a bronze age wolf hunt, or is it?       Once this ends a power failure occurs which unlocks the door. Looking for potential escape routes Murdoch ventures into the dark corridor,only to encounter a heavily bandaged man crawling down the corridor, Kelgarries appears and Murdoch learns the bandaged man is Hardy, an agent injured in a previous mission. It is at this point Murdoch meets Gordon Ashe. 

" The newcomer's brown skin was starling against the neutral shade of the walls. His hair and brown were only a few shades darker; but the general sameness of colour was relieved by the vivid blue of his eyes." p. 25 

The machine has sorted them and assigned Ashe to be Murdoch partner, it is at this point Ashe tells Murdoch that this is Operation Retrograde. They then go to the mess hall were Murdoch encounters a number of the other staff, 

" One pair were clearly Oriental: they were small, lean men with thin brackets of long black mustache (sp) on either side of their mobile mouths. Yet he had caught a word or two of their conversation, and they spoke his own language with the facility of the native born. In addition to the mustaches, each wore a blue tattoo mark on their forehead and others of the same design on the backs of their agile hands.
 The second duo were even more fantastic. The color of their flaxen hair was normal, but they wore it in braids long enough to swing across their powerful shoulders, a fashion unlike anything Ross had ever seen. Yet any suggestion of effeminacy certainly did not survive beyond the first glance of their ruggedly masculine features." p. 27

The Ace editions have equally wonderful covers by Ed Emshwiller.

It is in the mess hall that Murdoch meets another new recruit, Kurt Vogel who immediately begins to fill him in on a few more details about Project Retrograde.

" "So they have not yet briefed you? Well, a run is a little jaunt back into history-not the nice comfortable history such as you learned out of a book when you were a little kid. No, you are dropped back into some savage time before history-" That's impossible!" "Yes? You saw those two big blond boys tonight, did you not? Why do you suppose they sport those braids? Because they are taking a little trip into time when he-men wore braids, and carried axes big enough to crack a man open! And Hodaki and his partner... Ever hear of the Tartars?" p.37 

Vogel also tells Murdoch that the base is located near the north pole and tomorrow Murdoch will be taped, a procedure that makes it impossible for him to leave the base without setting off an alarm. Vogel who can somehow avoid the alarms enlists Murdoch in an escape attempt that very night. So under cover of darkness the two men steal a snow cat. Vogel is able to navigate the minefields and they set off keeping the cat on a predetermined course for a rendezvous with some of Vogel's friends. While Vogel sleeps Murdoch come to realize that these friends are probably Russians (the dreaded Reds of all cold war era fiction) and once they rendezvous, one Ross Murdoch will become superfluous. After a struggle he subdues Vogel and heads back to base. On route they are intercepted by forces from the base who take charge of Vogel and send their own men to the rendezvous point. A large explosion occurs and Mr. Vogel is sad. Later Kelgarries asks Murdoch why he came back and he says 

" Because I don't like the line-up on his side of the fence" p.47 

and with that Ross Murdoch is introduced to the details behind Project Retrograde. It seems that after some initial success with Sputnik and later Muttnik, neither side has really been able to move into space successfully. However lately Soviet technology has made several huge leaps, leaps that do not seem to be based on a logical progression but come out of nowhere. The west begins to suspect the Soviets have been in touch with an advanced civilization. Then as Kelgarries explains they learn that 

"In a way it's another world, but the world of time-not space. Several years ago we got a man out of East Berlin. He was almost dead, but he lived long enough to record on tape some amazing data, so wild it was almost dismissed as the ravings of delirium. But that was after Sputnik, and we didn't dare disregard any hints from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So the recording was turned over to our scientists, who proved it had a core of truth.

"Time travel has been written up as fiction; it has been discussed otherwise as an impossibility. Then we discover that the Reds have it working_""

Further more they seem to be bringing this new technology not from the future but the past. The west now has it's own agents who travel into the past disguised as natives to find the Russian posts. Both sides are quite circumspect avoiding the obvious hinge points of history and concealing their technology as much as possible to avoid changing the future. And it is this need to operate clandestinely, that requires the recruiting of people like Ross Murdoch, as Kelgarries states, 

"That is a question to which our psychologists are still trying to find the answer, my young friend. It seems that the majority of people of the several nations linked together in this project have become too civilized. The reactions of most men to given sets of circumstances have become set in regular patterns and they cannot break that conditioning, or if personal danger forces them to change those patterns, they are afterward so adrift they cannot function at their  highest potential. Teach a man to kill in war, and then you have to recondition him later.
  "but during those same wars we also develop another type. He is the born commando, the secret agent, the expendable man who lives on action. There are not many of this kind, and they are potent weapons. In peacetime that particular collection of emotions, nerve, and skills becomes a menace to the very society he has fought to preserve during a war. He is pressured by the peaceful environment into becoming a criminal or a misfit.
 "The men we send out from here to explore the past are not only given the best possible training we can possibly supply for them but they are all the type once heralded as frontiersman. History is sentimental about that type-when he is safely dead-but the present finds him difficult to live with." p. 51 

While this passage may seem a fairly standard SF trope, the man out of his time, I have quoted it at length as it will become an important part of the plot in the later books. It is a this point Murdoch actually becomes part of the project. Which is just as well because no one who learns of the project can leave the base of the foreseeable future. 

And so Murdoch become a travelling traders, part of the Funnelbecker culture, Ashe has already visited this period and established an identity. This culture was selected because they were a group of peaceful traders who were expanding throughout Europe during the period the team wishes to investigate. And thus our heroes enter the past.

As someone who studied and worked in archaeology for a number of years, I can attest that the Funnelbeaker culture was discussed extensively when studying European prehistory. But don't take my word for it. I quoted Joan D. Vinge in my introductory post and I enjoyed her comments so much I will repeat them here.

" Most people don't think consciously about their role models; they absorb the attitudes of individuals and works they admire unconsciously. In that sense, a writer's work is far more important than the apparent critical response to it, which is why the influence of Andre's work in greater than many people realize," Talking about her personal experience she also says " (For my own part, Andre not only got me started reading sf, she also led me to a college degree in anthropology, because her novel The Time Traders evoked Northern Europe four thousand years ago so hauntingly that it made me obsessed with European prehistory. While doing a term paper on the Beaker Folk, I was convinced that I had found and studied some of the same source material she must have used for the novel.)"

The Vinge quotes from "Andre Norton: The Mother of Us All" by Joan D. Vinge


 Dated Plots. One of the first things I wanted to discuss regarding this series is something I wonder about regarding a lot of literature as a whole. When does it date, people are happily reading about Jane Austen's heroines or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes but do they continue to read potentially dated genre literature in the same way? Some years ago when tensions between East and West were largely forgotten, the wall was down and glasnost was all the rage I gave some duplicate Norton novels to my niece's sons, they were about the same age I had been when I started reading them. As I handed them Sea Siege, another book set in the cold war era, I thought for a minute and said your parents case explain the cold war if you have any questions. But I do wonder about books so clearly of their time. At the same time I was reading Norton, I read and enjoyed my parents Helen MacLinnes novels, a favourite was Neither Five nor Three, a 1951 thriller about communist infiltration in the worst spirit of the McCarthy era. Another favourite author was Alistair MacLean, my father in law enjoyed him as well. His best known work became the movie Ice Station Zebra, (the book is way better), but would young people read these books today. Will a series like Norton's Time Traders be as popular to new readers as her Beast Master series, which because it is set in space after the destruction of Earth does not date as badly, beats me. I hope so because there is a lot here to enjoy. I agree with Vinge that Norton does a good job of evoking the landscape and people of Northern Europe. I also think that Ross Murdock, his partner Gordon Ashe and some of the other time travelers we meet in the subsequent books are much more interesting people that the cardboard cutout "Lensmen" types we meet in a lot of the science fiction, especially the books intended for the young adult market. I thought it was interesting that Norton acknowledges the technical accomplishments of the Soviets and has the west playing catch up. I also found the discussion of the problems in integrating soldiers back into society really interesting for a novel written in 1958 long before post traumatic stress disorder (PST) associated with military service was as well known as it is today or mentioned much in genre literature Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey clearly has it, Heinlein's Starship Troopers clearly don't.