The Legion of Time consists of two novellas that Jack Williamson wrote in the late 1930s, neither of which have anything to do with his wholly dissimilar LEGION OF SPACE novels of that same period. Both of these novellas are written in the wonderfully pulpy prose that often typified Golden Age sci-fi, and both are as colorful, fast moving and action packed as any fan could want. That elusive “sense of wonder” that authors of the era strove for seemed to come naturally for Williamson, and if the style is a bit crude by today’s standards and the descriptions a tad fuzzy at times, the author’s hypercreative imagination more than compensates.
The first novella in this volume is “The Legion of Time” itself, which first appeared in the May, June and July 1938 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction, scant months after John W. Campbell, Jr. began his legendary career there as editor. It is in some respects a mind-blowing story, in which we learn that Earth has two very different possible futures. In one, the Eden-like city state of Jonbar will flourish and mankind will thrive and become winged superbeings; in the other, the city of Gyronchi, ruled by the warrior queen Sorainya and the dark priest Glarath, will enslave mankind with the aid of their hybridized half human/half ant soldiers. These two possible Earth futures are thus in a deadly rivalry for fulfillment; a stalemate situation that Sorainya tips toward Gyronchi’s favor by going into the past and making an oh-so-subtle alteration.
Meanwhile, on the Earth of the present day, physicist Wil McLan puts together a team of deceased Prussian, English and American soldiers from various wars to man his timeship, the Chronion, and fight for the existence of Jonbar. If this capsule description sounds a bit way out, reader, let me just say that it doesn’t even begin to do Williamson’s tale justice. Time paradox stories usually give me a mild headache, and boy, is this one a doozy; still, Williamson does his best with his talk of temporal geodesics, nodes, hyperspace time continuums, and “conflicting infinitude of possible worlds” to put the conceit over.
As I mentioned up top, the story’s pace is relentless and the action virtually nonstop, a particular highlight being a daring nighttime raid on Sorainya’s castle and its antmen soldiers within. The novella has many memorable touches, one of my favorites being a variation on a burial at sea; here, one of McLan’s deceased soldiers (the story has a VERY high body count!) is pushed off the Chronion into “the shimmering gulf of time.” The warrior queen herself makes for a wonderful villainess, one who is as likely to seduce a man as pour molten metal down his throat (another memorable touch, indeed!); she is more than a match for the 13 soldier members of McLan’s team. As in the LEGION OF SPACE books, nearly insuperable odds are met head on by a team of extremely determined and can-do men. On a side note, The Legion of Time was the source of the term “Jonbar hinge,” which describes any event that serves as a fork in the road of sorts for future history. All in all, great pulpy fun.
And “After World’s End,” the second novella in the collection, may be even better. This Williamson tale first appeared in the February 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories and introduces us to Barry Horn, the first man to fly into space. Due to the uranium-salts concoction that Barry had been shot up with to protect him from cosmic radiation (don’t ask!), he turns into a Rip van Winkle of the spaceways, and awakes in his orbiting ship 1.2 million years in the future! He learns that the Earth and the rest of the civilized galaxy is now at war with Malgarth, a robot that his remote descendant, Bari Horn, had created. With his robot hordes, Malgarth will exterminate mankind, unless Barry and a small group of renegades can locate the Dondara Stone, which supposedly holds the key to Malgarth’s Achilles’ heel.
As for the novella’s title, perhaps I am not spoiling things too much by saying that it refers to mother Earth, which Williamson throws into the sun in his story’s first 30 pages, Edmond “the World Wrecker” Hamilton style. Malgarth and his hordes are a far, far cry from the peaceful and well-meaning robots of Williamson’s classic short story “With Folded Hands” (1947) and novel The Humanoids (1949), and go a good bit too far in carrying out their genocidal schemes. This is a thrilling tale with tremendous action and real suspense, not to mention a wholly original alien character, Setsi the rum-guzzling sandbat; a silicon-based creature that beat Star Trek‘s Horta to the silicic punch by over 25 years. Similar to Williamson’s LEGION OF SPACE tales, in which a female guardian always protected mankind’s superweapon, AKKA, here, mankind’s salvation, the Dondara Stone, is guarded by another youngish woman of great pluck.
The author, it must be said, is guilty of a few flubs in this story. October 12, 1938 was not a Sunday, but rather a Wednesday. And a ship traveling at half the speed of light (around 90,000 miles/second) would not be capable of traversing Malgarth’s billion-mile-diameter radiation zone (or even half that distance) in a matter of minutes; simple math indicates a figure closer to 1 1/2 to three hours! Still, only the most anal-obsessive whackadoodle (yeah, that’s me!) would notice gaffs like this, in the midst of the thrills that Williamson dishes out here. These two tales, taken back to back, demonstrate the great storytelling prowess that future Grand Master Williamson commanded even early in his career, and are both highly recommended for all fans of red-blooded, Golden Age sci-fi.