The Time Stream: Will It Go Round In Circles?

The Time Stream by John TaineThe Time Stream by John TaineThe Time Stream by John Taine

After eight novels dealing with such venerable science fiction themes as lost races, weapons of superscience, the transmutation of elements, dinosaurs, devolution, crystalline life-forms and the creation of a superman, Scottish-American author John Taine finally tackled one of the most revered sci-fi tropes of them all, namely time travel, in his ninth novel, The Time Stream. Today, this book comes freighted with a double-edged reputation, as it is said to be the author’s strangest novel of the 16 he wrote between 1924 and ’54, as well as his finest; an irresistible combination for those who are game. The novel was released just two months after Taine’s Seeds of Life had appeared complete in the October ’31 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly. However, in the case of The Time Stream, this one was released as a four-part serial, in the December ’31 to March ’32 issues of Hugo Gernsback’s 25-cent Wonder Stories magazine. Surprisingly, Taine’s now highly regarded novel did not cop the cover artwork for any of those four issues, although Frank R. Paul did supply four beautifully rendered pieces of interior art for the serial. The Time Stream would have to wait 15 years before being given the hardcover treatment by the short-lived Buffalo Book Company, which only published one other book, E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space, before its premature demise. And after that 1946 hardcover, Taine’s novel fell into obscurity once again, until the fine folks at Dover chose to resurrect it in 1964, as part of a Taine omnibus collection, and later as a stand-alone novel in 1971. It was that later Dover edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire; a very nice edition, indeed, featuring as it does those four pieces of art that had graced the original Wonder Stories release. Mysterious, occasionally awe inspiring, adult and intelligent, The Time Stream ultimately proves itself to be still another wonderful read from this sadly undervalued author.

As for what the book is about, it boasts a storyline so very complex that I despair of giving you a concise plot summary here. Indeed, I’m not even sure that I have fully wrapped my own noggin around it. Suffice it to say that the book is narrated by a 24-year-old analytical chemist named Smith, who, along with eight other men of various professions, nationalities and ages, ranging from 23 to 66, are fond of getting together at their favorite tavern twice a month. Smith’s story begins in the San Francisco of April 14, 1906 … four days prior to a certain seismic event that you are probably familiar with. The sudden clicking noise emitted by the watch belonging to one of the nine causes them all to remember some nearly forgotten memories. An experiment in mentally induced time travel is conducted, with the result that the men suddenly find themselves sitting on a mountain of human bones, looking out upon a desolate plain, the entire scene being illuminated not by our familiar sun, but rather by a spiral galaxy of sorts comprised of millions of pinpoint stars. Before the men realize it, they are back in the San Francisco of 1906, but only for a brief while. The very next day, the clicking sound of a broken twig sends the group off again, to different loci in time and space.

My poor powers of description cannot convey the extreme strangeness, the haunting atmosphere and sense of dislocation that Taine manages to bring to these opening chapters. Soon enough, though, the truth becomes apparent: The nine men all hail from the civilization known as Eos, legends of which, it is strongly inferred, persist to this day in the Biblical recounting of the Garden of Eden. (“Eos” is, after all, the Greek word for “dawn.”) Eos had been founded by the highly advanced civilization from a far-distant planet, who had constructed a 10-mile-wide ball of energy in the Eosians’ so-called Chamber of Undying Fire; a source capable of turning energy into matter and back again, and thus supplying the people with all their needs. The people of Eos had lived by two rules: the Law of Freedom, whereby nobody can tell another how to live his or her life, and the Law of Reason, whereby all men and women, before they marry, must have their genetic and historical records checked back many generations, to ensure that the couple is compatible. But when a young woman named Cheryl (at least, that is the name of her 20th century counterpart) decides to marry without permission of the Central Council, major trouble looms. The scientists of the Council have predicted disaster for Eos should this marriage go forward, and to prove their case to the unbelieving bride-to-be, send a team of explorers into the far distant past of the Eosian home world, to search for clues to substantiate the ancient Law of Reason. And so, throughout Taine’s book, we see our nine men in the Eos of various time periods, as well as in various eras of their founders’ birth planet. We learn how that home world was destroyed, and begin to understand the correlation between the Eosian energy globe and the five varicolored, stationary suns that hang in its sky. But because, as it turns out, time is circular in nature, with no beginning and no end (and yes, Taine’s novel here was one of the very earliest to posit this theory), the men also, for some unknown reason, often find themselves in 1906 San Francisco, with but scarce memories of their Eosian past, as the clock ticks toward ultimate calamity …

The Time Stream by John TaineFor those of you who might reasonably be wondering if there is any firm connection between the natural disasters of the Eosian home world, the depicted carnage on Eos itself, and the 1906 quake, the answer is … well, I’m not really sure; just one of numerous head-scratching bits in Taine’s mysterious story. Perhaps the author included the 1906 quake in his tale simply because 1931 was the 25th anniversary of that historic, earthshaking event. But at least his visualization of the quake itself and its immediate aftermath are well done and exciting. Taine has obviously done his homework regarding those legendary days, as well as of the city of 1906, and so we get to read about the town’s real-life Fire Dept. Chief Dennis Sullivan (killed on April 18th in a building collapse), of the now-defunct Crocker Woolworth Bank, of the city’s Mechanics Institute, and of the combined special edition put out by three of San Francisco’s newspapers, the Call, Chronicle and Examiner, on April 19, 1906.

Taine, it will be remembered, was the pen name of the award-winning mathematician Eric Temple Bell, and in The Time Stream, he adds scientific verisimilitude by bringing up such historic mathematicians as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (French), Joseph-Louis Lagrange (Italian), and Hermann Minkowski and Bernhard Riemann (German). He references the British physicists Henry Moseley and Ernest Rutherford, the American psychiatrist Henry Brill, as well as the Principle of Least Action, the Philosophical Magazine and The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. And Taine, in addition to his other considerable accomplishments, was also a published poet, and his love for the art form is here shown with references to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Sudden Light,” William Blake, (Scottish poet) John Davidson’s “The Last Journey,” British poet William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and Shelley’s “Hellas,” an extensive quote from which concludes his novel. So yes, the net effect of all this is a patina of more or less convincing scientific plausibility, as well as an air of decided literacy.

Taine, in this, his second novel of 1931, writes with great assuredness and pitch-perfect control. His prose at times borders on the psychedelic, and this reader could only regret that he did not experience The Time Stream back in college, while under the influence of some, uh, psychotropic substance. Take, for example, this one paragraph:

 … We were adrift in the stream of aeons, mere shadows borne swiftly along to an unknown future. Faster than light we sped down the ages, hurled out of material existence into the moving image of an ever fleeting life. Our bodies had been blasted out of the universe, annihilated. And yet those swiftly moving semblances of ourselves in the flux and whirl of time were real and substantial, for we outstripped the slow stream in its unending sweep into the shadowy future …

Taine also posits some interesting questions for the reader’s speculation, such as the central Eosian conflict between reason and free love, which really is a fascinating one. All the so-called “science deniers” of today will surely wind up siding with Cheryl and her fiancé here, as well as their daughter, the so-called Singing Flame, the living symbol of the antiscience movement. Personally, this reader — a firm believer in science as well as anyone’s right to mate with whomever he/she chooses — was perpetually torn in his sympathies. Author Taine seemingly relished the writing of this novel, not only by confusing our sympathies, but by inventing words on occasion — such as “paperlet” — and successfully concocting descriptions to both flabbergast the reader and awe the mind’s eye. In short, this is a very impressive piece of work.

But going back to what I mentioned up top, is the book indeed Taine’s best, as well as his strangest? Well, of the five that I’ve read so far, I can attest that it really is the strangest of the bunch. But the best? I’m not so sure about that. At least, I didn’t enjoy this one any more or less than the author’s other books that I have so far taken in. For this reader, Taine leaves us with too many unanswered questions here to allow for full satisfaction. Besides the conundrum of why the men keep returning to the San Francisco of 1906, we are left wondering precisely what the connection is between those five suns in the Eosian sky and that gigantic energy ball. If they are components of a weapon of some kind, how does it work, and what are they comprised of? What was the ultimate fate of the Eosian people? Was Eos indeed located here on Earth? And just how are the men sent time traveling in this book anyway? No mechanical devices are ever shown being used to effect these journeys; only mental concentration, often involuntarily triggered by a random clicking noise. It is all rather abstruse and borderline New Agey; temporal displacement by mere effort of will. And if time really is circular, as is theorized here, do our heroes, as briefly mentioned as a possibility, ever go clear around that loop to get back to where they started? How do they shoot for specific ages, or other planets? All these matters, despite Taine’s gloss of scientific patter, go unexplained. But you know what? Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter, as what the book lacks in hard detail, it more than makes up for in the area of cosmic awe, and the wonder of unknowable forces at work. The Time Stream is surely a bravura exercise in sustained atmosphere and dreamlike displacement, and that is surely no small accomplishment.

Bottom line: John Taine is now a very solid 5 for 5 with this reader, and it has been forcefully impressed upon me that he just might be the most worthy pre-Golden Age sci-fi author of both a critical reappraisal and a newfound acclaim. I hope to be experiencing a bunch of his other titles very shortly. Early on in the book in question, a member of the Eosian Central Council tells Cheryl and her lover, regarding their temporal researches, “ … It is a rather long story, but an interesting one, as you, I think, will admit when you have heard it all … ” Words that might equally well apply to Taine’s masterful ninth novel, The Time Stream

Published in 1946. She Championed Love Against Science! Here is the rarely reprinted and highly-acclaimed classic, a stunning mixture of passionate romance and scientific adventure, that The Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls, “one of the outstanding products of the early sf magazines * an elaborate time-travel adventure which helped extend the horizon of pulp sf.” Some time in the far past or distant future, in the advanced, scientific world of Eos, which just might be Earth, the woman Cheryl demands the right to marry the man she loves, even though genetic analysis shows any children they produce will have less than desirable genes. In a world of perfect freedom, Cheryl is free to do what she pleases. But then one of her four closest friends discovers that before Eos, an even mightier civilization flourished on their world, one that was destroyed then the “beast” was let out in human kind. Her friend thinks this “beast” could uncontrolled human passion and warns Cheryl’s that her choice might somehow threaten their own world. When she demands proof, her four friends set off on a quest across their planet, and deep into its history and science, in search of answers. But wait, that’s not where the story starts. It starts pages earlier, on our Earth, in the 20th century, when a woman who is also named Cheryl and her four friends enter the river of time as part of an experiment whose end they can not foresee. But have they been swept backward or forward? As the stream buffets them, they are sometimes on Eos, sometimes on Earth, sometimes on unnamed worlds that may be the future or the past. On all these worlds Cheryl stands firm for her right to the man she loves, convinced that love shows the right path. But does her intransigence spell the end or the beginning for the human race? Critic and historian E. F. Bleiler hailed John Taine’s The Time Stream as one of the “all time classics of science fiction * Taine’s finest work * adult science fiction at its best.”

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. IRA Henkin /

    Great review

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