Time and Time Again

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January 12, 2019 review

My year in books begins with a re-read of my favorite time travel novel, Time and Again by Jack Finney. Published in 1970, I'm happy to report that the book stands as a vivid parallel universe romance and labor of love from an author who was legitimately enamored by New York City of the 1880s. If I was sectioning off the best books to read each month of the year, this would also be a nominee for the Best of January, with a protagonist journeying to a Manhattan of frozen ponds and horse drawn sleighs the first month of the year. Though not a perfect trip, it is a wonderful one.

Simon Morley, who for reasons that frustrate aesthetic delight insists on being called "Si," is a twenty-eight year old art student from Buffalo who works as a graphic designer at an advertising firm on 54th Street. Si is a man of another time, having met his girlfriend Kate Mancuso at the antique shop she owns on Third Avenue, where Si enjoys picking through stereoscopeic slides from New York City of yesteryear. Then one Friday, watching the clock edge toward lunch, Si is visited by Ruben Prien, a project manager for a U.S. government program who without being able to divulge any details offers Si the opportunity for a great adventure.

Arriving for his interview at a storage company warehouse on the Upper West Side, Si is taken to a room where after four minutes, he finds his application completed, several details in the room different from when he entered and Ruben claiming that twenty minutes have elapsed. Insisting that this is wrong and pointing out what's been changed, Si passes his test and is shown even stranger things. He sees instruction rooms, one with a woman learning the Charleston. Si is led onto a catwalk above a massive sound stage, where sets have been built, one of a Montana plain with Crow Indian teepees. Si meets the project director, a theoretical physicist named Dr. E.E. Danziger who believes that science has yet to catch up to everything Albert Einstein theorized.

"He meant that we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present and future really are. We think the past is gone, the future hasn't happened yet, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see."

"Well, if you pinned me down, I'd have to admit that's how it seems to me."

He smiled, "Of course. To me, too. It's only natural. As Einstein himself pointed out. He said we're like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can't see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But it's there."

"Did he mean that literally, though Or did he mean--"

"He meant exactly what he said. When he said light has weight, he meant that the sunlight lying on a field of wheat actually weighs several tons. And now we know--it's been measured--that it really does. He meant that the tremendous energy theoretically binding atoms together really could be released in one unimaginable burst. As it really can, a fact that has changed the course of the human race. He also meant precisely what he said about time: that the past, back there around the curves and bends, really exists. It is actually there." For maybe a dozen seconds Danziger was silent, his fingers playing with the little red cellophane strip. Then he looked up and said simply, "I am a theoretical physicist on leave here from Harvard University. And my own tiny extension of Einstein's great theory is ... that a man ought somehow to be able to step out of that boat onto the shore. And walk back to one of the bends behind us."

Danziger's project--comprised of fifty people and drawing on the services and resources of various branches of the government--have sought recruits with an ability to see things both as they are and how they might have been. After studying a specific time period and training on a sound stage, the recruit is placed in an environment that exists now as it did at that point in the past: a town in rural Vermont, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Trained in techniques of self-hypnosis, the recruit then exits their location and steps out into the world of the past. Why To prove it can be done.

Si is offered the opportunity to travel to San Francisco of 1901, but the artist has another travel destination in mind: New York City, January 1882, where he wants to watch a letter mailed at the Main Post Office. Si's girlfriend Kate had a foster father who lived and died unable to solve a mystery surrounding the suicide of his father Andrew Carmody, a Wall Street financier who briefly served as an adviser to President Grover Cleveland. Whatever misery Carmody endured has to do with that letter, which was partially burned by his wife along with a suicide note that read "That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the Entire World ..."

Disclosing his mission to Kate, Si's girlfriend helps him bone up on New York City of the 1880s. He's outfitted with period garb and an apartment at the Dakota building, a magnificent blockwide structure constructed in Central Park in the early 1880s. Si has only a few days to convince his subconscious that the world of eighty-eight years ago is the world outside his window and after wandering through the park during a blizzard, is certain that he did briefly return to the past. He tries again, only this time with Kate at his side, and at the clop of hoofs and a faint axle squeak, they encounter a horse drawn bus emerge from the snow.

We didn't turn immediately; we couldn't quite bring ourselves to do that. But we heard the squeal of iron tires crunching cold dry snow, heard the loose wood-and-iron rattle of the body, and the crack of leather reins on solid flesh. Then, very slowly, we turned our heads to look again at the tiny, arch-roofed wooden bus with high wooden-spoke wheels, drawn by a team of gaunt horses, their breaths puffing whitely into the winter air at each step. It was closer now, filling our vision; and staring at it I knew now from where and when I had come. It took a moment of actual struggle for my mind to take hold of what it knew to be the truth: that we were here, standing on a corner of upper Fifth Avenue on a gray January afternoon of 1882; and I shivered and for a moment felt shot through with fear. Then elation and curiosity roared through me.

What I love about Time and Again is how enamored Jack Finney is with time travel and stuck behind a typewriter in the late 1960s, with New York City of the early 1880s. This is a Manhattan Island covered by hundreds of acres of farmland, where Trinity Church is the highest point in the city at 284 feet and neither traffic signals or telephones are in use. Si records pages of interesting sights and while Finney does go overboard on detail, so would my report if I traveled back in time. Finney's use of weather--snow, ice, freezing cold--is a character in itself and adds tremendous atmosphere to the novel, particularly in the time travel scenes.

I liked how Finney uses self-hypnosis as a catalyst for time travel. Richard Matheson used a similar device for Bid Time Return in 1975 but of the two novels, Finney's is vivid, exciting, researched (including photographs) and as a love story, more convincing. Traveling back alone, Si rents a room in the same boarding house as the man who mailed the letter and becomes enamored with the ill-tempered villain's fiancée, Julia Charbonneau. While I endorsed Si getting Julia away from the blackmailer she'd be miserable with, I wasn't sure whether this constituted cheating or not, whether what happens in the 1880s stays in the 1880s.

Contemporary readers are bound to notice what I did and that is the male gaze which Si frequently employs whenever he encounters a woman. I was more restless over how long Si's recruitment went on and how long it took for him to go back in time. Finney puts almost as much thought into the time travel project as Michael Crichton does in Timeline; I did like how in his debriefing, Si is prompted to recount as many facts as he can to determine whether he has altered history. Finney ultimately questions whether the project has Crichton-like implications for disaster and resolves the novel thrillingly.

My thesis: This novel holds up supremely well as imaginatively spun science fiction romance.

Length: 129,242 words

November 20, 2014 review

The next stop in my time travel marathon (November being Science Fiction Month) and by far the best yet is Time and Again, a little known but much loved 1970 novel by Jack Finney that handles a fantastic premise -- a government project sends a man eighty-eight years into New York City's past -- with more imagination, sensuality and logic than any time travel story I've read. This is a wonderful book that has just become one of my favorites.

Simon Morley, known as "Si", is twenty-eight years old, an art student from Buffalo who works as a graphic designer for an advertising firm on 54th Street. Si is a man out of time; he met his girlfriend Kate Mancusco at the antique shop she owns on Third Avenue, where Si enjoys digging through stereoscopeic slides from New York City of yesteryear. Then one Friday, watching the clock edge toward lunch, Si receives a visitor. Ruben Prien is a project manager for a U.S. government program he revaeals very little about except to promise Si that he envies his opportunity to be offered an adventure as great as this.

Si is invited to participate in some tests first and arriving for his interview in a complex disguised as a moving company warehouse on the Upper West Side, is shown many strange things. There are instruction rooms, one with a student speaking medieval French, one with a man in a World War I uniform training in bayonet combat, one with a woman learning the Charleston. Si is led onto a catwalk above a massive soundstage, where several sets have been built, from a neighborhood in the 1920s to a Montana plain with Crow Indian teepees. Si is finally taken to the employee cafeteria, where he's introduced the the project director, a theoretical physicist named Dr. Danziger.

The old man asks Si how much he knows about Albert Einstein. Not much, Si replies, except that Einstein had bushy hair and was terrible at arithmetic. Danziger elaborates, "He meant that we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present and future really are. We think the past is gone, the future hasn't yet happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see." In other words, the past isn't gone. It exists and can be reached.

Danziger's candidates, those with the ability to see things both as they are and how they could have been, are trained in techniques of self-hypnosis, and after rehearsing on a soundstage, are placed in certain environments -- a town in rural Vermont, a plain in Montana -- that have gone unchanged between now and some point in the past. Danziger has discovered a way to make time travel possible, just as Einstein theorized. Why To prove it can be done.

Si is offered the opportunity to travel to San Francisco in 1901, but the artist has another destination in mind: New York City, January 1882, where he wants to watch a man mail a letter at the Main Post Office. Si's girlfriend had a foster father who went through life unable to solve a mystery surrounding the suicide of his father Andrew Carmody, a financier who was an adviser of some sort to President Cleveland. The source of whatever misery Carmody was enduring had to do with that mysterious post, which was partially burned by his wife along with a suicide note that read "That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the Entire World ..."

His mission disclosed to Kate, Si's girlfriend helps him study up on the history of New York City of the 1880s. The project rents him an apartment in the Dakota Building, one of the few available buildings in Manhattan that was standing in 1882. Over a period of several days, dressed in period garb, Si attempts to train his mind that the world outside his window is 1882. After many failed attempts and one false start, Si is visited by Kate, and the couple makes the attempt together.

I've summarized 115 pages of Time and Again and would prefer to leave as much of the ensuing 285 pages a surprise as I can. One of the things that Finney does here that so many writers ignore is to stop and consider how traumatic the experience of time travel would be. It comes as an existential crisis, making travelers physically ill from the realization that they're now history, surrounded by people who were all dead a minute ago. The experience is not treated flippantly or as a plot point but given a gravitas that I see rarely in science fiction.

As time travel speculation, Finney couldn't have chosen more elegant mechanisms than Einstein, the Dakota Building and self-hypnosis. Logically, it all makes sense. New York City of 1882 isn't a travel destination I'd have chosen, but Finney took history I'd never known and brought it to life:

-- A New York City covered by trees and farms (the Dakota Building has been built so far out in the sticks that's how it earned the name "the Dakotas").

-- Floors covered in tobacco juice, with spittoons as hit or miss as modern day men's urinals.

-- Men gathering at the Western Union building on Broadway to set their pocket watches to noon as a red ball drops the length of a flagpole on the roof.

-- The arm of the Statue of Liberty a landmark before the full statue could be erected on Ellis Island.

-- Elevated trains pulled by small locomotives.

-- Orphaned and homeless boys sleeping on hay barges in winter.

As a native Texan who's never seen a real winter, I was particularly amazed by how vividly Finney utilizes snow, ice and freezing cold to advance his story, particularly Si and Kate's dramatic arrival in 1882 during blizzard conditions that obscure all indications of the present until the sound of a horse drawn sleigh announces their arrival in the past.

The big ticket action sequence in the novel develops naturally from the characters and builds ferociously in a way it only could in the place and time of Finney's story. At no point in the action did I feel that Finney was taking 20th century plot devices and running his time travelers through them; the workings of New York City in 1882 seems to inform every decision.

There were moments where I thought I was ahead of his story and knew exactly where Finney was leading me, possibly toward the paradoxes Ray Bradbury speculated about, maybe a twist ending reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, and in each instance, I was wrong. The triumph of the book is how well Finney takes modern day technology and marries it with the romance of the past. As endings go, Finney's ranks as one of most satisfying I've ever read.

Time and Again is a novel that has worked its spell on enough players in Hollywood to be in perpetual development as a movie. Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward fancied making a film version in the 1970s before Newman passed the book to Robert Redford, who failed in his attempts to interest Sydney Pollack, George Roy Hill or Steven Spielberg and got close to directing it himself in the 1990s. The novel would make a great big screen fantasy romance, with any number of young actors able to fit into the lead roles.


It’s the 1st of June 1914 and Hugh Stanton, ex-soldier and celebrated adventurer is quite literally the loneliest man on earth. No one he has ever known or loved has been born yet. Perhaps now they never will be.

Stanton knows that a great and terrible war is coming. A collective suicidal madness that will destroy European civilization and bring misery to millions in the century to come. He knows this because, for him, that century is already history.

Somehow he must change that history. He must prevent the war. A war that will begin with a single bullet. But can a single bullet truly corrupt an entire century?

And, if so, could another single bullet save it?

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