Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Masters of Time

A.E. van Vogt Masters of Time (1944)

How odd that I should be prompted to dribble on about time war by Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, then only a few days later, I come across an even older example. The opposing factions in van Vogt's characteristically peculiar Masters of Time are the Planetarians, and the forces of a distant future Earth referring to themselves as the Glorious. I suspect the message here may be similar to that of The Big Time, specifically a sceptical regard of military authority as illustrated by neither side being particularly well-defined or necessarily motivated entirely by noble intentions - possibly not such a surprise given that Masters of Time was written as World War II continued to bluster on across Europe and around the Pacific. Of course, being van Vogt, it's sometimes difficult to tell quite what's going on as the story fires off at random, darting about the room like that furry thing Sylvester McCoy never quite managed to catch in old episodes of Vision On; having said which, it nevertheless opens with one of the most memorable first chapters of any of his books that I've read:

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Sometimes I just don't know where to start with this guy - a novel that begins with She didn't dare!, or the image of someone coldly furious with their own fear; he writes like Flash Gordon redone as German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, no sentence failing to punch you in the face or do something weird requiring you skip back and read it twice just to be sure. Our heroine, as introduced above, is saved from suicide by the not entirely human Dr. Lell who sends her to work at his Calonian recruitment station, which somehow ends up in a war waged across the span of human history, Roman legionaries fighting side by side with Zulu tribesmen and British Tommies, eighteen parallel Earths and God knows what else. It's tough to follow in places, but as ever with van Vogt, the texture carries the story. On first reading, Masters of Time falls short of being one of his greats, but there's some astonishing writing in here, and I suspect it  rewards further efforts.

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