Time and Again, by Jack Finney
7.5/10, a slow-starting but ultimately engaging time travel tale
Despite logical and scientific testaments to the impossibility of time travel, we continue to be fascinated by the idea that we can see the future and change the past. Wells’s original novel looked forward, not back, the product of a dawning age of science in which people were excited to see where the new technologies being developed would take us. Wells had a famously dystopian take on the new future, which is still tens of thousands of years away in the New York of 1970, where Finney’s Simon “Si” Morley begins his story.
Finney, like most modern time travel stories, looks back rather than forward. In 1970, the Industrial Revolution and Atomic Age in our past and the Information Age just a glimmer in the eye of a young future Senator from Tennessee, the country was mostly obsessed with the recent war in Vietnam. Finney, to his credit, doesn’t spend much time bemoaning the state of the world, but dives right into the introduction to the government project. The beginning is great cloak-and-dagger stuff, as Rube Prien comes to Si with a proposition: participate in a secret government project about which he can’t reveal any details. It’s a credit to Prien (and Finney) that he manages to believably convince Si to join the project.
The project is, of course, time travel. In keeping with the disillusionment with industry, time travel here is not accomplished by stepping into a machine, but is literally all in the time traveler’s head. Of course, it helps to have surroundings that exactly mimic the time and place he’s aiming for, so that he can get into the frame of mind that allows him to travel, but it is the traveler himself who makes the jump simply through hypnotic suggestion, believing he has traveled back to that time.
Si goes back to New York in 1882 with the aim of seeing a letter mailed, a letter which eventually led to the suicide of Andrew Carmody, a relative of his current girlfriend Kate. Witnessing the mailing leads to more questions, and Si soon finds himself enmeshed in an 1882-style web of blackmail, corrupt police, and murder.
Not soon enough, though. Finney pays great and meticulous detail to the features of 1882-era New York; indeed, this book would almost have read better as a historical account of that time and place. I suspect that residents of the Big Apple will be more interested in what’s become of Madison Park, or the Ladies’ Mile, than I was. There are a couple great moments where he emphasizes that the real essence of the time lies in its people, and several points where I was surprised at some of the things encountered in old New York.
The real beauty of this book, in fact, is its historical accuracy. I never doubted, in reading about the plots of farmland that Si sees on the island of Manhattan, that they were really there in our own past as well. Even so, there’s only so long I can be enthralled by a walking tour of old New York. When Si goes back again and becomes enamored of a young lady named Julia Charbonneau, I wondered what would become of Kate, but in fact Si gives almost no thought to her until he returns to the present.
The plot does get rolling eventually, and when it does, the book becomes much more engaging. The 1970 plot is looser than the 1882 plot, but even the wrenches thrown in at the end make sense, if only to drive the book to its inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, despite his misadventures in the past, Si comes to love 1882 much more than 1970, and that feeling is the heart of the book. Finney doesn’t gloss over the hardships of the late 19th century, but he does gloss over the benefits of 1970 life, dwelling more (in the short period when he does) on world wars, nuclear weapons, and the horrors of Vietnam.
For the theory of time travel alone, this would be a worthwhile book. The story is also well done, even if you end it from our perspective wanting to yell at Si, “Just stick around another twenty years.” Bear with it through the long description and you’ll be rewarded, amply.