Time Story Story Time: The Great Time Machine Hoax
"Time is what keeps everything from happening at once."
I'll admit it--I like time travel stories, especially well-constructed ones. And since R4 has asked me to help fill out the Wednesday slot with articles, I'm going to be reviewing some of my favorite time-travel stories.
I'll begin with a book I've just recently read, "The Great Time Machine Hoax" by Keith Laumer. I'd never heard of it before, even though it was originally written in 1963. The nice thing about time travel stories is that they never seem "dated." And how can you say no to a book with a cover picture of two guys in arm chairs looking at a dinosaur?
It begins somewhat unpromisingly in the near future, somewhere in America, as Chester W. Chester IV steps out of his personal helocar to find out how his circus, Wowser's Wonder Shows, is managing in a world with Tri-D television sets. The answer is "not good," as his manager, Case Mulvihill, informs him. Case is a strapping gent who has been standing in for the strong man of late, as well as the circus barker, roustabout, and ringmaster.
Chester has bad news, too--his ancestral estate, which has been wrapped up in litigation for several generations, is about to be seized and sold for back taxes. Everything will be broken up and sold, the Neo-Victorian mansion with its gaudy plastic ornaments, the extensive wine cellar, and the Generalized Nonlinear Extrapolator, a supercomputer Chester's great-grandfather had been building. Chester is resigned to this, as he would prefer not to go to jail for tax fraud that he probably didn't commit.
Case and Chester go to have a look at the old place, and to see what value the computer components might possess. They discover that the computer has not only been running its information-gathering program for four generations, but it has developed sapience and, in order to protect itself as it ran its program, has been manipulating a number of agencies, including the stock market and NASA.
The two gentlemen find this frighteningly impressive, and are even more impressed when the computer demonstrates that it can create extraordinarily realistic simulations of past events.
Case believes that this may be their ticket to earning the money to pay the back taxes, and keeping the estate: to wit, by charging customers to view history as though they were actually part of it. The computer is something like a time machine--or, at least, that's how they will market the experience.
The problem is that the computer wants to show the real, actual events, not Hollywood-style impressions of how things were, and the two men talk it into snazzing things up a bit because people expect ancient kings to speak with grand Shakespearian diction, not gutteral grunts as they scratch themselves. The computer obliges.
To further test the program, they ask to be taken back to the age of dinosaurs. A steaming jungle appears around the rug and two armchairs the men are occupying, and soon a dinosaur emerges from the trees, coming so close that it threatens to step onto the rug. Case is delighted with the "realism" of the "simulation," but Chester is becoming increasingly concerned about just how real everything seems to be.
When they point out that the disembodied computer voice is somewhat disillusioning, and that a mobile speaker to serve as a docent would be useful, the computer obligingly produces Genie, a beautiful, nubile girl, who wears nothing but a suntan and a smile. Genie is telepathically linked to the computer, but only so long as she is within its resonance field. This point becomes important later on.
Their next visit is to a Neolithic village, where Case's belief that it's all just a mirage is shattered when they are attacked and taken captive by a bunch of cavemen. Seperated now from the rug and chairs, Genie is unable to do anything to help get them home. While Case is being made to fight the cavemen's hulking champion, Chester successfully escapes from his wickerwork cage and rescues Genie. The two of them flee without being able to get Case out of the crowd, and, returning to the computer interface, order it to bring them home.
They materialize in the middle of a city street, and chaos ensues, not the least of which is caused by Genie's lack of attire. They are seperately taken captive by the police. Chester is able to escape his cell thanks to a tiny laser cigarette lighter he had in his pocket, and he is soon able to create a rather elaborate diversion that allows him to get back on the carpet--which was surrounded by a police cordonne--and to have the computer whisk him away.
Confused as he was to find himself in some alternate version of 1967, Chester is even more dismayed when the computer deposits him in a place that seems lifted from Laputa, a serene temple full of philosophical types who completely ignore him while he tries to explain about how he got there. They whisk him away from his rug and chairs so they can study the phenomenon more closely.
Nearly mad with worry about the fates of his two companions, Chester desperately tries to return to the interface, and is prevented from doing so by the insufferably calm Norgo and Devant.
Life in this place is not unpleasant, it's almost like an elegant spa, but Chester is certain that Case is being roasted alive and eaten by the aboriginies, and Genie is being interrogated by the cops. Chester is finally given a chance to get his property back, but on the condition that he go first to a training center and let these savants study him.
It is here that things begin to turn around for Chester. Previously a rather pasty and lazy ball of neuroses, Chester is trained into something like a ninja under the tutelage of Kuve, until Chester is eventually able to outwit a series of traps Kuve had set for him, and escape from the Center into the wilderness.
Where he is caught by a superior force of hillbillies who have eschewed civilization's strictures to live free in the woods...a freedom which entails raiding grocery stores and occupying a decaying abandoned city.
Chester wins the admiration of the wildmen's leader, Bandon, after catching one of Bandon's arrows in mid-flight. He also gains the enmity of Grizz, a hulking badass who just wants to kill Chester because he's a "townie." When Grizz tries to assault Chester, Chester successfully counters every attempt with carefully-laid traps, but at the end of it he and Bandon are forced to flee from the encampment, only to end up trapped on top of a mesa.
Here they find a parachute and gear from a long-dead explorer, and Chester--who used to build model airplanes as a hobby--talks Bandon into helping him build a glider to get them off the mesa. They manage this just as Grizz and his followers figure out how to climb to the top of the mesa, sailing away to land back in the Tricennium where Chester first arrived.
But Chester is no longer the same guy, and uses his newfound physical and mental prowess to defeat Devant and get his carpet back. He orders the computer to take him back to where he'd left Genie, and, failing to bluff his way into the jail, comandeers a huge bulldozer and knocks a wall out of the building to free her. She is hesitant at first, not recognizing him, but then goes along with him to find and rescue Case.
The village they return to is quite different than the one they'd left. The natives are much cleaner, better-looking, and better-dressed, and welcome them, bringing Chester and Genie into the presence of an old, bearded man, who turns out to be Case. Thirty years had passed as he waited for Chester to come save him, and in that time he undertook to teach civilization to the natives--mainly because he himself wanted to be surrounded by healthy people who didn't smell of sickness, and who could farm and fish and cook and sew and play music so that Case could have steaks and good food and nice clothing and pleasant company. He had accomplished this because he had thrown their previous witch doctor into the lake and drowned him, thus setting himself up as a benevolent tyrant.
As nice as things seem to be, Case would like to go home, but when they ask the computer to take them back to their proper timeframe, it informs them that their world no longer exists; Case's tampering with the natives has changed reality, allowing for the Tricenniums that Chester encountered in the future.
They seem to be stuck, until Case comes up with the idea that, if the computer could "recreate" the past so realistically as to actually convey them there, it could "recreate" Chester's great-grandfather's lab, and the house and grounds as well. The computer agrees it can do this, and furthermore recreates the entire planet from its memory banks, thus bringing the time-travellers home. Even the matter of the back taxes gets taken care of, when a man from the Bureau of Vital Statistics--informed retroactively by the computer during the week the three had been away-- offers them five million credits to lease the machine from them. Genie turns out to be an actual human, grown from a cell sample the computer had taken from Case when the two men had first entered the room, so Chester decides to marry her.
Okay, this story SCREAMS "deus ex machinas," but I think that that was exactly what the author was going for, with his world-building computer. I found it to be entertaining, and there were a few brilliant passages about social engineering that still ring true today.
On the down side, the story often reads like a series of vignettes, scripts written for radio plays. The first part is composed of almost nothing but back and forth dialog between Case, Chester, and later, the Computer. Genie, whose name is an acronym for Generalized Nonlinear Extrapolator, serves almost no purpose beyond being a beautiful naked chick who talks like a computer, and is a bit of a joke ("genie," get it?)
There are also some passages that are a little difficult to fully understand, and I'd like to think due to some poor stitchery on the writer's part, not because I'm dull-witted. As in a lot of science fiction, Laumer comes up with some really intersting beginnings, but since he can't really complete the thought (because reality won't let him) he just has his character get interrupted in the middle of an expostulation. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. He also introduces a lot of potential plot concepts that don't get explored, like prehistorical visits by alien cultures and so forth. And some of the character development is a bit erratic as well.
Which is why my general impression of this novel was that it was an amalgamation of several short story concepts that used time travel as the plot device to link them together, since they otherwise had absolutely nothing in common to forge them into a coherent narrative. There are a number of really neat images and ideas in here, but they feel like flipping through the channels on the TV, and trying to put a show together from two-minute snippets. And the ending is a little too sudden for me, like he simply ran out of ideas and went for the "happilyeveraftertheend" card.
For me, the story got interesting when Chester was sent to study with Kuve, and then, later, when Case is describing how he spent his thirty years among the natives.