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Thrice Upon a Time

Thrice Upon a Time, by James P. HoganThrice Upon a Time front
Del Rey Books, 1980
Price I paid: 95¢

When Murdoch was summoned to his grandfather’s isolated Scottish castle, he had no idea of the old man’s latest discovery—nor where it would lead him. Sir Charles, a genius in far-out physics, had found a flaw in the law of conservation of energy; in any process an incredibly tiny increment of energy escaped—back through time! Using this “tau” radiation, he could send messages into the past.

But Murdoch discovered records of messages he knew he had never sent! Were many futures possible? Could a message from Future X alter the past—and thus wipe out Future X? But who would be foolish enough to send a message that could eliminate his own existence?

Then disaster struck. An advanced fusion reactor threatened to destroy all Earth. Grimly, Murdoch sat down to send back the words that would destroy everything he had learned to love.

The cover of this book is just great. Standard-looking dude from the seventies is sitting at a hilariously outdated computer in a castle while a cat whispers secrets to him. Secrets man was not meant to know. Secrets of time travel.

The synopsis on the back is your standard-issue pack of lies. In this case it’s kind of understandable, though. This book was pretty long and it was packed full of scientific jargon and technobabble and conversation after conversation after conversation. It was kind of a slog, but it was also a fairly interesting slog for all that. The book is fairly hard as science fiction goes. It has to introduce a few fictional concepts to make itself work, but I would hardly say it gets fantastical or ridiculous with any of it. It was, in fact, pretty fun.

Our hero, Murdoch Ross, is a genius. He’s really good at math and physics and all those fun things. His friend, Lee Walker, is in his league, and they’re business partners. They go around and do scientific consulting for multinational tech firms. Not a bad gig, all told, and the book frequently goes into the fact that they do it not because of the money or because of their smarts but because it’s the only way they can stay out of the corporate culture and yet still contribute to science.

See, this book takes place in the far-flung future world of 2010, where things have gone insane! Not really. In fact, a lot of the predictions in this book, while a bit silly in retrospect, aren’t especially that weird. The big things to note are that science is now almost entirely funded by private industry, which has even gone so far as to establish its own company universities and education systems in an effort to create the best scientists money can buy. Murdoch and Lee don’t really want to be a part of that culture, though, nor do they want to work for the government, so they just freelance and do their own thing.

Also this future has flying cars that can fly on autopilot. That’s about the wackiest thing in this particular brand of the future, beyond the time travel.

Well, it’s not actually time travel, either. See, Murdoch’s grandfather, Sir Charles, blows both Murdoch and Lee out of the water when it comes to scientific genius. He’s won a Nobel for something about quantums, and he’s created a means by which he can transmit data through time. It all has something to do with an esoteric “tau” energy that is created whenever matter is annihilated or something.

There’s a lot of technobabble in this book. It comprises the majority of the text. I’m going to skip most of it and start at, oh, page 150 or so.

Beyond the technobabble, actually, there’s a lota lot a lot a lot, of sitting around and discussing ideas like free will and paradoxes and the morality of communicating through with the past or the future and all that kind of stuff.

Really, I feel like this book was less of a narrative than it was an attempt to reconcile some ideas for the author’s sake.

Or let’s look at it this way. Stories dealing with time travel and whatnot are going to go one or two ways: either there are a lot of complicated rules for futzing with the time stream or there aren’t. In the latter case, the audience is left thinking about the possible paradoxes and the inconsistencies and all that stuff. The time travel in something like, say, Back to the Future just doesn’t make a lot of sense when you really think about it, but it’s a truly excellent story so we don’t care, right?

James P. Hogan doesn’t seem to think that way. He has to lay it all out for us. He’s definitely in the first camp when it comes to time travel stories. Any possible problem with the mechanics or paradoxes or the propagation or change or parallel universes whether branching or serial are thought of and explained. He went through a heck of a lot of trouble just to convince me that he’s thought long and hard about the nature of causality.

Hogan was, in fact, an engineer by training and trade, so I can see why he felt the need to do this. And, all told, he did a pretty good job of it. The characters approached the problems with a level-headed scientific realism that, while not entirely fun to read, managed to keep me from throwing the book away and screaming that this was another idiot scientist plot like Links or something. I kept reading it and didn’t skip ahead or anything. But it was a slog.

The actual story part of the book goes thusly: Murdoch meets a girl, Anne, and falls in love with her. She works as a doctor at a pan-European experimental fusion reactor that’s located not altogether far from his uncle’s castle where all the time travel stuff is going on. It is at some point revealed that the experimental reactor is causing some real problems. It’s actually creating tiny black holes that are falling to the center of the Earth and will someday all merge and kill us all. Normally you’d think these tiny singularities would disperse via Hawking radiation (yes, the book goes into all that. He thought this through), but the cutting-edge physics involved with the time travel experiments prove that something about tau radiation is holding the black holes together or something like that. Either way, what would logically happen isn’t, and we’re all doomed.

So Murdoch figures the only rational thing to do would be to send a message back in time to a point before the reactor was activated. The machine has a limit—it can only send a signal backward or forward by about a day—but they figure out a way around that. Basically why not piggyback the signal a day at a time? Tell the computer to tell the previous day’s computer to tell the day before yesterday’s computer…and so forth.

Murdoch and Anne realize that this will probably mean that, due to the conservation of plot, they will never meet and fall in love, so with a tearful farewell, they hit the button, saving humanity and ending the

Wait no there’s still A HUNDRED PAGES LEFT

Furthermore, they just hit the button that rendered the previous two hundred pages completely null and void.

Normally that would infuriate me but actually I was kind of fascinated. Why was there still so much book left?

Well, it seems that solving that problem just made room for another problem. There were hints in the previous timeline of some kind of illness going around that might be hazardous, but it was barely even a B-plot and neither I nor the characters gave it much attention. But with the really big crisis over and done with, that one comes to the forefront.

So I get to read the whole book over again. Great.

Well, again I was surprised and it wasn’t altogether that bad. Sure, the solution was almost exactly the same as the previous one, but they were able to skip a lot of stuff because they learned how to piggyback the time signal on itself from the future themselves who sent the signal stopping the end of the world.

Temporal mechanics gives me a headache.

In timeline B Murdoch and Anne never meet in the way that they did in timeline A so they never start dating. Perhaps completely astonishingly, the book doesn’t do any of that “they recognize each other on a subconscious plane because their love transcended time” or any of that BS. They meet once or twice, Murdoch asks her out, she declines, and they get on with their lives.

Really, that was significantly more powerful than any heavy-handed knowing-each-other-despite-history-being-changed stuff that you see altogether too frequently in this kind of story. It was really tragic, I thought, because they were at one time happy together and now they weren’t and they didn’t even have the faintest inkling that they once were.

The problem this time is a plague. Some government agency or another had a satellite with germs on it that they were experimenting on, looking for cures and stuff. The satellite, in a one-in-a-billion chance, got hit by a small meteorite and came crashing to the Earth. One of the really virulent ones survived the burnup and is now loose on the population. Because this book is fiction and not the actual world of the 21st century, the governments of the world band together and find a vaccine for the plague, but it takes them months and already there are so many people infected that we’re going to lose a lot of people.

The result is that they encode all the data they need for the vaccine and send it back in time, saving the world twice in one book.

As a coda, we see a short scene where Murdoch and Anne meet on the street, much as they had in the very first timeline. Aww.

For such a long book, it really had the plot of a short story. Two short stories, really. The rest was all decently-written analysis of concepts and consequences and all that kind of fun stuff.

I’m not going to call this book a success, really, but I can’t say it was much of a failure. It was well-thought-out. Too well. Two hundred pages well. About a hundred pages of this book, if that, were actual story. I didn’t mind reading the rest of the book, but I feel like I’d be an outlier on that. And I did get bored with it. Multiple times. I would get dragged back in mostly on the grounds that I like stories about temporal whatevers and I like to see what the author does with them. The book was a success on those grounds. James P. Hogan brought up a lot of things that were far beyond the tired old Grandfather paradox that so many authors think they’re clever for invoking. Hogan was, in fact, clever when he was coming up with his time travel system, and I can really respect that. I just wish he’d found a way of relating it that was more approachable. I’m not a scientist or an engineer, I’m just an enthusiastic amateur with a few college physics courses under my belt (And then only barely. Thank the gods that Dr. Levin was a professor who didn’t believe in failing people. I kid you not).

The future painted by this book wasn’t an especially bad one, as I think I’ve stated. It was fairly optimistic on certain things like flying cars and a subterranean train system linking New York and Los Angeles that travels something like 12,000 miles per hour, but those things are at least in some way conceivable as technologies that could exist. And Hogan did a good job of showing us just enough of the engineering that we can see that. But there was exactly one prediction about the future that made me laugh out loud.

So as the vaccine message is sent out, we cut back to the past versions of our characters receiving the information. This info dump is preceded by a message stating its validity and giving them instructions on how to decode and utilize it. Part of these instructions, and this is the thing that made me laugh, concern the data storage on the computers they’re using to run these experiments.

This book takes place in 2010 and our scientists are told that they won’t have enough storage to receive all the info, so they’ll have to do some messing around with the network to free up some. How much data storage do they need?


For a book that was so optimistic about flying cars and fusion power, it sure missed the mark on increasing computer storage capacities. I mean, geez. Fifty megs in 2010? I’ve been using this same laptop since then and it got more storage than that by a couple orders of magnitude. And it wasn’t even top-of-the-line then.

Oh, and there was one other thing that kind of bothered me, but it was almost certainly an editor’s fault and not the author’s. You know the cat on the front cover there? He shows up in the book rather a lot, and a big fuss is made over his name. He belongs to Sir Charles, who, being a proud Scottish scientist, named the cat after another great Scottish scientist. The cat’s name is “James Clark Maxwell.” This is repeated at least three times.

The scientist’s name was James Clerk Maxwell.

Apart from that, though, this book made for some pretty tolerable hard science fiction. Reading up on James P. Hogan I see that he went pretty kooky (if by “kooky” you mean denying things like evolution and The Holocaust), which is a real shame, because in his prime he seemed like a pretty intelligent fellow. If I found another couple books of his, though, I’d probably give them a read.


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