The Time Traders

Source: isfdb,org

The Time Traders by Andre Norton
Baen Books, 2000
Originally published by The World Publishing Company, 1958
Price I paid: none (library book)


Intelligence agents have uncovered something which seems beyond belief, but the evidence is incontrovertible: the USA’s greatest adversary on the world stage is sending its agents back through time! And someone or something unknown to our history is presenting them with technologies—and weapons—far beyond our most advanced science. We have only one option: create time-transfer technology ourselves, find the opposition’s ancient source…and take it down.

When small-time criminal Ross Murdock and Apache rancher Travis Fox stumble separately onto America’s secret time travel project, Operation Retrograde, they are faced with a challenge greater than either could have imagined possible. Their mere presence means they know too much to go free. But Murdock and Fox have a thirst for adventure, and Operation Retrograde offers that in spades.

Both men will become time agents, finding reserves of inner heroism they had never expected. Their journeys will take the battle to the enemy, from ancient Britain to prehistoric America, and finally to the farthest reaches of interstellar space….

(Note: This description is from the omnibus edition I read and therefore includes material referring to the second novel, Galactic Derelict. —Thomas)

A few months back I swapped some emails with author Syd Logsdon about YA lit, and the conversation turned to Andre Norton. I’d reviewed Norton’s Star Ka’at World already, and didn’t like it, but Mr. Logsdon turned my attention to the rest of her bibliography, as he appreciates her work. I was scanning a list of titles and hit upon The Time Traders. I did a little research, found a summary, and decided that it was a good bet for something I might enjoy. I’ve said it before, but I enjoy time travel stories, at least when they’re done right.

Andre Norton did this one right!

I’m not gonna do a whole list of what makes a time travel story “done right” in my estimation, since it’s subjective and really just boils down to “is it a good story?”

I don’t much care what the mechanics of the time travel machine are, or what the “rules” of time travel are (if you meet your past self there will be a universe-destroying paradox, or the clock in San Dimas is always running, or whether something important happens if you kill your own grandfather) as long as those things work for the story. For the most part, this means that they are used consistently and well, no matter how arbitrary they might seem, or how little they might make sense in real-world terms.

A big example is in Back to the Future. It doesn’t make sense how Marty’s siblings fade over time in the picture, and then Marty himself fades a little bit at a time, until his parents finally get together and then everything pops back into the way it’s supposed to all of a sudden. (Although Ryan North invokes a sort of “meta-time” to explain it, and that’s great.) What matters is that it’s an effective way of driving the story and building tension. Part of the reason I think it works well is that, honestly, I never even thought about it until Ryan mentioned it. I think that’s because it just works narratively, and that’s what matters to me.

I thought a lot about these concepts during and after reading this book, largely because they were absent. This is a time travel romp whose mechanics are never explained. Our chrononauts step on a metal pad and travel through time to another metal pad. How did the second metal pad get there? How was this technique discovered? Why does it work? If the metal pads have to be in the same place geographically but not temporally, how do you account for the fact that the Earth is moving through space around the Sun as the Sun moves around the center of the galaxy as the Universe expands?

Does any of that matter to the story? Nope! What matters is that there are Soviets using time travel for nefarious purposes, and our dudes have to put a stop to it.

This is the first book in a series, so it’s possible that some or all of those questions are addressed later. If so, that’s fine! If not, that’s fine too!

Our hero is a fella named Ross Murdock. He’s a rebel and he’ll never, ever be any good. When we first meet him, he’s being sentenced for some crime or another. Instead of getting punished, though, he ends up going to work for some mysterious institution.

Murdock’s crime more or less boils down to having a “rebellious streak” and “not following the rules of modern society.” In that regard he’s like a hundred other stock sci-fi protags. He’s otherwise featureless. For all that I liked about this book, characterization was not one of its strongest points. In this way it was very much like a lot of other books of the late fifties and I’m willing to forgive it.

It’s revealed, though, that his particular brand of rebelliousness is perfect for being a temporal agent! So that’s what he becomes.

FIrst, though, there’s this interlude where he tries to escape with the help of some other dude, but then it turns out that that other dude is a Soviet agent, and that incident, which would likely have gotten Murdock killed had it succeeded, makes him more patriotic or something.

There’s a lot of a feeling in this book, and it’s my second main point of criticism. I hate to call it a complaint because I think it’s just a difference in the way I read and the way Norton wrote this book. Maybe it’s the way she writes all her books.

The long and short of it is that this book proceeds at a breakneck pace. I found that if I did not deliberately read every word of every sentence, I would miss something and have to go back. Events that in other novels would take a couple of pages happen over the course of a few paragraphs. This is a book that doesn’t have a lot of fat to it, and that’s great, but I’m used to skipping a few lines here and there and getting the gist. If it’s a book I adore I can always come back and read it more closely later. Take some notes, make it a whole thing. In this book, that did not work. I had to treat it like I was some guy deciphering the book of Isaiah to make a Facebook ad about how #fightfor15 is the Whore of Babylon or whatever the hell is going to send me into a depression spiral today.

That kind of got away from me, sorry.

Anyway, this is coupled with the fact that Norton rarely feels the need to explain anything. Things just happen. They’re never story-breaking things, to be fair. She just never justifies that something is happening. The fact that it’s happening is justification enough. If you care so much about it, you figure it out.

My main example of this is that at one point, Murdock and the rest of his squad parachute in to a location. This location is in the past. We skip entirely them going back in the first place, much less boarding any kind of plane. How is there a plane in the past? Where did it come from? Was it built there? How did that kind of mechanization come about, and how is it hidden from the inhabitants of the past? I think the plane is shaped like a bird so that past people won’t think anything of it, but then again, wouldn’t that be a pretty damn big bird? Surely somebody would question that?

I feel like so far I’ve been talking about what didn’t work for me. But here’s the thing: I did really enjoy this book, despite my difficulties with it. The reason I enjoyed it is because the premise is clever and great.

Both the Americans and the Reds have access to time travel, although it’s kept a secret from the public. Our side has determined that the Reds have made some gains in technology lately that cannot be explained by regular research. Clearly they’re getting it from somewhere or someone else. The conclusion they leap to is that the Russians have gone back in time and discovered some variety of advanced civilization, now extinct without a trace, and are getting technology from them.

That’s a heck of a conclusion to jump to, but I love it!

Murdock and another agent, Ashe, are sent back to Bronze Age Britain to pose as members of the Bell Beaker culture. Their goal is to find any kind of Russian base at this point in history, which they eventually do.

This book played out in a very episodic way that made me think the book had its origins as a serial, but on further investigation I see that it never was. There’s an odd sequence where, for reasons I never quite pieced together but probably make perfect sense to every other reader, Murdock loses his memory of being Murdock and lives out part of the book as Rossa, his historytimes cover story. It happens suddenly, saves him from the Russians when they interrogate him, and then just as suddenly goes away again. I remember something about a flash of light being involved. Everything seems to happen suddenly in this book but I talked about that already.

One way or another, it’s revealed that while there is a base at this point in history, it’s not where the Reds are getting their tech. Instead, it turns out to be a waypoint on the way back to a different point in history. The real goal is during the Ice Age. An Ice Age. I’m not exactly sure if they’re specific on which Ice Age we’re talking about here.

It turns out that during this period of prehistory, Earth was kind of a bad place for space ships to go? A number of them crashed here. Glacial action and plain old time meant that there was little trace of them in human history, but apparently just enough of one survived down to modern times for the Russians to find. Their answer was to travel back in time and find the whole thing.

Murdock finds his way back there and through wildly flailing at a control console he doesn’t understand, manages to alert the alien race that owns this ship as to its whereabouts. They show up, unhappy, and now Murdock is on the run from both the Russians and the aliens, who are your standard high-bald-forehead-skinny-guy type. I think the aliens also don’t like the Russians but we don’t see them interact much.

Sometimes Norton slows down the lightspeed narrative to show us just how dire the situation is. She’s good at writing exhaustion, despair, loneliness, and things of that nature. Murdock spends some time in those states, especially as the book comes to a close, and it was very effective writing.

Murdock comes through all that and manages to get back to his own people. He tells them all he’s learned. There’s a small amount of exposition that seemed like ages compared to what we get in the rest of this book where we learn what else has been discovered by other agents, up to an including the fact that there is now evidence of prehistoric crashed spaceships in North America, where the good guys can get to them. There’s still the threat of the aliens themselves, whatever they are, but the folks in command are convinced that this will be the breakthrough they need to finally learn how to do space travel.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger but I’m sure Norton intended to make this a series from the start. The ebook edition I got from the library is an omnibus that includes the first two books, so I’ll probably get started on the second book pretty soon! I want to see how all this shakes out, and I’d like to see how well Norton was able to keep up this frantic pace of this book. Is that her normal way of writing? I want to say that the other Norton novel I’ve read, the YA Star Ka’at World, also felt like it didn’t waste time with a lot of explanations, but it was much shorter, for a different audience, and written with a co-author. I feel like it’s not representative.

In doing a little Wikipedia reading I discovered that she might have written the first ever Dungeons and Dragons-based novel, Quag Keep, after playing in the Greyhawk setting with Gary Gygax. It is unlikely that I will discover a cooler fact today. 

Actually, I take that back. That might be tied for cool facts. The other one is that the day after this post goes live is Norton’s 108th birthday. What a neat coincidence! 

All-in-all, I did really enjoy this book, even though it was kind of hard for me to read. I think the best way I can put it is that I had to get used to the style, which isn’t a frequent feeling for me when I’m not reading things that aren’t avant-garde bullshit artistry. 

I had a few other problems, described above. It’s also notable that there are very few women in the book. I think two are mentioned? Hardly surprising for 1958, but perhaps worth mentioning. At least neither of the women were, at least as far as I can remember, human MacGuffins, in fridges, or shrieking harpies. One of them was a priestess and held a position of power in their historical society, so that’s a plus.

I do recommend it to anybody who enjoys a good, clever take on time travel stories. This is a fine example. I got it from my library’s Overdrive subscription, but I see here that it’s also available from the Baen Free Library and Project Gutenberg, so you don’t have any excuse in terms of accessibility. Give it a look and tell me what you think?

4 thoughts on “The Time Traders

  1. What a hoot. I laughed all they way through at the things that bothered you, because you were so 2020, and the things that bothered you were so normal for 1958, the year this was published. Norton was writing at normal speed for books that ran 40-50 thousand words. She never explained anything, and rarely spent more than 200 words, scattered, on world building. After all, she had three more books to write that year.

    To be fair though, I never much liked Ross Murdock either. Also to be fair, I was in the exact reverse of your position recently. I tried to read Neal Stephenson’s Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I loved what I read, but about a third of the way through I quit, because he had already written what I considered a novel’s worth of words, and basically nothing had happened yet. He needed to read some Norton and find a happy medium, IMHO.

    FYI, Ross’s memory zone-out was due to the bosses on our side who weren’t to be trusted. A similar issue becomes the center piece of book three, The Defiant Agents.

    Also FYI, Alice changed her name to Andre (legally, it wasn’t just a pen-name) to survive in SF in the fifties. But starting with Witch World in 1963, she began bringing women into her stories. By the time I had read a few dozen of her books and moved on, there were female protagonists in most of them. She was a massive influence on female SF writers of today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the next book in the series, Galactic Derelict. It had everything I wanted to read about when I was a kid. Now I have to laugh thinking about how the autopilot runs on magnetic tape! (magnetic wire really)

    Liked by 2 people

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