Times Without Number by John Brunner
Ace Books, 1962
Price I paid: $6.99 ÷ 2
Traveling backwards in time, Don Miguel had to undo the errors and interruptions of other time-interlopers; he had to preserve the present. Even the most insignificant nudging of the past could entirely alter his world! And he suspected that this had already happened: that a maniacal genius crazed with a desire for nationalist vindication had plotted to alter the victorious outcome of the Spanish Armada of 1588—thus changing recorded history and perhaps even imperiling the mighty Spanish Empire of 1988!
If Don Miguel did not successfully intercede, when he came back to the present he might find a different world…a different time…a time in which he probably didn’t even exist!
So this is my third John Brunner novel. Between The Wrong End of Time and I Speak for Earth, I think he was batting .500 with me until I read this one. That’s how baseball works, right? I don’t know why I know that.
I also don’t know why I felt the need to even use baseball stats language today. Something’s weird in my brain. What could it be?
I dunno, but it might be that that very same brain was blown away by an amazing book!
Seriously, though, holy crap. This book was great. I’m not going to call it flawless, and I’m not going to call it a masterwork, but it was so good. Like, I know a lot of people who are very fond of John Brunner. And I did a little digging around and Jo Walton called this one “minor Brunner,” but y’all, if this is minor stuff, I’m not sure if I can handle the major works.
I’ve had a copy of Stand on Zanzibar downloaded to my Kindle for a few years. I keep thinking I’ll start it any day now. Maybe soon? We’ll see.
The main thing about this book was that it managed to convey some big, world-level concepts that worked alongside some little ideas that also worked. This is a rare treat! Let’s jump into those big ideas first.
This book takes place in the far-flung future year of 1988. What predictions for this future year did Brunner give us? Well, none really. Because that’s not what this book is.
In this 1988, the world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the smashing victory of the Spanish Armada over the English fleet and the successful Spanish invasion of England.
Brunner gives us revelations about this alternate history a little at a time, always leaving me hungry for more. We learn that not only did the Spanish invade England successfully and create a wide-reaching Spanish Empire, we learn also that Spain itself is no longer under the dominion of its nominal Empire. Not long after the invasion of England, there was a second Muslim Conquest. As as result, most of this book takes place in England, in cities with names like Jorque and Londres.
It also takes place in the New World occasionally. Late in the book we learn that there is a city called New Castille where our New York would be. Indigenous Americans are almost universally referred to as “Mohawks.” This is because the New World isn’t so much settled by the Spanish as allied with them. During its empire building phase, the Spanish allied themselves with the Mohawk people specifically, who grew in power and then became the dominant culture in North America. As a result, the Spanish have grown to think of all of the native peoples as some variety of “Mohawk” with a monolithic culture, which sounds silly until you realize that in our history we did the exact same thing, except we called them something they never even called themselves in the first place. Jumping ahead a little bit, the Spanish learn far too late that this is not an accurate representation, to their sorrow.
Oh, and there’s one more thing about this timeline that’s different from ours: It has time travel.
It’s not even a recent invention, either. Time travel was discovered around a hundred years before the events of this book. It’s a pretty simple matter, too. Brunner never goes into that much detail about the process, but it seems to involve iron and silver bars, electrified so that they rotate dimensions or somesuch. It’s simple in concept but requires a lot of precision. The main point is that time travel is not only a real thing, it’s a very accessible thing.
Or it would be, if it weren’t under the strict domain of the Catholic Church. Specifically, it seems the Jesuits seem to control it. And even more specifically, it’s under the purview of the Society of Time, and that’s where our hero comes in.
Don Miguel Navarro is a fairly new member of the Society of Time, having been a member for a few years now. He’s had some adventures, though. He’s had conversations with Julius Caesar. His face is scarred from an adventure in Macedonia, where a hoplite hit him with a spear.
At the beginning of the book, Don Miguel is at a party held by the Marquesa Catalina de Jorque. He really doesn’t want to be there, but decorum requires him to be, representing the Society of Time.
This book doesn’t have a lot of problematic stuff going on, but one of the few is right here at the top. The Marquesa is one of the very few women in this book, and she’s not exactly a sympathetic one. She’s dumb and childish and naive, which I’d almost be fine with chalking up to her being a member of the nobility, but to make things worse, she’s also an advocate for women’s suffrage and equality, so now we’re tying all of those things together, whether intentionally or not, and it’s not a good look.
Fortunately, that’s one of the very few things I have to complain about with this book.
Don Miguel meets the Marquesa and some of her cronies. He is less than impressed by them. They ask him some questions about time travel, and we get an exchange that convinced me I was probably going to like this book a lot:
She raised her sharp eyes to Don Miguel’s face, and heaved a sigh. “But that we have in our midst a man who has spoken with Cesar himself! Is that not a miracle?”
“We of the Society of Time do not regard it as such,” Don Miguel answered off-handedly. “A miracle, perhaps, would be to discover a means of flying to the moon. No one has suggested natural means whereby that might be accomplished.”pg 10
In many other books, this would have come off as corny. Things like this usually do. I don’t know why it works so well here for me.
The Marquesa shows Don Miguel one of her prize possessions, a gold mask, and Don Miguel recognizes it immediately for what it is. It’s an Aztec mask, and it’s brand new. This wasn’t found in the ground recently, it is temporal contraband.
The first third of the book is the story of Don Miguel and his Society of Time pals figuring out where and when the mask came from, whether its removal from the timestream has caused damage, and if they can get it back to undo any of that damage. He discovers the answers to all of these things, as well as who gave it to the Marquesa so that he could later blackmail her about it, replaces it in history, and the whole thing wraps up quite neatly, except we also learn that the Society of Time has several members who have gotten rather lax on the rules lately. I thought this would be a major part of the rest of the book, but it wasn’t quite.
I began the next chapter thinking that maybe it would have further fallout or some stunning revelations or something. It’s a reasonable expectation. But no, that’s not what happened this time. See, it turns out that this is a fix-up novel. It consists of three short stories that are connected via main character and premise, and even reference each other, but are distinct narratives.
That’s all well and good, but when I come into it unknowingly, I sometimes feel a little cheated.
I’m told that some years later, Brunner reworked this book into a new version. He added some material and I’m going to presume he smoothed it out a little bit. I’m very curious about that. I liked this book enough that there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll try to find the expanded version!
Story #2 was the weakest of the three. It was still fine in many ways. It kind of lost me in its ending, though. Something about it didn’t quite click.
Like the first story, it takes place around revelry for the 400th anniversary of the Armada. Don Miguel is once again at a party he’d rather not be at. He is introduced to the lovely Princess Kristina of the Unified Kingdoms of Sweden and Norroway. That’s not a typo. Together they decide that the party is boring and she begins to interest him a little bit, when things start to go haywire. A strange woman appears on the street and begins attacking people. She is either naked or scantily clothed, and her body is covered in tattoos of feathers. Not knowing what’s going on, Don Miguel takes the woman to the Society of Time, and talks to Father Ramón, the Jesuit priest who is the Wise Old Man of these stories.
Word soon comes that many more of these women have arrived and are attacking the party that Don Miguel just left. They’ve killed a lot of people, including King Philip IX and most of the rest of the partygoers.
Father Ramón tells us that these women are from an alternate timeline where an Indian named Mahendra the White Elephant was able to conquer the Mongol Empire. He knows about this because, apparently, it’s not above the Society of Time to occasionally futz around with history to see what happens and then put it back. Anyway, Mahendra had a cadre of fierce warrior women at his command.
Now where I lose track of what happens is that apparently there was an argument amongst some of the bigwigs about various warrior societies and which ones would win in a fight. One of the members of the Society of Time, a Don Arturo Córtes, decided that he’d prove that these particular warrior women were the clear winners by heading out and bringing some back?
I know that this is a book with a lot of wild ideas but this one just didn’t really mesh with the rest of it.
Anyway, upon discovering that this is the case, Don Miguel goes back in time a few days and tells Father Ramón to keep Don Arturo from being where he was, thus preventing the whole thing from happening. For reasons, memories of both timelines are kept only by Don Miguel, Father Ramón, and Don Arturo, who, in the previous timeline, was killed. Apparently having a memory of one’s own death is a harrowing experience.
So that’s story two. Story three is the one I was waiting for. It’s the one I was told the book was about, after all. It’s the one described by the summary matter.
This one has more convolution but it also made a lot more sense, because that convolution had a better payoff.
We first meet a guy named Two Dogs. He is a “Mohawk” who lives in California. He runs a mine. He tells Don Miguel that his miners have been discovering some odd things. Veins of ore that look like they have already been mined, for starters, but finally culminating in a very modern drillbit inside an ancient mineshaft.
Don Miguel takes this information to his superiors, and postulates that the Confederacy of Europe is behind this. See, they also have time travellers. The two powers have are bound by the Treaty of Prague not to use time travel to the detriment of the other. If the Confederacy has indeed gone back in time and mined ore on the past-land of a Spanish ally, it could mean war.
It’s Father Ramón who solves it all, as he seems to do more often than not. He and Don Miguel go back in time and give the Confederate miners a stern talking to, and they leave. Here I thought that this was the end of that story, but I was wrong.
Father Ramón asks an interesting question of Don Miguel: Find that drill bit. After all, the drill bit has to have been left behind, otherwise there’d have been no reason for the two men to come back in time and fix the situation in the first place. Don Miguel searches and discovers that he cannot find it.
So they go back to the present day, and we get one of the best observations of the practicalities of time travel I’ve ever read. It’s so simple and so elegant that it blew my mind.
It was always the strangest quirk of time-travel that a man might go back a thousand years to a later time of day, and feel below the conscious level of his mind that he had traveled forward, while by returning from a late hour to an earlier one he would feel he had traveled back. It was dizzying, as usual, to emerge from the dusk of the year 948 to the high noon glare of the day they had set out from.pg 119
I love it so much.
So it turns out that the drill bit wasn’t left over from the past after all. It was planted there in modern times by Two Dogs. I’m not sure if, at first, his plan had any real time manipulation intended, or if he was just trying to spark a war between the Empire and the Confederacy. I think that’s it. See, Two Dogs is chafing under the rule of the Mohawk Nation. I forget what tribal group he belongs to, but he’s our entry into the idea that the culture of North America isn’t this singular Mohawk one. He hoped that war would destabilize the situation enough that his own people could become ascendant.
But that didn’t work, so now he’s gonna use time travel.
Two Dogs decides to go back and stop the Spanish Armada from its victory. Don Miguel goes back to stop him from doing what he does, and discovers that he can’t. Don Miguel didn’t go back to the day of the battle, he went back further, in a way that would be nearly impossible to figure out where and when he did it, but he changed things so that instead of the Armada being led by the capable Duke of Parma, it is led by an aristocrat with no experience named Medina Sidonia.
Now, I admit I didn’t recognize the guy’s name, but I certainly had my suspicions as to what this was all leading up to.
Helpless to do anything, Don Miguel consigns himself to coming back to 1988 and learning what cruel fate awaits him. Maybe he’ll be able to go back and fix it, maybe not.
He shows up in the city of New York, in a world where time travel does not exist. Despite knowing how to reinvent it, Don Miguel decides not to. It is too dangerous. Instead he goes forward to learn what he can about the bizarre new timeline he’s landed in.
Oh dang I love it so much!
I spent a lot of this book bouncing back and forth on the idea that Don Miguel’s world would be found to be the result of temporal malfeasance and he’d have to sacrifice everything to put it back. The “Yesterday’s Enterprise” story. Instead, I got this excellent twist that our world only exists because the hero of this book failed in his mission. That’s a heck of an ending.
And it works so well because I liked Don Miguel! He was a likable guy who did his job. He was frequently over his head on the time travel stuff, but so was I. He was an effective protagonist both at getting stuff done and being a point of view for the audience.
And while the rest of the world in this book is certainly not something I’d want to come to pass, I still found myself immersed in it. Even in this short little book, Brunner managed to create enough of a living world that I could feel it. It’s not a great world. Slavery still exists and women’s rights are backward even by 1962 standards. The Catholic Church runs basically everything and the Inquisition is, though you might not expect it, still in full force. I’m not going to say it’s a world I sympathize with in any way, but I still felt like I lived in it for 139 pages, and when it dissolved, I felt a little sad.
And the fact that it had to dissolve so that I and everything I know and love could exist makes it a double whopper.
The book had its flaws, sure. Not only with its (barely existent) portrayal of women, but also with its portrayal of the indigenous Americans. Mainly that comes through with a character I haven’t much talked about, named Red Bear. Red Bear is a higher-up in the Society of Time, and certainly a capable member, but on several occasions the book decides to state that, like “all of his kind,” he has a weakness for “fire water.”
I guess the drunk Indian stereotype transcends all timelines.
There are probably other things I could nitpick but those are the worst offenders in an otherwise inoffensive book.
And to repeat, I liked this book a lot.
I want to read a lot more Brunner! Quick poll: Should I jump into Stand On Zanzibar next or should I somehow ease my way into it? I get the feeling that it’ll be quite a lot different from this whizbang time travel romp, excellent though it may be.
7 thoughts on “Times Without Number”
Maybe start with The Whole Man or The Shockwave Rider before Stand. But, then again, I read Stand first — and perhaps that was a bad idea because all other Brunner was subpar (well, other than The Sheep Look Up).
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*I felt that all other Brunner was subpar to Stand (he wrote tons of quality stuff obviously).
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I’ve only read Zanzibar, worked great on its own. One of my favorite SF books. As a result I have 3 other Brunners on my tbr, but I’m somehow reluctant to start those, maybe because of what Joachim said.
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I’d recommend ‘The Jagged Orbit’, which I feel is a better novel than either ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ or the ‘Sheep Look Up’, even if he does have to resort to a literal deus ex machinia for the ending.
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Of the Brunners I have read, this ranks near the top, right after Traveller in Black. Brunner’s novels are often complex and well thought out, but his characters are rarely sympathetic (to me). Probably for that reason, Stand on Zanzibar is a novel I respect immensely, but didn’t especially enjoy.
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Rich Horton has reviewed a ton of Brunner books. https://rrhorton.blogspot.com/search?q=john+brunner
If you are interested in looking into more of his work. I could find only 2 on my list of books I read in 1965, this one and To Conquer Chaos. I gave them both a grade of “B” — in my 15 year old’s opinion.
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Ooh, nice! Thanks!