Time Wants a Skeleton by Ross Rocklynne
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, June 1941
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
Back in March I exhausted my little collection of robot short stories. I got a lot of great suggestions for new compilations to look for, and I promise I’ll start looking for them as soon as I get a chance. Until then, I found this collection of short novels on one of my bookshelves. It turned out to be a great combination of authors I’d never heard of, authors I’ve been meaning to read more of, and specific stories I’ve been saying I’ll get around to for years uncountable. I figured that it sounded like a fun way to spend some time, so I gave it ago.
It doesn’t hurt that my brain is all scrambled. I just wasn’t feeling up to an entire novel this week, so finding a new short story compilation took on a certain urgency. Even keeping that in mind, I think this was a decent choice.
So the first—
Okay so what am I going to call these things? The compilation itself calls them “short novels.” They’re definitely longer than short stories. I did some quick back-of-the-napkin math and I think this one clocked between 25 and 30 thousand words. Internet tells me that’s roughly novella length. This is probably a pointless distinction.
Speaking of words written, I did some more napkin-math and, while I could be off a little bit, I think this blog has just about the same the word count of Les Misérables.
(Assuming 332 posts averaging 2000 words apiece, that’s 664,000 words. Les Mis, in French, has 655,478.)
Anyway, that’s even more pointless than the novella thing. Let’s talk about this piece of fiction, whatever it calls itself.
I was wholly unfamiliar with Ross Rocklynne before I read this work. Wikipedia tells me that the name is a pen name for Ross Rocklin. I don’t know why he felt the need to change his surname like that? Interesting. Anyway, he was prolific in the 30s and 40s but never hit the heights of Asimov or Heinlein or any of those guys, even though he ran around in the same circles. He, like most of the folks in this compilation, was in Campbell’s stable.
He largely retired from writing in the 50s but made a return in ’72 with his story “Ching Witch!” appearing in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions. I could have sworn I’ve read that comp, but I have no memory of this story, so I guess I’ll get a copy from the library and read it again.
The first thing I want to note about Time Wants a Skeleton is that it has an AMAZING title. Right off the bat I knew I needed to read this story because I wanted to know what the heck was going on with that title. I couldn’t have begun to guess what it would refer to. And when it started to dawn on me, it was a good, eye-opening, OH YEAH NICE, kind of moment.
A thing about this novella is that it does tell a great story. Just some A+ science fiction storytelling all around, regardless of when it came from. It was also very much of its time, both in terms of its science and its prose. The science I can willingly suspend my disbelief about. That’s fine. The prose, on the other hand, hit my skull and clanged right off.
Maybe it’s the writing, and maybe it’s my brain reacting to *waves hands* everything right now, but it took me a lot of work to read this sixty page story. And not in a struggling-with-concepts way. It was more of a struggling-with-staying-awake way.
If reviewing fiction for as long as I have (not long, compared to many, but enough to have some opinions form) has taught me anything, it’s that there’s not that much in the way of objectivity in the activity. It goes even beyond the idea that I might like a prose style that sends you up the wall, or that I might not be interested in stories about a subject whereas that subject is totally your jam. That’s important, but there’s a level even further than that: the level of the current mental state of the reader when the work was being read. In much the same way that I think journalists should give up the pretense of being unbiased and just state their biases up front, I think it might be worth it for reviewers to come right out and say something like “I didn’t much like this one but then again work really took it out of me lately so maybe we need to factor that in.”
Of course, this could lead dangerously into the Online Recipes Problem, something I myself am probably approaching. You know what I’m talking about. I just want to learn how to make a chicken paprikash and the recipe is all “When I was a young child, my mother would often tell me that the truest form of self expression is to fling oneself into the dffd fdlkskdjf fddlk JUST TELL ME HOW MUCH SALT TO USE.”
I have now spent 900 words not talking about Time Wants a Skeleton.
So this story is about a fella named Tony Crow. He’s some variety of space cop, and he’s after a pair of bad guys. In chasing these bad guys, he winds up crashing into an asteroid. He finds himself in a cave on that asteroid, where he discovers something strange: A human skeleton.
He is aware, for mysterious reasons, that the skeleton is “older than the human race.” The skeleton is also wearing a gold ring, inset with a flawed emerald.
A ship arrives and picks up Tony and the criminals. It’s here that Tony realizes that the ring he found on that skeleton is exactly the same as one worn by Johnny Braker, one of these outlaws.
The ship that rescues them belongs to a scientist named Overland. He and his daughter, Laurette, have been flying around the asteroid belt cataloguing asteroids in the hopes that they can prove that the asteroid belt was once a single body. They’re trying to fit some of the pieces back together like a puzzle.
The ship is propelled by something called the H-H drive. The drive uses gravitons to move the ship forward in space and in time. This story is full of babble like this and usually it’s pretty easy to dismiss but this time it all ties into the story itself. For reasons I didn’t completely understand, the story proceeded thus:
- Laurette tells Tony about the H-H drive
- He says something like “If you can use it to go forward in time, can you use it to go backward?”
- Claudette says no, it doesn’t work that way
- And then it IMMEDIATELY does exactly that, on accident
The ship is flung back in time millions of years. They find themselves at the planet that would eventually become the asteroid belt. And here’s where the story gets strong.
Everybody knows about the skeleton with the ring. They also know they’ve been flung back in time. The story, then, becomes one of people trying to figure out which one of them will become the skeleton and the circumstances that will cause it.
The story takes for granted that events will absolutely have to play out the way they expect them to. Tony tries to dispose of the ring by throwing it into a river, only for it to show back up in a fish a day or two later. Stuff like that. On the one hand, I can dig that, but on the other, there are plenty of ways to actually destroy a ring at their disposal. I don’t understand why nobody ever thought of just breaking the damn thing with a big hammer, or melting it down, or anything.
I guess we’re getting into the topic of free will, but it’s never explicitly brought up.
But that all takes a back seat to the fact that the human element of this story is pretty good. Everybody’s already stressed because they want to escape from this planet and get back home. Add in the fact that it’s a certainty that one of them won’t make it and that nobody knows which one it will be, and that’s a pretty good story hook!
Some of the people try to kill some of the other people. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. It turns out that not only are they on the planet that will one day become the asteroid belt, but that the transition is set to happen any day now. They have to leave now.
Moreover, this is a high-gravity planet, clocking in at around 1.5 G. Even after dumping most of the stuff off the ship, it looks like it’ll require leaving someone behind so that the ship can lift off. That someone must be the skeleton!
They draw straws and it turns out that the person who has to stay is Laurette. The problem is that Tony is in love with Laurette and he refuses to let her go. He goes instead. But then after he settles in to die, she shows up. She jumped out of the ship, too, she explains. She also tries to explain that the skeleton is “Amos,” but that doesn’t make any sense to anybody but her. There’s nobody in this story named Amos. The world explodes and then things get weirder.
The technobabble gets a little too thick on the ground here, and I have trouble piecing some of it together, but what it seems happens is that when the planet formerly known as Sol V explodes, it releases all its gravity, which makes the gravitons that brought the ship and its passengers back in time spring forward to where they were supposed to be?
So Tony wakes up on the asteroid, in the present day. He sees the skeleton sitting there with its ring and assumes it has to be Laurette, so he mourns. I don’t know why she would be a skeleton now and not him. Then, the ship arrives because I guess they want to see the skeleton too.
Tony reveals himself and surprises everybody. And then Laurette reveals herself as well and it’s a big surprise. She then explains the situation.
She repeats that the skeleton is “Amos.” Nobody knows what that means, so she explains. Amos is a skeleton that was already on board the ship. Professor Overton, recently retired from some university or another, was given that skeleton as a Christmas present.
I guess I should mention that this story takes place in December?
They all had to dump stuff off the ship to get it to lift off, which included all the Christmas presents. Laurette realized that she could put the classroom skeleton there with the ring on its finger and it would satisfy the temporal loop or whatever we want to call it.
Okay, cool. I was kind of expecting an ending like this. Everybody running around trying to kill each other so that they wouldn’t have to be the skeleton, and it turns out that the skeleton was none of them after all. Not bad, story.
But it has one last stinger that, more than anything, felt completely unnecessary? So at the beginning of the novella, Tony “just knew” that the skeleton was older than humanity. It turns out that the reason he “just knew,” as if we needed an explanation, is that when he was flung back into the present, his timeline overlapped itself and he was on the planet twice at the same time. The two Tonies were psychically connected because they were on the same wavelength or whatever, and that’s how Tony at the beginning of the story knew that the skeleton was that old.
Why did that need to happen?
Like, it feels like unecessary filler in a story I was already having trouble keeping up with in the first place. It’s like an afterthought.
Anyway, the story ends with Tony and Laurette thinking about getting married, but only if the ring doesn’t have an emerald in it!
So I’m certainly not going to say this story was bad, but golly did I have trouble with it. The prose was kinda purple here and there, but moreover it just didn’t connect with me in a meaningful way. None of the characters felt like more than sketches. And while I’m never ever going to be the kind of guy to demand that the science in a sf book reflect reality (especially a book from the 40s), I felt like there just wasn’t much in the way of internal consistency in this one. All of the little rules that defined the story felt tacked on when they were necessary without forming a proper physical setting.
And while the story didn’t grab me emotionally, it certainly came close. The core idea in this story is a good one, and might have grabbed me on another day, or written by another writer. The time travel/prophecy hook was a good one, and it deserves a lot of credit. Watching the various characters react to it in their own ways could have been more interesting if the characters themselves were developed a little more. This plot could be good as a character study. That’s not the direction that Ross Rocklynne went, and that’s fine, but it probably would have been something that interested me more.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve got. The next story in this book is by van Vogt, and I’m looking forward to it. Until then, take care of yourselves!