THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME, Or, On These Fancies my Dreams Love to Dwell

Keith Laumer is one of the unfairly forgotten luminaries of the Silver Age of Science Fiction. THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME is a solid, well-written and fairly straightforward work of sideways-in-time style adventure.

The Silver Age is the generation of science fiction after the John W Campbell Jr stable of authors gave way to a new breed of authors: Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, James Gunn, Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick, Gordon R. Dickson and Frank Herbert ranged beyond the boundary of magazine sales, and won fame in paperback and even hardback markets.

The science fiction audience in the Silver Age had over two decades of familiarity with the odd assumptions of this unique form, and so could be safely assumed to be familiar with the tropes of science fiction. A very rough consensus of future history had emerged, which assumed spaceflight and interplanetary colonization were ahead of us, and the years to some were peopled with young interstellar federations and old galactic empires powered by atomics and crossed by hyperdrive, infested with spies or special agents armed with ESP.

An earlier generation of readers would have asked for some clear explanation of these marvels to aid their suspension of disbelief; the postwar generation who had seen the V2 rockets over London needed not to hear them again.  This gave the writers of that age the ability within a shorter space to cut some nuts-and-bolts and add more other matter: and Keith Laumer added fast, lean, mean and masculine action like a science fiction version of Dashielle Hammet or Raymond Chandler.

Laumer is best remembered for his wry James Bondian satires of Retief, Diplomat Extraordinaire, who continually undoes the boneheaded folly or petty evil of his superiors in the diplomatic service, ever eager for preemptive surrender, and to aid and abet the enemies of Terra. But I myself prefer his more serious work, which range from somewhat lighthearted action story to the somewhat grim action story.

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In each novel of Keith Laumer I have read—and I have read them all or very nearly so—the author never strays far from this basic Retiefian theme of an isolation, unrewarded, but daring and omni-competent servant of a clumsy or blind organization loyally attempting to save the organization from its deadly foes, despite the ignorance, or even the active opposition, of the organization, despite wounds and fatigue and despair, ever soldier on. Laumer writes about the lone wolf. No Laumer hero has ever surrendered the flag or surrendered his soul, no matter how tattered the flag nor tarnished the soul.

Such a nonconformist and stoical hero is the very wine of heroism to the youth of those days, and for this reason no growth of the wisdom of age (nor the folly of age) will dim my bright admiration for Keith Laumer. My other reason for admiration is his note-perfect hard boiled detective language. Laumer is the Raymond Chandler of science fiction.

Here is a sample, which should be read through a haze of cigarette smoke seeping through venetian blinds while a lonely sax wanders through a mournful jazz tune in the background. Our hero, Colonial Brion Bayard of the Net Surveillance Service, as frequently occurs to Laumer’s unfortunate yet iron-skulled protagonists, is waking from the first of several times he is destined to be knocked unconscious.

I groaned, groped for the dream again, found only the hard, cold concrete against my face, a roiling nausea in the pit of my stomach, and the taste of copper pennies in my mouth. I found the floor, pushed hard to get my face up out of the grit, blinked gummed eyes…

The room was dark, silent, dusky and vacant as a robbed grave. I used an old tennis shoe someone had left in my mouth as a tongue, grated it across dry lips, made the kind of effort that under other circumstances has won luckier souls the Congressional Medal, and sat up. There was a ringing in my head like the echo of the Liberty Bell just before it cracked.  

The setting is one that is sketched in with a few sharp, clear strokes, requiring not much explanation. In all the nearby timelines parallel to ours, paratime or sideways-in-time travel device called a Maxoni-Cocini Coil was discovered in the Victorian Age. Out of all the infinite possibilities of time, in nearly all, the first ignorant meddling with the paratime coil obliterates the earth in a gush of chaos from beyond the edge of the continuum. In the midst of this area of destruction, called the Blight, remain one or two lucky timelines, such as ours, where the paratime coil is never invented. In one even more lucky line, however, the paratime coil by pure mischance happened to balance the vast energies involved, and opened the pathway to parallel universes safely.

In this world, no World Wars have occurred, and while other technical inventions, such as the telephone,  airplane and motor carriage lag behind our own, the paratime technology allowed the French, British and German royal families of Europe to unity the world into a single peaceful empire seated in Stockholm.  Outside the Blight that surrounds them like a moat, the Imperium uses its supremacy with paternal benevolence to patrol and pacify the many timelines which broke off from our history before the Victorian Age.

The plot is in three acts. In the first, our hero Bayard, a man from our world in the service of the Imperium (whose background is given in the prior novel in this series, WORLDS OF THE IMPERIUM) is unexpectedly quizzed by his suspicious superiors, and therefore is alone when he stumbles across an invasion force from a hitherto unsuspected enemy, who controls a paratime travel technology far advanced above that of the Imperium. This line is very far removed indeed from the other parallels known to the Imperium, a realm of the network or timelines beyond the range of their farthest probes: the last common point of shared history was in the Paleolithic, an alternate where the other cousin species of Homo Sapiens rose to supremacy, in this case, man-eating Neanderthal. The Neanderthal capture Bayard for their stew pot, but he escapes with the timely aid of Field Agent Dzok of the Authority, also their prisoner, who hails from from a second parallel-travelling power from a world where the Australopithecus rose to dominance.

In the second act, in Dzok’s home line of Xonijeel, Bayard discovers that, because Homo Sapiens Sapiens wiped out our  cousin species of Hominids (rather than, as in all other timelines, all rose to sapience and civilization together) we are regarded with suspicion, hatred, and bigotry. The Authority is as unwilling to believe that a second paratime power exists, particularly one safely lodged in the middle of the Blight of destruction—and telemetry shows that no timeline exists at the coordinates Bayard gives for his home line. Bayard is summarily condemned to exile, hypnotized, and lodged in a world near our own, one where Napoleon conquered North America.

Bayard wakes on another world with a false past around him and false memories in his head. With the help of a pretty young mesmerist named Olivia (not to mention his Imperial anti-hypnotic conditioning and invincible native stubbornness) he breaks out of the delusion the Authority had imposed, and goes on a nigh-hopeless goose chase seeking any historical record of this timeline’s version of Maxoni, the inventor of the Coil. He finds a prototype rotting in a museum, and Bayard has enough mechanical skills to cobble together a crude version of a crosstime shuttle.

Mysterious agents are closing in when he flips the switch, and is carried on a wild ride across the blasted landscapes of the Blight. He crashlands in a dinosaur-haunted world, the only human in that universe, with no way to survive save for what he carries in his pockets. He does not even have a hatchet. He is as competent as ever, but trapped.

In the final act, Bayard is back in his home timeline attempting to halt the assault of the Neanderthals, who have already wiped out Stockholm with a nerve gas attack, and are preparing a coil-like device to obliterate the timeline. Unfortunately, none of Bayard’s superiors believe a word of his story, or believe he is who he says he is, and lock him up. His only means of saving the timeline from destruction is to rely on an experimental entropy-reversing suit the loyal Dzok loaned him, which is both more advanced than anything he understands, and is malfunctioning.  And the clock is ticking, but for some reason, backward…

Readers seeking deep psychological nuances in their main characters needs must look elsewhere. Brion Bayard is a two-fisted action hero, which means he is a raw slab of courage swimming in the gravy of fortitude and love of duty,  with some hard-boiled cynicism on the side, and a garnish of wry humor and, when called for, solemn melancholia when observing the appalling destruction caused by the enemy.

The high-tech dimension-hopping Neanderthals are not characters at all, simply monsters, shaggy and fanged. None even has a speaking role. This is because the antagonists are not the monsters, but the blindly skeptical superiors of Agent Bayard and Agent Dzok in the Imperium or in the Authority, who refuse to recognize the danger of the enemy nor the friendship of a new ally.

The two sidekick characters are among the most memorable in the oeuvre of  Keith Laumer. Both have an amusing irony or twist to them, both make an interesting thematic point.

First is Agent Dzok the Australopithecus. The monkey-man is cultured, urbane, cool under fire, as well able to pilot a hot-wired alien shuttle as he is to steal an experimental time-reversal suit; he is so ultra-competent that he is able, with the help of his hypnotically implanted training, summon up a knowledge of Bayard’s home language — which he speaks with a British accent — after hearing a dozen words. He is also well mannered enough to treat the barbaric Homo Sapiens Sapiens like an equal.

I am reminded of Jack Burton and Wang from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA where the nominal hero was actually the sidekick whose job was to get knocked over the head, and the nominal sidekick was actually the hero.

The thematic point here is that Dzok, having saved and been saved by Bayard during their escape, respects and trusts him as an equal, despite the comparative technological backwardness and admitted barbarity of our particularly hairless and unapelike brand of humanity. Despite all differences, they are both competent professionals in the dangerous business of paratime travel, and despite each man’s loyalty to his own organization, both rebel against the organizations they serve to help the other man and save the universe. Unlike the boneheaded bureaucrats placed above them, both of the field agents see the bigger picture and the deeper danger. It must be noted, however, that Dzok is clearly the superior in nearly every respect, smarter and stronger and having a higher technology at his command: but this is not what makes him memorable. His loyalty to his friend is.

It is as straightforward as that. I have read stories where, for example, a boatload of selfish jackasses and psychopaths are sent on a mission together (the two that come immediately to mind are CATCHWORLD by Boyce and BLINDSIGHT by Watts) and the absence of any trace of mere good old fashioned loyalty is like the absence of water in the parched and arid wasteland.

The second sidekick is Granny Goodwill the Witch of Louisiana in a world ruled by the Napoleonic Republic, who turns out (as all witches these days turn out, but at the time it was a new idea) to be young and pretty. She is not a witch but a ‘mesmerist’ that is, a hypnotist, and everything she says about other worlds and deeper realities than what human senses reveal is not mysticism but ironic truth, due to the paratime nature of the universe she inhabits.

She is memorable because her motive for helping Bayard is one any science fiction reader should understand: she has always been convinced that there is more to life than this one narrow world she sees. When she discovers Bayard is, or thinks he is, from another world, she believes him immediately and utterly. She sells all her worldly goods to fund their expedition to Rome to seek the long lost traces of the inventor Maxoni.

The one scene I remembered with clarity from the first time I read this book as a child was just as haunting and appealing to me upon rereading it as an adult. Bayard has just been restored to his proper memory and identity, and is in the cottage of the so-called witch who has just saved him from his mental prison. She is enthralled by his tales of a world never conquered by Napoleon.

I sat by the window, sipping a stone mug of brown beer, looking out at this curious, anachronistic landscape of tilled fields, a black-topped road along which a horse pulled a rubber-tired carriage, the white and red dots of farmhouses across the valley.  There was an air of peace and plenty that made my oddly distant recollection of the threat to the Imperium seem like a half-forgotten story, read long ago—like something in the book lying on the table. I picked up the fat, leather-bound volume, glanced at the title:

THE SORCERESS OF OZ by Lyman F. Baum.

Olivia glanced over at the book in my hands, smiled almost shyly. “Strange reading matter for a witch, you think? But on these fancies my own dreams sometimes love to dwell, Brion. As I told you, this one narrow world seems not enough—”

Bayard explains his interest in the book is because Maxoni was a contemporary of Baum. This gives him a slim hope that, if one man’s parallel existed in this world, perhaps the other did also.

I flipped the book open, noted the publisher—Wiley & Cotton, New York, New Orleans, and Paris—and the date: 1896.

“You know this book, in your own strange world?” Olivia asked.

I shook my head. “In my world, he never wrote this one….” I was admiring the frontispiece by W.W. Denslow, showing a Glinda-like figure facing a group of gnomes. The next page had an elaborate initial “I” at the top, followed by the words ” ‘… summoned you here’ said Sorana the Sorceress, ‘to tell you…’ “

“It was my favorite book as a child,” Olivia said, “But if you know it not, how then do you recognize the author’s name?”

“He wrote others. THE WIZARD OF OZ was the first book I ever read all the way through.”

“The Wizard of Oz? Not the Sorceress? How enchanting it would be to read it!”

 Bayard explains how unlikely it will be that any trace of Maxoni’s work remains in this world, or that he could find it. She laughs and says she will and must accompany him, despite any risk. “The vision of the Sapphire City still beckons me.”

“It’s the Emerald City where I come from,” I said, “But we won’t quibble over details…”

The whole magic of sideways-in-time travel, of the might have beens of history, a realm of science fiction where such authors as Harry Turtledove have made their names, for me is summed in these few paragraphs I quote above.

I am not a soldier nor an explorer, so to see the outcome of a different battle in Manzikert or Lapanto, or to visit the world where the Confederacy prevailed over the Union, or the Nazis over the Allies, or the Chinese found California before the Spanish; are all of less potent wonder and awe than it would be to read the other books never written in our world, especially Professor Tolkien’s eerie time travel story LEAVES FROM THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, or Robert Heinlein’s  future history story about the rise of Nehemiah Schudder, A STONE FOR A PILLOW, or to read the adventure Dr Watson promised us concerning the Giant Rat of Sumatra, or peruse the complete poem of Kublai Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had he not been interrupted by a visitor from Porlock.

We can swap them for the sequels those timelines lack, the completed version of WHEEL OF TIME, the DUNE sequels, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s sequels to A PRINCESS OF MARS.

The Welsh have a word for homesickness or nostalgia that does not translate easily into English, which refers to the infatuation for the rural Welsh countryside as it was in her days now lost, where her own kings of her own tribes roamed the bright-hued hill country beneath the dappled leaves. I have no word for the nostalgia for THE SORCERESS OF OZ which I have suffered always, ever since that hour when Keith Laumer named it, since it is a homesickness not for home, nor for times past, but for times that have never been.

One must be a bookish fellow like me to know the longing for books which men of more solid stolidity never suffer. The closest emotion would be what a bibliophile feels when it is announced, for example, that the reclusive author of CATCHER IN THE RYE left behind a lifetime of unpublished manuscripts, or that Christopher Tolkien has found an unopened box locked in his father’s desk, inscribed with elfin runes.

Olivia the Mesmerist disguises herself as an old crone, and allows herself only to be seen at night, in a bad light, because she is copying Old Mombi from LAND OF OZ (in my mind, the best of all the Oz books Baum ever wrote). She is a young lady who pretends to be a witch because the ignorant locals think wisdom can only come with warts on; but she yearns for the real magic of other worlds, other vistas, oddities and splendors from beyond the fields we know.

One interesting thematic point is that she believes Bayard’s story when no one else does, not the other agent, not the other paratime agency, not his own paratime agency, not men he has served under or commanded.

Her strength of imagination gives her the strength to believe the truth from which all others turn away. This is a heady message indeed to any young reader of SF, true albeit it be.

Keith Laumer, as many authors in his day did, here is railing against the organizational thinking and the impatience with bureaucracy that rose up in the postwar years in America. The alphabet soup of agencies and bureaus and commissions ordering every aspect of life in the republic, not to mention the shortages, rationing, and restrictions of a wartime economy, were recent and of recent memory, and both things of recent memory in 1965—less than a quarter century old. (By way of comparison, that is roughly half the span of time separating us from the last moonshot.)

And all the intelligentsia, with one voice, tongues lolling and drooling like eager dogs, proclaimed that the rule by experts, akin to the Mandarin system of ancient China or the glorious  scientific socialism of Communist Russia, was not only the more rational and enlightened way to run a society (ergo you should support it) it was also the inevitable future as decreed by imponderable forces of history which only experts understood (ergo it would come whether you supported it or not).

But it was not a way of life that Americans had yet been broken into accepting; men in those days still complained about the saddle on their backs and rowels in their flanks. Indeed, the officious and obnoxious folly of the bureaucrats was a theme so commonplace that at least one author (Michael Swanwick, STATIONS OF THE TIDE) wanted to write a book where the bureaucrat was the hero, merely because it had never been done before.

Now that the days when American were free has receded from the living memory of all but the oldest, we should expect to see fewer books where the brasshats are always boneheads.

Brion Bayard and agent Dzok would not fit in to our modern Tea-Party-slandering and liberty-loathing world any more than they fit in to their own conformity-demanding worlds.

You might still encounter stories of resistance and rebellion in the modern day, and in all days, for Jack the Giant Killer surely is as old as the invention as the flint-napped arrowhead. But the nature of the giant and the nature of the Jack may be oddly lacking in substance in modern times. The rebels will lack any sense of the principles for which they rebel (HUNGER GAMES springs to mind—but I confine my observation to the movie, having not read the book).

Lone wolfs and wild mavericks are still popular in stories, and always will be, but the establishment pricks against whom they kick will be increasingly etiolated versions of stuffy or militaristic caricatures taken from the stereotypes of the 1930’s or the Victorian Age, which was the last time they were actually the establishment: power-mad entrepreneurs eager to destroy their customers and bloodthirsty generals eager to destroy their men.

You might still encounter Jack and the Boneheaded Bureaucrat these days, or you might not. I seem to recall that the STAR WARS movie — from the same period as Laumer’s OTHER SIDE OF TIME—was about rebellion against and evil empire that was one part British Empire, one part Roman Empire and one part Nazi Germany. The prequel sequel PHANTOM CLONES RUINED MY CHILDHOOD which was made a generation later was a story about evil separatists who seemed to be bankers and merchants, and how the evils of society, which permitted his mother’s slavery but forbade his wife’s marriage, corrupted a whiny teen into the Dark Lord of the Sith, so it was probably society’s fault, and, in an appalling reversal that spits on the grave of every serviceman in the Second World War, the Stormtroopers are now the good guys, once again turned evil by the system, so it was probably society’s fault there, too.

The difference between the yarns of old, which made sense and made dramatic sense, even in minor efforts, and the yarns of today, which do not, not even in major efforts, is that yarns of old starred rebels who played by their own rules, but the point is that they had rules, and the rules were beautiful and demanding masters, to which the Jacks were always faithful. They were faithful to their beloved ideals, and they defied whatever defied their loves.

The modern rebel is a rebel without a cause. He hates the institutions of the world as he finds them, but he has nothing to plant in their place once he chops them all down. He had no vision of a better world, no imagination. He has nothing. He only knows what he hates, which is the system of the world, for which he blames all the evils of man. He thinks men naturally good, and only made evil by manmade things. He knows nothing of the Fall of Man, and therefore cannot allow himself to believe, no matter how painfully obvious the blatant truth is trumpeted in both his ears and shined like lighthouse lanterns in both his eyes, that manmade things are evil because man is naturally evil. To destroy the manmade things will not made men good; it merely makes him poor, if you destroy his physical inheritance, and barbaric, if you destroy his spiritual.  And hatred only has one story to tell, the same drear and boring and not very logical story story where Lucifer is the good guy.

In the news this very hour even as I write, I hear the news reports of my generation lamenting that a few days unpaid leave for bureaucrats the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Energy, or the Environmental Protection Agency (but not police and armed forces) will be a disaster without parallel, wrecking the economy. Far from being regarded as obstacles to prosperity and progress, the wild and nation-wrecking profligacy of these petty tyrants and faceless incompetents of the bureaus is regarded as the engine of progress. Them setting our billions in taxes afire and flushing down the sewer-pipes makes us prosperous.

The saddle perhaps sit more comfortably on the backs of the youth these days. They are more easily tamed.

No one could believe such false tales as the news reports tell if only they had been raised on true tales from fairyland, such as pretty young witches in parallel universes believe. But on these fancies my own dreams sometimes love to dwell…

 

 

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