Near Future Science Fiction, Time Travel
The Time Traders
by: Andre Norton
Series: Time Traders/Ross Murdock #1
To start off our women in science fiction project, I thought I’d start with a name you’ve likely heard before: Andre Norton. Most of her work currently in print is pure fantasy (such as Elvenbane with Mercedes Lackey and the Witch World novels), but recently her early science fiction work has been getting re-published in a major way.
If it is possible to conquer space, then perhaps it is also possible to conquer time. At least that was the theory American scientists were exploring in an effort to explain the new sources of knowledge the Russians possessed. Perhaps Russian scientists had discovered how to transport themselves back in time in order to learn long-forgotten secrets of the past. That was why young Ross Murdock, above average in intelligence but a belligerently independent nonconformist, found himself on a "hush-hush" government project at a secret base in the Arctic. The very qualities that made him a menace in civilized society were valuable traits in a man who must successfully act the part of a merchant trader of the Beaker people during the Bronze Age. For once they were transferred by time machine to the remote Baltic region where the Russian post was located, Ross and his partner Ashe were swept into a fantastic action-filled adventure involving Russians, superstitious prehistoric men, and the aliens of a lost galactic civilization that demanded every ounce of courage the Americans possessed.
I’ll be honest, I nabbed this title simply on the grounds of what I could get my hands on easily. I also wanted to highlight that women have a long and established history in science fiction. Thanks to the wonders of e-books, a book published in 1958 is instantly available through either Amazon Kindle, Project Gutenberg, or Hoopla (for those who belong to a participating library). It’s also been somewhat recently released in audiobook for those who prefer that format. The most recent printing of this book was in 2006, according to Goodreads, so old school readers may need to hunt for this one a bit. (Hey, this is science fiction, right?)
I’ll also put another small disclaimer on this title: this is near future science fiction as written in 1958. In 2016, we’re already nearly twenty years past the ‘future’ in which The Time Traders opens. The Soviet Union crumbled over a quarter century ago, and the Red scare and Cold War are relics of today’s history books. Add in the time travel aspect, and it’s almost easier to read this as an alternate timeline than as near future. According to Wikipedia, somewhere there is an updated version from 2000 that resolves some of these issues, but that was not the version I read. (For those interested, the Start Classics digital edition of Time Traders on Hoopla is the original text, as is Project Gutenberg's.) For those who are deeply set in modern genre literature’s ways, 1950’s science fiction follows some different formulas from its modern descendants, was generally much shorter in length, and the language has shifted slightly since then. This is also one of Norton’s first ten books. As such, I had some issues with it, which you can see from my ratings.
The Time Traders is pure 1950s pulp. It’s less than 200 pages no matter what edition you grab (a quick read!), and places a huge emphasis on nail biting action sequences. Stuff blows up on a regular basis, and Ross Murdock, our protagonist, gets in lots of fist fights, sneaks around a Soviet base, and uses alien technology to outsmart bronze age warriors. Because there is an overemphasis on all this action, the characterizations are brutally plain. There simply isn’t space for more. Example: Ross starts out the book in front of a judge, being given a choice between a rehabilitation program, or a top secret project that’s obviously governmental in nature. What crime has he committed? What crimes blacken his record so profoundly that he can’t be in the civilian population anymore? We have no idea. But for all his questionable deeds, he makes it quite clear that he’s at least loyal to the United States, and wants nothing to do with the Reds. (Seriously, this is the penny dreadful updated for the 1950s with aliens and time travel.) Beyond Ross himself, all other characters are either glorified cyphers or simply place holders.
Writing mechanics are also somewhat weak. While Norton certainly reached mastery of her craft long before the end of her 70 year career, The Time Traders dates to the earliest years of that career. Dialogue is cumbersome in general, and any time where the dialogue involves speaking to a Bronze Age character it gets even worse. Descriptions are also somewhat plain, in keeping with the penny dreadful feel of the book. By which I mean that Norton does a decent enough job describing what she’s talking about, but the words she uses are plain and doesn’t begin to think about complex sentence structures or the nuances of connotation vs denotation. This is almost certainly a side effect of science fiction being viewed in the 1950s as a lesser genre for lesser readers rather than Norton’s writing skill at the time. Highbrow readers (aka, those with above normal intelligence, class, and/or education) were supposed to be reading Literature. Still, The Time Traders suffers under its own simplicity.
There are places where The Time Traders succeeds, where we can see that this book is indeed by someone who will be remembered for contributions to the genre for at least a few more generations. The concept is intriguing, and not one that’s been photocopied so often it’s boring to find the original. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. have stalled out in their race for the moon. Out of the blue, suddenly the Soviets start using extremely advanced technology without showing evidence of the precursor technology you’d expect to see leading up to the final product. The U.S. figures out that the Russians are getting this technology by raiding something hidden in the past. So they quickly finish their own time traveling technology (time travel but not space, I know, just go with it), and start seeding spies through time to try and find whatever the Russians are mining. On his first jaunt out, our very own Ross stumbles across the mother load. (I told you, penny dreadful/pulp.) What made this book for me was the juxtaposition of aliens vs a well realized Bronze Age world with multiple complex societies. In fact, the Beaker culture Norton talks about was a real culture, and yes, that’s their actual modern name. I’m somewhat sad Norton didn’t spend more time having Ross walk around as a Beaker, because they seem like fascinating people. (Yes, I’m a big enough dork that I double checked what Norton did use, and it all checked out.) Norton’s alien technology, what we get to see of it, is interesting and well realised, much more so than her near future human technology. When Ross is in the past, the overall effect is almost planetary romance as he inserts himself into one culture, navigates interactions with two more, while hunting down the Soviets and running away from the aliens.
Overall, I have to say that in order for me to like this book, I had to simply take it as what it is: a 1950s pulp science fiction novel. It’s a rip roaring tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also doesn’t let it become as silly as it could have been. The good guys win, there’s lots of danger (but nothing Ross can’t ultimately handle), and the Soviets get blown up a lot. This is certainly not the highlight of 1950s anything, but it is fun in it’s own goofy way. If picking up Norton’s 1950s sci-fi work appeals to you, but not necessarily this book, she does have a number of other works from the period ranging from military space opera to other versions of time travel.