a review by Rich Horton
Back to a very obscure SF novel by a pretty obscure SF writer. Wallace West (1900-1980) was a lawyer, public relations man, and apparently an expert on pollution. He wrote SF beginning in the late '20s, with his last story appearing in Fantastic in 1978 (so I surely read it, though I don't recall it). Really, West had more or less stopped writing by the late '60s. He only published a few novels, mostly expansions or fixups of earlier shorter pieces. I had seen a couple of stories from early '50s magazines, and thought them surprisingly decent work. So I picked up this book, The Time-Lockers, hoping for the fairly unpretentious entertainment West has given me in other stories. (The title, by the way, is given without the hyphen on the cover of my edition, but that's surely incorrect, as the title page and the original short story, as well as references in the text, all include the hyphen).
|(cover by Ed Emshwiller)
The novel was a grave disappointment to me, despite a promising central idea. The following review will be full of spoilers -- apologies for that, but I don't think this is a book many people will encounter. By all means skip the rest of the review if you are spoiler-phobic and think you might want to read the book. Short, spoiler-free version: it's about a lobbyist working for the government of the parallel world Tempora, which operates the "time-lockers" by which Americans can trade boring time on Earth for time in Tempora. What Tempora wants from this is one mystery of the novel: others concern the other aliens interfering with Earth, and the Mob's nefarious plans for the USA. Add in a wacky hypnosis project, and a love affair with an unconventional woman who might just be a Temporan spy -- lots of actually somewhat promising ideas that just never really make a whole lot of sense.
The book opens with Arnie Davis, a public relations man (and lobbyist), heading home from work one day on the train. He passes the time on the long commute by depositing it in a "time-locker" -- what's meant by this is unclear (partly because it's a mystery to be resolved later), but at first it seems that you give up your unwanted time on Earth in exchange for time spent later on a planet called Tempora, which seems to be an alternate version of Earth, slightly out of phase with our time. What the Temporans get out of this deal is, as I mentioned above, quite unclear.
Arnie is going home to his wife Muriel, who is beautiful but frigid. He is dreading a dinner party with their new neighbors, Dr. Northrup, a clergyman, and his wife Priscilla. But things pick up when Arnie meets Priscilla: she's beautiful, a bit exotic, very intelligent, and unconventional. There seems an immediate mutual attraction, though while it's easy to see what Arnie sees in Priscilla it's hard to see what she sees in him: an overweight middle-aged man in a drone-like job.
We soon realize that one of Arnie's main accounts is with the Temporan government, to support their interest in keeping the Portals between Tempora and Earth open. Soon he is off to Washington D. C. to lobby Senator LeFevre to push for the Department of State to take over administration of the Time-Lockers from the Department of Commerce. Arnie has to act delicately -- it seems that the whole Portal system is under threat from people like Dr. Northrup, who are convinced that the Temporans are immoral, and from the Mob, who are angling to take over the U. S. government and fear Temporan technology. Another angle is from Arnie's mysterious friend Eddie, a cook at a hamburger joint in D. C., who talks as if he is a long-lived alien manipulating humanity for its own good, and who feeds Arnie (a frustrated writer) ideas for SF stories.
This is all weird and unconvincing enough, and a bit all over the map. Then Arnie, after a threat from the Mob, sets up a visit to Tempora, with himself and Muriel, the Senator and his wife, and Priscilla (Dr. Northrup is refused an entry visa by Tempora). Once on Tempora, things start happening. Arnie and Priscilla get together for good, which is fine with Muriel, who has found her repressed artist side, as well as a mysterious faux-Spanish tourist to keep her sexually satisfied. They encounter a brilliant scientist as well, and then there are the strange dreams they have, which eventually reveal the real reason the Temporans have for maintaining the Portal to Earth
There follows the expected Mob takeover, which is facilitated by an animated character nameed Wiley Pan who hypnotizes movie audiences. The Portals are closed, but the Senator manages to find a way back to Earth. Meanwhile Arnie has figured out that much of the time Earthmen spend on Tempora is spent doing hard labor to restore the Temporan society, devastated by a nuclear war. But this is good, really, because Earth people have been ruined by automation -- the honest work is good for them. Also, the hard work has helped Arnie lose a lot of weight, which makes him a better match for Priscilla.
The resolution involves some derring-do when Arnie gets back to Earth, to undo the hypnosis, and to return human society to something better. Meanwhile, Tempora needs improvement as well -- they've been stealing tech from Earth for so long they've lost their way, as well. And then there's the question of Eddie's people, and their meddling. And the question of Priscilla's real identity -- which is an implausible last second pasted-in addition.
There's really too much going on here. Some of the ideas are cute (I liked the time-locker concept, in particular), and some are just too silly. The romance between Arnie and Priscilla is almost interesting, except at the beginning it's undermotivated and implausible. Arnie's character changes as the plot needs. I thought the book showed every sign of slapdash inflation of a tighter original novelette -- so I decided to get a copy of the original magazine in which it appeared, and compare ...
|(cover by Ed Emshwiller, courtesy of Galactic
Central and Phil Stephenson-Payne)
It turns out that the Wiley Pen stuff (about taking over the government by hypnosis) is folded in from a much earlier story, "The Phantom Dictator" (Astounding, August 1935), while Eddie the alien fry cook seems to be from a story called "BEMA" (Science Fiction Quarterly, February 1957). I don't think West intended any connection between the three stories until it came time to come up with 50,000 words or so that Avalon Books would publish as a novel. A pretty clear example of the sort of mess careless "fixups" could be.