Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Time-Lockers, by Wallace West

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Time-Lockers, by Wallace West

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)
My copy is an ex-library edition, probably a first (I doubt there was a second), from the very low-end imprint Avalon, in 1964. The cover is by Ed Emshwiller, and it's two color, no doubt one of the ways Avalon cut costs. The novel is based on a novelette that appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly for August 1956. (Emshwiller also did the cover for this version, and it's gorgeous, much better than the book!)

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.

SPOILERS follow.

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)
So, "The Time-Lockers" appeared in the August 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. It's about 11000 words long. And it's much tighter and more sensible than the novel. It opens much as the novel does, with Arnie on his way home to Muriel, dreading the meeting with the Northrups, only to be enchanted by Priscilla. The crisis at the office is limited to the Temporans complaining about forged time-locker receipts, and also about the lack of women coming to Tempora. Arnie's idea (also in the novel) is to open up lockers in the suburbs, and by way of introduction he arranges for Muriel and Priscilla to accompany him to Tempora. (There is no Senator LeFevre, nor any "Eddie" the alien fry cook.) On Tempora, as in the novel, Muriel takes up with a mobster pretending to be a foreigner, while Arnie and Priscilla get together, and Arnie figures out the secret of the time-lockers -- much as in the novel, they are really a way for Tempora to get labor from Earth people to help rebuild their nuclear-ravaged society. There is no Mob plot to take over the government, and no hypnotizing Wiley Pen. Instead, Arnie decides to stay on Tempora, doing honest work, with Priscilla -- who is (as seemed obvious in the novel until a pasted-in alternate history for her was added) a Temporan agent. It isn't great work, but it's clever and holds together OK.

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.


  1. I read his last published story, oddly enough titled "Death Eternal", in that 1978 issue of FANTASTIC as well, and barely remember it. He did in fact die not too long after publication...and for that matter, the most recent attempt at reviving the FANTASTIC title, a webzine, has just announced its closure.

    Any Avalon book is likely to have been put together on the fly, as they were famously paying as little as possible and packaging everything as sloppily and drearily as they did their editing. I think they were the only "lending-library" publisher in the US to specialize in SF, as well as being among the last of that unimpressive breed, and they are about as close as the US publishing industry gets to the dire products of the UK "mushroom jungle" publishers. Well, perhaps the more ridiculous porn products managed to sink even lower. But in terms of utter tedium, even the most uninspired of the Whitman children's books were rarely able to catch up with Avalon.

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  3. No, that's where overconfidence, and the desire for a cheap irony to work out comes to bite one..."Death Eternal" was the Raymond F. Jones story in that issue of FANTASTIC, and "Leasehold" was the less obviously but just about as ironic, slightly more memorable story by West there, about being Reclaimed. One's thoughts perhaps can turn that way at that stage of life, and the 13yos reading along, as I was, can only marvel at the eventual winter to come. Ted White's mix of stories from veterans such as West and Jones (perhaps best remembered outside the inner circles for the source fiction for the film THIS ISLAND EARTH) and such younger writers as John Shirley (his "Tahiti in Terms of Squares" in that issue) and younger veterans such as Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg ("Another Burnt-Out Case" was the second-best story in that issue, and notably not actually a fantasy nor sf (but the fantasy magazines would sneak that by more often than the sf prosiness would, as with Edward Wellen's suspense novella/short novel in the 11/78 F&SF, the even better story being by slightly younger veteran Janet Fox's "Demon and Demoiselle") and the cover story, the worst story I've read so far (still) by the usually good and often brilliant, then still newish as a writer, Grania Davis.

    1. Mary Ann and I have been organizing my magazines (with the hope of returning the basement to functionality!), so I know where I can find that issue of FANTASTIC, so I can reread it.

      (One distressing discovery: it looks like I've lost all my Baen-era GALAXYs, which ranged from the first I ever bought (August 1974) to the end of Baen's tenure (shortly after which I gave up on GALAXY).)