Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Wanderer of Time by John Russel Fearn

I love this cover!
First published in Startling Stories, summer 1944

This time travel story has the same basic idea as the first story in this volume, The Circle of Zero. If space-time is infinite then somewhere, our history must have repeated in the past, and it will repeat again in the future. The way of getting to these forgotten past lives is kind of similar, too. The Circle of Zero relied on hypnosis, this story relies on the memories being written into a mysterious ‘blind spot’ in the brain.

By attaching some kind of incredible invention to his head, Blake Carson is able access these memories and paradoxically remember his future. Naturally, the first thing he sees is his own death. We’re back in the land of rationalist fables.

In his introduction, Ashley claims that Fearn has been somewhat forgotten since his death in 1960 and this story is highlighted as one of Fearn’s favourites. However, it’s a little hard to know what to make of it.

It’s clear that the entire contrived remembering the past idea has been put in place to allow for the early revelation that really gets the plot moving, Carson’s discovery that he’s going to end up on the electric chair, framed for a murder he didn’t commit by his researcher, Hart Cranshaw. Waiting for the present to catch up with the future we know is coming is one of the characteristic devices of a time travel story. Particularly appealing is when the character knows they are to die. It makes a character put their priorities in order, to think through what’s important to them.

This can be revelatory or it can drive a thriller plot, and Fearn opts for the latter. Driven by a desire for revenge against Cranshaw he spends his final days building up to a final desperate attempt to master the art of throwing himself into the future using his knowledge of the future.

Amazingly, he partly succeeds. At the moment they throw the switch on the chair he takes a psychic lunge and finds himself floating outside his body. However, the massive electric shock has interfered with his escape and instead of a few days he’s projected much further into the future, ‘millions of years, quintillions of years’ he whispers to himself.

He roams the chilly blasted wasteland at the end of time, a desert lit by a feeble and ancient red sun. He comes across a colony of termites that communicates with him using psychic powers. They tell him that they are the final race of intelligent creatures on Earth – once more, the echo of H G Wells Time-traveller, as in Seeker of Tomorrow. After a bit of mind reading discussion, the insects get bored and start to wander off, but one remains behind.
One termite, larger than the others, was alone on the red soil. Carson gazed at it with smouldering eyes, the inner most thoughts of the tiny thing probing his brain.

‘I understand,’ he whsipered. ‘Yes, I understand! Your thoughts are being bared to me. You are Hart Cranshaw. You are the Hart Cranshaw of this age. You gained your end. You stole my invention – yes, became the master of science, the lord of the Earth, just as you had planned!’
Given more time and an absence of electrocutions, Cranshaw has managed top master the power of projecting his mind forward at death. Now he meets his nemesis at the end of time and Carson crushes him between his finger tips. Then he feels himself tumble in the realisation that this is not the end.

He had not cheated time! Neither had Hart Cranshaw! They had done all this before somewhere – would do it again – endlessly so long as time itself should exist.

As with Almost Human, this is SF as morality play. The science fiction elements play the roles of genies or pixies or leprechauns in folklore, putting men into places where their morals are tested and usually found wanting. Blake Carson is doomed by his desire to see the future. The true cost is to lose all volition and collapse into Hell, cursed to enact his unhappy life and humiliating pathetic vengeance again and again.

Themes: time travel, the cycle of time, empty vengeance, morality play, the end of time

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