Reading books has always been something a minority of people do for recreation. Reading books that have not seen any form of publicity or marketing for decades is rarer still. Reading thicker, obscure books packaged in dense paperbacks from the 1970s … in all frankness I’d be surprised if there’s anyone else out there who has digested Gordon Dickson’s Time Storm recently.
Time Storm (1977) is an epic-scale SF novel about the scattered survivors of a metaphysical disaster that has befallen the Earth: great, moving walls of mist have swept over planet, emptying the cities and towns of most inhabitants. When a “mistwall” sweeps over an area, in replaces it with a version of it from its own (usually, distant) past or future. Those left behind have mostly suffered from at least some form of temporary insanity, wandering around completely stunned and senseless, before waking to find themselves in a world carved up into time-displaced sectors.
TS follows the journey of one survivor, a talented ex-businessman named Marc Despard, as he strives to first escape and then master the new, chaotic universe that he finds himself in. The initial chapters describe him escaping the moving mistwalls by driving around in a small delivery truck. Although people are scarce, there seems to be plenty of cars and preserved food around, and Marc is able to siphon gas and scavenge cans as he travels.
At the start of his journey, Marc picks up two companions, rescuing them while they were still helpless from the experience of the time-storm. One is a girl he found wandering wordlessly along the road, and the other is a leopard who immediately bonds with him when it recovers its senses. The girl (Ellen, as we find out later) almost never speaks to him and remains nameless for much of the book, but Sunday (the leopard) proves to be a loyal, if independently minded, protector from the start.
Marc is possessed with the idea that he should seek out his ex-wife, a younger woman that had divorced him and remained in the city of Lincoln. Marc starts out from his cottage in rural Minnesota, driving southward around the mistwalls until the changed landscape and lack of roads finally confound him. His subsequent adventures include imprisonment by strange lizard-men, either aliens or far-future descendants of mankind, travel by raft across a newly-formed Nebraska sea, and battles with massive underwater predators. Soon after he and his companions finally reach land, Marc abandons the idea of fleeing the mistwalls and decides to attempt crossing the barrier.
I turned back at last to look at the girl and Sunday. If I went through the wall and never returned, what would happen to them? I told myself that I owed them nothing, and something inside me called me a liar. At the same time, the thought of any responsibility I might have toward either of them had about as much deterrent effect on the hunger that was eating me up as a cup of water tossed on a burning building. I had no real choice. I had to go through that wall if I — and they — died for it. I turned back to the leopard and the girl, both of whom were still sitting in the car.
Crossing the mistwall allows Marc to meet other survivors, some of whom he can trust and even cohabit with, forming a kind of makeshift family. Dickson gives this aspect of the story plenty of room to form; we learn much about the secondary characters as they build a functional society around him.
For his part, Marc grows obsessed with the idea of understanding and then mastering the forces of the time storm. He finds a gifted technician, as well as a strange half-mechanical alien being named Porniarsk, who join him in this seemingly quixotic mission. About halfway into TS Porniarsk manages to rig together a machine that combines the mental “power” of several individuals to assert control over the “entropic” behavior of the mistwalls. Marc is somewhat special — just the kind of being Porniarsk has been looking for — to complete the device:
I was a single monad (though, of course, reinforced with the other seven at their altered consoles), and not a particularly capable one basically. But a was something of a freak, a lucky freak in that my freakishness apparently fitted the necessity of the moment. That was why I could think, as I was privately doing now, of creating an enclave in the time storm that would include the whole earth and its natural satellite, instead of merely an enclave containing just a few square miles surrounding us, which had been Porniarsk’s hope.
It’s all very 1970’s-era physic pseudoscience, and in my mind has aged terribly. Dickson tries to use the “idea” aspect of his SF to further develop his main character, and we are subjected to some long passages of navel-gazing as a consequence. TS is certainly not the first, nor is it the worst, case of implausibly hooking brains together to assert some sort of control over the physical universe. But it is part of an unfortunate trend that seems to have lasted all of the way through 1990s cyberpunk.
So TS is a showcase of the positive and negative traits of Dickson, at least from his works that I’ve read so far. Like his early Dorsai books, we have a real effort to show what it would take to become a transformational leader in the future. Like the surprisingly good The Alien Way, we also have interesting “aliens” in the story, like the above-mentioned lizard men as well as a colony of primates that resemble australopithecines. However, too much time was spent tracking the inner life of Marc, who just is not interesting enough to sustain my interest. Dickson also attempts to convince us of the power gained by accumulating as much knowledge as humanly possible, but this wasn’t done convincingly. I can recommend TS to fans of Dickson — this was a finalist for the Hugo award — and to the more patient consumers of vintage SF. 5/10.