Rebuttal: In Defense of Jack Williamson’s ‘Legion of Time’


This is not a review as much as a rebuttal.

Having a hankering to reread LEGION OF TIME by Jack Williamson, a classic of old timey pulp sci fi, I combed the internet, eventually to find where some good-natured soul had scanned in the pages of Astounding Magazine, which held the original, first-published version of the story.

The link is here: Luminist Archives. The issues are May, June and July of 1938.

During this search, I came across articles or reviews or summaries, at least a few — by my lights, too few, considering the seminal nature of this particular bit of adventure fiction.

What stumped and galled me was that the articles, reviews, and summaries were uniformly wrong.

Before rebutting them, let me describe the yarn the articles were wrong about.

 

 

LEGION OF TIME was first serialized from May to July of 1938 in Astounding Magazine. It concerns one Dennis Lanning, who, as fate would have it, is the lynch pin on whose actions the existence of two mutually-exclusive future worlds hinge.

As a young man, he is visited by the images of two time-traveling queens, both young and lovely beyond description, one virtuous and peaceful, one wicked and warlike, named Lethonee and Sorainya.

Lethonee rules Jonbar, a superscientific utopia where godlike figures clothed in light soar among shining mile-high towers; Sorainya rules a savage and tyrannical dystopia called Gyronchi, where slaves toil in the mud, beneath the lash of buglike taskmasters, artificially mutated to nonhumanity by corrupt technology.

Jonbar enjoys a science where atomic energy is directly controlled by the human mind, which opens a path to the stars. Gyronchi is a despotic theocracy, whose idolaters worship a black vortex of atomic energy, and whose future leads only to war, desolation, and extinction.

The visions reveal that some future act of his will grant one of the two futures certainty, and abolish the other into impossibility.

Lanning lives a dangerous life as a war correspondent, pilot, and soldier, fighting always against the growing shadow of despotic governments so commonplace in the 1930s. Once or twice again as his years pass, he receives visions of the two queens, either to warn  him, or to tempt him.

Eventually, he dies in a plane crash. At the moment of his death, McLan, his college roommate, now an old man from many decades in his future, visits him in the Chronion, a time-traveling submarine-shaped vessel of his own construction. McLan rescues and revives him from death, healing Lanning’s broken body with the fantastic superscience of the far future.

Here Lanning meets, and is placed in charge of, soldiers from several nations and from decades past and future, including the young version of another college chum of his, Barry Halloran, who died, or seemed to have done, in a plane crash in Denning’s youth.

 

 

 

This foreign legion of time is gathered for a daring raid on the citadel of Sorainya. Somewhere inside is a simple, small object, which, if placed back in the place and time from which it came, will create the chain of events leading to the utopia ruled by Lethonee, but if not, Sorainya’s nightmare world will result. The cusp or decision point is called a ‘Jonbar Hinge’ on which the whole shape of the future is written or erase.

Much bloodshed ensues, and acts of soldierly self sacrifice; but Sorainya has a time traveling vessel of her own, larger than the Chronion, equipped with guns and armor plating, which intercepts the raiders as the survivors are making their escape through time.

 

The final battle takes place on a back-country dirt road, for the whole of the future rests on one simple decision by a hillbilly boy. Either he will pick up a small magnet laying in the dirt, which awakens in his scientific curiosity, leading to a lifelong career in science; or he will pick up a small rock and sling it at a songbird to kill it, whereupon his genius will never be noticed nor stoked.

 

He, John Barr, is the scientist on whose discoveries the whole of the utopian superscience of Jonbar will be based. In the other future, the discoverer of mental control of atomic energy will be one Ivor Gyros, an exiled engineer from Soviet Eurasia, who will use the secret to establish a fanatical new religion, and a new despotic empire, which will grow into the world of Gyronchi.

 

It is an eerie scene, because one of the side effects of time travel is that time travelers, while perfectly real and substantial to each other, are unseen, silent, and insubstantial phantoms to men still properly embedded in their own native time.

 

So as the young and barefoot hillbilly is gallivanting idly down the dirt path, he does not see the brutal melee nor hear the thundering gunplay between the two warships of time while a desperately wounded Denning crawls through the no-man’s-land, leaving a trail of blood, trying to return the tiny magnet to its tiny depression in the dirt where it has to rest in order for the youth idly to pick it up.

 

Even with time travel, even with a science that can revive the newly-dead, however, some losses are irreversible. The ending is bittersweet but ends on a haunting note of hope: for Lenning, like a hero to Valhalla, when revived and brought to Jonbar, finds not only is the beautiful and virtuous  Lethonee awaiting him, she is, in some mystical sense, one and the same as Sorainya: in a way that defies explanation, the beautiful woman he wished not to kill was not killed after all, but was combined back into the main time stream once the possibilities leading to her collapsed.

 

The impact of this tale on the science fiction readership of the day is easy to underestimate, and that for several reasons. Foremost, because it is hard to remember or imagine how new the central conceit of the story had been.

 

Science fiction readers are so used to the idea of parallel timelines springing from a crucial moment, a “Jonbar Hinge”, that we might forget where that idea comes from.

 

To put LEGION OF TIME into context, GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. “Doc” Smith was serialized in this same magazine some months earlier. The next year, 1939, would see the publication ‘The Black Destroyer’ by A.E. van Vogt; ‘Lifeline’ by Robert Heinlein, and ‘Marooned off Vesta’ by Isaac Asimov — in each case, the first published SF story of each of the ‘Big Three’ writers who initiated and sustained what is now regarded as the Golden Age of John W Campbell Jr’s brand of hard science fiction.

 

The difference in style and approach between these three stories and Williamson’s LEGION OF TIME is instructive: there are few girls or none in the three debut stories of the Big Three, no romance, no love, no passion.

 

Moreover, none touch on any deep themes. ‘Black Destroyer’ by Van Vogt concerns a scientist using a new discipline called Nexialism to deduce the solution to the problem of an attack by a highly intelligent alien monster during a space expedition; ‘Lifeline’ tells the short, cynical tale of how an evil insurance company murders a scientist who makes a machine measuring one’s future lifespan; ‘Marooned Off Vesta’ shows how astronauts use cunning engineering to jury-rig a solution to an emergency.

 

Such are the bloodless and romance-free themes that will be repeated endlessly throughout Campbell’s Golden Age. For all its merits, and they were considerable, the Hard SF emphasis on science in scientific romances robbed them of romance. After EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, not only did romance become fashionable in science fiction again, science fiction became mainstream.

By way of stark contrast, LEGION OF TIME is about a man torn between two loves, one for the lovely girl of his dreams, and one for the wicked girl of his fantasies; it is about history torn between two alternative fates of enlightenment or darkness; and it is about the willingness to fight and die for a cause nobler than one’s own life, and to fight on, even after death, if called upon.

 

In part, the blame for the unjust obscurity of Jack Williamson’s LEGION OF TIME, comes precisely from the triumph of John W. Campbell Jr’s editorial theory of what science fiction ought to be: a literature of ideas emphasizing nuts and bolts and orbital mechanics, rather than emphasizing adventure, action, humanity, romance and heroism. Sadly, many Campbellians have consigned all earlier science fiction to the Memory Hole as “pulp” ergo low-class un-intellectual trash.

 

It is ironic to note that Williamson’s story, dismissed in just this way as “pulp”, actually contained more sound science of a more advanced nature, namely, the newly-minted quantum mechanics, than any of these three seminal works by the Big Three: Van Vogt’s Nexialism is a crackpot idea akin to scientology, and Heinlein’s death date predicting machine is magic. Asimov’s puzzle story where an astronaut jury rigs propellant by boiling water involves no more than grammar-school physics.

 

LEGION OF TIME is more profound than these Big Three tales. It is a real story about something real, namely, the most crucial issue facing that generation, if not this: the choice between the wonders of science and the terrors of science. It is not an idle power-fantasy about intellectual hyper-competence, not a silly fairy tale about evil capitalists committing murder to stop science, not a bloodless puzzle story.

 

Time Travel has been a fascination for science fiction, despite that that it is a fantasy concept, ever since H.G. Wells had his version of the time-hopping Connecticut Yankee seated on a machine to travel into tomorrow, rather than (as common sense would have it), being escorted by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

 

Like Scrooge seeing his own grave, the Time Traveler of Wells visits the grave of all human aspirations. He sees the spooky future evolution has in store for mankind, should England not immediately adopt the radical egalitarianism of the socialists.

 

Unlike the rather more profound and subtle stories by Charlies Dickens and Mark Twain on this theme, the Time Traveler of Wells neither learns to love Christmas, nor introduces the benefits of modern technology into the dark ages of the far future.

 

That being said, the number of time travel stories which actually introduce a new idea into the subgenre is relatively small. LEGION OF TIME is one of them.

 

Basically, a time travel story, even if only indirectly, must address the paradox of causality and free will.

 

On the one hand, the writer’s characters must be allowed to act. If the decisions of the hero mean nothing, there can be tragedy, as in OEDIPUS REX, or can be a bitter irony, as in MACBETH, once the hero realizes all his hard decisions were either pointless or led to the very result he sought to avoid.

 

But there can be no drama, or, to be specific, the drama consists not of the hero solving the plot conflict; rather, the drama consists of the hero discovering that there is not, nor ever could have been, a solution.

 

On the other hand, a story is arranging make-believe events in the order that will create the illusion that the consequences follow naturally from the events because they are bound to, and not because the author stuffed it in the script. Without this, the writing is a series of dreamlike vignettes, disconnected scenes, or a tissue of absurd coincidences.

 

In real life, the present is the only point in time where decisions can be made that have consequences. The future is fluid, for different consequences are expected to flow from different decisions in the realm of the will; whereas the past is fixed, for it is in the realm of memory, and out of the jurisdiction of the will.

 

The whole paradox of time travel is that the jurisdiction of the realms can be swapped. The fluid past can be revisited, hence subject to the will; whereas  and the fixed and certain future be visited as if it were a foreign land, no longer subject to fallible foresight or guesswork. This is because, when visiting past or future, they become, for the traveler, his present.

 

Time travel hence allows effects to proceed causes, so a man can kill his own grandmother in her childhood, thus preventing himself before birth; or he can become his own grandfather, thus creating himself, and so on.

 

Ergo there must be both volition and causality in a time travel story because it is a story, but without abrogation of volition and causality, there is no time travel.

 

The cleverness of time travel stories consists of executing some sleight of hand by which the appearance of a fixed future opened for visitation by time traveler, or fluid past open to editorial changes, while maintaining at least an appearance of volition for the characters, and causality for the plot, can all somehow be juggled.

 

In a time travel story, the writer must concoct some way that time travel cannot solve all problems, without eliminating altogether the ability of the hero to solve any problems.

 

This is usually done establishing rules which say which side of the paradox is real, and which is illusion; or setting limits as to what events can be changed and when.

 

There are only a handful of basic ideas on how to approach the sleight of hand, each fitting somewhere on the spectrum ranging from one-note pure determinism (See ‘By His Bootstraps’ by Robert Heinlein) to one-note pure voluntarism (See ‘The Men Who Murdered Mohammed’ by Alfred Bester).

 

Both of these are one-note, because the drama here consist of finding out in what way the hero’s actions have no point or no consequences, and then the tale is done.

 

Somewhere halfway between is the sleight of hand of saying that the future bifurcates at crucial points, but both outcomes are real. (See ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges, or DARKNESS AND THE LIGHT by Olaf Stapledon, but note both were written in 1941, hence were not the first introduction of this idea).

 

So, the number of stories whose approach is new is, likewise, only a handful.

 

Jack Williamson’s innovation was to address this paradox by means of the mysterious absurdities of quantum mechanics.

 

In his conceit, both forks of the bifurcate timeline are real — but only as indeterminate probabilities. The consciousness of the observer collapses the waveform, making one future certain, and banishing the other to impossibility.

 

Williamson understood his material well enough to have as a plot point that a scientist observing images gathered from various possible futures, enamored hence ensnared by the beauty of Sorainya, by bathing her in his time-travelling observation beam, unintentionally increased her probability and that of her world.

 

Apparently, if you peak inside the indeterminately lethal catbox in Schrodinger’s notorious thought-experiment, you can inch the chance of the pretty but evil cat emerging alive upward from fifty percent one percent at a time for each glimpse.

 

Nonetheless, this is another bit of thematic brilliance: the scientist inadvertently makes ever more real the lovely but deadly woman destined to betray and destroy him.

McLan explains the quantum mechanics of bifurcate time in this way:

 

“To an external observer, gifted with four-dimensional senses, our quadraxial universe must appear complete, fixed, and forever unchanging. The sweep of time is no more than the hand of a subjective watch; it is no more than the intangible ray of consciousness, illuminating human experience. In any absolute sense, the events of yesterday and tomorrow are alike eternal, immutable as the structure of space itself.”

Time travel is explained, or explained away, with this trifle of clever technobabble:

 

“The future has been held to be as real as the past, the only directional indicator being the constant correlating entropy and probability. But the new quantum mechanics, destroying the absolute function of cause and effect, must likewise annihilate that contention. There is no determination in small scale events, and consequently the ‘certainties’ of the microscopic world are at best merely statistical. Probability, in the unfolding future, must be substituted for determination. The elementary particles of the old physics may be retained, in the new continuum of five dimensions.  But any consideration of this hyper-space-time continuum must take note of a conflicting infinitude of possible worlds, only one of which, at the intersection of their geodesics with the advancing plane of the present, can ever claim physical reality.”

 

As a writer, I am favorably impressed by a science fiction writer bold enough to have his scientist character actually sound as semi-incomprehensible as a real scientist, with erudite turns of phrase and complex sentence structure not normally seen in boy’s adventure stories.

 

The time travel explanation is put more poetically by Lethonee:

 

“The world is a long corridor, from the beginning of existence to the end. Events are groups in a sculptured frieze that runs endlessly along the walls. And time is a lantern carried steadily through the hall, to illuminate the groups one by one. It is the light of awareness, the subjective reality of consciousness. Again and again the corridor branches, for it is the museum of all that is possible. The bearer of the lantern may take one turning, or another. And always, many halls that might have been illuminated with reality are left forever in the dark.”

 

The sleight of hand comes in with the introduction of a fifth dimension, where the decision-making banished from the fourth dimension has gone to roost.

 

The event by which the choice is made, so that one of the fixed and motionless forking paths becomes darkened, not for one observer, but for all, is a fifth dimensional event, hence irreversible, and hence cannot be undone even by a time traveler.

 

A big advantage that this type of quantum mechanical time travel has for the reader is that, if the hero in the present time performs some act that kills an enemy several years in the past, or banishes one world and creates another, the time traveler sees the result before his eyes immediately, because his “now” is when, for him, the probability wave collapses.

 

The reader is not left wondering why, for example, when Marty McFly plays the romantic song at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, so that it becomes certain that his father-to-be and mother-to-be do indeed meet and fall in love, he ceases to fade out of existence? Why wasn’t he fading ten minutes ago, or before the dance started, or a week ago, or two years before he met the professor who built the time-traveling sportscar?

 

Or, if the reader wonders nonetheless, the mysteries of faith of quantum mechanics are sufficiently opaque that any science fiction hokum can be successfully hidden from view.

Other sleights heighten the drama in LEGION OF TIME, and keep the time travel shenanigans within workable plot-limits:

 

“No, the boy John Barr won’t be aware of us at all—unless we should turn the temporal field upon him. For his life is already almost completely fixed by the advancing progression in the fifth dimension. In terms of his experience, we are no more than the most shadowy phantoms of probability. Travelers backward into time can affect the past only at carefully selected nodes, and then only at the expense of the terrific power required to deflect the probability-inertia of the whole continuum. Glarath and Sorainya spent atomic energy enough to blast continents, just to lift the magnet from John Barr’s path.”

 

The best sleight in the story, the one which gives LEGION OF TIME it’s particular macabre flavor, unseen  (as far as this writer knows)  in any other time travel tale, is the cost of becoming a time traveler.

 

Sorainya explains, with apparent sincerity, her earlier attempt to lure Lanning to his death:

 

” … you should know that death alone can bring you to me — and to the strong new life the gyrane gives. For our lives were cast far apart in the stream of time. And not all the power of the gyrane can lift you out of the time-stream, living — for then the whole current must be deflected. But the stream has little grasp upon a few dead pounds of clay. I can carry that to Glarath to be returned to life.”

 

A word of explanation: gyrane is dark atomic energy, and Glarath is her dark priest-scientist who worships and controls it.

 

I call her explanation sincere because it is the same mechanism used by McLan to gather all the fighting-men. Like the soldiers gathered by the Valkyries, these are the warriors of the dead.

 

The ending of the story can be anticipated from the beginning, given the logic of the make-believe technology of time travel.

 

Of the several articles, reviews, or summaries I waded unhappily through, few or none understood or approved of the ending. As said above, the maddening thing about these reviews was how wrong they were.

 

By that I do not mean that they were wrong-headed, that is, vulgar in taste and tin-eared when it comes to riproaring science fiction action and wonder — we live in a vulgar and tinny age, and the locusts of political Goodthink eat up everything the harpies of homo-communist prudery do not befoul, so wrongheadedness is only to be expected.

 

No, I mean that the articles, even from allegedly serious sources, or published in allegedly serious venues, contain simply wrong statements, such as no professional, or even an earnest amateur, would make.

 

For example, one famous online encyclopedia (one I will not bother to name, because it printed lies about me during my brief brush with national fame) contains this remark: “The term “Legion of Time” is rather misleading, since the stories do not in fact feature a body with such a name.”

 

To the contrary, in chapter VII, quite unambiguously, the aged scientist Wil McLan shakes hands with Denny Lanning, and says the words, “And now I give you command of our Legion of Time” — albeit, in all fairness, an internet search for those words reveals that other, later, publications of the story, the wording is “Legion out of Time.”

 

In any case, there is no official name for the body of gathered soldiers who go on the mission, because it is a small, informal, volunteer group.

 

But there is no sense in which the title of the tale is misleading, much less “rather” misleading.

 

Nor is there a rule that stories can only bear the literal names of characters, groups, or settings mentioned explicitly within the story.

 

Neither narrator nor character calls the linear time-energy measurement of the lifespan readings of Dr. Pinaro in Heinlein’s “Lifeline” by that term, nor does “The Black Destroyer” of A.E. van Vogt in fact feature a creature with such a name.

 

Likewise, there are no midsummer night’s dreams dreamt at any point in the Shakespeare play of that name. Are all these story titles “highly misleading”?

 

Another reviewer encountered made much ado of the fact that the lovely heroine of the story was a blonde, whereas the villainess was a redhead — and he sneered many a condescending sneer about the cliched nature of this choice of hair color.

 

His theory apparently was that only sexually bigoted writers would pen, or bigoted readers read, a story where the good girl is a blonde, the color of purity, and the bad girl a redhead, the color of passion.

 

Here, in fact is the description of the heroine:

 

A clear, silvery voice had spoken his name … A plain white robe swept long to her feet. Her hair, a glowing mahogany-red, was held back with a blue, brilliant band like a halo. The composure of her perfect, classic face was almost stern… her grave eyes were on Lanning. They were wide, violet.

 

And here is the villainess:

 

The long-limbed woman in the shell was clad in gleaming, sleeveless crimson tunic of woven mail that yielded to her full lissome curves. A long, thin sword, in a jeweled sheath, lay beside her. She had put aside a black-plumed, crimson helmet, and thick masses of golden hair streamed down across her strong bare arms. The white, tapered fingers, scarlet-nailed, touched some control….her eyes were long and brilliantly greenish. Across the white beauty of her face, her mocking lips were a long scarlet wound, voluptuous, malicious.

 

Yet another review came from an academic writing about time travel and the philosophy of narrative. This worthy avers the heroine Lethonee was described as “blonde” and “doe-eyed” — to the contrary, she is a redhead and her eyes are described as “wide” or “grave” or “tragic.”

 

He further says that the villainess was “a kind of futuristic Bettie Page” — a name I recognize from my misspent youth reading ROCKETEER by cheesecake artist Dave Stephens. If Bettie Page looks anything like the Rocketeer’s girlfriend Betty, she is a blue-eyed brunette with short hair. Sorainya is a green-eyed blonde with long hair.

 

Cheesecake models may indeed pose in a number of fetching outfits, but none, to my limited knowledge of the subject, poses in a chainmail jerkin with a plumed helmet.

 

Perhaps the reviewer merely means that the villainess is both alluring and forbidden, and so he sees a fully-clothed and lissome mail-clad warrior-queen armed and armored in a panoply of splendor … and he likens her to a sleazy porn star. Perhaps in his mind there is no other image for forbidden allure.

 

Several reviewers mocked that racial stereotypes of the cast of characters. For better or worse, however, a war story or adventure story with a wide cast of characters not only has to introduce many characters at once, since their main task is fighting, no delicate or nuanced portrayed of their civilian existence or internal life is desirable or possible. The reader could not care less that Barry Halloran used to play football, except that this gives him a little bit of All-Americana flavor.

 

Hence the only way to give the throng any personality at all, is to give each man a quirk of speech or background, or some outrageous accent, or to make references to well-known and well-established national or regional characters.

 

If the Southerner says “y’all” and the Irishman “faith and begorrah”, each man can use the one line or two fate allows him to make himself memorable before he is shot or axed by a giant insect monster.

 

It is for a parallel reason, but in reverse, that the giant insect monsters of Gyronchi have no voices and no personality: they are meant to be horrifying in their faceless uniformity.

It is unfortunate we live in an age whose particular obsessions and insanity is based on race, because the tried and true writer’s trick of giving each man a memorable quirk based on the personality of his nation and culture and race is closed to the poor souls bedeviled by political correctness.

 

It is a decree that no race can have any collective personality, and so one person cannot be portrayed as differing from another. We are all giant insect monsters now.

 

It is particularly galling to look at the cosmopolitan and colorblind portrayal of the various soldiers, where, for example, the Chinese hero is portrayed as stalwart and resourceful as the Spaniard or the German, and then hear the portrayals condemned as racist. It is the exact opposite of the truth.

 

 

One idiot reviewer could not grasp why the unloved, nameless and expendable insect monsters of a poverty-racked despotic future did not use firearms regularly, even though it is stated on stage and in more than one place that they suffered less harm from a bullet passing though their exoskeletal hide than from a blow of ax or sword.

 

The horde tactics of savage tyrants, throwing the lives of their myriad slaves against the few free men of the West bold enough to oppose them, is an idea so firmly based in history and so deeply rooted in mythology as to require no further word of explanation. It is what the story was about. Good grief.

 

Another reviewer condemned the bittersweet happiness of the happy ending with solemn vituperation, on the grounds that once the Einherjar (my words, not his) having been resurrected once in order to serve in the Legion of the Dead, and hence exiled forever from their own times, in his opinion should not be allowed by the writer to be resurrected in Valhalla for the feasts promised those who die with valor.

 

Since the likeness between their future paradise and the German afterlife is not only made clear, but harped upon by one of the characters, I am at a loss to explain the inability of the reviewer to grasp it. Perhaps he does not like happy endings.

 

But the whole point of time travel stories, as I said above, is that things that are fixed in the past for mere four-dimensional creatures like us, for the time travelers, are subject to revision, and sorrows can be unmade — at least in part.

 

More than one reviewer made much ado over the fact that Sorainya is too beautiful to be killed, so none of the men are willing to shoot at her.

 

These critics scoffed many a scoffing scoff at the absurdity of the idea that young, strong men from the various civilized nations of A.D. 1930 might hesitate to slaughter beautiful blonde young women — unless he was one of the critics who thought she was a redhead or brunette.

 

In fact, not only is this the normal and decent behavior all readers of boy’s adventure stories expected and demanded from the writers of the day, even this is a gross overstatement of the case: because, in the most unheroic way possible, Sorainya is killed, and her death is grotesque in the extreme.

 

I must mention that the actual mechanism of the killing is clever, established in the story-logic, and makes as much sense, or as little, as anything else in a time travel story can do.

There is, to be sure, one and only one character who is unwilling to kill her, namely, the shattered old man who has been desperately in love with her, despite his better judgment, from his youth onward.

 

This reluctance is later seen to have tragic consequences: yet it is never portrayed as psychologically normal. He is not only captured and tortured because of his obsession; he dies for it.

 

Lanning himself is infatuated with the warrior-queen, and several of the soldiers admire her beauty.

 

But, as best I can tell, the criticism of the reviewers on this point is based on a two scenes. The first is when Lanning’s chum Halloran, shoots at her, but, in the press of combat, misses and strikes one of her grisly insectoid soldiers.

 

In the original text, Lanning is sorry she has to be killed, because he thinks she is too splendid to be slain. In the revised text of the paperback version, the line reads that she is too beautiful to be slain. In other words, both men regard killing a young, pretty girl as a regrettable necessity.

 

Any characters not expressing such a sentiment would be monsters.

 

However, that same Halloran, later, in furious melee, lifts his bayonet against Sorainya, but hesitates, wavering. Before he can steel himself to deliver a killing blow, she slays him with her futuristic energy-throwing rapier.

 

So indeed this natural regret of the young to harm the fair is portrayed as tragic. The reviewer regards attraction between the sexes as a sign of weakness, or perhaps, (it is the favored accusation of our times) of bigotry.

 

However, readers of this generation might miss the point of why, for the sake of the story and the logic of the theme, the lovely warrior-queen had to be a figure the main characters were reluctant to smite. The tale makes no sense otherwise.

 

It is easy to underestimate how poignant the theme of a crucial choice between futures of light and darkness would have been to the audience of that day.

 

The generation alive when the story was first penned were living in the uncertain shadow of a world war about to begin. The war to come — and even the children in the latter half of that decade knew it was coming — would be a war to decide the great question between democratic civilization, progress, and human achievement, and tyranny, barbarism, slavery, and endless human wretchedness.

 

It is a simple but brilliant artistic conceit to incarnate the terrible choice facing the world in the form of a story about choosing between two lovely rulers, both equally alluring, a queen of heavenly peace and a queen of hellish war.

 

And the choice of the two futures rests in the hands of the soldier, pilot, and war correspondent — the men of action on whose gallant self sacrifice the future turns.

 

A deeper theme is that the smallest action of the most common boy — in this case, a barefoot yokel — if his love of science flowers or slumbers may be the true decider of these great issues of present and future. The Wright brothers, after all, were merely bicycle mechanics; Edison was a grammar school dropout; Einstein was a patent clerk.

 

Nor is this theme accidental. It is to be noted that Lanning, before his own adventure into time, authors books on the question of the decisive conflict between democracy and despotism, and the choice between civilization and savagery.

 

The blonde and Germanic Sorainya, described repeatedly as being a Valkyrie or a Queen of Valhalla, is the very image and theme of the allure of the Germanic scientific totalitarianism which had so mesmerized the intellectual class of the 1930s.

 

Her future is one where a dark power, literally, a power shaped like a black tornado issuing from an atomic pile, is worshipped as an idol, also literally.

 

What better metaphor for power worship than the worship of power? I would condemn it as too obvious and on-the-nose, but for the fact that I have never noticed it before, nor has any reviewer known to me.

 

That an intellectual of this generation, equally mesmerized by equally idiotic political tomfoolery, would scoff at the chivalrous idea that heroes would be reluctant to kill a gorgeous girl, merely shows that the essentially shallow and sophomoric nature of intellectualism has not changed.

 

The postwar generation, familiar with images of the horrors of the concentration camps of Siberia and China, are all too aware that the real face of Sorainya is a worm-eaten skull, but to the foolish intellectuals of the pre-war years, abortion, contraception, and all the apparatus meant to denature and de-feminize women, eugenics, euthanasia, and all the apparatus meant to reduce men to less than animals, was too beautiful to criticize, much less kill.

 

There are men, many of them, to this day infatuated with the Sorainya of our generation and who lust for the power she represents, believing her false promises. They would never kill her, even knowing her evil.

 

Finally, the most wrong and also wrongheaded reviewer was one who condemned the ending, where the two women have been collapsed into one. He condemned it as an unsupported plot twist reflecting a merely juvenile and shallow sex-fantasy.

 

The criticism is false on all three counts. It is not unsupported, it is not juvenile, and it is not shallow. Quite to the contrary.

 

This ending was clearly adumbrated and established for any reader who bothered to grasp the brilliant science fictional conceit central to the story, namely, that the two mutually variant probabilities would collapse into one, and only one world become real. The world was always two probable variations of one world, the girl was always two probable variations of one girl.

 

One lesson maturity teaches the aged is that life contains solemn paradoxes, including the paradox that the thing a youth might be tempted to seek in a girl too wicked for him, does not, in truth, reside in her, for the virtuous woman is not merely as sexually alluring as the bad girl, she is more so. A bad girl is sick.

 

Here is profound truth, learned over centuries by the wise men of old. Sin is a weakness, not a strength, and certainly not an equal alternative to virtue, equal but merely of different alignment or orientation. Sin is a corruption, a deprivation, of a good.  Sin is a thing in exactly the same way a vacuum is a thing. It can indeed kill you, but only by depriving you of what you need.

 

The LEGION OF TIME, written when it was, and starring a hero of Lanning’s particular profession and vocation, as is clear a metaphor of the choice faced by the world as could be imagined: tyranny or liberty; science as destroyer or science as savior; darkness or light.

 

The point of such a choice is that it is a false choice.

 

One does not need to give up one to get the other. One gives you the promised benefits of both; the other gives you neither.

 

The tyrants of the Twentieth Century promised peace and public order, military glory, scientific advancement, equality, and, above all, the prosperity certain to flow from the cornucopia of a centrally-controlled economy.

 

The Twenty-First Century saw that not only did the Western Democracies maintain their order, expand their wealth, and conquer their foes, but saw that the belabored slaves of the nation-sized death-camps of socialism received none of these.

 

Even the vaunted advancements of the Soviets during the Space Race were looted from more advanced nations. Evil creates nothing, only mocks and corrupts.

 

Those who would chose darkness over light, socialism over capitalism, tyranny over liberty, lies over truth, political correctness over sanity and sobriety, in each case are being promised something the darkness cannot deliver.

 

The alleged strength of the tyrant cannot make your nation nor your rights secure. The envy of socialism cannot produce altruism nor create wealth. But if one stands ready to sacrifice a promise of security in order to defend one’s sacred liberty, one is rewarded both with security and liberty.

 

So, what is the meaning of the eerie ending of LEGION OF TIME, where the lovely Sorainya, her evil abolished, is somehow mystically present and in union with the virtuous Lethonee?

 

It is a figure and symbol of what every sage of every age has always told the young: whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever surrenders his life will gain it, and more.

 

The whole theme of the story hinges on whether Lanning, offered the crown and the heart and the hand of the cruel but lovely warrior queen, would reject all her lies and all her false pomps, and kill her, despite his strong desire to spare her. He does indeed deliver her to a grisly death, and, as I said, in the least heroic way possible.

 

But the wisdom of the muse could not end such a tale with that.

 

Time travel tales, despite their absurdity, remind us all of the eternity we openly or secretly hope to find beyond death. So in a time travel story, or, at least, one that is truthful to the spirit of eternity, all that is lost is restored, and all tears are wiped away.

 

As a final insult, it is to be noted that nearly all the reviewers encountered called this story juvenile, crude and simplistic pulp.

 

That, I suppose, is the future into which they moved the lantern of their consciousness, and so, to them, it seems real. Their dark corridor of time reaches a dead end. I read the same story, but for me, looking with eyes unclouded, I saw all the energy, action, and wonder of the pulps, but also the richness, depth, and wisdom of high literature. They have neither. I have both.

 

You, dear reader, stand at the cusp of how you chose to read this tale and others like it. It is, come to think of it, much like being asked to decide between two fair queens, both of whom call for you.

 

The shining blonde of scorn and vainglory is very lovely. But is she trying to lure you to your death?

 

Originally published here.


John C. Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title. He has published short fiction in Asimov’s Science Fiction in F&SF in Absolute Magnitude and elsewhere. His novel Orphans of Chaos was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2005. His novel Somewhither won the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. In 2015, he made history by being nominated for six Hugo Awards in one year, more than any other author. Read more of his work at scifiwright.com or pick up one of his novels here.

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON