Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: Time's Last Gift by Philip Jose Farmer.

I must open with a confession about books. I don’t read nearly enough of them. I falsely accuse a lack of time, but the real reason is that I find it very difficult to identify novels that will appeal to my tastes. My favourite books, such as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, have all been thrust into my possession by far more conscientious readers than I, who have gone out of their way to convince me that, “This is something you’ll like.” And they were right.

Such is the case now, as our new friends at Titan Books have sent a copy of their new edition of Philip Jose Farmer’s classic time-travel story Time’s Last Gift. To be perfectly honest, this is probably not something I would have picked up on my own volition, but it would have been my loss. Reading the entire thing in pretty much one sitting, I was instantly engaged by this off-kilter story of four time travellers who make a very calculated journey to 12,000 B.C. to study this primitive world, only to discover that one among them may be far more than he seems. And, for a very enjoyable few hours today, I was completely lost in that world right there with them. I was taken by surprise. I loved this book.

Share this incredible journey with me... after the jump!

I think that if I have any hesitation with science fiction novels, it's that I'm worried that they will be too dense. I'm worried that they will alienate me or sail right over my head. It's simply not the case here. 

Philip Jose Farmer writes with an incredibly focused clarity. There's nothing indulgent or pretentious about his prose, he reports everything as a series of straightforward facts, regardless of how fantastic the story is that he is telling. Time travel is a difficult beast but both the characters and Farmer make it very clear early on that they have no interest in unravelling its inconsistencies or explaining away its paradoxes. There are certain things that we are going to have to take as given, and our concern lies more with this strange proto-world and the vivid characters that inhabit it. 

That entire paragraph I just wrote is far more pretentious and indulgent than anything you will find in this book.

Our story starts with a literal bang. There's no exhaustive lead up, the time machine, dubbed H.G. Wells I, explodes into the year 12,000 B.C from the opening sentence. Its fact-finding crew of four include a bickering married couple of a zoologist and geologist, a German linguist, and Englishman John Gribardsun, a doctor, anthropologist and complete and utter badass.

Gribardsun steals the show from the very beginning. He's a fascinating, kickass character, pragmatic to a fault and with the kind of focus and drive and that would make Batman jealous. He's formidable, heroic, approaches every task with complete conviction and uncanny ability, and all the women desire him and the men fear and respect him. Gribardsun is a cool, calculated maniac and you'll be cheering along as he takes command. 

But there's also something a sinister about him. His background and role in this extremely costly expedition is a source of speculation. Is he everything he says he is? Why doesn't he quite fit in with everybody else. Will Drummond's clearly enamoured wife try to bang him? It's these intriguing mysteries that form the novel's core.

But beyond that, this is a fascinating look at an ancient world. Although I found it thoroughly engaging, this is not a break-neck action story full of over-the-top spectacle, instead Farmer creates a plausible pre-history that seems well-researched and very grounded. I love how real the book feels because these characters really have to solve all their problems in a feasible way. Right from the beginning they face more obstacles than Marty McFly ever dealt with. Their 3,000 pound time machine rolls down a hill and they will have to somehow get it back to its origin point if they are ever to return to the future at all. They have a four year window to accomplish this, so even this monumental task gets put on the back burner.

Even though events unfold in a realistic manner, there's still plenty of excitement to be had. They cannot survive without forming an alliance with the primitive men that inhabit the caves around them, so soon we are enjoying the thrill of the Great Hunt or skirmishes with other tribes. The god-like Gribardsun quickly realises that it's going to be impossible to observe without interfering and much is made of the ways in which these alien intruders influence and shape the lives of the tribes.

And that is something I found interesting here. This isn't the Back to the Future kind of time travel where actions create branching timelines. Here, time is a fixed line. You cannot erase future events by altering the past, because everything you know from the future has already been influenced by that which you already did in the past. So, in theory, you can be born in a present which has been already altered by those things that you will do in the future/past. Does that make any sense? Time travel always makes my head hurt. Don't worry though, Farmer does a better job explaining it all than I do. It all makes sense here.

And what exactly is "time's last gift"? No spoilers here, as it's explained very early on, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy (and money) to do these time trips. So it makes sense to go back the furthest you can first. This is the one and only chance that the people of 2070 (the novel's present) have to examine this far back it time. It all hinges on this one expedition. This is time's last gift. No one will ever be able to journey this far back again.

Another confession. As a literary primitive myself, I was not aware of Philip Jose Farmer's body of work. And I chose to go into this story completely cold. I read it not entirely sure when it had been written and it certainly holds up today. I could have believed it was written by a contemporary author were it not for a few anachronistic clues that led me to do the research. It was first published in 1972, four years before I was born. Philip Jose Farmer sadly left us in 2009 (although he lived a very long life) and I felt a little melancholy to read his thoughts about mortality and the impact we leave on the world, knowing now that he was no longer with us.

This 2012 Titan edition includes the appended epilogue which clears up a lot about the nature of my new favourite character John Gribardsun, and also includes an afterword which clearly spells everything out. There's some very clever literary gymnastics going on with John's character, which I did not entirely pick up on my initial read, but once you read the explanation it all seems very obvious and the embedded references become clear. I don't want to spoil this twist, but I will say that I still very much enjoyed the story at face-value, and I'm not sure that the reveal entirely enhanced that enjoyment. Hopefully this is cryptic enough, but I will say that Time's Last Gift feels like a story that may have been inspired by the likes of John Carter of Mars, and may have gone on to inspire the likes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Now, let me test the friendship and take Titan to task just a little bit. I adore the design of the cover but it's very deceptive as to the actual content of the book. I feel that this stereotypical saucer is not quote like that which is described in the text. And the team don't venture anywhere near the time period of the pterodactyls. That said, I did take a look at some vintage covers, one of which inexplicably featured a naked, Rubenesque white woman. So, historically, Time's Last Gift may have had some problems with that.

I recommend this book. I do that without any further qualifications. This isn't a, "Well, if you like sci-fi..." or any of that. I think it's worth a look. It's own afterword describes it as, "long-regarded as a minor classic of the time travel subgenre" so expect no delusions of grandeur here, but I do think that you'll be pleasantly surprised.

If you've read this book, or are a fan of Philip Jose Farmer then please comment as I would love to hear another's take on this and would equally love a recommendation on which of his books to read next. Gribardsun forever.

You can find out more about, and purchase, Time's Last Gift at Titan's site here.

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