Thursday, August 23, 2012

Time And Again by Jack Finney

I have no idea what led me to add Jack Finney's 1970 illustrated novel Time and Again to my to-read list — it certainly wasn't that horrendous cover! — but I'm glad I gave it a chance.

Finney is perhaps best known for The Body Snatchers, a story first published in installments in Collier's magazine in 1954 and later printed in novel form. It served as the source of the classic 1956 sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for which Finney contributed to the screenplay.

Time And Again (FIC FINNEY) is considered a classic in the time travel genre, something I wasn't aware of until after I finished reading it. Out of the blue, narrator Si (short for "Simon") Morley finds himself being recruited by a top-secret government agency. It turns out the feds have learned how to send people back in time but the procedure only works with certain kinds of people. While those characteristics are never explicitly revealed, apparently Si's got the goods.

Faced with the prospect of a ho-hum advertising career or the temporal adventure of a lifetime, 28-year-old Si opts for adventure. He already knows what time and place he wants to travel to: New York City, January 1882, to solve a mystery related to his girlfriend's past.

Before you know it, Si's in Victorian-era Manhattan, making friends and enemies alike among the 19th-century denizens. He becomes particularly fond of Julia, the niece of the woman who boards Si. With Julia at his side, the two become far more embroiled in danger and intrigue — both in the past and present day — than Si ever could have expected.

While I found Si's character to be lacking in personality, it is through his sharp-eyed observations that we see the Big Apple, circa 1882. Finney excels at bringing historic New York to life, plunging us into the details of that period's wardrobe, architecture, lifestyle and cultural mores. Though his words alone would have sufficed, the text is further bolstered by Si's sketches and photographs. Interestingly enough, I had the most difficulty accepting Finney's description of the mechanics of time travel. In Time And Again, it's accomplished through essentially willing yourself through self-hypnosis to another place and time. I found this method less believable than the genre's more common conventions of machines or wormholes. Or even magic.

The plot starts out slowly, but moves along at a steady clip, gaining in steam particularly toward the end. You can tell a great deal of research has gone into recreating the events of the time, and Finney incorporates them seamlessly into the story. His tale blends science fiction, history and romance together in a way that will make you see how it has stood the test of time.

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