Jack Finney wrote some classic science fiction. I’m most familiar with his book The Body Snatchers from 1950, a Golden Age story. But I recently found one of his later paperbacks in a used book store. It’s from 1970 but now on Amazon, Time and Again.
This is a time travel story, but there are no wormholes or flux capacitors. I’ll let you discover the method on your own. It may disappoint hard science fiction fans, but the detail put into the experiment is engaging.
The real point of this story is to contrast New York City today (remember, published in 1970) with New York in 1882. There are loads of real pictures from the era, though not all exactly from 1882. An apartment building is a key part of the story, and Finney admits in his author’s note that it wasn’t completed until three years after his story. Why didn’t he simply move his story a few years? There’s another building that figures in the story’s climax, where Finney uses a real event that was more important than the date the Dakota was completed. But the Dakota is such a magnificent structure I’ll forgive the little fudge.
The Dakota may sound familiar to you. It’s been a fancy abode for the rich and famous from its opening to today. Yoko Ono lives there now and John Lennon was murdered outside the building in 1980. So it’s infamous as well as famous.
If it seems odd to talk so much about buildings instead of the story, I think Finney would approve. Any lover of New York or the late 1800s will adore the detailed descriptions of places, people, and the way of life. Finney and his hero Si Morely love New York in 1882. The point of the book is to contrast the two times, and there are more period-correct illustrations than I bothered to count.
Si Morely is impressed at how he experiences 1882. He goes on about it quite a bit, and during his returns to today everyone wants to know how it feels. Si can’t truly put the feeling into words, but Finney tries. He’s impressed throughout the book and I thought he would have gotten a bit more used to the feel over time.
Okay, the story: Si is recruited for a secret time travel experiment, and at first his only goal is to successfully arrive in New York’s 1882. But an odd personal motive arises – a mystery. Half way through the book, it seems that his mystery is solved. He even says, my mission is over and I wish that it weren’t. At least in part, that’s because he’s falling in love with a woman as well as with 1882.
When he returns to today, a second mission arises and Si makes a decision that promises to cause trouble. It does. Towards the end, the placid tale picks up some real action. Lives are in danger and lives are lost. The original mystery turns out to have a second mystery inside, in a neat twist. Finally Si tackles the core paradox of time travel, how the past effects the present.
So if you read for action, be patient and you’ll get there. But this book is really for lovers of cities a hundred and thirty years ago. Especially New York.
What others are saying
A Kindle version came out in 2014 and has 4.2 stars from 882 reviewers on Amazon. Most readers love it, especially the vivid, brought-to-life history. “Masterpiece,” “brilliant,” and “awesome.” Of course, no book appeals to everyone. Others thought it was over-hyped, or that parts were tedious. I will admit that once I got to the action part of the story, I began skimming descriptions so I could find out what happens. The person who said “nothing ever really happened” must not have gotten all the way to the end, but if you want a fast paced story, this is the wrong book.