At last, I’ve gotten around to reading Political Travails of Time Travel and found it most entertaining and thought-provoking. I was most intrigued with the Indian folktales about the trees of time. First, I found it fascinating because it indicates that an interest in time — and time travel — goes back many years in other cultures. Second, compared to western notions of time, which are almost placid, even sedentary in comparison, the image of a hero traveling through time by jumping from tree to tree is elegant and exciting. Philip Jose Farmer would have loved it.
You neatly describe two of my favorite time travel stories. The first, “A Sound of Thunder,” I read as a child, and loved it because it paid off on two accounts: dinosaurs and time travel. But the story always gave me pause, because it proposed a set of laws for time travel that I wasn’t sure could be enforced. The laws could only govern that particular story. I couldn’t believe there weren’t other answers to time travel paradoxes.
So, here comes Bester. His rules of time travel are more psychological than physical, or so it seems. Metaphysical? By all means.
I enjoyed the question you posed about why Bester didn’t have Hassel murder Jesus. The answer may be simpler: if Hassel murdered Jesus, the editors of F&SF would have been assailed with hundreds of angry letters. Bester is writing to a mostly American audience, and an audience most likely of Christian heritage. His wit may have cut too close to the bone, so to speak, for Hassel to assassinate Jesus. He even may have done so in an early draft and was dissuaded to keep it in by an editor.
I have a volume of Bester’s collected stories where he wrote introductions to each, explaining how he wrote them. I’m compelled to find that edition and check his notes on “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” I’ll let you know what I discover.
The Jesus comments also reminded me of the last section of The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s not exactly time travel, but in his last moments on the cross, Jesus is allowed to view a version of his life (“alternate universe”?) where he gives up his evangelism, weds Magdelene, opens a carpenter shop, has children, and dies an old man. What becomes of Christianity without Christ? It’s quite an intense, brilliant novel.
Also, I wonder if you’re familiar with two more of my favorite time travel novels, both of which have shaped my conception of time travel considerably: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber and Timescape by Gregory Benford. Leiber’s in some ways gets close to Bester’s conception of time being non-objective, but not quite: imagine the “spaghetti” of time getting even messier than in “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” In Benford’s novel, every movement in time creates a new timeline, like a parallel or alternate universe, i.e. there is an objective reality to time, but it exists in plural, not singular, form. If you haven’t read them, they are worth your time, each in their own, distinct ways.
All of this is to say again that I enjoyed your piece. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to read it.
All the best,
Richard J. Chwedyk
Chwedyk’s first published story was “Getting Along with Larga,” which was the first winner of the ISFiC Writer’s contest in 1986. In 1988, he won the contest again with his story “A Man Makes a Machine,” which went on to be published as Chwedyk’s first professional sale in Amazing Stories in November, 1990.
In addition to writing fiction, Chwedyk has also published a number of poems and has coordinated poetry slams in Chicago, where he makes his home.)