Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dinosaur Beach (1971)

Yesterday's near-miss between the ISS and a piece of space garbage reminded me of Keith Laumer's 1971 time travel novel Dinosaur Beach. Why would a whizzing piece of space rubbish make me think of time travel? Read on...

The novel centers around Igor Ravel, a time traveling agent of Nexx Central. He is part of Project Timesweep, a Fourth Era attempt to undo the temporal tampering of previous eras. Implanted with a false identity, he's on a deep-cover mission in 1936. Thinking himself a happy newlywed, a post-hypnotic suggestion triggers him to remember his mission and leave his young wife, Lisa. Before you can say "Jack Robinson," (which they did back in the 1930's) he's used his Mauser to gun down a Karg, a time traveling robot from an earlier era. Retrieving the tape from the Karg he time jumps back to Dinosaur Beach, a Nexx Staging Station located in the prehistoric past. After a cursory debriefing, but before he can be mind-wiped and have his implanted personality and love of Lisa erased, the station is attacked and destroyed. Ravel is the lone survivor, and he takes drastic action. He activates the personal emergency jump gear installed in his body in the hopes of reaching another station. This begins his desperate odyssey through time which leads him to again encounter his lover, Lisa, who claims to actually be Mellia Gayl, a fellow Timesweep agent. They must do all they can to escape being "marooned in the closed loop of an unrealized alternate reality."

What made me think of this book when I heard about the Space Station's near miss is the passage describing the raison d'ĂȘtre of Project Timesweep.

"The idea wasn't without logic. The First Era of time travel had closely resembled the dawn of the space age in some ways—notably, in the trail of rubbish it left behind. In the case of the space garbage, it had taken half a dozen major collisions to convince the early space authorities of the need to sweep circumterrestrial space clean of fifty years debris in the form of spent rocket casings, defunct telemetry gear, and derelict relay satellites long lost track of. In the process they'd turned up a surprising number of odds and ends, including lumps of meteoric rock and iron, chondrites of clearly earthly origin, possibly volcanic, the mummified body of an astronaut lost on an early space walk, and a number of artifacts that the authorities of the day had scratched their heads over and finally written off as the equivalent of empty beer cans tossed out by visitors from out-system.

That was long before the days of Timecasting, of course.

The Timesweep program was a close parallel to the space sweep. The Old Era temporal experimenters had littered the timeways with everything from early one-way timecans to observation stations, dead bodies, abandoned instruments, weapons and equipment of all sorts, including an automatic mining setup established under the Antarctic icecap which caused headaches at the time of the Big Melt."

This short book succeeds in delivering a briskly paced sf thriller with plenty of plot twists and a dash of romance. The prose is terse and no-nonsense, written in a style reminiscent of hard-boiled detective novels. It's as if Dashiell Hammett had written a novel after the fashion of Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (1938). If the book has a short coming it's that the trajectory of the plot is too similar to Laumer's earlier work, A Plague of Demons (1965). Like the protagonist of that previous book, Ravel is somewhat hyper-competent, discovering new, hidden superpowers as the occasion demands. And there are a few plot holes, but nothing that seriously distracts from the kinetic plot. While this isn't an ambitious novel, and can't be compared to books like Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955) or Fritz Leiber's The Big Time (1958), it does call into question the assumptions that underlie most "time police" stories.

This is a two-fisted tale of sf adventure with plenty of surprises along the way and an unexpected ending. It's a great book to breeze through on a lazy summer afternoon. Just watch out for the time junk.

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