Atlantis Endgame by André Norton and Sherwood Smith
Cover by Julie Bell
Edited by James Frenkel
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In this volume Grand Master André Norton and rising star Sherwood Smith add yet another volume to the Time Traders universe, and in doing so offer new insights on it that add depth and ambiguity to what had been a typical pulpish adventure series. And this was no small accomplishment, for unlike the Solar Queen series, to which Sherwood Smith had helped to add two more volumes (Derelict for Trade and A Mind for Trade), the Time Traders series was not space opera and didn't have the advantage of being set in a time and place far distant from our every-day experience.
Instead, the Time Traders was set in a fictional version of the world as contemporary to its writing, so that the reader could feel as if the events set in the story-present were taking place even as he or she was reading. However, the original Time Traders novels had been written during the height of the Cold War, when the United States was staring down the Soviet Union for the domination of the world.. As a result, updating the series for a new generation of readers wasn't just a matter of reworking the scientific rationale of the series and adding strong female characters with agency and agendas independent of the male characters. The whole political landscape of the fictional world had to be brought into line with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union in a believable way, while still making longterm readers feel that the veteran time agents of the original series could still be operating in the new setup.
And quite honestly, the authors not only do it quite admirably, but manage to update the relationships of humanity with the two alien races who were frequent visitors to the locales our intrepid agents' missions took them. In the original novels, both the Baldies and the Fur Faces were treated rather simplistically -- the first were menaces, with little thought to what motivations might lead them to act against Our Heroes. Baldies could be counted on to shoot first and ask questions later, and this was obviously because they were the Bad Guys. They didn't need any more motivation for their actions. And the Fur Faces' reasons for offering Our Heroes help from time to time were never really examined -- at times it seemed like they existed and acted for the convenience of the plot, without any agenda of their own.
This volume begins with an an old associate returning with an awkward discovery. She's spent some time on a dig at Thera, the collapsed volcano often believed to be the source of the Atlantis legends. These islands were once the home of an extremely advanced civilization, enjoying a level of material sophistication that would not be matched until the modern era. Furthermore, the Minoan civilization appears to have been a peaceable one, in which both men and women held significant authority, and in which they traded rather than conquering as the Greeks and Romans would later do. Some archeologists have even speculated that if the Minoan civilization had not been destroyed, humanity might have attained industrialization and space travel centuries or even millennia earlier.
Thus, the discovery of a gold hoop earring with a modern jeweler's mark, buried under the ash of the eruption that ended Minoan civilization, brings the obvious question -- might the Baldies be interfering in the eruption in hopes of changing history? But what would they benefit by preventing a disaster that set human development back for thousands of years?
Unless the speculation about the Minoans as a Golden Age are over-optimistic? Suppose that the persistence of the Minoan civilization would not have meant the acceleration of human technological development, but instead might have brought about the stagnation of humanity? If the Minoans' lack of imperial ambition meant complacency, a world in which they never fell might see a present in which humanity remained largely pastoral, maybe even still Bronze Age or early Iron Age -- and thus easy pickings for a Baldie conquest.
In any case, the presence of the earring in an ash layer undisturbed since the Thera eruption can mean only one thing -- it was taken back there by a time traveler. And Murdock and Ashe recognize the earring as one belonging to a fellow member of their team -- which means that their team will be the ones going back.
The trip is made particularly tricky by the paucity of information about the era and its civilizations. Of course more is known now than at the time the original Time Traders novels were written -- but what is known doesn't provide that much information on the things this sort of a mission needs to know most. The Minoans were traders, which means that the bulk of the Linear A texts have proved to be business records, which provide a window into the economy of the time, but not necessarily into the folkways, or the politics, or any of a number of things essential for a time agent who needs to avoid making disastrous missteps while operating undercover.
And unlike some time-travel stories where the characters can solve unexpected problems by running back and forth in time, Our Heroes can't simply run back home to find out the necessary information, then come back and finish their mission. In this fictional universe, time travel may allow inanimate objects to bilocate, but anything with a central nervous system cannot survive doubling back on itself. If Our Heroes should try such a thing and return to the place they left before they've departed, both versions of themselves will simply cease to exist. Not exactly a desirable outcome, so the inability to target their arrivals precisely means the trip is a one-shot deal.
They're posing as Egyptian traders, gambling that enough is known about Egyptian culture at the time that they can maintain their cover without having any awkward gaps in their knowledge betray them. And when they arrive in the Minoan capital, their trade goods are quickly welcomed, giving Our Heroes the opportunity to stay in the city as long as they need and to move freely within it.
At the same time, Our Heroes make a less than welcome discovery -- the time machine has delivered them far closer than intended to the time of the eruption. Already the volcano has caused several major earthquakes, causing significant structural damage to the Minoan capital. Just getting close to the volcano to make essential measurements requires bringing out uptime protective equipment, which increases the danger that one of the locals will see them and not just dismiss it as a hallucination, but will begin a cultural disruption that will echo through the ages in unpredictable ways.
As they make their measurements, their worse fears are confirmed -- there is Baldy tech buried in the magma chamber that feeds the eruptions. One of the Fur Faces appears and provides information about the supposed intentions of the Baldies along with the nature of the devices they are employing. However, one of the members of the team is then captured by the Baldies themselves, who provide a completely different narrative of their actions, one that casts doubts on everything Our Heroes have assumed about who's the good guys, who's the bad guys, and just what humanity's place in this whole thing is.
Of course it's also possible that all that information was in fact what each side tells people who actually corner them and demand answers, and that if the series had continued, it would have been proven to be just one layer in a very complex onion. However, no other novels in the series were written before Ms. Norton's declining health made further collaborations impossible. Although the Norton estate was open to the possibility of having Sherwood Smith write further Time Traders novels, Ms. Smith politely declined, not feeling comfortable writing in that universe without Ms. Norton's direction. As a result, we the readers will simply have to be satisfied with the ending of this novel. I'm grateful that it is a happy one.
Review posted January 11, 2012.
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