Echoes in Time by Andre Norton and Sherwood Smith
Cover art by Julie Bell
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
After the success of Derelict for Trade and A Mind for Trade, it was decided not to do a third Solar Queen novel at that time. Instead, Sherwood Smith would help André Norton extend another of her older fictional universes, the Time Traders. This decision would bring a fresh set of challenges. Because the Solar Queen universe is space opera set in the far future, the biggest problem in writing new stories in it was to create new alien species and worlds that would be sufficiently different from previous ones to avoid seeming to be nothing but a rehash of prior art, yet feel as though they truly belonged to the fictional world.
By contrast, the Time Traders universe was the story of a secret organization operating out of the contemporary world. Using a mysterious alien technology they barely understood, our intrepid heroes traveled forward and backward in time to battle Soviet agents and the mysterious alien Baldies, with the occasional assistance from the equally mysterious and alien Fur Faces. The Baldies could always be counted on to behave nastily and treacherously because after all, they were the Villains, and similarly the Fur Faces were presented as mysterious and inscrutable, offering assistance for reasons unknown to the protagonists and the reader, but generally useful to forward the plot as need be.
However, there were two problems to be faced in continuing the storyline. Most obviously, the Soviet Union had fallen in the intervening time, and the Russians were no longer America's implacable enemy, dedicated to replacing the free-market economy and representative democracy with a centrally-planned Communist dictatorship. As a result, it was no longer possible to assume that of course Russians would be the bad guys. If they were, they'd have to have personal rather than ideological reasons for trying to make life difficult for our protagonists. In addition, the treatment of alien species in fiction had become more sophisticated, so that it was no longer sufficient to designate them the Villain Race and Mysterious Advisor Race and go from there. Aliens needed at least some hint of complexity and character development, even if those hints serried largely to suggest that the motivations underlying the aliens' actions stemmed from biological drives alien enough that humans could not fully parse them.
Thus this novel features the American team working in partnership with the Russians, as the Time Project has now become a worldwide network of cooperating governments. In this novel, it's revealed that the Russians had assumed that the American time teams were working in cooperation with the alien Baldies, the exact mirror of the Americans' assumptions about the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As a result, both sides are now having to reassess just what these mysterious hairless humanoids represent and what they are trying to achieve with their relentless attacks upon human technological efforts, particularly in the field of time travel.
The Russians are appealing to the American team because they've run into major trouble. One of their teams was using a captured Baldy spacecraft to travel to a distant world where they found the ruins of a city in which several different species of intelligent beings appear to have lived in harmony. Wanting to understand how they accomplished this, the Russians installed a time machine and sent their team backward to a time in which the city was still a thriving population center. After an initial misunderstanding cost the life of one of their biologists, the team appeared to have some success and was amassing a fair amount of data. Then something went wrong. After a couple of confused messages, the team disappeared.
Now the Russians want to launch a joint Russian-American team to learn what happened to their original team. They have a fair amount of information the first team gathered, enough they hope the new team will be better equipped to deal with the complex, highly stratified society they found in the city at the time it was occupied. Furthermore, one of the international Project members, an Ethiopian musicologist and linguist by the name of Saba, must be included in the team being formed for this mission. An astonishingly lifelike sculptural portrait of her was found amidst the ruins of the city, which means that she visited it sometime in the past. Thus she must go back with them, lest time run off the rails.
The days-long trip to the planet is filled with study, for they must learn the complex language of the Yilayil, the dominant species. They know from the example of the Russian biologist that a misstep can be deadly, and although the Russian team appeared to have been able to get back in their hosts' good graces afterward, the team cannot rule out the possibility that retribution was only delayed rather than truly set aside. By the time they arrive, they all are quite exhausted and feeling rather crammed, even with the hypnopedic techniques the Project has developed to allow people to absorb and integrate information and skills far more rapidly than by normal methods.
They are also astonished to notice new species that had not been mentioned in previous descriptions of the planet, in particular the savage humanoids. Are they what the lost Russian team's descendants have degenerated into in the subsequent years? It makes their mission all the more urgent, yet at the same time more problematic, since attempting to alter the past risks damaging time itself. Some things are fixed and cannot be undone by time travel, at least in the Time Traders universe.
Once our protagonists get back to their target era, they have to find themselves work to earn their way upward and gain privileges, including (they hope) access to the equipment that will enable them to investigate just what happened to the Russian team. In taking their places in this strange city, they come up against the contradictions of a society that simultaneously demands complete conformity, to the point of trying to make everyone into identical, interchangeable cogs in the system, and a security and financial system that is predicated upon the uniqueness of each individual. This is one aspect of the society that I really wish could've been explored in more depth, because there are so many implications that are so relevant to present-day post-industrial society.
The one exception is Saba, who is immediately welcomed into the House of Knowledge and begins the arduous struggle to understand the peculiarities of the language of the Yilayil, some of which seem to be based upon sensory contradictions and synesthesia. Meanwhile, she is becoming ill as the result of a sudden spike in pollen levels. The other team members are reporting some difficulty with the pollen, but not to the level she is. Does the fact that she's a carrier of sickle-cell anemia have anything to do with her extreme response to this pollen?
Although most of the species in the city seem to be quite protocol-oriented, Ross encounters the Jecc, annoying little creatures who engage in continual petty thefts. Delicately-posed questions to some of the other aliens reveal that the Jecc are generally regarded as nuisances and as only pretending to be learning proper deportment. After a few more incidences, Ross decides to fight fire with fire. He was a pretty capable pickpocket before being recruited for the Project, and soon his retaliations against the thefts earns him enough respect from the Jecc that they let him find out some key things about their species. First, their incessant thieving is part of their reproductive system, a way of transferring genetic material between individuals without the normal sexual apparatus one finds in Terrestrial animals. Secondly, the Jecc of this world have undergone a strange mutation, growing tentacles that mark them out as different from their cousins who remained on their homeward.
This discovery provides the key to understand not only the pollen, but what happened to the first team. It's a revelation that makes me think of the James H. Schmitz story "Compulsion," which appears in the anthology T'n'T: Telzey and Trigger. Here too we have intelligent plants responding to a long-ago interstellar war by genetic modification of any animal they regard as threatening into a less threatening form. However, in this novel we don't have quite the happy ending Telzey Amberdon is able to achieve in that story.
André Norton and Sherwood Smith wrote one more Time Traders novel together, Atlantis Endgame. However, although the Norton estate was interested in the possibility of additional books in the series written by Ms. Smith alone after Ms. Norton's passing, Ms. Smith politely declined the offer, citing discomfort with working in another author's universe when that author was not available to guide her and ensure that her additions fit with the original vision of the fictional universe.
Review posted October 31, 2012.
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