The last hundred years has witnessed a good many time-travel stories. H.G. Wells may have traveled first1, but Williamson, less than half a century later, appears to have been the first to address the complex paradoxes that time travel might bring about.
Title: The Legion of Time
Original Publication Date: 1938
Women from two different, disparate futures contact Denny Lanning, because his actions will determine which of their societies will ultimately come to pass. In particular, his actions will affect the life of one John Barr. In one possible future, Barr will become an influential scientist whose discovery will change world history; in another, he dies, penniless, and a variation of his discovery is made nine years later by less ethical individuals. The utopian society of Jonbar dominates the world of one possible future. In another, the dystopic Gyronchi dominates our world, and eventually destroys humanity. Thus does Williamson, who would go on to coin the terms "genetic engineering" and "terraforming," introduce the concept of the jonbar point. The book’s central example strikes most readers as far-fetched, but fascinating: young John Barr stoops one day to pick an object from the ground. Or he doesn’t. The rest is future history.
In order to ensure that the best future occurs, Lanning must join the Legion of Time, and to join the Legion, he first must die.
The Legion of Time is one of Williamson’s earlier books. It demonstrates that the man had ideas, fascinating, mind-bending concepts. He would become a better writer, however, only with time.
The male characters are, at best, two-dimensional beings. The females barely achieve one. Our protagonist, Lanning, has wandered out of a bad college novel where, we can presume, he would have proved himself both on the field and in the class and won the virtuous and beautiful debutante’s hand away from the rich but unworthy suitor. For the rest of the Legion, the young Williamson substitutes bad accents for characterization. "'Gott in Himmel!'" rumbles Emil Schorn, the Legion’s token German, "'Der thing we must recover is in that castle, nein? It looks a verdammt stubborn nut to crack!'" And, despite the fate of the human race hanging in the balance, the men of the Legion have trouble harming the Evil Ruler of Gyronchi because she’s hot.
The plot exists to move us from one exciting incident to the next. This isn’t great writing—I’m not even certain the plot makes sense—but it’s a fun ride. The fact that Williamson was thinking about alternate histories and the long-term effects of seemingly trivial moments, impresses me. I'm also impressed by the fact that in 1938, he wrote about an international group of heroes that includes a character who fought to save Paris in a World War in the 1940s.
As time passed, Williamson improved, and he had the good sense to collaborate with other, technically better writers. Still, if you want to experience SF’s swashbuckling pulp origins, you could do worse than The Legion of Time.
1.Others went before Wells, including Pierre Boitard, whose posthumous book Paris avant les hommes appeared in 1861.
A variation of this review first appeared at Bureau42