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The Dechronization of Sam Magruder

The Dechronization Of Sam Magruder, George Gaylord Simpson, 1996, St. Martins Griffin, New York, ISBN 0-312-15514-X, introduction by Arthur C. Clarke, afterword by Stephen Jay Gould.

This volume is a curiosity. George Gaylord Simpson is regarded as the greatest vertebrate paleontologist of the twentieth century. He was one of the big guns in establishing the modern synthesis in evolutionary theory. He was not, however, a fiction writer although he and his wife did write a successful mystery. Why, then, has this volume appeared years after his death and why does it have an introduction by one of the most noted SF writers and an afterword one of the most noted science writers? What is going on here? Is this story any good; does it matter whether or not it is any good?

Its belated appearance is accounted for in a memoir by his daughter. Simpson was a man of note; the bulk of his collected papers to the universities that collect the professional papers of the noted. This manuscript was a remnant, an orphan not seized by the hagiographers. His daughter, having received the tag ends, read it, thought it surprisingly good, and set about having it published.

A singular work within a body of otherwise quite different work is often singular with respect to its nominal genre. Such is the case here. Brian Aldiss, who is an SF author of some note, is quoted on the cover as saying "The best time-travel story since H. G. Well's The Time Machine". A difficulty with such statements is that the work, being outside the SF genre, is not really comparable to works within the genre which have reworked the theme to a high level of sophication, David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself being the premier example.

In a sense Simpson's novella is not about time travel at all; rather it is about the nature of being truly alone. Sam Macgruder is sent back in time by accident to the Cretaceous. In the novella travel back in time is possible but it is not possible to select the destination time; one ends up at some random point in the entire prehistory of the world. It is a one way trip that will never be shared. The choice of the Cretaceous is a paleontologists choice. Macgruder arrives, tells his story on clay tablets which are placed so that they will be found by future paleontolgists, and dies, 70 million years out of his time.

The story is told within a frame by a group of people, named variously the Universal Historian, the Pragmatist, the Ethnologist, the Common Man, et cetera, an old trick to lend distance and depersonalization. Although it's a device it is appropriate because it fits the spirit of the story. Despite being told simply there is a surprising amount of philosophical and autobiographical juice in it which Gould proceeds to extract with great vigor in the afterword.

Nice book. It was written for me.

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