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The Fall of Chronopolis

The Fall of Chronopolis, The Last and First Days of the Chronotic Empire, Barrington J. Bayley, DAW books #105, 1974.

I picked this up at a dealers table at the world SF con in San Antonio on the thought that it would be a good page turner and so it was. However it had some interesting and unusual ideas. The back page blurb will give you the style:

There is real time… and there is potential time. By controlling the difference, the Chronotic Empire came into existence and maintained itself over a thousand years of human history. Its Time Fleets, armadas of time-travelling fortesses, patrolled its temporal borders relentlessly, blotting out potential-time deviations, erasing errors of history that might undermine the empire.

But nevertheless the empire’s days were numbered, for somewhere in its own future was the century of the Hegemony, its implacable enemy.

Er, well, yes, blurb writers do tend to be a bit florid, don’t they. However this one is fairly accurate as far as it goes. There are armadas of time-travelling fortresses, a Chronotic Empire complete with Emperor, decadent scions, and an insane computer. Except, of course, nothing is quite what it seems. The computer is transcendently sane when it matters and the real conflict is quite different from that which the participants believe is going on. The Chronotic empire (quite out of the tradition of pulp SF empires) is being maintained by the far future as a grim warning of time travel gone bad – sort of.

So far, so good. I had what I wanted, a pulp style page turner. DAW books was quite reliable in bringing these out in the old days – Don Wolheim spent his entire career bringing the pulp tradition to life. Nowadays DAW books is mostly doing fantasy. Different category, same modus operandi, more hard covers.

Be that as it may, the book has some interesting ideas. There is an entire theory of time and time travel (unfortunately not completely elucidated) which forms the basis of the book. Niven’s thesis is explictly contraverted. Far from “time travel acting to destroy itself” the converse (with the structure of the theory) is true: once time travel is discovered it acts to preserve itself.

There is a neat technical solution to a standard problem with time travel stories, to wit, the instability of history destroying the basis of existence of the traveller (see Grandfathers I Have Killed). The usual solutions are solipsism, e.g. David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, a time outside of time, e.g. Asimov’s eternals, strict atemporal determinism, e.g. Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, or just finessing the problem. Bayley has the notion of stability nodes, points in history which are relatively invariant under time travel operations outside the nodes (but only relatively invariant). He also has a ‘time outside of time’ notion but it is quite different from the Asimovian treatment.

However the really neat thing is that he has a version of the Nietzchean nightmare of the eternal recurrence, albeit with a touch of Penrose tiling and the potential of catastrophe theory transitions. (Mind you, none of this jargon is in the book – it precedes the modern flapdoodle.) For example, when you die the soul is traumatized and forgets everything – it travels back in time to the moment of birth and attaches to the body to relive life all over again. Time travelling reincarnation, if you like. The recurrence is not, however, identical from repetition to repetition. It is more like a Penrose tiling in which the patterns repeat out to infinity with similarity but not identity.

More than that all of history is periodically destroyed and recreated (thus the Last and First days of Chronopolis) again in the style of Penrose tilings, the recreation is not identical. Nor is the recreation guaranteed to be similar. There is always a struggle to radically change the nature of history.

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