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Great Work of Time Mass Market Paperback – July 1, 1991
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Caspar Last faces this question in John Crowley's novella, Great Work of Time. He invents a time machine, and quite practically, feels he should benefit monetarily from it. And he comes up with a pretty clever scheme: he travels back over 100 years into the past to acquire a rare stamp that he will either sell at auction or to the owner of the only other existing example of this stamp (who would presumably pay to have it destroyed to preserve the value of his own stamp).
Soon after his return from the past, Last is approached by the President pro tem ("for the time being") of a secret society called the Otherhood and asked to hand over his time machine. Though he tries to refuse, Last's protest is over before it begins; the President had travelled from the future using Last's own machine, meaning that, at some point in the Otherhood's past and somewhere in Last's future, the act of handing over the time machine had already occurred. And if you thought that point was confusing, it gets more complicated: the Otherhood suspected that Last wouldn't accept a cash offer for his machine while he was in possession of a rare stamp, so they planted a fake price guide in his home to fool him into thinking that his trip had altered the future, making his once valuable stamp worthless . Professor Last, being a genius of "orthogonal logic," had anticipated that his trip could alter history in some minor way, so, with no other alternative, he agrees to sell his time machine for a generous price.
Though the episode between Last and the President is an entertaining enough story in itself, it makes up only a small part of a much larger narrative about altering history and the responsibility a person has to the world, a complicated concept when possible worlds can become actual worlds. Denys Winterset, a loyal and devoted citizen of the world-spanning British Empire, is asked by an enigmatic man named Davenant to join the Otherhood. He learns of the secret history of the Otherhood: that Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist and entrepreneur, left a sum of money in his will to create a secret society charged with the extension and preservation of the British Empire. Winterset is made to understand that the world he knows exists only because of the machinations and manipulations of the Otherhood. He also learns of the Original Situation: where the minor war of 1914 became the Great War of our reality. This war, of course, led directly into the next World War, with the total result being the death of many millions, the invention of atomic weapons and the Cold War. Winterset is appalled by this information and is convinced to join the secret society to preserve the Empire he loves and the affluent, peaceful world the Empire ensures. Inside the club of the Otherhood, which exists outside of time, the actions necessary to create his world have yet to occur and Winterset is given an assignment vital to the existence of his altered world: the assassination of Cecil Rhodes before the wealthy imperialist changes his will in 1893 and removes the Otherhood's endowment.
Meanwhile, the President pro tem has traveled into the future, breaking a cardinal rule of the Otherhood, and finds a world diverging significantly from the world the Otherhood was trying to create. This world is inhabited by creatures quite different from humans: lizard-men called Draconics, angelic, faerie-like beings and ominous, wise hominids calling themselves Magi. And the President loves it. The world is stark, strange, fantastical and eccentric, but it somehow feels right to the President, as if that is how the world should be. The only way this world could have been created was by breaking another one of the rules of the Otherhood: traveling to a time before the death of Cecil Rhodes. The fabric of this world has been made weak due to the constant changes in the timeline, creating fluctuations in reality that would eventually destroy it. The angels, the oldest race on this world and most sensitive to the manipulations of time, reveal to the President the end result of the Otherhood's actions: a world consisting of only a large, dark forest, with roots descending into the ocean. No creatures, no life, no change.
As right as the world may seem to him, he is convinced by a Magus and an angel that he must restore the original timeline. In order to achieve this, the President would have to break a third rule of the Otherhood by traveling to a point in time he had already been to: the assassination of Cecil Rhodes. To prevent the creation of the Otherhood, the President would have to stop his younger self, Denys Winterset from killing Rhodes. Because Crowley is such a brilliant crafter of stories, he doesn't give us an easy ending once the President's identity is revealed. In a twisted denouement, a third Winterset in a world where the Original Situation had occurred discovers an older version of himself living in Africa. This older version recounts the story of his life to the younger Winterset: how he had been sent to kill Rhodes and how a distraction prevented him from doing so; a distraction he believed to have been created with the intent of stopping him, thus restoring the world to the way it was supposed to be, but stranding him in the past.
John Crowley deftly manages to present a complicated scenario in a way which doesn't bewilder and confuse the reader. Time travel is tricky to convey and there were moments during my reading of Great Work of Time when I thought I should go back and reread previous sections, but I plowed ahead and Crowley found a way to bring everything full circle by the end. Even so, I look forward to coming back to this story and reading it again, not only because of intricate and fascinating plot, but also the richness of the language. Crowley deliberately uses intricate language while keeping things vague, having the effect of mystifiying you and making you savor every word. Each sentence reflects the time and thought put into its construction; they are not merely describing the action. Perhaps most impressively, Crowley takes the reader to different worlds and time periods, introducing a variety of characters and circumstances, and yet the reader doesn't lose the thread of the story.
What's particularly endearing about Great Work of Time are the unexpected places Crowley takes this far-from-standard time travel story. The opening chapter about Casper Last and his quest for riches seems quite distant from Winterset's struggle with killing a man to create a better world. Even more shocking was the world of the future; a fantasy world which should have seemed out of place in a science fiction story, but didn't. Last's desire to improve his lot in life, a desire anyone could understand, seems small and petty when compared to the mission of the Otherhood, to create a world in which everyone's lot in life is improved. However, the President's reaction to the future world reveal a corruption of the Otherhood's mission; the world of strange races, rigid hierarchies and no change are appealing to the President. This future world feels proper and correct to him, and so the objective of an organization to better the world is subjugated to the personal feelings of one man. Last's purpose in creating his time machine was to fulfill his own desires, and the President discovers that the future was built upon the desires of one man as well: himself. Winterset, in his different incarnations, is driven by the responsibility he feels toward bettering the world. Ultimately, this is what drives him to travel into the past to kill Rhodes. It is also what causes him to return to that time period and prevent the killing. For all the good that the Otherhood is trying to achieve, Winterset realizes that men cannot guide the entire world, for they will guide it to oblivion. I wonder if the final pages of the story, where the younger Winterset smuggles the older, time-traveling Winterset out of Africa and into England, is the author's obtuse way of saying that a man is not responsible for the entire world, but is responsible for helping himself.
[This review also appears on FingerFlow.com, a site for review and discussion of creative works.]
Crowley comes up with a very novel way to do this, one I'm not sure I've gotten my head around but very fun nonetheless. More importantly, he tells a lovely story, and in his best Stevensonian prose.