The Fall of Chronopolis — Barrington J. Bayley

Cover of The Fall of Chronopolis

The Fall of Chronopolis
Barrington J. Bayley
175 pages
published in 1974

I’ve always been a sucker for time war novels, starting with Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Keith Laumer’s Imperium series. I like the grand scale on which these stories play out, the whole idea of the impermanence of time itself, something that undercuts our most basic of securities, the idea that the past we remember is the way that past has always been, making literal the idea Orwell put forth in 1984: he who controls the past, controls the future. Which explains why The Fall of Chronopolis was one of the first bought at Eastercon novels I finished, even before the convention itself was over, finishing it at the Dead Dog party on Monday.

In the The Fall of Chronopolis the time war rages between the Chronotic Empire, which has steadily increased its dominion over the centuries until it rule a thousand years of human history and its far future enemy, the Hegemony, existing futurewards beyond the Age of Desolation after the fall of the Chronotic Empire. For the most part this time war has been limited, consisting of limited raids on each other’s history, but the Chronotic Empire is raising a grand fleet of timeships to invade the Hegemony directly, while the latter had developed a time distorter which can warp history directly. But this is only the surface story; there’s a lot more going on

Bayley’s conception of time travel consists of a “temporal substratum” or strat that the time ships fly through, which would make any time traveller insane if they looked at it directly. The strat exists “below” orthogonal time, in which history is made, remade and unmade, entiry cites be cast into nonactual, merely potential time. Only within the strat can alterations of history be seen and remembered, at least for a time. From within the strat the warring parties could fight in a duel of moves and countermoves aimned at altering their opponent’s history to such an extent their time ships no longer had an orthogonal base of existence; they could still exist in the strat, for a while, until they faded out, sinking into what the Church calls the Gulf of Lost Souls.

What’s more, time is divided in nodes, as explained in a very traditional “as you know, Bob” classroom lecture at the start of the second chapter, nodes each roughly 150 years apart, as orthogonal time has a wave structure. Time travel is easiest from node to node, as it doesn’t cost a time traveller energy to remain in a node. Travel to points of time inbetween nodes does and the traveller needs to keep spending energy to keep in phase, or sink back into the substratum. This gives the empire its structure and stability, having expanded over seven such nodes.

Captain Aton commands one of the time destroyers in the empire’s fleet and during one battle with the Hegemony he falls foul of a sect of Traumatics, heretics split off from the true church and worshipping what they believe is the master of strat time, Hulmu. In a seperate plot line, a woman, Inpriss Sorce, is chosen at random by the same Traumatics sect to serve as a sacrifice for their service, but first they’ll get her to flee across the entire Chronatic Empire, to make the offer sweeter. Her and Aton’s paths will cross but seem to have no connection, until the very end.

Ultimately Bayley knots all these plots and subplots into one grand finale, in which in the grand tradition of time war stories, time is revealed as an eternal loop, already foreshadowed in the belief of the emperor as the soul as eternal in time, caught in a loop along its own time line.

A lot happens in 175 pages, helped a lot by the breezy, pulpy style Bayley tells his story, very old fashioned for a novel originally published in 1974. This must’ve been a deliberate choice to tell the story this way. Bayley after all was one of the New Worlds school of New Wave writers, people who took apart and reassembled traditional science fiction, injecting literary techniques from other genres in it. The time war subgenre is quintessential pulp science fiction, but also a genre that has lend itself well to experimention. I still maintain Asimov’s entry was the best novel he’d ever written, while Leiber’s was an exercise at greating the grandest possible canvas in the smallest possible setting. Bayley’s story fits in well with this tradition.

Short SF Marathon: Recap

So what have we learned from reading the almost 100 stories on this list? That there were actually quite a few excellent fantasy and science fiction stories published last year, that even when coming already curated there’s so much stuff out there you can easily drown in it and that there a fair few writers doing interesting things at the short story level I hadn’t heard of before I started this, who I like to see more off.

Of the stories on the list, the following got nominated for one of the short fiction Hugo Awards by me:

Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap).” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

A brilliant story about a daughter and a father and how they cope with her impending death. I’d call it a 21st century Helen O’Loy if that wasn’t a creepy sexist bit of sentimental shite and this isn’t.

Veronica Schanoes, “Among the Thorns.”, May 7, 2014.

Re-imagining a horribly anti-semitic Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Carmen Maria Machado, “The Husband Stitch.” Granta, October 28, 2014.

A very meta, very allegorical, feminist sort of fantasy story.

Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine.” Clarkesworld, January 2014.

A great space opera sort of science fiction story, with a trans protagonist.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star.”, July 20, 2014.

You could argue that this isn’t science fiction, but this is a story that concerns itself with everything science fiction should concern itself with in the 21st century.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth.”, May 14, 2014.

A Lovecraftian story that refutes Lovecraft’s racism.

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

“The Fisher Queen” is perfect, already a Nebula nominee and deservedly so. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary.” Jamais Vu 3, September 2014.

A very simple story about an unexplained wave of girls, well, just floating up into the air and the indifference with which it is greeted. It feels very much of the moment, a response to things like GamerGate and such.

Kelly Sandoval, “The One They Took Before.” Shimmer #22, November 2014.

An urban fantasy story that looks at what happens after you get back from fairy land. It reminded me a bit of Jo Walton’s Relentlessly Mundane, about the same general emotions of loss and bitterness, but in a different key so to speak.

Rachael K. Jones, “Makeisha in Time.” Crossed Genres #20, August 2014.

Almost impossible, but Rachael K. Jones has managed to write a novel time travel story, of a woman who keeps getting pulled back into the past to lead entire lifes there, only to return to the exact method she left, her family and friends none the wiser, and how she adapts to this. A great story.

Xia Jia, “Tongtong’s Summer.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, December 2014 (originally in Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing, 2014).

Xia Jia writes about the impact of high technology on everyday life and here tackles a very contemporary subject, the use of robots to help an aging population cope with day to day life. In this case Tongtong’s grandfather, in his eighties but still working at the clinic every day until a bad fall, has to come live with them, so Tongtong’s mother could take care of him. Because she and her husband both work, Tongtong’s father brings home a robot, an Ah Fu, to help them. Which isn’t actually a robot, but a tele-operated machine run by an intern for the company Tongtong’s father works for: real robots don’t work and full time carers are too expensive.

Apart from that I also recommended Carmen Maria Machado, Bogi Takács & Usman Malik for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer based on their stories; all were in their second year of eligibility.

On a more negative note, a couple of these stories were just not very good:

Harry Turtledove, “The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging.”, January 8, 2014.

Am I the only one who found this story about an Anne Frank who survived WWII on the creepy side, and not in a good way, especially coming from somebody who made his name essentially writing Slaver Rebellion fanfiction? It doesn’t help that it’s so damn pious about it all, with huge chunks of as you know Bobbery about the Holocaust and what happened to the Dutch Jews in World War II. It’s a very American way of looking at the Holocaust and an approach I find suspicious at the best of the times. I much prefer Lavie Tidhar’s way of handling it, much more willing to take risks with such a heavy subject.

Mary Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhisville.”, April 30, 2014.

This is a stupid story about stupid people doing the most stupid thing possible because they have to adhere to the conventions of genre fiction, so nobody ever talks to anybody else until it’s too late. It’s mired in gender essentialism and goes on for way too long.

Dale Bailey, “The End of the End of Everything.”, April 23, 2014.

Now if we do want to talk about science fiction aping memetic, mainstream fiction, the worst it could do is to ape that cliched standby of fanboy sneers, the English professor with a midlife crisis contemplating infidelity. It’s the end of the world, the Ruin is creeping up on the artist colony Ben and his wife Lois have been invited to, but he can’t help thinking of his friend’s gorgous new wife or the mutilation artist living a couple of houses over. Bailey does have a way with a turn of phrase, but the dillemma at the heart of the story didn’t convince me, the allure of torture, death and mutilation was too bland, too safe when it doesn’t matter anymore because the world is ending anyway.

Short SF Marathon Day 32: Jy Yang, Isabel Yap, Caroline Yoachim

Jy Yang, “Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points.” Clarkesworld, September 2014.

These are the final three stories in my 32 (!) day short SF marathon and we’re ending it with a bang. Jy Yang’s entry is a near future thriller starring an emergent AI out for vengeance after the death of one of his mothers. Officially it was an accident, a stadium collapse during a political rally but what isn’t clear to human intelligences is clear to the AI: sabotage. This reminded me of stories by Sterling or Gibson; high praise.

Isabel Yap, “A Cup of Salt Tears.”, August 27, 2014.

Fittingly, in this last batch of stories we also have another reworked myth, that of the Japanese kappa. A woman is grieving for her husband dying of cancer, taking a bath in an onsen late one night, when a kappa enters the bath house, who introduces himself as the one that saved her from drowning as a child. He says he loves her, she is wary because she knows Kappas are not to be trusted. I hadn’t heard of kappas before, but I liked the way Yap introduced this one and quickly established its properties, according to myth, only for the kappa to act against them.

The heart of the story lies in the unlikely love triangle between the kappa, the woman and her husband. The description Yap gives of her waiting by her husband’s bed in the hospital, arranging her life around it and the feelings of helplessness, grief and sometimes irration and frustration, are horribly familiar. Her finding love or forgetfullness in the arms of the kappa is understandable. A nicely humane story.

Caroline Yoachim, “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion.” Clarkesworld, August 2014.

This is an interesting and frustrating story, not because it’s told badly, but because of the subject. Taking the Kübler-Ross model of grief processing as its guideline, this tells the story of one family coming to terms with the changes in the world after a half succeeded, semi-accidental alien invasion. It’s one of those stories where you sometimes wish the writer would put her focus slightly wider, one that doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion because that’s not how the world works.

Short SF Marathon Day 31: Kai Ashante Wilson, Alyssa Wong

Kai Ashante Wilson, “The Devil in America.”, April 2, 2014.

I’ve talked before about American fantasy, the kind of fantasy that took the myths, legends and fairytales European migrants brought with them from their home countries and adapted them to the American landscape, the kind of which Lovecraft and Bradbury are offshoots and that got rationalised in Unknown and darkened in Weird Tales. It is of course mostly white American fantasy, drawing on English and German sources, ignoring most if not all other sources of fantasy and magic that come together in America.

But there are other traditions of fantasy and if they’re often invisible to those of us comfortable in our genre ghettos, this is changing again. One indicator of which is the Nebula nomination for this story, a story that revolves around the African magic brought to America by the people kidnapped during Slavery. Set in 1871, only a few years after the Civil War and the end to slavery, it’s about a family that still has “that old Africa magic” running through their blood, but who through slavery have forgotten most of what they need to make it work properly.

This is an angry story, a justifiably angry story, one that could be depressing as well but despite the horrifying conclusion, one that you’re dreading and see coming throughout the story, it does offer a glimmer of hope even while Kai Ashante Wilson is merciless in reaching the inevitable conclusion. He’s also careful in providing a context to the story, by mixing in snippets of history in between the chapters. If it wasn’t clear yet that this story was a response to recent events, an interview with Wilson makes it crystal clear:

Ten thousands things have to spark all at the same time, and cohere into a good hot flame, before a story results for me. I can still count the stories I’ve begun and finished on one hand. But I suppose I might date the precipitating spark of “The Devil in America” to an interview I caught with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The love of parent for child has been an immense preoccupation of mine for a long time, and in the most receptive state of mind imaginable, I sat listening to that television interview: My son was walking back from the convenience store…

It’s no surprise this was nominated for the Nebula and I’m seriously considering changing one of my novelette nominations to this.

Alyssa Wong, “Santos de Sampaguitas” (also, part two). Strange Horizons, October 13, 2014.

The first of two stories by Alyssa Wong, this is a fantasy story set in the Philipines about a young maid who inherits the family god and the choice she has to make whether to accept him or not. This is a well written gem of a story and it’s the weaker of the two.

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

Because “The Fisher Queen” is perfect, a Nebula nominee and a story I put on my short story nominations list. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Short SF Marathon Day 30: Damien Angelica Walters, LaShawn M. Wanak, Peter Watts

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter.” Strange Horizons, January 6, 2014.

The second Damien Angelica Walters story is even more explicitly feminist than her first. An astronaut is ambushed during a press conference with the news that a notorious serial killer is in fact her father. Now she has to deal with the fallout. If this story has a mission statement it’s in the following quote:

Right. I’ve got grime under my nails that will never come out and I like it that way. Know why? Because it says I’m real, I have a fucking purpose. I’m not somebody’s tits and ass on display like a window mannequin. They did that shit to the baddest fictional woman in the universe. Hell, they even did it to the female marines in the second movie, but that’s sort of forgivable because the guys were in their skivvies, too.

Science fiction at its best always is about today’s concerns as well as the future and this is a great example, a look at a future where we may be going to Mars and have regular commercial space stations in orbit, but women in tech still suffer from the same sort of problem as today, still have to deal with GamerGatesque problems.

LaShawn M. Wanak, “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One).” Strange Horizons, February 3, 2014.

Sometimes a spiral staircase appears on your path, from out of nowhere. If you decide to climb it, you can find enlightenment, but you have to climb all the way to the top. The problem is what happens after enlightenment. All of which of course screams metaphor, which is acknowledged in the story. One of these stories where the fantastical element is there to illuminate the quite mundane but therefore no less important concerns of the characters.

Peter Watts, “The Colonel.”, July 29, 2014.

Peter Watts has made a name with dense, brutal science fiction and this is no exception. Set in the same universe as Blindsight, this is a story about a still human Colonel safeguarding the world against the dangers of Hive minds, until he has given an offer he can’t refuse. This is strictly in the Sterling-Stephenson-Strossian mode of jargon heavy, figure it out for yourself if you can mode of science fiction, which if done right, I like a lot. This I like a lot.