1958’s The Time Traders is the first of seven books featuring Ross Murdoch. Four of these (The Time Traders, Galactic Derelict, The Defiant Agents, and Key Out of Time) were written by Norton solo and three (Firehand, Echoes in Time, and Atlantis Endgame) were written in collaboration with other writers.
I could tell you a funny story about the series but … no, I will get to it later on.
Ross Murdoch has amassed an impressive criminal record for such a young man. For a long time, he has managed to avoid punishment for his multiple crimes, but now his luck has run out. As the story opens, he is facing the Rehabilitation Service’s treatment, about which we learn nothing in any detail. We do know Ross is terrified of it, because when he is offered a deal (he can avoid treatment if he joins a mysterious government project) he jumps at it without even asking the project’s name. It’s Operation Retrograde, a more significant name than is at first apparent.
By 1984, the Reds and the Americans had launched satellites, constructed an abortive space station and then … nothing for a quarter of a century. As alluring as space once seemed, the technical challenges were beyond human ability to surmount. The field has stagnated to the point it has become a joke. With no escape into space possible, the two powers refocus their efforts on new arenas in the long struggle to see which of them will dominate the Earth. Atomic weapons mean open warfare is out of the question, so the contest thus far has been one of espionage and counter-espionage.
Ross is surprised to discover that humankind has managed to make huge advances in what would seem an unpromising field; time travel. Even more surprising, the Reds have discovered a trove of advanced technology, not in the future as one might expect but far in the past. Exactly when and where the Red found their new toys is mysterious. The best guess the Americans can make is that there must have been an advanced civilization far in the past that worked only in materials unable to withstand the passage of time. Climate change and true polar wander must have erased all the evidence (or rather, almost all the evidence).
The skills and proclivities that doom Ross to life as a criminal in modern America make him an almost ideal agent for Operation Retrograde. Ross soon finds himself in ancient Britain, posing as one of the traders whose networks even then spread across Europe.
Both the Americans and the Reds try to be careful about not changing the past with overt displays of advanced technology. Or rather, that was the SOP in the past. The Reds have changed the rules of the game. When Ross and his superior Ashe arrive at the trading post they find it burned to the ground, destroyed by a sudden Red air raid.
Not only have the Reds somehow found out where the Americans were hiding, not only are the locals inclined to see the sudden annihilation of the trading post as proof the gods are angry with the traders, and not only is all Europe on the brink of being invaded by the Axe People AKA the Corded Ware Culture, but—as Ross will soon learn, the Americans have completely misapprehended the nature of the trove the Reds are looting.
It is true that the Reds are looting the goods of a civilization far more advanced than either the United States or the Soviet Union. It is true that this civilization was located in the distant past. What the Americans have wrong is the location. The reason that there’s little evidence of the civilization on Earth is because it wasn’t based on Earth at all, but on some place rather more alien…..
While Ross is well suited to Operation Retrograde, his bosses aren’t dumb enough to share everything they know with a career criminal. They don’t even trust him with all of their cool toys. Once Ross gets separated from his allies, he is forced to spend a lot of the book wandering around Bronze Age Europe and getting a far-too-close-for-comfort look at the cultures of the time. It’s all very educational for the reader and it lets Norton show off some of her homework, but it’s hard on Ross.
I have to say, handing Cold War Era Reds and the Americans time machines and access to the past really makes me hope history is fairly fixed because, as the air raid shows, the two powers’ initial resolution not to screw with the past is abandoned as soon as it seems like it would be in their interest to waive that taboo. As it turns out, the Cold War is an unfortunate distraction: both the Reds and Americans have worse things to worry about, in part thanks to Ross’ fiddling with unfamiliar communications technology.
I will admit to a moment of irritation with Norton when, after the characters discover they are dealing with aliens, they speculate that the Mound Builders’structures were built by aliens. Really, Norton?
So, funny story. Baen reprinted this book in 2000 but reportedly followed the custom of Baen at that time and had Norton update the text to remove references to the Cold War. (Not having read that edition, I couldn’t say how she could possibly have done that because the Cold War seems inextricably entangled with the plot.) This revision was necessary because, as we know, SF fans are inherently timorous and fragile. Baen readers, on being confronted with evidence that a novel about time travel and aliens had been written some decades pre 2000, would be so overcome by the shock that they would fall to the ground foaming from the mouth and bleeding from ears and eyes. I cannot rule out cases of spontaneous combustion.
This is one of those series that is divided between two publishers. Norton’s editor over at Tor had no idea what Baen was doing until I happened to mention it in an email. This meant that Tor was publishing sequels based on the original editions. If readers of the Tor books went looking for a contemporary edition of The Time Traders, what they would find is a book that could in no way be reconciled with its sequel. Not having been there to witness the results of my email reference to Baen editorial practices, I can only assume my off-handed revelation of this situation was greeted in the Tor offices with joyful laughter.
While none of the main characters in this book are women, Cassca, priestess of the Earth Mother, is a powerful female figure, one who rejects the superstitious fears of the men around her. She’s not on stage for a long time but she manages to be fairly impressive. I found this cheering, given how rarely the Norton of this time mentions women at all.
There’s also a very carefully phrased discussion of how the Axe People assimilated the indigenous peoples of Europe, which the Americans believe involved murdering all the men and taking the women and children for their own. It’s a grimmer passage than I expected in a book that would have been marketed to juveniles. Indeed, the book makes it clear such practices were in no way exceptional in humanity’s long history
On the whole, this is a solid little adventure novel and one whose twist would be more effective if the various editions didn’t tend to give it away on the cover. The fact that various reviewers have mentioned the aliens in their reviews is just as annoying.
Norton would return to the world of the Time Traders in her very next novel, Galactic Derelict, a novel that is significant to me for a reason that I will reveal next week. Stay tuned!
This novel is available in omnibus form from the Baen Free Library. It is also available as a stand-alone ebook from Project Gutenberg