The causality in this makes my brain hurt

Operation Time Search — Andre Norton


1967’s Operation Time Search is a stand-alone. Spoiler warning.

By the far off year of 1980, the people of Earth—or at least an Earth—have done a pretty good job of using up all the resources of their world. Other worlds beckon, but rather than reaching across space, the researchers Hargreaves and Fordham have cast their eyes across time, with some success. Their time probes have reached something, somewhere, somewhen—the past, or perhaps some alternate world—but it’s definitely not modern Ohio.

Thus far, Hargreaves and Fordham have settled for peering through time; physical transportation is for later. Or at least that was the plan until photographer Ray Osborne snuck onto the Indian mound the researchers had commandeered. Hargreaves and Fordham’s device may not have been intended to catapult physical objects through time, but as Ray discovers, it is nevertheless quite capable of punting the young man all the way from modern Ohio to … somewhere.

Somewhere wild. Somewhere with old growth forests of a kind not seen in North America for centuries or more. Somewhere where Ray is almost immediately captured by soldiers from a place called Atlantis, soldiers who suspect that Ray is an agent of Mu….

Unfortunately for Ray, this ancient world is divided between the forces of light and the forces of dark and the Atlantians who captured Ray are very much playing for Team Evil. If not for the chance that imprisoned Ray with a captured Murian named Cho, life would likely have been short and unpleasant for Ray, and worse for Cho. Together, they manage to escape.

Ray has picked an interesting time to appear in what has turned out to be a world of legend. The long stalemate between Mu and Atlantis is about to end. Atlantis finally feels strong enough to directly attack its rival. Mu soon discovers that Atlantis’ new magic immune to anything a Murian might bring against it.

Ray, of course, isn’t Murian and where their efforts have failed, his might succeed. Provided, that is, if he is willing to venture into the very heart of enemy territory.


While it is not one of my favourite Nortons (for reasons I will explain later) it was one of the few SF novels in my junior high (Wilmot Senior Public School RIP) school library so it is one Norton that I have read many, many times.

Even then, I found Norton’s treatment of temporal causality troubling. She puts some effort into obfuscating the exact relationship of the world of Mu and Atlantis to ours. She even lampshades that our stories of Atlantis are based on one work by Plato. So Ray’s new world could be our very distant past ([1]) or it could be an alternate timeline. The second explanation, the alternate timeline, makes more sense. It seems impossible to imagine our world developing from what seems to have been Norton’s take on Robert Howard’s imagined world . However, Norton seems to have decided that this is, after all, the past. After Ray carries out his quest, restoring Atlantis to the light and preventing its doom as recorded by Plato, both Mu and Atlantis suddenly appear in the oceans of the modern world— without this having had any other effect on history [2].

Is the idea that the continents jumped into the modern era? Is it that Ray saved them but somehow everyone decided to ignore them for thousands of years? I have no idea what Norton had in mind when she penned that plot development. This has bugged me for generations! GENERATIONS!

I should perhaps add that Team Evil in this book seems to have truly terrible security, a well as being incompetent. Imagine Mr. Bean concocting and carrying out a sinister plot. This is not the only fantasy whose moral seems to be “evil is just another word for self-sabotaging incompetence.“

Readers familiar with Norton would expect a typical, reasonably competent Norton novel, a straightforward adventure in a science fantasy setting (one seemingly influenced by Howard and Lovecraft). Intriguing ingredients, but in the end, the various components don’t quite jell. Every author has an off-day from time to time; this book seems to have been written on some of Norton’s off-days.

Other readers must have agreed with me, as this does not seem to be one of Norton’s popular novels: Online search finds no English language editions more recent than the mid-1980s.

1: A time so distant that there are not one but two major continents that have utterly vanished by our time. I think this was written before continental drift became the consensus. Mu seems to be geographically analogous to Zealandia , which I expect is just a lucky coincidence.

2: Nor are we told how many people died as a direct consequence of the sudden appearance of two continents (think mega-tsunamis) or how many people will die as the world’s climate adjusts to the oceans suddenly becoming much smaller than they were.

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