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Pillars of Salt

By Barbara Paul 

26 Jun, 2022

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Barbara Paul’s 1979 Pillars of Salt is a time travel novel. 

Transporting physical matter into the past is, of course, impossible. However, projecting consciousness into the bodies of past humans merely requires the correct technology. Mid-21st-century America (and presumably the rest of the planet) possesses the means and uses it freely. 

Angie Patterson believes she is quite familiar with the mechanics of time travel. A foray into Elizabethan England reveals to her something of which she (and most other travelers) had been utterly unaware.

Time projection allows one to experience what the host experiences but it is utterly passive. Travelers cannot communicate with their hosts or control their actions. Thus, there is no risk that history could be altered. Or so conventional wisdom has it.

Angie visits the body of Queen Elizabeth during the queen’s bout of smallpox. History says Elizabeth survived. Angie discovers to her great surprise that Elizabeth died. However, Angie’s presence in the dead queen’s body somehow facilitates Elizabeth’s resurrection. History as we know it appears to have happened only due to accidental intervention on Angie’s part.

Being a responsible person, Angie reports what happened as soon as her mind returns to the 21st century. To her surprise, she is not the first person to report such an experience. Rather than being purely passive observers, time travelers can and have shaped the past. It is of paramount importance that this be better understood. Angie plays a central role in the research that follows. 

Angie and her fellow researchers determine that many of history’s significant figures had their lives extended thanks to time observers. Beneficiaries include some of history’s monsters, for reasons that are unclear. As well, it’s clear that dabblers are not limited to 21st century travelers: time travel is clearly going to remain in humanity’s toolbox for a long time, and people from the distant future (armed with a better understanding of causality) are no doubt shaping the 21st century1 as the 21st century inadvertently shaped the Elizabethan era. 

Evidence accumulates that post-21st century travelers are obsessed with some looming crisis as yet unrealized. The nature of the crisis proves to turn on yet another emergent property of time travel, one that Angie will stumble over to her own great cost.


I am going to call this hard SF despite the mind-body dualism. Pillars of Salt is a short (183 page) account of what turns out to be incredibly dangerous research into unexpected phenomena relating to time travel. The order in which the general access to time machines and the research occurred seems to be ill-advised, but I suppose they thought they had all the bugs worked out.

Because travelers spend so much time dealing with people long dead by the travelers’ now, time travel can facilitate callous attitudes. One of the historical personages spied on is Fiji’s Thakombau (generally known as Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau); an older figure comments that Cakobau managed to spare his people short term extermination at the cannons of the Europeans at the cost of long-term demographic domination by waves of Indian immigrants. The official dismisses concern or sympathy for the Fijians’ impending extinction as mere 20th century sentimentality, but also argues that in a sense, they cannot become extinct. After all, if one wants to visit traditional Fiji, all one has to do is step into a time machine. I am sure this is a great comfort to the last indigenous Fijians. 

Barbara Paul is much better known for her mysteries than her science fiction. While her site happily mentions her SF and why she moved to mystery (she could make a living at it, whereas she could not with SF), I notice she never felt the need to make her SF available as ebooks. Presumably she didn’t think the profit would have justified the effort.

I know I read this back in the 1970s, but upon a re-read I discovered that I remembered absolutely nothing about the book. The author having just died, I was inspired to revisit the novel. The prose is a bit rough and there are no end of eyebrow-raising bits, but I will admit it’s certainly an unusual take on time travel2. I don’t know that I would recommend it, but that hardly matters as Pillars of Salt is very much out of print. 

1: Privacy is functionally dead. For convention’s sake and to protect state secrets, everyone has agreed not to look at events more recent than a century in the past. However, it’s clear people from the future must be voyeuristically observing the 21st century just as the 21stcentury people watch the past. 

2: As the back cover makes clear, one of the fields that has benefited from time travel is sex education. Students are not limited to purely theoretical lessons or their own inexperienced fumbling. Instead, they can watch from inside the mind of a historical person as they try sex for the first time. Points for a truly innovative application of time travel … although I am not sure that focusing on the experiences of long-dead virgins is necessarily the best approach for time travel-based sex ed. This is only one of the WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” moments that await the reader.