Time in a Bottle
By Carter Scholz & Glenn Harcourt
Carter Scholz and Glenn Harcourt’s 1984 Palimpsests is a stand-alone science fiction novel. It was the fourth novel in the Third Ace Specials series, which was edited by Terry Carr.
Professor Frederick Warner’s dig in the Neander Valley should have turned up a few ancient hominin bones (if they were lucky), bones filling in a few of the empty spaces in humanity’s pre-history. Indeed, particularly fine bones were discovered. However, sharp-eyed anthropologist Hans Camus spotted something else in the dirt, something that would up-end his career.
The innocent-looking metal cube was discovered in a layer of dirt of great antiquity, one that long pre-dated the modern industrial era. It is a perfect cube of metal of inexplicable density. This artifact would have been beyond any tech the Neanderthals or their Cro Magnon cousins possessed.
The simplest explanation is that the cube was placed where it was found by some prank-playing person on the dig. It might have been a 1991 answer to such classic hoaxes as Piltdown Man. Certainly, the fact that the edges are exactly 2 cm long suggests a creator familiar with the metric system.
Another, less likely sounding explanation, is that the intrusion came from the future. This would explain the use of the metric system and also the fact that the cube is composed of an unknown ultra-dense material. Time travel seems an absurd hypothesis … but it is the one that captures the imagination of some powerful people.
The smart choice for Hans would have been to ignore the find, as nothing good can come of being associated with a probable hoax. Alas, having committed the error of being associated with an anomaly, walking away isn’t an option for poor Hans. In short order, he is unwillingly drafted into a secretive research program and effectively imprisoned in a secret facility in darkest America. He and his colleagues are tasked with determining the cube’s origin and asked to figure out a way to make use of it.
I note with some alarm that one of the reasons time travel is embraced as an explanation is because a number of the characters view the modern Darwinian synthesis as fundamentally unworkable:
Darwin’s idea of random mutations which are then culled by the environment is a statistical monstrosity; if true, there could be nothing higher than mollusks on Earth at this time. No, something beyond randomness is operating on the genome before its future arrives. Some predisposition, some message, some forecast. Some premonition.
Time travel would enable the future to cause the developments on which their existence depends. It’s essentially a less theological version of Intelligent Design.
We know that fictional characters often express views which are not those of the authors (which is why police generally do not begin murder investigations by rounding up the neighborhood mystery writers1). In this case, it would seem that the authors agreed with the quote. Science fiction is notorious for its corrosive effect on its authors, so it’s a bit alarming to see crank science pop up so early in an author’s career.
Harcourt is a mystery to me (this is the only work of his of which I am aware). Scholz of course is familiar from his The Eve of the Last Apollo, which appeared in Orbit 18. Carter was an experienced pro by the time his debut novel appeared. His short stories were regularly featured in venues such as Orbit, Universe, and Asimov’s, he was a finalist for the 1977 Astounding (then called the Campbell), and his 1977 “The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs” was a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus finalist.
There is, however, a pattern in the Third Ace Specials series, which is that its authors either went on to prolific careers as novelists or their Ace Special novel was an anomaly in careers otherwise focused on shorter pieces. Carter did publish a later novel, 2003’s Radiance2, but for the most part his output has been shorter pieces. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Palimpsests leans heavily New Wave, with a focus on interiority rather than plot. Unlike certain authors who carefully provide the reader with three pages of planetary science before getting to the point, the novel feels no need to do the reader’s work for them, thus the untranslated German found here and there in the text. The novel is 274 pages long but it feels much longer.
No doubt Palimpsests had its fans. I will admit if this hadn’t been part of a project, I’d likely would have noped out about halfway, largely due to the late Dorothy Heydt’s eight deadly words. Maybe your mileage will vary! But good luck finding a copy, because Palimpsests seems to be very much out of print.
1: Nancy Crampton Brophy being a notable exception.
2: Radiance gets fascinatingly mixed reviews. As if my TBR pile needed to be higher!