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Time and Again

Time and Again (1970)
by Jack Finney
399 pages
Fireside

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Time travel stories usually come with a fair dose of both fascination and frustration.  Fascination in journeying to another time, either in the future, or, in this case, the vanished past. Frustration from the almost inevitable logical traps and inconsistencies that the narrative falls into. If you go back into the past, and change something that changes everything in the future, the future that you came from no longer exists.  You can think about it until your head hurts.

This book takes a somewhat unique approach to time travel, as it is not achieved by any kind of machine but is instead an exercise in consciousness, where the narrator and main character, Si, is launched back into the New York City of 1882 after joining up in a government experiment that involves the prospective traveller entirely immersing themselves in the artifacts and thoughts of the era they want to travel to.

People skating at Central Park, with the Dakota apartments in the background, the narrator's key to the past

When Si finally gets there, the author’s research pays off, and you are immersed in so much detail that nobody should feel shortchanged on the world of the past this novel creates.  However, the narrator does also involve himself in both a developing romance and a mystery, and I felt these added plots side-tracked the story and led to the book being too long, and wearing out its welcome before it was over.

I think my main problem with the story is the way that the narrator paints the past as being unquestionably better than the present in every way, an idea that I find not only incorrect, but an unfortunate product of a sort of soft-headed nostalgia that leads to bad escapist fiction and bad attitudes towards life. I guess my gut reaction against those sorts of views presented in the book limited my enjoyment of it.

I have been to New York City on a few occasions, and I did find it enjoyable to contrast the present-day city with the detailed past presented here, and I think other readers with similar personal experiences will get the most out of this book.

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