Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Radio: Untitled Story (Dimension X)

"What's with that title, or lack thereof?" you may ask. And well you might. But first, this:

Pretty much the first thing I do every week is to check the Contento list of science fiction anthologies, so I can find out where the adapted story appears, and where it was first published. That's so I can get out the right book or magazine if I have it, or order one if I don't. That was how I knew to order a copy of No Time Like the Future to read "Vital Factor" for last week's installment.

This week, I couldn't find an entry... meaning that, at least up through 1983 (I didn't check the various updates), no anthologists had included it in their collections. Not one. I guessed that, like "Courtesy," the producers of Dimension X adapted "Untitled Story" right out of the contemporary issue of Astounding (which, since the cover date is when a magazine goes off the newsstand, was September 1951), which I had. (I wouldn't have had to guess, it turned out, had I listened to the radio version first, but I take my victories where I can get them.)

Which leaves the question of why it isn't in any anthologies. And I submit that the reason is... well, that it isn't very good. I like to be positive here, so it kind of disturbs me that I haven't liked the last two stories. But I did commit to talk about the stories and their adaptations, so I sort of have to say what I think. And I can at least say that the radio episode, as I guessed after reading the story that it would, that it solves the story's main problem.

That's that it's told in a half-paced manner. At a rough estimate, the story is 16,000 words long. That would take about 96 minutes to read aloud. There is some extra plot in the story, but not as much as that, and none of it is necessary. However, that takes us into spoiler territory, so I'll resume after the player window.

In the story, Hayssen and Cathy don't confront Lehman in Cathy's office. Instead, they chase Lehman and his time machine into the primeval past, where he and Hayssen duke it out amidst the lava. Lehman dies, and Hayssen is grievously injured, but Cathy saves him by turning him into Darth Vader applying future medicine. Fortunately for the radio audience, scriptwriter George Lefferts realized that once we're caught up on what's been happening all this time and why, the story is essentially over, and we're ready for the wrap-up.

There's also a section in the middle where Hayssen slowly realizes he's been drugged by Lehman, although I can't figure out for the life of me what significance that plot thread serves. Evidently, neither could Lefferts. There are a couple additional attempts to kill Hayssen. Believe me, in this case less is more.

Lefferts made some additional, lesser alterations. He had the Mayor pay $50,000 for the potion (which seems to me beyond the price range of even a corrupt mayor in the 1950's), rather than Robinson's $1,000 (which seems absurdly low for something supposed to save his life). He adds the bit about the pin to get the information about the office into the plot quicker.

Oddly, it's the very question of the office that's the one plot thread Lefferts drops in the compression. When Hayssen was there the first time, it was actually Lehman's time machine, sitting inside the empty room. You see, the time machines can dematerialize in one location and re-materialize in another, like the TARDIS. And Lehman deliberately chose an office of the same dimensions as his time machine. By the time Hayssen came back, Lehman and the machine were gone, leaving the empty room.

Lefferts also compresses the matter of Hayssen's death and resurrection, and doesn't do a particularly believable job of it. He makes it look like all you have to do to bring a dead person back is to carry their body back in time to before they died.

In Robinson's story, it's somewhat more complex. A time traveler goes back alone to before the person died, and picks the person up. He then goes further back before going forward again along the "original" time track, so that the intervention never happened, and the person died as per "normal." The alternative-timeline version now replaces the dead "original" version.  Cathy uses this to resurrect Jock, the dog-- and explains to Hayssen that Lehman has already brought Hayssen himself back this way, although, of course, Hayssen doesn't (and can't) remember this death, since it didn't happen to "him," per se.

So far, so good.  But Robinson is inconsistent about how time travel works. Basically, there are two theoretical flavors of time travel: infinitely-branching parallel universes (where you can kill your grandfather but continue to exist because you're just in a different timeline now, and your "home" timeline, where you were born, still exists), and single-timeline (in which any trips you make were "always" part of that one timeline, and you therefore can't change history). The method of resurrection is of the former type.

However, later in the story, we find there seems to be one future, and when a change in the timeline negates the existence of someone in that future, they (ludicrously) disappear, yet everyone knows they "used" to exist but no longer do. It's like the disappearing siblings in Marty's photo in Back to the Future, only sillier. (As it happens, that movie has its time travel both ways, too, with both a grandfather paradox and an alternative 1985. Don't even get me started about the second one, where Doc and Marty somehow go direct from 2015 to a dystopic 1985 that is not the past of that 2015. Now, what was I talking about? Oh, yeah.)

By the way, in Robinson's ending, Hayssen drinks the potion. All people from the future use it, and he needs it so that he and Cathy will age at the same rate. And despite its length, Cathy falls in love with Hayssen as easily and unbelievably there, too.

Frankly, I'm surprised John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, bought this story. It's kind of a mess on its own account, but especially so if you put it next to Astounding's definitive time-travel story, Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps," which pursued the consequences of time travel in a one-timeline system in typically rigorous Heinlein fashion.

For what it's worth, Robinson was surprised, too. According to him, he wrote it for the less-discriminating Amazing Stories, but his agent, Frederik Pohl, decided to try Astounding first. Fortunately for them, Campbell had a hole to fill. Which brings us back (finally) to that title, or non-title. Robinson called it "Untitled Story" because he knew Amazing frequently made up their own titles. But Campbell didn't have that habit, so when he bought the story, it kept the title it, well, didn't have.  So it's not pretentious, it's just an accident.

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