Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Crossroads of Time (Crosstime

The Crossroads of Time (Crosstime by Andre Norton
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Andre Norton's 1956 The Crossroads of Time is a decent, though swift and not unduly thoughtful, mid-1950s science fiction read of the 3-star variety. If we latch onto the word "time" and then poke around some of its SF contemporaries, we will find it noticeably inferior to, say, Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories collected in the 1981 The Guardians of Time, the first of whose five stories was published in 1955, a year earlier than Norton.

Of course...well, the comparison is just a hair non-parallel, because while Anderson works with time travel, Norton does not. Norton's novel hinges on travel to different "bands, levels, whatever you wish to call them, of worlds" (page 30)--alternate worlds, that is, without any time travel per se. You know the schtick: "the 'possible worlds' theory" in which "[t]here would be myriad worlds, all influenced by various decisions. Not only by the obvious ones of battles and political changes, but even by the appearance and use of certain inventions" (page 19). There are worlds where "Hitler won the Battle of Britain and overran England in 1941" (page 19), for example, worlds springing from a "Mongol conquest of all Europe occurring in the thirteenth century" (page 36), "dead, radio-active worlds, worlds foul with man-made plagues, worlds held in subjection under governments so vicious that their inhabitants are no longer strictly human" (page 31)...and of course the world of the "Wardsmen," whose people, aside from developing psionic powers, also "by some chance developed an extremely mechanized civilization several thousand years ago" (page 30).

Because Earth's timetrack has been split, "reproduced innumerable times by historical events" (page 30), the reader thus has no need of time travel per se. Rather than have to go to the future to visit some whiz-bang techno-utopia, ironclad dystopia, or crazy atomic-power-plus-swords scene, all we have to do is slide to a different 1956 where anything goes. A Hitlerian world that split off only 15 years earlier will look very similar to Blake Walker, the protagonist of our own 1956 track--same New York City, bombed though it is, same streets, etc., etc.--whereas a world with an Industrial Revolution a millennium or two earlier than ours will have a very different 1956. It's a great premise, a neat twist against the more familiar notion of time travel.

Norton's handling is decet, but somehow it just isn't great. Blake Walker, the former "alley baby" with no past, whose combination of "permanent sun tan" skin tone with reddish hair (page 7) hints at a mixture of races unusual in his own 1956, who gets these infallible little mental alerts when danger threatens (page 8), and whom even the Wardsmen find so peculiar-- See where this is going? Yes, of course, but Norton won't reveal it yet in this book!

Well, anyway, Walker's psi talent leads him to jump out into his hotel hallway and help what seems to be an FBI man in trouble from an armed criminal. Another baddie then comes with the "house detective" trick (page 11), but Walker won't buy it and refuses to open the door, so he flees with what soon he will discover is one of the Wardsmen charged with "keep[ing] a check on irresponsible travelers, prevent[ing] criminals from looting on other timelines where their powers g[i]ve them vast advantage" (pages 30-31), and stopping megalomaniacs from setting themselves up as super-dictators on "level[s] where civilization is ready to allow [them] scope" (page 32).

Walker helps the trans-world agents in their mission. They are ahead of us in technology and psionics, but they are not infallible. Walker gets captured, and then he escapes. He ends up flipping from one alternate world to another on a vehicle controlled not with dials or buttons but with a big clunky lever like a railroad switch--a tad stagy, but Wells's time machine used a lever, so...well, okay--and stomping around getting into danger, and straying from the machine to explore as if he's never heard of Morlocks and even though we're screaming at him never to leave his only way out. There are plenty of weird but never completely inscrutable surroundings, and creeping around, and growing so exhausted that Walker sleeps at plot-convenient times, and at one point he learns way more in a day than someone not speaking the language ever could (page 84-85), and there's a kitten, too...

The Crossroads of Time is worth the read for those interested in '50s SF. There are no huge ideas that surprise us, there is nothing that makes us question any aspect of the status quo, and the writing sometimes feels very fast and action-oriented. It may not be great, but it at least could be decent as a change of pace.

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Reading Progress

July 31, 2020 – Started Reading
August 1, 2020 – Finished Reading
August 5, 2020 – Shelved

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