Collision Course

by Barrington J. Bayley
Reviewed date: 2018 Dec 31
Rating: 3
175 pages
cover art
cover art

Barrington J. Bayley has done the impossible: he has written a time travel book that I didn't dislike. Well!--at least, he's written a time travel book that I didn't dislike because of the time travel. The future society he shows is steeped in racism and white superiority and genocide, which makes much of the characters' words and actions deeply unsettling. Because of that, I found it hard to turn off my critical mind and just enjoy the story.

To Mr. Bayley's credit, the racist words and ideas only come from the characters, never from the authorial point of view. The protagonists--archaeologist Rond Heshke and scientist Leard Ascar--are less racist than the villainous Titanium Legions that rule Earth, but even they are never able to fully break from the culture of white supremacy. That's realistic, but it's also part of what makes the book so unsettling. Heshke and Ascar are good people, the ones we're presumably supposed to identify with, and even they are parroting some of the regime's propaganda about racial purity.

Chapter 1
It begins
Archeologist Rond Heshke is brought to Bupolbloc 1 for an interview with officials of the "Titanium Legions, the self-styled Guardians of Earth." The Titans wish him to explain his lack of progress. Why hasn't his archaeology research come up with evidence to support the official historical theory of alien invasion? Heshke can't tell them that the lack of progress is because the archaeological evidence shows no record of past civilization-destroying alien attacks against Earth. Disagreeing with official history would be dangerous. Heshke makes some excuses. But it's no matter. The Titans really just wanted to sound him out to make sure he's not a subversive. Apparently he passes the test. The Titans have found a honest-to-goodness alien artifact, and they want him to check it out.

Chapter 2
Space Nazis
Heshke returns to his dig site and has a conversation with his friend Blare Oblomot. They talk about the Titans. The Titans are real space Nazis. Blood and soil is their motto. They worship mother Earth and consider themselves guardians of the racial purity of True Man. To that end, the Titans have waged wars of extermination against deviant subspecies of humans. All devs have been defeated, and those few who are still alive are forced to live in isolated dev reservations. Blare Oblomot reveals that he is a member of the Panhumanic League, an illegal society dedicated to equal rights for all humans. Heshke is surprised. He isn't a fan of the Titans, but he isn't sure the Titans are totally wrong in their wars against deviant subspecies like the Urukuri, Amhraks, and the Lorenes. The devs are dangerous--"they rape our women", Heshke objects. Still, he won't betray Oblomot to the Titans.

The Titans arrive to take Heshke to see the alien artifact. Also, they arrest Oblomot. They already know all about him. Oblomot detonates a grenade rather than be taken alive and risk betraying the Panhumanic League.

Chapter 3
A novel theory of time travel
The artifact is a time machine. A scientist named Leard Ascar has managed to reserve-engineer the device, and now the Titans have their own time machine. They want Heshke to take a trip back in time to examine a curious problem: ancient ruins that seem to be aging backwards. And here is where Bayley introduces a novel theory of time travel.

Think of the universe as a four-dimensional continuum--three dimensions of space, as is our ordinary experience, and an additional dimension which we call time, extending into the infinite past and the infinite future. If we take the moving 'now' out of the picture we could just as easily call it a universe of four dimensions of space. So now we have a static four-dimensional matrix. That's basically what the universe consists of, but there's one other factor: the fleeting present moment, sweeping through the fourth dimension like a traveling wave.
What is this 'now'? Does anything exist outside it? For centuries the philosophical question has been whether the past and the future have any existence, or whether only the present that we experience has existence. Well, we've found the answer to that question all right: the past and the future do exist, but they have no 'now'. In effect, they have no time. No differentiation between before and after. They're both dead, as it were.
Consciousness can only exist in the 'now'--somehow or other it appears to be a function of it.

Chapter 4
Lost in space time
The crew travel back in time to visit the ruins, and discover that yes, they are in the past and the ruins are indeed aging backwards. On the journey back to their present time, the encounter an alien timeship. Leard Ascar makes an intuitive leap and comes to a striking conclusion: the aliens are from another 'now', a 'now' that is traveling backwards, on a collision course with their own.

What if the Absolute Present isn't unique, as I had formerly assumed it to be? Perhaps there are other waves of time, separated from our own by millions of years, by millenia--or only by centuries. Perhaps there is a regular series of them, forming the nodes of a cosmic wave frequency vibrating through the universe.
And what if one of those other time waves was traveling in the opposite direction to our own? Not proceeding from the past into the future, as we understand time, but from the future into the past?
Now do you get it? These creatures aren't alien to Earth. They're Terran. They evolved here, millions of years in our future. By the same token, we are in their future. The Earth has two completely different evolutionary developments on it, separated in time and associated with separate time-streams--timestreams moving in opposite directions. And they are on a collision course.

Chapter 5
Retort City: Asians in Space
The action moves to a city floating in interstellar space, nicknamed Retort City. The city has been in space for 5000 years and is populated by Chinese people. They have rice and bamboo, and this is the first thing linking the book to our timeline. Retort City has mastered time control, using it extensively, even in things as trivial as a games. A popular game is ping-pong played on a table "divided into time-zones each of whose present moment was slightly out of phase with the others."

Chapter 6
Resistance, and War
There is an underground resistance, the Panhumanic League. Elsewhere, Limnich, leader of the Titanium League and de facto ruler of Earth, declares war on the aliens from the future.

Chapter 7
In which we discover even more racism
Heshke, Ascar, Titan-Lieutenant Gann, and the rest are rescued by men from a deviant subspecies. Heshke is not well informed about devs, but he thinks these strange people are called Shings or Chanks. They have technology far superior to anything known to the Titanium Legions. (They are from Retort City.) But Titan-Lieutenant Gann is a true believer in all the racist Titan ideology, and he ties himself in logical knots to maintain a belief in the intellectual superiority of True Man.

"They're Chinks," Gann told him. "The last group of them was supposed to have been exterminated five hundred years ago. Quite an interesting strain, as devs go. Tradition has it that their cunning was almost superhuman."

"Superhuman?" repeated Heshke wonderingly. "And yet you deny them intellectual ability?"

"It's more of an animal cleverness raised to a high degree. In devs the intellectual faculty is always perverted in some way, producing bizarre sciences and practices, yet it can involve extreme subtlety--in fact there used to be a saying: 'the fiendishly clever Chink.'"

My goodness these Titans are racist. But we see Heshke and Ascar start to break free from their cultural conditioning, at least somewhat, so that's a good sign.

Chapter 8
Time Science
Heshke and Ascar arrive at Retort City. Ascar is introduced to Shiu Kung-Chien, the resident time expert from Retort City.

Chapter 9
Time is a localized phenomenon

"The truth," said Shiu, "is that the universe at large has no time. It's not 'now' everywhere simultaneously. The universe is basically, fundamentally static, dead, indifferent. It has no past, no future, no 'now.' "

He refilled his teacup, allowing Ascar to interrupt with: "But there is time."

Shiu nodded patiently. "Localized, accidental phenomena, without overall significance. Processes of time can begin over small areas, usually associated with a planet, though not always. They consist of flows or waves of energy traveling from one point to another: small traveling waves of 'now.'

… "You can see now why time travel is comparatively easy," Shiu went on. "We merely have to detach a fragment of the traveling 'now-wave' and move it about the real static world of non-time. It comes away quite easily, because it's local energy, not part of a cosmic schema."

Shiu further opines that Earth is doomed. When the two now-waves approach each other they will cancel each other out--"the weirdest, most fantastic event, perhaps, that can happen in this universe. He lets slip that Retort City once suffered a similar event--not a head-on collision like Earth will experience, but a glancing blow, a near-collision with an entity moving obliquely through time relative to Retort City.

Chapter 10
Retort City wants to send help to Earth--to both the humans and the alien species. Ascar elects to stay on Retort City, but Heshke and Hueh Su-Mueng travel to Earth to warn the Titans.

Chapter 11
Racists stay racist
The Titans refuse Retort City's offer of help. The alien species refuses help as well. Both species plan to destroy all life in the other time-line, believing that this may allow them to survive. (I think both are wrong.) Su-Mueng offers to help Limnich overthrow Retort City so that the Titans can have access to Retort City's science, technology, and resources.

Chapter 12
The Titans begin the final genocide, liquidating the dev reservations. Heshke, on the Amhrak reservation, sends Sobrie and Layella to the Retort observation ship, to relay news to Retort City. We find out finally that True Man is White Man. Not that we really needed it spelled out. Interestingly, the devs act defeated already. They just sit and take the coming genocide, hardly fighting back. Weird.

Chapter 13
Oblique Entity
Hueh Su-Mueng's treachery enables Titans to get aboard Retort City, and there's a whole lot of fighting. It's back and forth. During the battle, Ascar contacts the Oblique Entity. The entity can't save Earth, but it does manage to save some people: it splits the time-stream, sending the dev reservations into an alternate time-stream. The devs--and only the devs--will be safe from the coming collision of time-waves.

Chapter 14
The dev reservations are suddenly barren and empty, but that revelation doesn't change the Titans' resolve. The continue with their futile war against the aliens from the future.

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