Thrice Upon a Time

Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 5, 2006

Thrice Upon a Time by James P. Hogan

This discussion at Charles and Willie’s home drew seven attendees. One person submitted comments by email. Our topic was Thrice Upon a Time, a science fiction novel written by recent ArmadilloCon Special Guest James P. Hogan. The story concerns a team of scientists in Scotland who discover a means of limited time travel. Six of us finished the book, and three had read it when it was published originally in 1980. All of us had read Hogan before.

The first third of the book is devoted to the scientific investigation of time travel. Experiments are described in detail from planning to execution to compilation of results. There are pages devoted to descriptions of scientific apparatus. The scientists’ discussions of how to fit the logic of time travel into theoretical physics were well presented. To make this potentially dry material flow more smoothly, Hogan injects humor into the scientists’ personal interactions and depicts some culture clashes involving the visiting American scientists. This helped to some extent, but several of us were waiting for the experiments to end and the real conflict of the story to begin.

The story got moving when serious situations developed that caused the scientists to consider using time travel in a substantial way. Several new characters were introduced, and we cared about what happened to them. There was serious discussion of the moral consequences of using time travel.

Since this book was published in 1980 but set in 2010, it was amusing to see how well the author’s projected future matches our time. The book’s computers are monolithic and use punch cards, air travel from New York to Scotland only takes 90 minutes, and people communicate with videophones. Digital Equipment Corporation, Hogan’s employer at the time he wrote the book, was still a major computer manufacturer. Obviously things turned out a bit differently.

We appreciated that the book included a couple of smart female scientists. One of the female members of the group really liked that a girl was writing machine code in the book. There was a sweet romantic subplot between two characters. We noted that if the book was published newly now, it would probably be marketed to appeal to romance readers.

Several of us commented that the story and writing seem simple by current standards. We discussed it in the context of other time travel books. Gregory Benford’s Timescape and Ken Grimwood’s Reflex were mentioned prominently. One person commented that this book’s basic time travel concept is used by more recent fiction including Eric Flint’s 1632 series and Leo Frankowski’s Cross Time Engineer books.

Overall we enjoyed reading a traditional hard science fiction book. The time travel element was well developed, and we liked the characters and story. After the meeting, several of us had dinner at Fuddrucker’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III