The Caltraps of Time
(Cosmos Books, $17.99, 237 pages, trade paperback, also available
in hardback priced $29.99, first published 1968, this edition published
April 2003 (hardback published July 2003).)
Along with John Sladek's last cynical novel, Ansible E-ditions has
chosen to preserve New Worlds shorts, now with a few extras.
Cosmos Books has chosen to print) these "imaginations of a slightly
more innocent decade", being David Masson's 1960s collection of seven
My overwhelming impression of David Masson as a writer, having approached
his work here for the first time, is that he's a powerhouse for ideas,
but absolutely terrible at using them. Great ideas, vast behemoths of
ideas are scattered left and right through these stories, but rarely
are they developed to any great extent; rather, Masson tends to expound
upon them briefly, then drift off into either a spot of amiable character
development or a lengthy rant about the state of the world today, and
oh whoops, wasn't that the ending just now? "Traveller's Rest", which
opens the anthology, follows this pattern, beginning with some lovely
prose and an engaging central premise but culminating in an ending that
almost isn't. "A Two-Timer", in which a seventeenth-century rake "borrows"
a time machine and travels to the present day, sadly lacks even any
original ideas to recommend it, trails off into inconsequence, and is
notable only for Masson's excellent use of Restoration English. Language
is a more central concern in "Not So Certain"; now, being a linguist
myself, I'm delighted to have read a hard SF story in which the hard
science in question is phonology, but in all honesty, there's not much
scope in that field for dramatic plot twists. Again, a fine idea is
let down by a limp ending.
Ditto "The Transfinite Choice", in which scientists of the future try
to solve the problem of overpopulation by shunting emigrants into a
parallel timestream. It would have been a great story, had the three
final paragraphs not been included. "Psychosmosis", by contrast, is
an intriguing concept that peters out just a couple of pages in. We
then arrive at the new material, of which more in a moment. The last
two New Worlds stories are "Mouth of Hell", which apparently
involves "an impossible geography" and gets a rave review from Brian
Aldiss on the book's back cover, yet in truth features an entirely possible
and disappointingly mundane geography, and precious little story; and
"Lost Ground", which again fails to make the fullest use of a fine initial
For this reissue, the editors have added three stories published in
the 1970s, in magazines other than New Worlds. I'm not entirely
sure why they bothered. "The Show Must Go On" and "Doctor Fausta" would
appear to fall into the category flagged in the back cover blurb as
"satirical". Now, it seems to me that, as Jonathan Swift's work shows
us, satire has two defining traits: firstly, it mocks real world customs
by presenting them in a distinct but analogous context; and secondly,
it relies heavily upon silly names. Masson appears to have firmly grasped
the second point, but I really don't think he's got the hang of the
first. The result is a frankly embarrassing "humorous" garbling of language
and world affairs for "satirical" effect. As consolation, "Doctor Fausta"
contains one of the most staggering ideas in the whole collection, a
real mind-bender, which yet again is outlined then criminally neglected;
I'm afraid I can't say as much for "The Show Must Go On". "Take It or
Leave It", meanwhile, is a generic post-apocalyptic vignette that, while
reasonably well written, doesn't have anything much to say.
All in all, a very promising series of ideas, but ultimately disappointing.
Review by John Toon.