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The Caltraps of Time

by David I Masson

(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 cover scan(and Cosmos Books has chosen to print) these "imaginations of a slightly more innocent decade", being David Masson's 1960s collection of seven New Worlds shorts, now with a few extras.

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 premise.

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.


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