Up the line
(Robert Silverberg, 1969)

I bought this book in May 1975, when I was still a student at university, and I had the feeling that I'd read it occasionally over the years. It's a familiar part of my collection. But, coming to read it now, the story seems so unfamiliar that I can't be sure I ever read it at all.

It's the story of a time courier, a young man who takes tourists from the year 2059 up the line into the past, to see the sights of Byzantine history, a period that he's studied.

It's a fluent and accomplished story that dates surprisingly little, being written with an imagination that transcends the years.

The main jarring note is that it's exhaustingly full of sex. In the late 1960s, writers were taking advantage of a relaxation in what had previously been the rules, and so the hero couples like there was no tomorrow, finding the past strewn with willing and able women. Fantasy, from that point of view.

Stylistically, I feel I detect the influence of Samuel R. Delany, who was also writing in the late 1960s, though not about time travel.

But the important part of the story describes the past and the problems experienced by our hero in the way of time loops and paradoxes, some of his own making, some not. Here the book is persuasive and has a claim to classic status.

I noted with amusement a small failure of imagination, though with a book like this written in 1969 there could well have been many more. At the end of Chapter 33, “When I got next month's account statement I found he had thumbed a cool thousand into my credit.”

It didn't occur to the author that by 2059 online banking would enable customers to check their bank accounts at any time; and he may not have anticipated what inflation would do to a thousand dollars by 2059. Authorizing financial transactions by thumbprint is rather cool, though, and it's not something I've done yet.

There's another more serious problem that I didn't notice immediately. Each time traveller is fitted with a miniaturized time machine worn as an item of clothing. The tourists have no control of their time machines, which are slaved to the courier's. However, one tourist is an ex-engineer who manages to hack his time machine and gain control of it.

He's not described as having smuggled any equipment into the past with him, so how does he break into mid-21st-century microcircuitry that's supplied without any user interface? Using his fingers? This I would like to see.

Written in February 2010