“No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller

October 17, 2010 at 2:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment

This week’s short story club story is “No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller, published in Lightspeed Magazine. I don’t think I’ve ever read a time travel story that left me so uncertain as to when it was happening. The narrator refers to a depression in the second sentence. There’s much about the story that feels appropriate for the Great Depression, from the narrator’s voice to the pace of her life to Tarzan and John Carter references. On the other hand, the narrator talks of televisions, uses the word computer, and while I had to look it up, tasers weren’t invented until the seventies (named after Tom Swift, strangely enough). So when does this story take place?

My first inclination, reading the story, was that the author was going for a 1930s setting and just made a few mistakes. After finishing it, though, I looked her up and, whoops, she grew up in the Great Depression. I think she knows what it was like. So then I decided she must have been shooting for a modern voice and just not done it very well. Then I wondered if it might be on purpose. Gene Wolfe, although amazingly he is ten years younger than Emshwiller, has recently written several stories and novels set explicitly in the future while using a deliberately old-fashioned voice. There was no similar explicit marking here, though. So at length I’ve decided the ambiguity must have been intentional. The references to tasers on the one hand and Tarzan on the other are too overt. Given the Marietta’s causality concerns, the implication must be that the timeline is already altered from ours (or vice versa, I guess).

Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot else interesting about the story. Structurally it’s similar to Rendezvous with Rama (and a whole lot of other older SF stories, but I find Rama a useful template) in that the story introduces an idea, explores it somewhat, then eschews strong resolution in favor of an ambiguous ending. Clarke used this structure to invoke a feeling of awe from the reader. God moves in mysterious ways, and whoever built the Rama spacecraft was sufficiently advanced that, well, you know. Unfortunately this story doesn’t get nearly as much mileage from its vague ending, and the familiar idea of future people struggling to cope with living in the past wasn’t interesting enough to me to carry the weight the story placed on it. There is briefly a mystery as to the true nature of the new people, but it is resolved very early in the story. The time dislocation effect is pretty unusual but the story never goes anywhere with it, so all told this was another story that was just too insubstantial for my taste.

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