I had mixed feelings about the book, although it begins with an interesting premise. Si Morley is an artist who is approached by a federal agent about applying for an uber-secret, high-security job. He’s told nothing about the job, only that he might regret it forever if he doesn’t at least check it out.
Obviously Si goes in and applies for the job, and learns that the government is working on a method of sending people back to specific points in time. The idea is kind of hypnosis plus immersion. The idea is that if you completely immerse yourself in the time, from the mechanics to the clothes to the news and culture, you can then delude yourself into believing you can step into that time. If you believe, the theory goes, it can be done…
Morley asks to be sent to New York City in 1882, to resolve a mystery involving his girlfriend’s grandparents. A strange letter is mailed by her grandfather that supposedly results in the “destruction by fire of the entire world.” Because this mystery also has national implications, the government agrees. I won’t tell you more than that because the mystery is what’s fun about this book.
Finney is a writer who cares a lot about details, and while I appreciate that, he spends a lot of time describing things that don’t contribute to the overall story. I liked that he focuses not just on how the technology is different in 1882 but how people seem to be different. Morley, as an artist, really watches people’s faces rather than just noticing their clothes, and that’s a nice thing about this book. Finney spends a lot of time building the atmosphere, and that’s one similarity I noticed between Finney’s book and King’s. Although I will say that means this book moves rather slowly at times.
It takes a while for the story to get going, but once it does, it moves at a faster pace. Morley is supposed to try not to influence anything in the past, because he may change the present. But of course that pretty much flies out the window as he gets more and more involved in the events that unfold.
In some ways, I felt like this book was Finney’s homage to New York City. Since it’s not my favorite city (despite being born there) I couldn’t get too excited about the block by block descriptions comparing NYC in the 1880s to the present day (1970).
This book was published in 1970, and has been considered a “cult classic”. It’s an interesting read because it compares the present to the past, only the “present” is actually 45 years ago. Still, a lot of Morley’s revelations about life in the 1880s and life today resonated with me. He sees the people of the 1880s as being more engaged, happier. He sees a difference in their faces as they walk down the street. In the 1880s they seem more interested in what’s around them, while in 1970 people seem to be bored, not paying attention. Imagine what Finney would think if he walked down a sidewalk today, with everyone looking at their phones.
It’s also interesting to view the political motivations of the government in 1970, as compared with today. For example, one of the issues presented is the threat that Cuba poses to the U.S., which of course was a very real concern then, but much less of a concern today.
If I’m being honest, though, I have to say that the romance in the story didn’t work for me at all. It felt like background, like OF COURSE Si will have to fall in love with someone in the past because that’s what happens in time travel stories. I also found something about Si unlikable, although I can’t point to what that was. He just seemed kind of thoughtless in how he treated people. He acts on impulse and even though he says he cares about Julia, I’m not sure I see it in the story.
A really minor point but I’m having trouble getting past it: at one point Si has to buy Julia a pair of shoes, and he buys high stiletto heels, just because her legs will look so good in them. Even though he knows she’ll have trouble walking in them. Ugh.
To sum up: I found this an entertaining time travel/mystery/thriller but it gets bogged down in the details at times, and I didn’t find the romance terribly convincing. The conclusion is really good though — but I won’t tell you about that.
Since this book is part mystery/thriller, I’m counting it towards R.I.P. X. You can find other R.I.P. X reviews here.