Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s sole novel of 1948, The Mask of Circe, was a very way-out excursion in the fantasy realm, and in early 1949, the pair followed up with an equally way-out piece of hard sci-fi. The Time Axis, which initially appeared in the January ’49 issue of “Startling Stories,” finds science fiction’s foremost husband-and-wife writing team (my apologies to Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm!) at the top of their game, but perhaps giving their seemingly limitless imagination too free a rein. The book is well paced, finely and at times humorously written, exciting and colorful, but ultimately, unfortunately, not fully satisfying.
The story here concerns the “nekron,” a shadowy whatzit that is killing Earthlings and causing the spread of an all-new form of matter: “a dead null-energy pattern of negation.” Freelance reporter Jerry Cortland, a Madame Curie-type physicist named Letta Essen, dilettante scientist Ira de Kalb and martinet Army Col. Harrison Murray attempt a trip to the far, far future, after having received a distress summons found in a mysterious box on the isle of Crete. de Kalb had recently discovered the eponymous “time axis” buried in the Canadian Laurentians, and so, somewhat reluctantly, the quartet takes off in answer to the summons of the Face of Ea, and to hopefully find a cure for the nekron plague. Somehow, though, they do not get very far — perhaps only 1,000 years from now; the authors coyly refuse to be specific — and then the really strange stuff starts happening, as their personalities are absorbed by their futuristic counterparts and they get involved with brewing trouble regarding some synthetic humans, the Mechandroids. And this capsule description does not even begin to convey the temporal theorizing, mind-blowing plot developments and mysterious happenings that befall the four, all culminating in a grand duke-out with the nekron itself through both time and space.
Actually, as I was rapidly flipping the pages of The Time Axis (the book IS admittedly quite the page-turner), I was reminded a bit of my old favorite TV program, Lost. Not because of any plot similarities, but because, like that hit TV show, The Time Axis piles mystery on top of mystery, paradox atop paradox; for every item that is explained, two new conundrums pop up to take its place. And ultimately, the book’s major problem is that the authors do NOT adequately answer all the reader’s many questions. Our narrator, Cortland, constantly uses expressions such as “imponderable forces,” “too big for the human mind to comprehend,” “it doesn’t make sense,” “I can’t describe… because I didn’t understand” and “What did I see? I wish I could tell you.” And while these unsolved mysteries do engender that elusive sense of wonder that is so desirable in good science fiction, they can still frustrate the bejeebers out of the curious reader. Basic questions regarding such items as the nekron’s initial appearance, its affinity with Cortland, and the quartet’s futuristic counterparts go largely unanswered. Or perhaps I am just missing something. These temporal paradox stories, of the kind so often featured on latter-day Star Trek incarnations, always give me a headache when I attempt to riddle them out. Still, I have a feeling that most readers will be left scratching their heads as they turn the last page over on this one.
All of which should not be taken as a dismissal of this work. Kuttner & Moore couldn’t write a dull, unimaginative book if they tried, and many sections of this novel make for thrilling and lovely visions (such as that fairyland Swan Garden, with fruit-laden streams floating in midair, and that Grand Central Station-like concourse of the future, with the citizens of a galaxy popping in and out of way-station transporter booths). With a bit more explication, this book could have been a real tour de force, rather than the unsatisfying thrill ride that it is….