Andy's Anachronisms - Time Travel Book Reviews

About Time by Jack Finney - Book Cover
About Time
Jack Finney
1986


SUMMARY

This collection consists of 12 short stories by Jack Finney. Finney, who's other full length time travel novels include Time and Again (1970) and the sequel From Time to Time (1995), is perhaps best known for his classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954).

With the exception of a few stories, Of Missing Persons, Lunch-Hour Magic, Home Alone , and Hey Look At Me! this collection contains stories mainly about time travel and alternate universes. The collection is actually a combination of two previously published collections: The Third Level (1957) and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime (1962)


Index of Stories

The Third Level   1950
I Love Galesburg in the Springtime   1960
Such Interesting Neighbors   1951
The Coin Collector (aka The Other Wife)   1960
Of Missing Persons   1955
Lunch Hour Magic  1962
Where the Cluetts Are  © 1962
The Face in the Photo (aka Time Has No Boundaries)  1962
I'm Scared  1951
Home Alone  1961
Second Chance  1956
Hey, Look at Me!  1962


The Third Level   1950 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis

Charley, a young New York commuter wandering Grand Central station, accidently finds a portal that leads to 1894. Seizing the opportunity, Charley attempts to escape the rat race by buying a one-way ticket to his childhood town of Galesburg. Not having proper currency for the period, he is forced to postpone his plans to escape to the past.

Both Charley's wife and psychiatrist are worried he's losing his grip on reality. Unable to rediscover the mysterious 3rd Level of Grand Central, Charley searches for proof of his experience. His proof eventually comes from a very unexpected source.

This short story is one of the best examples of a concise, entertaining story about time travel as you are ever likely to find. At only SIX pages in length, Finney manages to not only capture the reader's imagination, but too also provide a clear example of time travel that doesn't confuse the reader.


I Love Galesburg in the Springtime   1960 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis

In this continuation of Finney's fascination with Galesburg, Illinois we meet local newspaper reporter Oscar, who loves the historical neighbourhoods and the sense of history they hold. He begins to hear strange stories of the past reaching out to the present.

Are these ghostly apparitions trying to send the present a message? Or are they examples of the past intruding on the present?

Not nearly as concise as his previous short story about Galesburg, Finney manages none the less to spin an interesting tale about the significance of our architectural legacy and our tendency to take it for granted until it is gone.


Such Interesting Neighbors   1951 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

Such Interesting Neighbours begins as a hokey light humoured 50's sci-fi tale in which a couple of bumbling time travellers from the future masquerade as contemporary citizens. The time travelling Hellenbeks are befriended by their next door neighbours, the Lewises, who are not so much as suspicious as they are intrigued by their neighbours odd behaviour. Ted Hellenbek eventually feels compelled to reveal the true nature of their origin to the Lewises. In order to gauge the reaction of his neighbours, Ted pretends that the tale he is giving them is a science fiction story he is working on. Ted explains that the future is a miserable place of war and destruction and that with the arrival of mass produced time travel devices people were able to take a vacation from their existence by travelling to less turbulent time in the past.

As interesting as this story is at this point, Finney however refuses to quit there. In a brilliant ending Finney gives one possible end for the earth that involves the population of the world simply evaporating into the past as they stop returning to the troubled present. Ted Hellenbek ends his tale with "And that, my friends, is how the world ends. On the edge of a precipice, with one foot over the edge, it stops, turns and goes back, leaving an empty earth of birds and insects, wind, rain and rusting weapons."

I found it interesting to note the story seems somehow typical of a 50's anthropocentric view of the world. Specifically the fact that Finney views a world with out people being the End of The World. From a moder day view point I would personally describe the result of a depopulated world as a much needed rest for the Earth.

On the other hand Finney does try to point out to a 1950's audience, living in shadow of the atom bomb, that things could be worse. As seen by a future race of humans, the 1950's had a lot of things going for it. It's all a matter of perspective.


The Coin Collector (aka The Other Wife)   1960 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

A 26 year-old Alfred Pullen and his young bride find the novelty of marriage wearing thin. After a night spent sleeping on the couch, Alfred wonders about "what might have been..." and the different turning points in his life while on the way to work. After turning a street corner Alfred finds himself face to face with an alternate universe. One complete with a different wife.

The conduit into this alternate universe turns out to be an simple dime with one difference. Instead of the familiar portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime this one had a picture of Woodrow Wilson on it.

Unlike most alternate universe stories where the author is content to focus on one historical change and its impact on the world, Finney treats the reader to a alternate universe where a great deal of things are different. From the types and styles of cars on the road, to the alternate naming of soft drinks and cigarettes. Even celebrities are not spared from the alternate universe. Alfred points out that "several extremely prominent people whose names would astound you were in jail". Alfred, who is a bit of a bookworm, is also pleasantly surprised to find that a number of his favourite authors have written several more books than existed in his world.

This short story comes off as being a sexist male fantasy since Alfred is allowed to have his cake and eat it to. He experiences marriage with both wives and by the story's end has decided that he's not opposed to visiting both worlds on occasion.


Of Missing Persons   1955 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

Less of a story about time travel, Of Missing Persons, tells the story about trying to find a better world. Charley Ewell, a young burnt out bank teller, is told of a travel agency that has a strange tour package to offer specific types of people. Curious about the secret, he seeks out the travel agency. The travel agent sizes him up by telling him about a joke brochure they have printed up about travelling to another planet to live. Playing along Charley accepts an offer to relocate to the planet Verna only to have his dream shattered at the lost possible moment.

Unlike the view found in Such Interesting Neighbours where America of the 1950's doesn't look so bad to a traveller from a war ravaged Earth of the future, this escapist story suggests that life in 1950's America is dreadful enough to want to leave the planet all together. Finney paints a brief portrait of a Utopian society on Verna where everyone lives in harmony and works at what best suits them.

For me the plot itself is not that memorable or enjoyable. What is memorable and enjoyable about the story is the way in which Finney tells it. Weaving a brief bit of intrigue and mystery into a a short space and bringing the story full circle makes for a beautifully told story. The story also provides another example of Finney's ability to concisely explain a concept. This example comes in the form of an anecdote told by the travel agent to demonstrate to Charley how they can overcome the vast distances needed to reach Verna.


Lunch Hour Magic  1962 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

Another sexist male fantasy story told in a Twilight Zone style, Lunch Hour Magic (aka Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere, aka The Man with the Magic Glasses), introduces us to Ted, a self described lunch hour prowler that would rather investigate out of the way antique and trinket shops than eat on his lunch hour. During one of his forays into the neighbourhood surrounding his office, he discovers a novelty and magic store. The store however, has more magic going for it than anyone realises when Ted buys a pair of x-ray specs that actually work. The glasses only penetrate one or two layers of light clothing and Ted is forced to be satisfied with starring at female strangers and co-workers prancing about in their underwear.

Ted discovers that Frida, a fellow office worker, is also a lunch hour explorer and they begin to exchange stories. Ted describes Frida as being an unassuming, unremarkable girl whose dress he describes as "a sort of reddish, greenish, blackish, brownish, haphazard draping of cloth that looked as though it had fallen on her from a great height."

Naturally Ted is not attracted to Frida, yet their lunch time adventures bring them closer together. Ted also discovers that the other items at the magic shop possess some actual magically powers which proves to be his undoing in the end.

I found this story a bit too juvenile to enjoy. The writing seemed as if a young boy had written the story trying to impose on the world his view of what being a grown-up must be like and how love must work. Perhaps its just Finney and the 1950's talking, but I found it disappointing considering some of the other pieces in this collection.


Where the Cluetts Are  © 1962 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis

A rich couple hire a small-town architect to design their dream house. Unable to decide on the type of house they want, the couple stumble upon a set of blueprints from the 1880s. Seizing the opportunity to bring a piece of the past to life, the couple have the house built exactly to plan. Once built the house begins to take on a life of its own, the past intruding on the present.

A modern "haunted house" tale, but with a happy twist. Finney again shows us his fascination with the overlapping layers of past and present. As with I Love Galesburg in the Springtime and The Third Level, not to mention Time and Again Finney wants awaken the reader to the fact that the past is just below the surface and that all we have to do is look to be able to see it.


The Face in the Photo (aka Time Has No Boundaries)  1962 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

A San Francisco Police Detective believes that some of the suspects in his unsolved cases may have escaped through time to the past. Reluctant to believe his own assumption, the detective enlists the aid of a university professor with a background in temporal physics to help explain how and if time travel might work.

The detective soon has the evidence he needs to prove his theory and to locate the criminals, but he is forced to find an inventive means of punishing these criminals who have escaped his reach.

A well crafted short story that manages to keep the reader intrigued to the very end. Once again Finney has managed to take a seemingly ordinary occurrence, unsolved cases, and add a time travel twist to explain the phenomenon. He wrote a similar short story also contained in this collection called Of Missing Persons.


I'm Scared  1951 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

A retired man listening to the radio discovers a brief temporal disturbance when he hears a piece of a radio broadcast from a variety show that was popular decades earlier.

Intrigued by his experience the man continues to uncover other peoples stories of temporal anomalies. A collector of these stories he soon begins to fear that these anecdotes are a sign that the normal flow of time is breaking down.

An intriguing story, not so much for the concept that people's longing for a former time is eroding the normal flow of time, but rather the anecdotes that Finney weaves through out the story. Each of the cases the narrator presents poses an interesting puzzle about the flow of time and how we experience it. Finney could have easily taken anyone of these brilliant anecdotes and spun a separate story out of it.


Home Alone  1961 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

Formerly published under the title The Intrepid Aeronaut, tells the story of Charley, a bored husband and father, who wishes to experience the to miracle of flight.

Charley creates his own personal-sized hot air balloon that allows him to float under cover of darkness on the night time currents exploring his neighbourhood and San Francisco at large. A chance encounter with a neighbour, Mrs. Lanidas provides Charley with a fellow aeronaut and a bit of romance.

This overly obvious metaphor of flying as a means of escape and freedom from the everyday ties that bind us works well within the confines of this tale. Their escapades awaken both Charley and Mrs. Lanidas to the everyday wonders lurking about them and on a certain level make them realize that not everything is what it seems on the surface. A strange choice for inclusion in this collection, although an interesting facet of Finney's writing career. It almost begs the question of what was going on in Finney's personal life at the time of this tale?


Second Chance  1956 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

A young college student, with a love for vintage automobiles, restores a 1923 Playboy Jordan car only to find himself and the car mysteriously back in 1923.

While visiting 1923 he unwittingly affects the outcome a young couples evening on the town. The next morning he finds himself without the car and back in his own time. Intent on owning another Playboy Jordan, his quest introduces him to a young girl with very similar passions in life.

In a twist ending that brings the tale full circle Finney once again surprises the reader with his well written stories. Again with much of the short stories in this collection, the beauty is in the details. Finney throughout this story points out through his narrator that there were no big revelations that let him know he had slipped into the past. There were no big radio announcements or newspaper headlines about current events that tipped him off to the year. He just sensed it from the details around him. The automobiles, dresses, and the look of the town at the time all pointed to 1923. Finney also underscores one of his concepts of time travel that he later expanded upon in his novel Time and Again, that in order to travel to the past you must let go of the present. Another interesting point that Finney makes in this tale, and one I personally subscribe to, is that trivial decisions in our lives can have enormous impacts on the future. Whether it be our own or others.


Hey, Look at Me!  1962 by Jack Finney

Summary and Analysis (Warning: Contains some spoilers)

Hey, Look At Me! on the surface is a simple ghost story about a writer, Max Kingrey, who dies before his time. Determined to make his mark before passing on, his spirit haunts his hometown trying to get people to notice him.

On another level this short story is also about the power of memory and time. Finney touches on our ability to forget things over time, and underscores that time erodes memory and feelings against our will. Through this story Finney also illustrates the ability to exist outside of time by making a mark in the world for which you will be remembered. However, as with the case of Max Kingery, far too often the only lasting reminder we leave on this world is the final epitaph engraved on our tombstone.


2002 - A. Taylor

Review Posted:   2002-06-07
Review Modified: 2006-01-16


R E L A T E D   L I N K S
Jack Finney page at George C. Willick's SPACELIGHT.
A short biography of Jack Finney with links to obitiuary and bibliography.

http://gwillick.com/Spacelight/finney.html


Review of Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney.
My own review of Finney's stellar time travel story of 1880s New York - Time and Again.

http://www.timetravelreviews.com/books/finney_timeandagain.html


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