The Time Traders, Andre Norton (1958)
Review by Martin Wisse
If it wasn’t for Project Gutenberg I might’ve never read this novel. Though Andre Norton was one of the most prolific US science fiction writers, mostly writing what we’d now call young adult novels, she was never translated into Dutch much so was missing when I went through my personal Golden Age. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to catch up with her, in no small part thanks to Gutenberg’s collection of her works. Because until roughly the seventies, American copyright was only valid for a limited time and had to be explicitly renewed, a lot of science fiction pulp and early paperback stories entered the public domain. In this case, the copyright on the original 1958 hardcover publication of The Time Traders was never renewed, making it fair game for Gutenberg.
I picked this out of the available Nortons for two reasons: it was the first book in a series and more importantly, it was a time travel story. It had been a while since I’d last read a good, old fashioned time travel story and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After all, it has time agents who have to travel undercover through prehistoric times to find the ancient civilisation from which the Soviets are getting sophisticated weaponry and technology they couldn’t have possibly produced themselves.
But that does point to the novel’s greatest problem: it was written in 1958, at the height of the first Cold War and it shows. It’s not just that this is a straight arms race between heroic, American time travellers and devious Soviet agents, it’s also that the protagonist, Ross Murdock, is an example of that other fifties bugbear, a juvenile delinquent, mollycoddled by society. He thinks he knows how the game is played until he finds himself being drafted in a top secret project, which we, even if the title hadn’t been a dead giveaway, know soon enough is a time travel project, but which costs him some time to find out. Though gifted with a bit of cunning and some inner strength, Ross at first is not the brightest bulb.
The Time Traders starts with Ross being drafted into the project, blind, as alternative to being sent to prison for unspecified crimes. He at first thinks to play along to bide his time until he has an opportunity to escape the polar base he’s sent to, but when his chance at escape would mean betraying the base to the Soviets, he can’t do it. This finally earns him some measure of trust as the goal of the time travel project is explained to him and he begins his training in earnest.
This second part of the book is dominated by I guess you can call it a love story, between Ross and his mentor, an older time agent called Gordon Ashe. Gordon is the father figure Ross never had and he does his utmost to win his respect. This comes to a head as they go on their first time travel journey together, back to Iron Age Britain, where the agents have established themselves as foreign traders and established a small base. Of course things go wrong and of course it turns to Ross to save the day.
If I’m honest, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ross and Gordon’s adventures in prehistory, rather than it all devolving in spy games with Russian time agents. Though much of what Norton shows of Iron Age Britain may be obsolete or have always been nonsense, she does have a good eye for the small, telling detail to make a world come alive and I would’ve liked to spent more time there. The plot itself is of course dated, especially because it is supposed to be set sometime in the near future, but after a while it didn’t bother me. If it would you, there’s an updated version brought out by Baen Books, if I’m not mistaken, which has updated the Cold War plots. I’m not sure that was needed.
The Time Traders was popular enough to spawn three sequels, two of which (but not the second) are also available at Gutenberg, as well as three much later continuations by Norton plus a junior writer. Again, not having read them, I’d be wary to try these latter. Famous writers revisiting popular series with the help of less famous writers never work out.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.