Book Review: The Legion of Time
I am not old enough to remember a time before the “New Wave” hit science fiction. My view of classic scifi starts from around about that point in the 70s when literary ideas and diverse voices started to sneak into the genre. The old masters from before this time are all that I have really had contact with. The reason that those books were considered classics is because they transcended the standards of the time. They were well written, with a balance of focus on plot, characters and ideas.
All of the mid-list authors of the fifties and sixties exist to me only in the finely refined patina of pop-culture that they have left behind. Robots, scantily clad women and rocket ships. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Square jawed pulp heroes revamped for the sudden boom of science fiction and pulp stories pumped out at the same breakneck pace that they always had been. All of the traits that I am describing are present abundance in Jack Williamson's 1952 book The Legion of Time. There are sections of the text drowning in the purple prose of Lovecraft's generation. There are character's with no personality beyond being tough, pretty or some racist stereotype. In fact the entire selling point of the book is that it is based on what at the time was a completely new idea.
The central character Denny Lanning is a rough and tumble, strong silent type. The warrior poet with a soft heart that every one of the old scifi stories seemed to be aiming for right up until the point that Captain Kirk started zipping around our television screens. His only weaknesses are with the ladies, who he seems to be more or less powerless against as long as they are described as pretty. He is drawn to two opposing women over the course of the story, led around by the chin by whichever one he is looking directly at in that particular scene.
So that leaves us with the big idea. The thing that makes or broke old school scifi stories and honestly this one is fairly good. There are two possible futures branching out from the present. One is a totalitarian nightmare with giant ant-man soldiers brutalising the kennelled remnants of humanity, the other is a utopian fantasy that is described vaguely enough that nobody could possibly object to it. The rugged hero must choose between the two women who rule these alternate futures and decide which of the two will come into being. Of course the evil one is much more interested in helping things along in her potential universe's favour, nipping back in time to interfere in events as she sees fit until only her world remains. It is only through direct intervention from the time travellers of the present and some terse action involving a multicultural cast of warriors plucked from the moment before their death in all of the wars across time.
The concept is pretty damned solid and if you are willing to wade through the inherent misogyny, racism and navel gazing prose of the time the pay-off is as satisfying as any science-fiction double-feature.