BOOK REVIEW: Time’s Last Gift

I’ve spent the better part of my life browsing book shelves – hell, I’ve spent the better part of my life scanning specifically Fantasy and Science Fiction bookshelves – and there are still a bajillion authors I’ve never read.  Publishers and book shops all have their ways of promoting them but the fact remains there are some writers for whom we all have blind spots.

Case in point – I’ve seen Philip Jose Farmer’s name in practically every library, every second-hand book shop and every article about classic SF over the years, but I don’t recall ever actually picking up one of his books or having him recommended to me by a fellow book geek.  The same could be said for Niven and Pournelle.  Hey, don’t throw rocks at me!

It could be partly because their heyday was a little before my time, it could be that the cover artwork and blurbs never grabbed me, it could be because the vast back catalogue left me bewildered as to where to start.  Face it, there’s a lot out there to be read.  Anyway, having had three of Farmer’s newly re-issued books passed on to me for review, I’m finally getting the chance to see some of what I’ve been missing.  And what an eye opener this is.

If you are familiar with the Wold Newton universe then skip the next couple of paragraphs.  I want to set this up properly for the neophytes.  Gone?  Right.

In a way I shot myself in the foot.  I’m a flicker, you see.  Before even reading the opening paragraphs I flicked to the end and found a little essay by Christopher Paul Carey that explained how Time’s Last Gift fitted into the Wold Newton universe.  There was a spoiler in the essay.   It left me unable to read the book for what it simply is.  TLG is now mainly for me a crack in the door of an exciting new playroom, through which I can glimpse bright and interesting things, but really I’ve no-one but myself to blame.  After all, it was supposed to be read after the book.  If anything though, I think it made me more forgiving of the slightly aimless plotting and the paucity of proper characters, because I was so utterly thrilled by the possibilities it raised for Farmer’s other novels.

PJF was a huge fan of pulpy fiction and classic adventure stories – everything from Allan Quartermain and Philleas Fogg to Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes.  With the Wold Newton universe Farmer constructed a mythos wherein all these kinds of characters were real people.  He lovingly crafted new tales bringing his heroes back into the public consciousness in fresh and innovative ways, teaming up or battling each other decades before Alan Moore brought together his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Farmer’s conceit is that is 1795 a meteor strike in the village of Wold Newton had a mysterious effect on the genetic structure of those that witnessed it.  They and their descendents became these great heroes about whom so many great authors have written over the centuries.  It’s a simple concept, at once breathtakingly cheeky and utterly in the spirit of it’s Pulp origins.

Time’s Last Gift is the kind of book I haven’t read for years – an old-fashioned scientific expedition.  Instead of Imperial Brits finding exciting treasures in darkest Africa we have 21st Century scientists travelling through time, but the style of writing is the same. When danger rears its head it is often with brutal or deadly consequence, though the emotional aftermath is slight.  Non-civilised people are not treated unkindly, but definitely given less worth as individuals.  Sexual attraction is implied but not graphically explored.  There is a strange focus to the narrative that takes a while to twig.  Details of the prehistoric world, the tribal customs, language and physical differences are all noted with something like a dispassionate tone.

It’s all interesting, but you get the impression that a surface is being skimmed.  Where Farmer gets excited, where he derives his mystery and sense of drive, is with the expedition leader, John Gribardson.  The other characters are either suspicious of him, worship him, are jealous of him or simply fall in love with him.  Certainly as they adjust to the time period he seems to leap off the page as someone peculiarly suited to these savage lands, and as a reader I often wanted to see more of the character, unmasked.

I cannot say that the story itself gripped me.  Once arrived in the Magdalenian era we begin what amounts to a travelogue, focussing initially on the tribes and the animals, taking in theories of time-travel and the formation of languages over time, before a longer journey begins.  The only plot that seems to develop is the love-triangle between Gribardson, Rachel Silverstein and her bitter husband.  It is neither gripping or particularly tragic, but it does give the book a sense of dramatic tension, particularly as Drummond Silverstein has suspicions and allegations to make about Gribardson’s past.

Without the spoiler I would probably have been intrigued as to that central mystery, but I cannot say how long it would have taken me to unravel it.  Clues are scattered throughout, if you want to look for them, but Farmer himself does not make the answer explicit.  There is a real satisfaction at the end though, when we discover just how deep Time’s last gift to humanity is, and how integral John Gribardson is to the Wold Newton universe.

Whilst not my usual feast, I did enjoy a lot of the flavours that came through.  Gribardson is a compelling character and I would love to read more of his adventures.  The setting is well realised, and the scientific inquiries reminded me of just how complex human life is and how massively adaptable we are.  It is always fascinating to read about lost civilisations, but when you start to realise the scope of how much history is utterly lost to us, it profoundly alters your view of the world.  I may not have been blown away by the story but I can appreciate the concepts behind it and tip my hat to the man.  I’ll be returning to the Wold Newton universe pretty soon when I review Sherlock Holmes: The Peerless Peer and The Other Log Of Philleas Fogg also by Philip Jose Farmer. If you’re in the mood for a bit of pulp, why not join me?

Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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