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October 2002
2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Conrad's Time Machine: a prequel to the adventures of Conrad Stargard
by Leo Frankowski
Baen Hardcover
: ISBN 0743435575 PubDate Sep 02
Review by Ernest Lilley
352 pages List price $24.00
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Sometimes a reputation is a hard thing to live down. That's true both for Leo Frankoski's new book and for the main characters who stumble onto what appears to be the test of some sort of spatial transporter, maybe even a temporal transporter. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and without a time machine that's dangerous.

Conrad Stargard, known to fans as "The Crosstime-Engineer" is a fellow who went back in time and rewrote history with the help of some twentieth century engineering and a desire to make the world a better place. Historically, in a literary sense, the author followed in L. Sprague De Camp's footsteps, who did the same thing to an archeologist and ancient Rome in SF's own golden age (Lest Darkness Fall, 1939). Of course, Frankowski isn't the last person to visit this genre, as last year's 1632 and last July's 1633, attest.

Conrad's Time Machine isn't Conrad's story, not for a few books yet at any rate. When you're writing about time travel, terms like "prequel" kind of lose their punch, but this is the back-story, and whether or not you've read any of the earlier (sequels?) it's a great place to start. 

When Tom, Ian and Jim leave the Air Force buddies, they're just guys looking to have fun, not change the world. So they form a motorcycle gang of three (with two BMWs and a Harley) to write a thesis, take a vacation, or go on an adventure,  depending on their point of view. What they find on the open road is X-Files weird - the apparent test site of a machine that made 10 meter half-sphere of earth disappear implosively, and then brought it back a bit at a time, including whomever set it off...but not in very good shape.

Fortunately, one of the things they found was lots and lots of money and an intact circuit diagram.

Ian's a mechanical engineer, Tom's an electronics tech and a Jim's a psychologist, and three of them can't resist the conundrum that confronts (and nearly kills) them. Telling the authorities that they had been at the scene of a UFO landing (the surest way to get the whole thing hushed up and forgotten) they gather up the bits and pieces of whatever had gone wherever and back again, and set themselves to figuring it out.

Thus starts a rollicking tale of three guys intent on re-inventing the time machine and hopefully with less disastrous results than the first inventor experienced. It's a manly tale of guys in the wild, guys with soldering irons and a technical challenge and lots of brains to apply to it. For the first half of the book, women don't figure in much, thanks to Tom and Ian's native ability to repel them, and despite Ian's opposite talent.

After a while they start to crack the time barrier, or at least to pull it back far enough to read tomorrow's Wall Street Journal, necessary because funding your own research is an expensive hobby, and their fortunes, first fiscal and then others, are pretty well made. Such goings on are the sort of thing that the mundane world tends to take note of sooner or later, so at some point they take off for a more secluded spot from which to develop their gadgets.

Chapter after chapter the author takes you on a rollercoaster ride through the technological and sociological implications of time travel and it was far more fun than I had imagined it could be. When it was all over I definitely wanted to do it again.

Depending on how you take it, this is also one of the most or least sexist stories you're likely to ever encounter. Once upon a time a prominent SF author said of another's author's work that it was the sort of thing only a man could write. When the female author stepped out from behind her male pseudonym to accept a Hugo for the work, the prominent SF author was abashed and the James Tiptree Award for gender bending SF was born.

I don't think Leo Frankowski is a woman, and I don't think it would have occurred to a woman to write a story about three guys who wind up on their own island with several thousand women at their beck and call...but really, it's not sexist. There actually are an equal number of men around...for one thing, but they tend to stay in the background because they're outbid for the best jobs by women. What makes our heroes so special that they rate this sort of adulation? That would be telling, and I'm not sure causality could stand the strain.

What this book is about, more than anything else, is about the bonds between men. It starts out in the late 1960s, so if the way these guys think seems out of synch to you, you can blame it on the time...but really, guys are still guys and friendship is still something that runs deep.

This is whole lot of fun, and though it may take another book or two to finish the prequel, It stands by itself as a tale of friendship, technology, and adventure. Frankowski has clearly been thinking about the whys and why nots of time travel for a long time and he presents a lot of original thinking in a lot of very amusing ways.  If you like Spider Robinson and Robert Heinlein, you'll love Conrad's Time Machine.

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Lest Darkness Fall, 1939 by L. Sprague de Camp, is a seminal work in Time Travel and Alternate History, and it's a well told tale besides. While it lacks the discussion of time travel technology it focuses on the application of twentieth century ideas on ancient Rome and one man's crusade to prevent the dark ages. As often happens when I'm researching something, I picked it up to add a note to this review and found I couldn't put it down. Again. - EL

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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