Astounding Stories #3: “The Legion of Time”
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
When we talk about the golden age of anything, it’s always tempting to give it a definitive beginning and end. You often hear, for instance, that the golden age of science fiction officially commenced with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which included debut stories from A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov and was followed a month later by the first appearance in print of Robert A. Heinlein. Similarly, it’s convenient to say that it ended in May 1950, with the publication in the same magazine of L. Ron Hubbard’s article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science.” These are neat, plausible boundaries, but you could easily make the case that the beginning, the ending, or both deserve to be placed somewhere else. It’s equally reasonable to state that the real turning point wasn’t the debut of any particular author, but the promotion of John W. Campbell to a position of true editorial control, which occurred sometime around March 1938. Others have claimed that the golden age abruptly ended with the entry of the United States into World War II, which scattered the magazine’s core group of writers far and wide. Robert Silverberg, among others, has convincingly argued that the fifties were the actual golden age, and that the years from 1939 onward were “more like a false dawn.” And while such divisions are always a little arbitrary, they’re a valuable way of organizing our thinking about how the genre has grown and changed.
My own views on the subject are still evolving, but I’m ready to make one statement: any definition of the golden age that doesn’t include “The Legion of Time” by Jack Williamson is necessarily incomplete. It was initially published as a three-part serial starting in May 1938, so it falls outside the window mentioned above, but it’s such a transformative story that part of me believes that it inaugurated the golden age all on its own. And Campbell himself sensed this at the time. We first hear about it in an editorial note in March, in which Campbell, clearly excited, says that Williamson has submitted an outline for a story then called “The Legion of Probability” that he expects will be sensational. In the following issue, he announces that the novella is as just as good as he had hoped, and that it will stand as the first of a series of “mutant” stories in Astounding that will push the whole genre into new directions. What sets it apart, in his eyes, is a novel conception of time travel: the idea that two or more alternate futures might exist simultaneously, based on the outcome of a single pivotal moment in the past, and that these opposing universes—which can’t interact with each other directly—could engage in a struggle for existence by seeking to influence events in our present. It’s a great premise, and as Campbell observes, it could generate hundreds of different plots.
But what really sets “The Legion of Time” apart is the sheer energy and inventiveness of the story it tells. It opens with Dennis Lanning, a man from our own time, being contacted by two beautiful women, Lethonee and Sorainya, from alternate futures in which the existence of one depends on the destruction of the other. In some unknown way, the actions that Lanning will take—we aren’t told how—will determine which of the two will survive. We soon learn that Lethonee’s civilization is basically good, while Sorainya’s is basically evil, but Lanning remains powerfully attracted to both. This might sound like a case of Betty and Veronica on a cosmic scale, but Williamson cleverly plays with Lanning’s dilemma, which persists even after he realizes that Sorainya is really the warrior queen of a kingdom of gigantic ants. And what I love about the result is how vigorously Williamson exploits the conventions of pulp science fiction in service of his unforgettable premise. He gives us such narrative delights as a team of heroes, plucked out of our reality at the moment of death, helming a ghost ship called the Chronion across oceans of time; an epic, gory siege on a palace in which an army of ant men is mowed down in a hail of machine-gun fire; an escape from a dungeon that involves carving a key from the skeleton of its previous occupant; and the moment in which we learn that the future of humanity depends on whether or not a young boy in the Ozarks notices a tiny object lying in the grass.
And “The Legion of Time” feels like a hinge point in itself. It’s squarely in the tradition of the adventure stories that Astounding had been publishing up to that point, and it gives us all the pulpy pleasures and more that the magazine had led fans to expect, but in its attention to character, its wealth of ideas, and its emotional charge, it represents a high point that the genre wouldn’t touch again until Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” appeared almost two years later. When Lanning, his mission accomplished, returns at last to the future he has created and discovers that Lethonee and Sorainya have been mysteriously fused into the same woman, the effect is unbelievably satisfying. And “The Legion of Time” itself reads like the superimposition of two possible futures for science fiction, one of which pushed deeper into the hairbreadth escapes and pitched space battles that had typified the whole genre, often gloriously, while the other developed a new respect for atmosphere, character, and visionary ideas. Either one might have been wonderful, and in fact, Astounding would continue to pursue both ideals for years to come. But in “The Legion of Time,” the seeds of both are visible, and the clues it provided to Campbell and his circle of writers would yield dividends over the next decade. There may never be a consensus over where the golden age begins or ends, and there probably shouldn’t be. But I think it starts here.