Monday, February 9, 2015

"Half-Past Eternity"

Longtime fans of John D MacDonald’s novels and short stories are probably aware that his early science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers originally appeared as a novella in an early sf pulp magazine. Although billed on the cover of the May 1950 issue of Startling Stories as “A Complete Novel,” it clocked in at “only” 44,000 words, far short of the approximately 80,000 that would make up the novel of the following year. More serious fans of his work would also know that his second science fiction novel, Ballroom of the Skies, was based on another earlier novella, one titled “Hand From the Void,” a 20,000 word piece that appeared in the January 1951 issue of Super Science Stories. The characters names are different, as is the locale, but it’s the same plot structure, same basic protagonist, many nearly identical scenes, and the same ending as the novel that was published about two years later.

MacDonald’s third and final science fiction novel didn’t appear until the end of 1962, long after most of the pulps had died and long after he had been a regular contributor to this genre. But even The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything had an antecedent, believe it or not, although not one so obviously patterned on previous plot and characters. This 20,000-word novella was published in the July 1950 issue of Super Science Stories and its subject was time: time and the ability to manipulate time for certain individuals. But unlike Kirby Winter, who could slow it down to near cessation with the use of a particular pocket watch, the device in “Half-Past Eternity” is modern medicine.

It’s one of MacDonald’s more delightful stories, in that it is barely science fiction for much of its early pages, and the subject matter of the plot straddles several different story types and works on several different levels: it’s a crime story, a sports story, a business story and a science fiction story. This gives the author the opportunity to show off his mastery of several of the devices he used to write all different kinds of fiction during his pulp days. And even though it is first and foremost a science fiction story, its real strength and attraction lies in the characterization of its protagonists, a hustler and con man and a woman who figuratively sells her soul for money.

The opening scenes of the story come straight out of any number of stories MacDonald wrote for Fifteen Sports Stories or Dime Detective.

The Kid didn’t talk. Nat February talked. Which is what you might have expected.

The kid had a punch like the business end of a mule, sure, and he kept pouring in, shuffling flat-footed, game all the way through. But everybody on the Beach knew that the kid, who, by the way, at thirty-one was a kid no longer, had suffered slow degeneration of the reflexes to the point where his Sunday punch floated in like a big balloon and he could be tagged at will.

The kid has has managed to score a match with an up and coming contender named Jake Freedon, and the kid is seen as nothing more than a waystation on the way to a championship match. “There was no question about Jake Freedon winning. The kid was all through in the fight game although nobody had told him that yet.” Nat February, a well-regarded bookie in this seedy, marginal little world, certainly knows that. Imagine his surprise when he is approached by a dignified, if shabby old gentleman who wants to bet a large sum on the kid. After attempting to dissuade him, February takes his money and gives him long odds of the kid knocking out Jake in the first round. If that happens, the gentleman -- whose name is Garfield Tomlinson -- will clear $96,000.

Of course, it does happen, so quickly that most can’t tell how Jake Freedon ended up face down in a pool of his own blood with a broken jaw. Jake later describes it to his disgusted backers:

“I tell yah,” Jake mumbled, “I never seen the punch coming. Not at all. I know, I’ve been hit before, but then I seen it when it was too late to duck. This time I never even knew I was hit. I’m moving in and boom -- I’m walking up the aisle with rubber knees.”

February pays off, but his losses aren’t as great as they could have been. A sixth sense told him to spread the bet around town, which while lowering his profit had Jake won, substantially cushioned his loss when the impossible happened. But the upset doesn’t go down well with a particular bookie, whose collector -- a man by the name of Sam Banth -- is also a minority owner of the concern. He has seen his investment go from $10,000 to $2,200, and in disgust he takes what’s left and quits.

This is our protagonist, for want of a better word. A former stockbroker, Sam Banth quit the brokerage house where he worked to climb the ladder of a different and more direct form of gambling. His ambition is intense and his guile more sophisticated than that of an average debt collector. His physical description is the first clue that this will not be a typical MacDonald leading character. He is young, tall and well dressed, but:

Taken as a whole, Sam Banth’s face was well proportioned, almost handsome. But each individual feature was oversized, heavy. The big lips rested together with a hint of ruthlessness and brutality. Pale eyes protruded slightly, and they looked coldly incapable of any change of expression. His neck and sloped shoulders were ox-heavy.

Before walking out on his former senior partner he breaks the man's nose.

Convinced that the boxing match was somehow fixed, he pays a visit to the winner, who is celebrating his victory. The kid, with a faraway look in his eyes, is sitting at a table covered with bottles. He’s playing a kind of a parlor trick for the party’s guests. When somebody blunders against the table and one of the bottles drops, the kid reaches out with lightning speed and catches it inches from the floor. He is able to do this despite the fact that he is obviously drunk. When Sam finds out from February that the big winner’s name was Garfield Tomlinson, he does a little research at the city library.

At last he found the references he wanted. His hand began to tremble. Dr. Garfield A. Tomlinson -- Pathologist. From the magazine index he located the Journal of American Medicine for February, 1946. Relation Between  Hormone Theories and Tissue Entropy in Geriatrics. He read the article with great care. Much of it was meaningless to him, but he absorbed a few of the basic ideas.

It doesn’t take much to find out that Tomlinson lives in a rambling farmhouse outside of Kingston, New York, and Sam wastes no time in heading for the place. The door is answered by a young woman, and MacDonald’s description of her is detailed and characteristic of his introduction of his female romantic interests.

Sam, in one searching glance before he smiled, took in the straight tallness of her, the wood-smoke eyes which had sooted the lashes heavily, the ripe tautness across the front of the blue work shirt, the lorelei curve of flank which blue jeans couldn’t hide, the softness and petulance and discontent in the wide mouth. She was a big girl. A big restless unhappy girl with annoyance at him and the world showing plainly.

She is Linda Tomlinson, the doctor’s daughter, and she tells Sam her father is in the barn around back. Before she can close the door on him there is this telling exchange:

Sam: What do you want most in the world, Miss Tomlinson?

Linda: That’s a stupid question. Money. Enough to smother me.

Sam: What would you say if I told you that because I came here you’re going to have exactly that?

Linda: I would say you’ve got nails in your head, friend.

Using a ruse to gain entry into Tomlinson’s barn/laboratory, Sam lays out his suspicions about what the doctor is doing and what he did to the kid.

Let me hazard a series of guesses. Your funds are running low. You are at a critical and interesting stage in your experimentation. You have learned to apply new principles, apparently. The main ways of getting finds are too slow. Maybe you’re so far off the beaten path no institution will give you a grant. Maybe they would if you showed them what progress you’ve made, but you’re not ready to do that yet. You contact [the kid], manage in some way to give him a set of reflexes faster than any man ought to have, and then you bet all your funds and collect a small fortune.

Tomlinson is forced to admit that Sam is correct and goes on to explain the the method he has discovered to increase a subject’s speed by stimulating glands in order to telescope time. A test subject so treated would have a reduced lifespan but would live out that lifespan with reactions and perceptions much faster than those not treated. In the case of the kid, he was selected because he had no other set of skills with which to make a living, and would have eventually become a charity case. “I speeded him up at first,” explains Tomlinson, “in the ratio of a one tenth decrease in lifespan. The effect was to make him live sixty-six seconds for every sixty, thus speeding his reaction time by one tenth of a second.” When that didn’t have the desired effect it was increased to one-fifth. The effect was permanent and the kid had to be coached to slow down all aspects of his manners and appearance lest his change become apparent to anyone who knew him before.

Sam is, of course, here to exploit the discovery and he lays out his plans to Tomlinson. Sam will begin identifying sports figures who have ability but are either missing one element of talent or who are aging and have lost a step. A baseball player who can field well but can’t hit. A tennis player whose legs have “given out.” a golfer who was never able to drive the long ball, a circus acrobat team, even a professional magician. Sam will used the Tomlinson’s farm land to build a sprawling sports camp to provide the extending treatment and training regimen. In exchange for receiving the treatment the subjects agree to sign over half of their earnings to a corporation owned by Tomlinson, Sam and Linda. This income will be supplemented by heavy betting on games where the subjects are involved. Tomlinson will get more money for research, Sam will get rich, and Linda will get rich and… get Sam. They eventually realize that they are “kindred spirits” and become romantically involved.

But it’s never enough for Sam. Despite the initial success and money pouring in, he always wants more, and once he learns that Tomlinson has developed a simpler method for the process, one that any layman can perform, well… Let’s just say that Sam does not have any Road to Damascus moment in this story.

“Half-Past Eternity” is a terrific work, one that is as inventive and entertaining as anything MacDonald ever wrote for the pulps. It hums along at a breakneck speed and is over too quickly, even for 22,000 words. Sam Banth is an unusual protagonist for MacDonald, an unredeemed charlatan who nonetheless evokes sympathy from the reader at times. Likewise, Linda Tomlinson is equally immoral, yet not at quite the same level as Sam, as if MacDonald was simply unwilling to create a female character who was 100% evil. And the grand finale of this novel -- the final chapter titled “The Endless Twilight” -- is as good as anything JDM ever wrote in the science fiction field. It is there that the reader will discover the seeds of The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything.

The literary device of manipulating time was an old one that went all the way back to H.G. Wells’ 1901 story “The New Accelerator” and was the subject of a 1923 French film titled Paris Qui Dort. I’m hardly an expert on the history of science fiction, but I don’t find much use of this theme before  MacDonald re-introduced it in “Half-Past Eternity,” and the most frequently cited progenitor of this sub-genre, Arthur C. Clarke’s “All the Time in the World,” wasn’t published until 1952, two full years after MacDonald’s novella. Of course, the version of time manipulation that everyone remembers the most -- at least those of my own generation -- is Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode, “A Kind of a Stopwatch,” which, like much of Sterling’s work on The Twilight Zone, owed a lot to earlier science fiction -- in this case to both Clarke’s work and, especially,  MacDonald’s The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. And the “surprise” ending of Serling’s teleplay owes not a little to the final chapter of “Half-Past Eternity.”

The novella was anthologized twice, first in a 1971 collection edited by William J. Nolan titled The Human Equation, and again in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. Both books are out of print but easily obtainable via the usual online sources. Curiously, Other Times, Other Worlds seems to be the only fiction book of MacDonald’s to be denied a reissue as an eBook. This is a shame, as it is absolutely essential JDM, containing some of his best work in the short form. Hopefully this omission will be corrected some day.


  1. Just finished "The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything" last night. I will have to try to get "Other World, Other Times". I really enjoy your work. Thanks.

    1. Thank you Frank. Definitely, get yourself a copy of OTHER TIMES, OTHER WORLDS. You won't be disappointed.

  2. Sorry it took me so long to comment, but I wanted to get the story re-read first. It really is one of the highlights of the later run of SUPER SCIENCE STORIES. It's quite telling that only two stories from SSS made it into OTHER TIMES, OTHER WORLDS despite that series having 18 stories by him, nearly a third of his SF work. It paid low rates and was generally the dumping ground for stuff nobody else would buy. I have a hunch Bradbury threw them a few good stories since the earlier run bought his first story, but other than those and possibly this one, there are not really any classics in the the later run.

    Despite re-reading the story before posting, I don't really have much to say about it that you didn't. It really is one of JDM's best, and like you suggest it points out one of the great strengths of his SF work. Much of his SF work is not so much SF by the conventions of the era as sports or detective or business stories that happen to have a SF element. It gives him a highly distinctive voice for the era, and is really ahead of its time.

    Maybe you know off the top of your head, is this the only time JDM got his name on the cover twice? He's there both as himself and as "Peter Reed"

    1. Thanks Eric. I had no idea Super Science Stories had such a reputation. I've enjoyed all of the JDM stories I've read there (so far).

      MacDonald received multiple cover credit several times in the pulps, although I'd have to go back and look at the covers to identify them. The one that comes readily to mind is the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, where JDM had four entries and two cover credits.

    2. I wish I could find the quote, I once saw Super Science Stories described as where everything the Scott Meredith agency couldn't sell anywhere else wound up. Its reputation, such as it is, lies with the people who it gave a start to- as I mentioned they were the first mag to buy from Bradbury, Heinlein had a couple early stories in it, and several others.

      I don't think any (or at least very few) of the JDM stories in SSS are BAD as such; but I think a lot of them are lesser efforts. Even you, in your review, didn't seem to be a big fan of "Escape to Chaos". Or take "The Hunted", it's not a bad riff on "The Most Dangerous Game"... but it very much is just a riff it it.