|OCTOBER THE FIRST IS TOO LATE
New York: Harper & Row, April 1966
A short story called "Hawk among the Sparrows" had a modern SR-71 blackbird arriving, through some kind of time shift, in Europe during World War I. Of course it was incomprehensibly ahead of the Sopwith Camels and similar airplanes of the time. Although unarmed, it could down them by merely flying close at speed. But the story dramatized the difficulty of operating advanced technology in a more primitive age. Where would the fuel to run the SR-71 come from? What runway would be long enough to let it take off? How could the locals be convinced not to touch its outer skin?
The narrator of Fred Hoyle's tale finds himself in a similar plight. Earth has been fragmented into different eras. Hawaii remains in 1966, as does Britain. Europe has regressed to 1917; the First World War is under way there. North America is at least prehistoric; flying over, the narrator sees no cities, roads, or other signs of civilization. And great swaths of Asia are simply a smooth, featureless glass plain. The narrator, a prominent composer of classical music, gets to tag along on military expeditions to see these changes, and to take part on high-level conferences (as with the British PM), because he has a friend who's a Nobel-laureate physicist.
Eventually the narrator and a few other friends travel by ship to Greece. They find that, as they expected, it has regressed to the classical period. They land in Athens. There's the Parthenon, good as new. (One of his companions, a scholar of classical Greece, later pins the year as 425 BC.) Athens has just had some success in its ongoing war with Sparta, but the visitors are saddened, knowing how it must end. Asked about the motor launch in which they arrived, they demonstrate it for some of the city's leaders — who promptly appropriate it and muck up the engine.
The narrator then sets up in the Temple of Dionysus with his piano and spends two months in a frenzy of composition. Finished, he returns to Athens, where his friends are delighted to see him. But they have paired off. He distracts himself by hiking up the mountain Aegelos. At its top he finds the Temple of Apollo, where he meets a young woman playing a lyre. Being in his twenties, and lonely, he makes a natural request. She suggests a musical contest. The judges will be the players themselves. If he is judged the victor, she will grant his request. Otherwise... "What the penalty might be I will leave you to reflect upon during the coming days."
The first indication that something odd is going on comes when the narrator and Sinclair, having met by chance at London airport, decide to relive their school days with a trek in the highlands. This outing is described in great detail. John disappears during it, and when he turns up a few hours later he no longer has the familiar birthmark on his lower back. Then he gets an urgent call that makes him cut the vacation short. After consultation with some friends in the States, he decides to return to California and (for no good internal reason) asks the narrator to come along.
John is involved with some space-science project, and it seems the probe has been detecting an odd 100 MHz modulation coming from the Sun. A few days' work lead him to the discovery that the modulation is on a beam of infrared radiation originating from an area about five solar diameters across. John calculates that this gives it extremely low dispersion. It carries huge volumes of information, and he speculates on page 49 that it might be an interstellar or even intergalactic relay. The inference has to be that some extraterrestrial agency is responsible — one far in advance of Earth science, even the Earth science of 6,000 years from now. This whole premise is dropped when the time shifts are found, so it's not relevant to the denouement.
So the piano is moved to Apollo's temple and the contest begins. The woman proves a formidable performer on her lyre; but he is skilled on the piano and has all the works of Europe's masters in his repertoire. But at the last she requires him to play the music he has written himself. He does so, intensely. Then, she leads him into a side room and asks if he would claim victory. He declines, and she does the same for herself. But she says softly that since he has not boasted about his own composition, she will grant his request. So, as Homer would have put it, they spent a night of love on her well-made bed.
When he wakes in the morning he finds himself wearing an unfamiliar garment, in a different building, in another part of the world.1 John Sinclair, the physicist, who has always served as Mentor to the narrator's Odysseus,2 is with him again. Sinclair confirms his deduction that he is in Mexico and informs him that the time is 6,000 years beyond their own. Shortly the woman, Melea, appears with a friend named Neria. Sinclair is apparently unknown to the women; introductions are made and they pair off.3
After several days of leisure, the two men are shown a precis of what happened on Earth during those 60 centuries. It is a harrowing history: human population expanding until other species are crowded out, then immolating itself in war — again and again. A white-haired man emphasizes the tragedy of this: humanity's nature dooms it to such cycles in perpetuity. Accordingly, the people of the future have chosen to, in effect, "go gentle into that good night" — to take no action that might preserve some enclave of humanity for the next round. The two men of 1966 are faced with a choice: to remain and live out a normal life, or to depart and enter oblivion. There will be no chance to escape into another zone of time.
Melea spoke for the first time. "The different zones of the Earth will change back to what they were before. The Greece in which we met, the temple, will be gone. It will be gone far more completely than even the ruined remains of your own time. It will be gone almost without trace. It will be gone, except for the records in our libraries. Europe too will be gone, so will the great Plain of Glass.4 It will only be this zone here that will remain."
– Pages 182-3
If this sounds confusing to you, you've been paying attention. It is unclear how the future people, for all their advancement, can know this will happen unless they somehow created the different zones. And if they did, they should tell the men from 1966 why. But they don't. See the sidebar for why their being responsible doesn't fit the premise of the novel.
The novel is divided into parts given the names of musical terms: Prelude; Intermezzo; Vivace and the like. Also, musical performances and composing sessions by the narrator dominate it, and he sometimes expounds on musical theory. There is also the extended visit to classical Greece, the most detailed and inventive part of the book. It suggests that the author had a deep love of classical music and a fondness for ancient Greece — also that he really liked bacon for breakfast.
I admire Fred Hoyle and I am a fan of his novels Ossian's Ride (written with his son Geoffrey) and A for Andromeda. But this one does not impress me. Its premise seems illogical and is not adequately developed, and the conclusion seems contrived. I like classical music myself, but there is too much of it here for credibility — and too much musician; it makes no sense that the narrator would be taking part in so many military missions and high-level government meetings. I give it a score in the fair category and do not recommend it.