The Time Axis by Henry Kuttner

Aug 03 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction, Mathematics, Weird fiction

The more I read of Henry Kuttner, the more ashamed I am that I didn't read all of his works long ago!  Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a versatile writer of pretty much every genre of weird fiction imaginable: science fiction, horror, fantasy, adventure, and things that defy ready classification.  His is undeniably one of the most influential science fiction writers of the early 20th century, and many of his short stories are beautiful and classic.

I've been using this blog as an excuse to read more of Kuttner's work, though I don't really need one!  I've previously written about his foray into sword-and-sorcery fiction, in his Elak of Atlantis stories, and his exploration of adventure stories, with Thunder Jim Wade.  All of these are short stories, however, so I finally got around to reading one of his novel-length works, The Time Axis (1948):


(picture of an early edition via Fantastic Fiction.)  The book is currently available in an excellent quality albeit rather plain edition by Wildside Press, and can also be read online.

It's great!  Like a lot of Kuttner's work, it manages to blend a pulp adventure tale together seamlessly with a science fiction story, and gives the reader a sense of awe and wonder that is altogether rare in fiction.

The story really grabs your attention right from the first sentences:

The whole thing never happened and I can prove it -- now. But Ira De Kalb made me wait a billion years to write the story.

So we start with a paradox. But the strangest thing of all is that there are no real paradoxes involved, not one. This is a record of logic. Not human logic, of course, not the logic of this time or this space.

The narrator is a newspaper journalist named Jerry Cortland, who has had much success but now feels lost and without purpose in life.  Living in a drunken haze in Rio, he is oblivious to reports of mysterious burning deaths in the United States -- until the night he encounters a shadowy creature in a dark alley.  The creature lurches at him, and Jerry grabs its arms in self-defense, burning his hands in the process.  The creature vanishes, but Cortland has been marked; somehow he is now connected to it and its murders.

Unexpectedly, Cortland is hired by the brilliant scientist Ira De Kalb, and he travels to meet the man.  Once there, he meets two other guests of De Kalb's: Dr. Letta Essen, a genius atomic scientist, and Colonel Harrison Murray, who funds De Kalb's research.  De Kalb surprisingly explains that he knows about the creature, its nature, and much more.

The creature is a manifestation of the nekron:

"An absolutely new form of matter, the death of energy. It breaks a supreme law of our universe, the law of increasing entropy. Entropy trends toward chaos, naturally. But the nekron is the other extreme, a pattern, a dead null-energy pattern of negation."

De Kalb accidentally released the creature from an ancient time capsule that he found buried in an excavation in Crete -- a capsule from billions of years into the future.  At the end of time, the evolved remnants of humanity reside in a city guarded by a massive face protruding from the side of a mountain: The Face of Ea.  The nekron has overwhelmed most of the universe, leaving only the City of the Face unharmed, and its inhabitants have sent a distress call back in time.  The four adventurers plan an expedition to the distant future, to try and aid its inhabitants and defeat the nekron.  But what can four twentieth century humans do against a force which equals the death of energy?

I won't say too much about what happens on that journey, other than to say that it involves an unexpected turn, and that the story ties together in quite a surprising and satisfying way.  It is not a particularly deep tale, but Kuttner manages to evoke a sense of cosmic wonder in his descriptions.  For instance, we never really see the future humans -- but in a few short sentences, he manages to describe them perfectly.

One pleasant surprise is Kuttner's use of real mathematics in his tale.  In particular, Kuttner finds a very imaginative use of the Banach-Tarski paradox.  This theorem in set-theoretic geometry, first published in 1924, suggests that there is a way to divide a sphere into pieces such that the pieces can be put back together into two spheres, each with the volume of the original sphere!  This highly non-intuitive result involves 'pieces' which are structured sets of infinitesmal points, so it isn't something that can be done in any real experiment, so don't start chopping up your bowling ball at home just yet!  Kuttner manages to make the paradox an important and even plausible part of the plot of his story.

I absolutely love stories like this, which manage to work in mind-bending concepts while at the same time telling a ripping yarn.  Like everything of Kuttner's I've read so far, The Time Axis is highly recommended.

5 responses so far

  • The Ridger says:

    This one sounds like I'll have to look it up. I've read some Kuttner, but not nearly all of him.

  • Aydin says:

    "dead null-energy pattern of negation"
    Reminiscent of Lovecraft's technical sounding nonsense.

    I downloaded the free text from the link you provided. It's only ~100 pages. I will try to read it this weekend when I will be travelling to & from Canada.

    • Aydin wrote: "Reminiscent of Lovecraft’s technical sounding nonsense."

      Though it is nonsense, it is nice to note that the authors of that era were actually very interested in the science that they were fudging for their stories. Lovecraft, for instance, regularly attended popular science talks and even wrote an amateur astronomy column for the local paper for a while.

  • Aydin says:

    I just finished reading it. It's an interesting story. But the manuscript could have used some polishing. It has some loose ends & I am very picky when it comes to such things. For example, in the very beginning, during his 1st encounter with the nekronic thing, Cortland loses his money. Why? Why would the creature have taken his money? I also thought it strange that the Subterrane, "the arsenal of the government", was minimally protected; they just transmitted themselves in.

    I was also a bit confused about the relevancy of the Banach-Tarski paradox, but perhaps it ties in at the end when the universe is split into 2.

    On the other hand, it was amusing to read that the Piltdown Man was still considered to be a human ancestor back when the book was written.

    • Aydin: Obviously, I can't say exactly what Kuttner had in mind, but my impressions:

      ***SPOILER ALERT!***

      The nekronic being was said to have been sent back in time specifically to motivate the 4 adventurers to take the journey to the future. It seemed that the future folks had some limited control over it, and I interpreted the theft of the money as part of their plan to bring the adventurers together. If Cortland had been wealthy, he would have had no motivation to take the job "reporting" on de Kalb's research.

      Banach-Tarski came in three times in the story: its major use is to remove the nekron by dividing the universe into two new universes, one nekronic and one not. It was first introduced to remove the "jamming" device in the future battle, and it was also used at the very end in a very deus-ex-machina way to provide a new set of bodies for the adventurers' second personalities.