The mid 1960’s marked something of a transition period for science fiction in general and British science fiction in particular. The heyday of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ (as typified by writers such as John Wyndham) was giving way to the New Wave (spear-headed by Michael Moorcock with such authors as J.G Ballard and Brian Aldiss in the vanguard). However there was – and remains – always a place for the more traditional sf narrative – E. C Tubb’s Dumarest novels, for instance, or, for that matter, Moorcock’s early Elric stories.
Somewhere in the middle lie novels such as Fred Hoyle’s October The First Is Too Late, which only partly abandons the tropes of traditional science fiction (in this case, a variant on the well-worn theme of time travel) and partly embraces the ‘inner space’ aspects of the New Wave – with much of the novel given over to character development and the discussion of societal differences rather than to adventure and derring-do.
When a mysterious (and never fully explained) schism pulls the earth apart chronologically – in Britain it is 1966, in Western Europe 1917, in Greece the age of Socrates. and elsewhere a desolate future – a composer named Richard finds himself at the heart of the enigma, partly due to his friendship with John Sinclair, a British scientist working in America.
Events take him from Hawaii (the only part of North America to remain in the ‘present’) to Britain, ancient Greece and, ultimately a far future Mexico where he struggles to adapt to and understand this strange new world.
Like Wyndham and other British sf novelists of the 1950’s, Hoyle’s story starts in a familiar present and the build up to the crux of the novel is a fairly slow one. But, unlike the more traditional British sf novel, the protagonists struggle not merely to survive and conquer their new surroundings; here we see an ordinary man trapped in events beyond both his understanding and mastery – and it is in this that October The First Is Too Late owes something to the New Wave and, in particular, to writers like Ballard. Hoyle’s best move – in narrative terms – is to make his narrator a composer rather than a scientist (although this inevitably leads to lengthy discussion between characters that are as much for the benefit of the reader as for other characters) and makes October The First Is Too Late primarily a novel of ideas rather than of action and reaction.
Told in a lucid rather than overtly ‘literary’ style (Hoyle’s prose is functionary rather than flamboyant) there are nonetheless some real moments of wonder in the story, not least in the depiction of the Glass Plain that may or may not be the ultimate fate of Earth, and some genuinely astounding concepts at work here (the notion that a man can actually exist in two places at once – as a younger man in 1917 and an older one in 1966). If the characterisation is somewhat cursory at times – particularly in the early stages of the novel – it is easily forgiveable amid the startling depictions of a world riven asunder by the forces of Time itself.
I first encountered October The First Is Too Late some twenty or more years ago, and it is a novel which has stayed with me all that time, a clever and well thought-out meditation on time travel and the nature of time itself. A little old-fashioned now, perhaps, but nevertheless a minor classic of British science fiction and one highly recommended to those who like their sf to have a keenly intelligent edge.