I think it’s a measure of the quality of the ten stories in The Caltraps Of Time that not until you finish reading them and notice the ‘first publication’ dates do you realise that even the baby of the bunch, ‘Dr Fausta’, comes from the darkest depths of 1974. Perhaps even more surprising is that The Caltraps Of Time contains all the short fiction Mr Masson has ever published (usually in New Worlds), so it can pretty much be said that he has never published a really duff piece of work.
To begin at the beginning (as most of these stories do, but with time-travel of one sort or another being the favourite subject they frequently end at the beginning too), ‘Traveller’s Rest’ gets this book off to a phenomenal start. In a milieu that’s a cross between Christopher Priest’s Inverted World and the super-high gravity planet Moab in Book Three of Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, a soldier fighting in an endless war against an unseen enemy is sent home from the front on leave. ‘Home’, however, is down the time gradient so that when he is eventually recalled some (for him) 20 years later only seconds have passed at the front. It’s not an easy story to grasp at first, but with a little thought and patience it is, I think it’s fair to say, worthy of being called a ‘classic’.
The next story, ‘A Two-Timer’, is the tale of a man of 1683 who finds an abandoned time machine and visits the future. Well, 1964 anyway. It’s a well written and occasionally amusing piece of light satire with a nice loop in its tale, unlike ‘Not So Certain’, the next story. While in 1967 this exploration of linguistics might have been challenging and rather daring now it seems very dry and overburdened with discussions about the pronunciation of alien words that contain no vowels. It is, at least, a sharp-eared rejoinder to the ‘universal translators’ of much modern TV sf.
Two stories, ‘Dr Fausta’ and ‘The Transfinite Choice’ (hmm, that sounds like a good name for a band actually), deal with the complexities of time travel accompanied by alternate universes. Of the two ‘Dr Fausta’ is the more enjoyable simply because it’s so ludicrously and comically over-complicated – deliberately so, I presume.
‘Take It Or Leave It’ is an interesting narrative experiment, a sort of split-screen dystopian nightmare – much superior to the seemingly Daily Mail-inspired though thematically similar ‘The Show Must Go On’. And then there’s ‘Lost Ground’, a story that reminded me of nothing so much as Quentin Tarantino’s 1996 movie Dusk Till Dawn, if only because a story that appears so obviously about to get a sensible job in a bank suddenly strips naked and runs screaming into the sea. That said, both are strong stories, although some of the elements may have become overly familiar to readers by now.
Given how well some of these stories compare to a quite a lot of modern sf I can only imagine how extraordinary they must have appeared back in the sixties, so they’re very welcome back into print.