Colin Wilson & John Grant, ed.
The Book of Time

In this large and accurately researched book, seven writers offer guided tours of different aspects of time. The pace is frequently too fast and the landscape too crowded for the fullest edification and enjoyment: thus the opening piece, Roy Porter's "The History of Time", starts by whizzing past Donne (on the left) and Neanderthal man (on the right), plunging into forests of historical and literary erudition which do little more than establish that a lot of people have thought a lot of different things about time. The conclusion is that "Time has ceased to be cyclical, and become development" (i.e., the turning wheel of the seasons is less important in modern thought than the arrow of entropy). To this, Porter darkly adds: "We are all children of Time. We must not forget that Time devours her own children." (Note the pronoun: obviously old man Chronos has at last slipped with his scythe.)

As early as this I was worrying about the illustrations -- all black-and-white drawings or halftones, enhanced by the heavy 'quality' paper used throughout. These are numerous, perhaps too much so. On p.41 is a picture of Virginia Woolf, cited because her books "explore subjective time". Below, a painting shows two women in a field. Caption: "This same theme is epitomized by the Monet painting Les Coquelicots." You learn something every day; mainly that there was a shortage of relevant illustrations.

Chapter II, by Richard Knox, is solid and worthy stuff about astronomy, days, years, eclipses and suchlike -- but not sunspots, despite which some pictures of sunspots are provided. For me its chief defect was familiarity; Vector readers, too, will probably have been taken several times over this well-worn ground. On the other hand, this book is aimed at the general public, and Knox's piece is an excellent introduction for those vague about solar and sidereal time, In Chapter III, Chris Morgan is on to an easy winner with descriptions of timekeeping and its fascinating gadgetry -- but again the random illustration policy strikes. Descriptions of the verge escapement, foliot balance, fusee, stackfreed, etc. demand explanatory line drawings, but instead we get pictures of clocks, and generally not the ones mentioned in the text. This piece suffers from over-compression: as with the previous chapter, its subject could fill whole books and indeed has.

Biological clocks are covered by E.W.J. Phipps in a short but absorbing Chapter IV. 'Absorbing' is a subjective opinion; Phipps has an occasionally mannered style with a fondness for rhetorical questions, contrasting with the simple clarity of the two preceding and the two following chapters, but his material is perhaps the book's most interesting -- especially to fans of a genre where biology still receives much less attention than physics. Art Dept: the internal clock of the alga Acetabularia is illustrated with photographs of the otherwise unmentioned algae Tabellaria and Asterionella. If Phipps had mentioned a biorhythmic potato, the illustrations would doubtless have shown a swede and an onion.

Iain Nicolson, in "Mutable Time", trots out a clear but hardly novel account of relativity and black holes, stuff which one of his ability can write in his sleep (and which fans over-familiar with hard SF may read in much the same state). Nicolson plays this very straight, dismissing time travel and its paradoxes as Not Sensible, and refraining from speculation beyond a little discreet dallying with tachyons. There is a photo of a Seyfert galaxy (not mentioned in the text) whose caption explains that such galaxies emit X-rays, which could well be caused by black holes, in the region of which there would surely be time dilation effects: the picture's relevance is thus inarguable.

Brian John's "Measuring Time Past" deals competently with geological time -- the age of the Earth and its crustal layers, with a catalogue of dating methods. I was glad to find out what a varve was. Finally comes Chapter VII, the one SF fans have been waiting for: "Time In Disarray", by Colin Wilson. Something on SF views of time and their relation to modern physics would have been an excellent contribution to this book, but Wilson has thought otherwise. H.G. Wells's The Time Machine is dismissed as nonsense because it leads to "an absurd view of a multiple-multiple Universe in which everyone is fragmented into an infinite number of selves ...", which as a matter of fact is known as the "Many-Worlds" view of quantum effects and is a highly respectable theory. Wilson naturally prefers his own notions of Faculty X, the untapped power of the human mind, dowsing, J.W. Dunne, psychometry and the rest, supported by numerous references to his own books and by case histories which are astonishing proof of either the paranormal or the human mind's capacity for self-delusion. Were I to term this a load of cobblers I would, of course, be merely demonstrating my closed mind; but such personal speculation seems jarringly out of place in an otherwise factual book, and the chapter in question adds virtually nothing to Wilson's other copious writings on his theories.

For a whopping £10.50, therefore, you get a historical ramble (Porter), a chunk of manically idiosyncratic speculation (Wilson), five solidly factual presentations and many sometimes relevant pictures. It's a nice book to hold, and a compact reference source (though short on the philosophical aspects of time). But the impoverished or miserly may prefer to buy full-length paperbacks on those included topics of interest to them -- and still be left with change from £10.50.

Meanwhile, originator "John Grant" is doubtless planning his new Book of Space, containing Porter on historical concepts of distance, Morgan on the evolution of rulers, Nicolson on the Lorentz contraction again, Wilson on how space is all in the mind and may be readily mastered by washing with Faculty X ...