Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Short Story Reviews

Forty, Counting Down (1999)
Twenty-One and Counting Up (1999)
Harry Turtledove weighs in this December with not one but two time travel related short stories: Twenty-One and Counting Up and Forty, Counting Down published in the December 1999 issues of ANALOG and Asimov's Science Fiction, respectively.

The central character(s) in both stories is Justin Kloster who travels back in time from 2018 to 1999 to confront his younger self.

In Forty, Counting Down we are introduced to Justin Kloster, a 40 year old computer programmer who's unhappy with how his life turned out. A failed marriage and a stalled career, Justin feels that if he only knew then what he knows now he would have worked harder to avoid the path that lead him to his current situation.

Modifying a virtual reality program developed by the company he works for, Justin hatches a scheme to go back in time and set his younger-self straight. The bulk of the story focuses on Justin-at-40's attempts to use his hindsight to redirect his life. The end result being considerably different than Justin had anticipated.

In Twenty-One and Counting Up, we see the same story from Justin-at-21's perspective. Too busy enjoying his youth, Justin is forced to accepts his future-self's story and allow Justin-at-40 to attempt changing the outcome of their life.

Justin-at-21 discovers that older doesn't necessarily mean wiser as his future-self makes matters worse for both of them.

The two stories end in a paradox that is not easily reconciled.

The Analysis

On the surface, Turtledove's pair of overlapping stories can be viewed as an interesting use of a story-telling device that has been employed before in such time travel stories such as The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold and By His Own Bootstraps by Robert Heinlein as Anson MacDonald. The cynic in me however, sees a crass marketing ploy to sell two separate magazines by hooking the readers with the concept, while Turtledove presumably gets paid twice for recycling a large portion of the same story.

While the stories do offer some interesting twists and some insights into the difficulties of trying to use hindsight to influence the past I was rather disappointed by both stories.

Sometimes called the "Master of Alternative History", Harry Turtledove is armed with a Ph.D. in Byzantine History from the UCLA, and uses his nose for historical detail to create richly detailed stories. Turtledove's alternate history works include the novels: A World of Difference, The Guns of the South, How Few Remain and a series on alternate World War II that began in 1994 with World War: In the Balance, followed by Tilting the Balance and continues with Colonization: Second Contact. Turtledove has since followed up with a series based on World War I, the first installment of which is called: The Great War: American Front, Walk in Hell. Turtledove has also recently released a colaboration with Judith Tarr entitled Household Gods, a review for which can be found at Steven Silver's Reviews

At the risk of incurring the wrath of Turtledove fans, I must admit what I have read of his work leaves me cold and frustrated. While I admit I have not read a great deal of Turtledove's works to date (only How Few Remain, World War: In the Balance, and the two short stories I am reviewing here) After reading World War: In the Balance several years ago, I was so frustrated by Turtledove's inconsistencies in logic that I couldn't bring myself to even look at the other books in the series let alone read them. I have vowed however since starting my web site last year to give World War: In the Balance and Turtledove's other works another try. I would like to be able to provide readers of my site with an honest critical review of Turtledove's other work.

Getting back to the matter at hand, the thing I found disappointing with this pair of stories was Turtledove's lack of finesse with the subject. Both stories feel amateurish and artificially structured like some college writing assignment with the only goal being to achieve the twist ending. From the outset of the story Turtledove invokes a weak plot device to achieve the goal of his story. Namely that the author would have us believe that his main character Justin (at 40) looks far more youthful than his age would suggest. The reader is told to believe this since Justin-at-40 is asked for identification while ordering alcohol (United States Legal Drinking Ages is 21) after work with friends. Having established that Justin-at-40 doesn't look his age, Turtledove can now have his character take over the life of Justin-at-21 and try to set things straight.

In an attempt to soften our disbelief that Just-at-40 could carry this off, other characters often remark on how tired the Justin-at-40 posing as his younger-self looks.

Perhaps this is a particular sore point for me since I felt that a more creative, natural, and ultimately more believable story, would have had Justin-at-40 attempting to influence the actions of his younger self from a distance. The effect of the story could have been the same: to illustrate the point that hindsight is not always useful in such situations, but would have been more satisfying to the reader.

Another point that irritated me was Turtledove's failed attempt to establish the character of Justin-at-21 through a smattering of pop cultural references and dialogue. I personally feel that it is critical that the reader must accept and believe the historical context in which the characters exist for any story involving time travel to be successful. To this end Turtledove's 1990 cultural references seemed weak and out of context. A bit like if a father had tried to sound hip by having a conversation with his son, based on a smattering of references he had overheard between the son and friends. Even Justin-at-40's attempt to impersonate the look of 1999 with a Dilbert T-shirt seemed to ring false for me.

This criticism aside, I did appreciate Turtledove's attempt to create a circular paradox based on the two timelines. I felt that it was ultimately believable that such a paradox could arise from this sort of time travel. Also refreshing was Turtledove's examination of the memories of Justin-at-40 when he returned to the present in 2018 only to discover the future had been changed by his actions in 1999. Instead of the typical Hollywood fashion of the time traveler retaining both sets of memories, there was a brief period of adjustment when Justin-at-40 could remember his former time-line before the alternate time-line and memories caught up with him.

Despite all my criticisms with these stories, I recommend you seek them out and see form your own opnion of Turtledove's work. Last time I checked there were portions of the stories on both the Analog site and the Asimov's Site.

Or if you would like to check out other information regarding Harry Turtledove, I suggest the following Harry Turtledove Website that I discovered while researching this article.

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