Summerbook #4: The Dechronization of Sam Magruder
This was such an interesting little SF novel! George Gaylord Simpson was an eminent paleontologist -- one of the big names of the 20th century. He wrote many scholarly articles and books, and one time travel story, which he doesn't seem to have tried to publish at all. Simpson died in 1984, and his daughter published the novel in 1996. She also cleverly got Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Jay Gould to write accompanying pieces.
The story is deliberately told in a narrative frame in the style of H. G. Wells' Time Machine. A group of future men (date unknown, but after 2162), called only by titles like the Ethnologist and the Universal Historian, spend several convivial evenings learning the story of Sam Magruder, who disappeared completely from his research lab on February 30, 2162 (!). He had been researching the nature of time; does time happen in a series of points, or in some other way? According to his own theory, Magruder could have fallen into a gap between seconds and was 'dechronized' -- he could land, at random, at any point in the past, and there was no return. But no one ever knew whether that was the case.
But recently, the Universal Historian announces, a paleontological dig had found a stone slab, encased in a deposit of flint, and it had writing on it. Digging more deeply, they found six slabs: Magruder's carefully deposited diary, carved over years in the knowledge that the chances of future humans finding them was infinitesimally small. And so the men read Magruder's diary, and ponder his fate.
Sam Magruder had indeed fallen through time, and landed in a prehistoric swamp. He chronicles his early survival -- extremely painful and mostly by luck -- and his attempts to figure out where he is in time. He has fallen back millions of years, into an age of dinosaurs (I'm not telling you which), and he will never see another human again. The only mammals are small furry rodenty things. Magruder feels that he is not qualified to say much that is really scientifically helpful about the dinosaurs around him, but he does describe what he sees. One lucky break for him is that dinosaurs have practically no memory, so if a predator comes along, all you have to do is dodge and hide for a minute while it forgets what it was after.
Simpson uses his narrative to imagine what would happen to a person who is completely, utterly alone in the world, with no hope of ever going home or finding another person. Do you keep trying, or give up on life? Should you perhaps breed rodents in an attempt to play God and improve on evolution? What is the point of life alone? Would it save time if he just gave up and went mad right away?
He also has some fun skewering other paleontologists he disagreed with, but sadly for him, the other guys turned out to be right about the question of whether dinosaurs were cold- or warm-blooded.
This was a really interesting little novel. I'm glad I ran across it. Since it was published so posthumously, it didn't have a chance to be the influential hit it almost certainly would have been if it was published when it was written. It's a neat read though, and I recommend it to fans of time-travel and dinosaurs.