Short Reviews – The Science of Time-Travel, by Ray Cummings

The Science of Time-Travel by Ray Cummings originally appeared as the The Science of Time Travelling in the June 1944 issue of Super Science Stories and was reprinted in the February 1950 issue of A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine. It can be read here at Archive.org.

Ray Cummings was something of a legend in the sci-fi pulps, and was very prolific in the 20s through the 40s. I’ve read and reviewed at least one of his stories in the past, and it was excellent.

By 1950, Ray Cummings was still a big name, though his star was descending (the general feel I’ve gathered from fan letters in Planet was that a lot of readers felt he was getting worn out despite the editor’s continued enthusiasm for him). The inclusion of this essay, a reprint from 1944, feels more like an excuse to include a legendary name in science fiction in the issue at a bargain bin prince.

More than anything, Cummings’ essay feels phoned in, a cheap bit of fluff to fill some pages with pseudo-philosophical ramblings with little actual substance or depth to the piece. While it’s disappointing, it does lend an interesting contrast to Isaac Asimov, a writer whom I have mixed feelings about.

Asimov was a scientist first, and a storyteller second. As such, I always found his stories dry and boring excuses to showcase his unwieldy scientific knowledge. On the other hand, as a non-fiction writer, Asimov always managed to keep me engaged and entertained while leaving me a little more knowledgeable on the subject he was discussing. Perhaps the opposite is the case for Cummings?

Cummings is a storyteller. It’s hard to judge based only on the one story of his I’ve read, but it was full of action, heroism, romance, and some science (arguably superficial). Perhaps, then, his scientific reasoning behind such notions as time travel are less well-grounded or easy to articulate simply because they are less necessary? Following a half-baked analogy of time as a liquid filling the universe, he essentially concludes that reverie is a limited form of time travel:

I have been quiescent of body, with restless mind in dreaming, but fully awake. Pondering what to me is the past, conjuring what to me is the future.

 

And I have had what you could call visions of the past, premonitions of the future. So have you, I feel sure. Accursedly vivid, just for visions and premonitions! Is it not more scientific, perhaps to say that by the power of human thought—which is all that we are, and all that accomplishes anything—in some unknowable way we do change the characteristics of our being, so that time moves us elsewhere?

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