4.25/5 (Very Good)
The Fall of Chronopolis (The Last and Final Days of the Chronotic Empire) by the relatively unknown British sci-fi author, Barrington J. Bayley, is one the best time travel books I’ve ever read. Other reviewers have suggested that this is Bayley’s best as well — I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve read The Garment of Caen. Bayley’s works live off of interesting ideas (often epic feats of the imagination). Without the allure of these ideas, his novels are husks — characterless, often poorly written, forced, and shoddily paced. That said, Bayley’s prose is just passable enough that images accompanying the ideas remain with us.
The Fall of Chronopolis crams into a fast-paced 174 pages the veritable history of the entire empire experienced by the “main” characters (facilitated by the technology of time-travel of course). The scope is vast (through time and space). The Chronotic Empire has erected a time travel stop-barrier just after the point in time of the creation of the time machine to stop tampering with this vital invention — all other time travel (especially by the Imperial Family) is fair game.
Briefly summarized (Bayley does relish explaining and re-explaining his complicated theory of time travel throughout the work) time travel works as follows: time is made of stratum (strat) and by moving through this stratum one can emerge into orthographical time at any point in time. However, Bayley further complicates this by adding Nodes — which move forward at a constant pace (the capital Chronopolis for example). I’m not going to try to explain this bizarre theory — however, unlike other novels dealing with time travel, Bayley does attempt to flesh out the theoretical elements (in pseudo-scientific terms of course).
The city of Chronopolis governs the Chronotic empire by moving forward and backward, creating paradoxes, and rectifying others. The Chronotic Empire is at odds with the Hegemony, created in the future by the Traumatic sect (with drastically different beliefs than the official Church). The Hegemony attempts to preserve the Traumatic sect which spawns its own empire while the Chronotic Empire attempts to root out the Traumatics to remove the Hegemony. Enter: the time distorter controlled by the Hegemony. The time distorter removes entire cities entirely (queue inspiration for the Voyager episodes Year of Hell Part I and Part II). This weapon causes (initially) only slight disturbances in the fabric of the Chronotic Empire. These changes are gauged by Achronal Archives at Chronopolis which are protected from the outside time changes by time barriers. Here knowledge of the cities, planets, civilizations, removed entirely from the spectrum of time are preserved although the outside world NEVER knew that these cities and planets and civilizations even existed. This is perhaps the most fascinating element of the work.
The plot revolves around Captain Aton who is falsely accused of deserting his post by members of the Traumatic sect who had infiltrated his ship. He is sentenced to death as a messenger sent through the strat — however, Anton’s kill word is never uttered and his journey causes a drastic transformation. I best not give away the rest of the plot, but it involves rescuing a victim of the Traumatic sect, a large computer which speaks gibberish, a senile emperor, various disturbed members of the imperial court falling in love with their own future forms and dead bodies of their relatives, etc etc.
Bayley successfully weaves grand ideas, well-realized religions which spawn from these ideas, a plot with odd twists and turns, vivid images of corpulence and decay, battles between time ships, time paradoxes, and a fleshed out theory of time travel into a wonderful, action packed read. The third act is somewhat of a let down — although the very end is a fascinating spin on the “save-the empire” cliché. Definitely worth checking out — thankfully, Fall of Chronopolis was recently reprinted!