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Authors: David I. Masson

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Caltraps of Time

BOOK: Caltraps of Time
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The Caltraps of Time


David I. Masson


No copyright 
 2013 by MadMaxAU eBooks




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Christopher Priest

Traveller’s Rest

A Two-Timer

Not So Certain

The Transfinite Choice


The Show Must Go On

Doctor Fausta

Take It or Leave It

Mouth of Hell

Lost Ground


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Now, when the frontiers of strict scientific hypothesis read like science fiction, but the conduct of global affairs reads like a set of fifth-rate films dreamt up by moronic scriptwriters, and humanity gets on with the business of running the Sixth Major Extermination of Species, I invite you to relax with the imaginations of a slightly more innocent decade.


The White Queen enjoyed believing in six impossible things before breakfast; here you can believe in a dozen, a few of which may be possible, or at least secrete a truth: the chaos at the heart of language; the fires beneath us; the dimensional complexities of time; parallel universes; the fragility of civilization.


David I. Masson, December 2002


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The Caltraps of Time
is a collection of short stories, the only book of fiction published by David I. Masson. He never wrote a novel, and every story that he published in his lifetime is in this volume. If for no other reason this is therefore a unique book. However, few writers with only one book to their name have ever come up with such startling and original material.


David Masson’s first story, the remarkable ‘Traveller’s Rest’, appeared in the September 1965 edition of
New Worlds,
which at the time was the leading SF magazine in the UK. The story of
New Worlds
and the development of the ‘New Wave’ has been told many times, but within that context Masson’s work was always in a class of its own. Many of the New Wave stories of that period were experiments with form, or with narrative structures, or with subject-matter. Not all these experiments succeeded. Masson was entirely different: he was involved with language itself, in particular with what he called the functions and effects of phonetic sound-patterning. He brought this fascination with language to the science fiction genre, and the results are all here.


In 1965, ‘Traveller’s Rest’ made a profound impact. Its completely original ideas about the mutability of language and meaning had a seminal influence on the small but extremely active group of writers, critics and readers who closely followed
New Worlds.
I was one of them — if I look back and remember my first encounter with this story, I am reminded of the imaginative vistas it opened up for me as a beginning writer: the apocalyptic war being fought across a time-dilated landscape, the feeling that time itself can influence human perception, and that experience of life is, like mass and energy, subject to the distortions of relativity. Nearly half a century later the story still has an extraordinary effect. It feels like a breakthrough, a pioneering work that has influenced many others, but it manages to retain its own lovely mystique.


Within a few months, Masson followed up with a series of similarly original stories, all different in tone and subject matter: some satires, a brilliant pastiche of 17th-century English, other explorations of the human psyche in extreme circumstances. All his stories create a spell: in particular a sense of strangeness, of otherness, in counterpoint to the banality of the ordinary. ‘Mouth of Hell’ describes the discovery of a huge hole in the world, one which must be explored at any cost. The difficulties are fantastic, and one team of explorers after another comes to grief. But in the end the hole gives up its secrets. What then happens is pure Masson.


Others are superficially less serious: ‘Not So Certain’ is a conversation piece about the difficulties human beings might have when they try to learn the language of an alien race, and in the midst of the expostulations and gleeful discoveries there are many serious arguments about language and phonetics. And in one or two of the stories (‘Doctor Fausta’ or ‘The Transfinite Choice’) the dazzling sequence of puns, allusions and neologisms will make you think you might have somehow backed inadvertently into the world of Masson’s contemporary, John Sladek.


The first seven Masson stories were published in 1968, under the present title, in a beautiful and highly collectible hardcover edition by Faber and Faber. A paperback followed a few years later, but both editions have long been out of print.


By the early 1970s, Masson’s burst of creativity had come to an end. He published no more stories after ‘Doctor Fausta’, in 1974.


David Irvine Masson was born in Edinburgh in 1915, to a family of distinguished academics and thinkers. He went to Merton College, Oxford, between 1934 and 1938, where he read English Language and Literature. After graduation he went to work as an assistant librarian at the University of Leeds. The Second World War interrupted: he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Mediterranean theatre, chiefly North Africa and Italy. After the war he became the curator of special collections at the University of Liverpool, but in 1956 he returned to Leeds to become curator of the Brotherton Collection.


Between 1951 and 1991 he published many articles on phonetic sound-patterning in poetry (especially in the work of Rainer Maria Rilke). His published works include three articles with the Princeton University Press publication
Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
(1965). Also notable is his paper,
Poetic Sound-Patterning Reconsidered
(Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, May 1976).


In 2002, my colleague David Langford and I decided the time had come for a complete collection of Masson’s stories. We knew that he had written three more stories after the Faber book, and these were little known. David Masson was then in his late 80s, and almost ridiculously happy to be remembered (little realizing, perhaps, how
he was remembered, and not just by Langford and myself). He enthusiastically collaborated with us on minor revisions and improvements to the Faber stories, and entered into a detailed correspondence with both of us about the less well known extra three. He actively involved himself not just with the quality of the text (which presented amazing demands to anyone who was not David Masson himself, a man proud to proclaim himself obsessed with a level of intricate detail that was above all pedantry) but also with the correct sequence in which the stories should be presented in the book. He wrote a short Foreword for our edition. The new collection was published in the USA as a print-on-demand book, which was unfortunately not widely distributed.


It is therefore not only a great pleasure to bring this book to the Masterworks series, but a genuine privilege to have been able to work with David Masson. He was a good and great man, and his sole book of fiction is a good and great work. More than that: it is memorably different and inspiring.


Christopher Priest




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Traveller’s Rest





It was an apocalyptic sector. Out of the red-black curtain of the forward sight-barrier, which at this distance from the Frontier shut down a mere twenty metres north, came every sort of meteoric horror: fission and fusion explosions, chemical detonations, a super-hail of projectiles of all sizes and basic velocities, sprays of nerve-paralysants and thalamic dopes. The impact devices burst on the barren rock of the slopes or the concrete of the forward stations, some of which were disintegrated or eviscerated every other minute. The surviving installations kept up an equally intense and nearly vertical fire of rockets and shells. Here and there a protectivized figure could be seen sprinting up, down or along the slopes on its mechanical walker like a frantic ant from an anthill attacked by flamethrowers. Some of the visible oncoming trajectories could be seen snaking overhead into the indigo gloom of the rear sight-curtain, perhaps fifty metres south, which met the steep-falling rock surface forty-odd metres below the observer’s eye. The whole scene was as if bathed in a gigantic straight rainbow. East and west, as far as the eye could see, perhaps some forty miles in this clear mountain air despite the debris of explosion (but cut off to west by a spur from the range) the visibility-corridor witnessed a continual onslaught and counter-onslaught of devices. The visible pandemonium was shut in by the sight-barriers’ titanic canyon walls of black, reaching the slim pale strip of horizon-spanning light at some immense height. The audibility-corridor was vastly wider than that of sight; the many-pitched din, even through left ear in helm, was considerable.


‘Computer-sent, must be,’ said H’s transceiver into his right ear. No sigil preceded this statement, but H knew the tones of B, his next-up, who in any case could be seen a metre away saying it, in the large concrete bubble whence they watched, using a plaspex window and an infrared northviewer with a range of some hundreds of metres forward. His next-up had been in the bunker for three minutes, apparently overchecking, probably for an appreciation to two-up who might be in station W now.


‘Else how can they get minutely impacts here, you mean?’ said H.


‘Well, of course it could be long range low-frequency — we don’t really know how Time works over There.’


‘But if the conceleration runs asymptotically to the Frontier, as it should if Their Time works in mirror-image, would anything ever have got over?’

BOOK: Caltraps of Time
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