The Great Time Machine Hoax, by Keith Laumer

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In Keith Laumer’s The Great Time Machine Hoax, published in 1963, Chester W Chester IV has inherited a house plus a mysterious project which was developed by his great grandfather.  The intervening century had seen a complex legal web to determine ownership which has only now been resolved, leaving Chester with an enormous tax bill that will necessitate the estate’s forced disposal to meet his financial obligations.

Chester and his friend Case Mulvihill, who runs a circus Chester owns but which is now in financial trouble, take a look at Chester’s inheritance.  Great-grandad’s project is a giant computer called the Generalized Non-Linear Extrapolator (G.N.E.), which the old boy had spent most of his last twenty-five years and the bulk of his fortune building.  It is designed to gather all available knowledge and make inferences with a high degree of accuracy based on finding new relationships between data.

Nobody had believed it would work as it would be defeated by something called ‘Crmblznski’s Limit’, a theoretical constraint on the complexity of, and therefore ability to compute, enormous quantities of data.  Therefore it has not been interfered with, allowing the machine to continue acquiring data, and crucially vastly expanding its own processing capacity beyond that originally prorgrammed by the elder Chester as it became capable of modifying its instructions to achieve his goal.

In order to pay the Internal Revenue Service Chester and Case cook up a hoax using the machine’s ability to construct a facsimile of a time period, pretending it can transport people into the past.  To assist them the computer creates a mobile interface that takes the form of a nubile young woman whom they christen Genie.  After much discussion they decide to create a ‘cave-man scene’ to test the idea.  They meet some unfriendly locals they assume are part of a harmless simulation, but it quickly becomes apparent their position is serious when the inhabitants capture them.  Chester and Genie escape, but have to abandon Case.

They find themselves next in a period very much like their present, except the police wear pink uniforms.  There Chester loses Genie and shifts into the future, a small but highly sophisticated society where he becomes part of an experiment to develop him to his full potential using sound philosophical and pedagogical principles.  Now a much more confident person than hitherto after training and adventures lasting almost a year, he goes back to retrieve Genie, who has only been stuck in her time two hours since he left, and together they find Case, who by contrast has spent 30 years in his pre-ice age era, having assisted its evolution by introducing small-scale agriculture and industry.

They are ready to return home, but find their ‘present’ no longer exists.  Chester realises that this past and the future he experienced are linked, and Case has managed to alter the timeline completely by his intervention, which means they cannot return to their starting point.  Their solution is to have the computer build a simulacrum of the missing present identical in every respect to what would have been the ‘real’ one, raising the question to what extent it actually is a duplicate.

So it transpires that while they thought they were producing a hoax, a facsimile of time travel using the computer to create an illusion, the computer was even powerful than they anticipated and had managed to project them into what really was the past, a revelation which hardly comes as a surprise.  They think they are in a situation that will put the reader in mind of a Star Trek-style holodeck, but in fact the plot is conceptually closer to Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story ‘A Sound of Thunder’.  In this instance all ends happily, thanks to some nifty footwork by the computer: its capacity is leased to the Bureau of Vital Statistics for an enormous sum, thus resolving the tax difficulty, while Chester is free to disseminate his character-building lessons from a future that will not now exist as it was based on a past that no longer happened.

The book is of its time, not least in terms of gender relations.  In addition to musings on the future of computing, Chester’s expansion of his capabilities reflects the self-help industry which was gathering pace in the 1960s.  The novel is humorous, with a sprinkling of social satire, taking pot-shots at management science, the consumer society, religion, beatniks and Ivy League graduates alike, but comedy never unbalances the plot (the 1978 printing’s cover quotes Galaxy: ‘Hilarious! Swinging! Brilliant!, which oversells it).  Laumer is optimistic about computers, though whether they will have the ability to facilitate time travel, or create sentient humans, i.e. Genie, from a tiny sample of blood – the ethics of which are left unexplored – is another matter.

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