Book Review: Time's Last Gift / Author: Phillip Jose Farmer / Publisher: Titan Books / Release Date: 22 June
Superficially Phillip Jose Farmer’s 1972 novel Time’s Last Gift, another of Titan Books’ excellent and thoughtful programme of Farmer reprints, is an absorbing and stately time travel story. However Farmer fans familiar with the broader sweep of the author’s work will recognise the book as falling into his famous Wold Newton Universe series and the book is generally accepted to be a prequel to Farmer’s Gods of Opar.
In Time’s Last Gift a scientific expedition from 2070 travels back to 12,000 BC, the furthest point back in time their technology will allow them to voyage, to investigate and chronicle the ancient Magdalenian culture. The four scientists - led by the mysterious and charismatic John Gribardsun - quickly fall in with a primitive tribe who, not surprisingly, regard them as Gods. The scientists are in it for the long haul; they’re due to spend four years in the past and as time goes on they not only ingratiate themselves with the tribe and its customs, their own weaknesses and secrets are exposed, conflicts and jealousies flare up. It also seems that there’s more to Gribardsun, who adapts to his new environment and his way of life with remarkable ease, than the others might have suspected.
If, like me, you’re largely unfamiliar with Farmer’s Wold Newton series and the complexities of the characters and the chronology they present, it might be best just to enjoy Time’s Last Gift as a languid, thought-provoking time travel yarn rather than struggle to make sense of the paradoxes thrown up by the machinations of Gribardsun which are, thankfully, made a little clearer by the addition of the detailed afterword ‘Gribardsun Through the Ages’. Gribardsun is, in fact, none other than Tarzan, Lord Greystoke (TLG - Time’s Last Gift) and Gribardsun has worked his way - by both fair means and foul - into the time travel expedition, with the intention of staying behind when the exhibition returns home, using a 21st century rejuvenation process to keep himself alive across the ages.
Beyond all this though, Time’s Last Gift depicts its futuristic time travellers/explorers almost as dispassionate observers, accepted by the tribe and other locals they encounter, without really accepting them. Apart from Gribardsun who has his own agenda, the others have to deal with the psychological effects of living for four years in the distant past, their own personal demons and the brutal, savage lifestyle they find themselves having to adjust to. Time’s Last Gift doesn’t blind us with science - Farmer’s own preference for pulpy SF means that 21st century time travel just requires “enormous amounts of energy” and the time vessel has “dials” and “instrument panels.” Farmer’s not interested in how his characters get to the past, he wants to tell us what they find when they get there and how they come to terms with it and how it affects them.
Time’s Last Gift may ultimately frustrate those not familiar with the mythology it’s clearly part of but there’s enough going on here to satisfy those just looking for an old-fashioned time travel adventure which, if never hugely exciting or packed with jeopardy, is rarely dull but always immensely readable and entertaining.