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The Corridors of Time by Poul Anderson1960s cover art3.5 stars

The Corridors of Time — part of Anderson’s popular Time Patrol series — is a terrific time-hopping adventure that will satisfy Anderson fans, and SF readers in general, looking for a little rainy afternoon light-reading snack. Our protagonist is Malcolm Lockridge, an ex-Marine and anthropology student in his mid-20s awaiting trial for the accidental killing of a street punk. Much to his surprise he is met by Storm Darroway, an enigmatic beauty of unknown origin and considerable wealth who manages to get him acquitted. In exchange for his freedom, Storm drafts Malcolm’s assistance in some business in Denmark that she explains only sketchily. 

In no time, Malcolm finds himself embroiled in the Time Wars, a conflict being fought literally throughout history between the Rangers and the Wardens (Storm’s group), who travel to different eras through the titular corridors, immense artificially constructed passageways located all over the globe. According to Storm, the Rangers seek to manipulate humanity’s evolution in such a way that, ultimately, the world’s population becomes subservient to the Rangers’ technocracy. The Wardens, on the other hand, believe human beings should be allowed to remain close to nature and evolve down their own paths. Or as Storm puts it, “Life as it is imagined to be against life as it is. Plan against organic development. Control against freedom. Overriding rationalism against animal wholeness. The machine against the living flesh.”

If this all sounds a bit odd to you — like false choices — you’re right, and it’s the brightest feather in Anderson’s cap that he places this dilemma square at his novel’s thematic center. Throughout the story, as Malcolm travels with Storm to Neolithic Denmark and meets the girl Auri and her tribe the Tenil Orugaray, then jumps back and forth through time over a span of six thousand years, the reader shares Malcolm’s unease over a simple question: who is really right in this war? Is any one side even right at all? And who are the Rangers and Wardens, and where do they come from anyway? This inner conflict compliments the novel’s dynamic and thrilling action scenes, and leads to a terrific finale.

Anderson has given the tale some vivid characters, though they never stray too far from the noir archetypes that inspired them. Malcolm (whom Anderson has name-check Earle Stanley Gardner, as if to make sure the point is driven home) isn’t especially likable, especially in his condescending attitudes towards “primitive people” (“...there’s somethin’ there that we’ve lost”) that will rankle 21st century sensibilities. But he’s believable in his chip-on-the-shoulder kind of way. Auri’s radiant innocence is lovingly conveyed if a bit idealized. And Storm’s occasionally cold aloofness doesn’t distance you from her too much. You can understand Malcolm’s need for her.

Some seriously dated dialogue stands in the way of excellence, rendering this book, like so much older SF, a product of its era. Anderson’s prose is lush, but can feel stilited by today’s standards, the poetic language sounding like it’s trying just a tad too hard. Also, the opening scenes are a little underwhelming, with the story not really kicking into gear until Malcolm meets the Tenil Orugaray and starts on the path of his destiny. But the second half of this short but stirring tale is pure gold, a perfect example of the sort of SF adventure you wish could last as long in reality as the time it spans in its pages.