#CBR5 Maneuver #10 – The Dechronization of Sam Magruder
Profile: Science Fiction, Time Travel
Summary: From the back cover,
“Vanishing from Earth on February 30, 2162, while working on a problem of quantum theory, research chronologist Sam Magruder is thrown back 80 million years in time. Endowed with the intelligence of a twenty-second-century man, Magruder struggles to survive, feeding on scrambled turtle eggs and diligently recording his observations on a stone-slap diary, even as menacing tyrannosaurs try to gnaw off his limbs.
Filled with magnificent descriptions of the dinosaurs as only Simpson himself could render them, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is not only a classic time-travel tale, but a philosophical work that astutely ponders the complexities of human existence and achievement.”
After Action Report:
The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is a strange little novella that is equal parts time travel story, homage to H.G. Wells and paleontological argument. The author, George Gaylord Simpson, was one of the most influential and prolific evolutionists and paleontologists of the 20th century, if not all time. More curiously, he wasn’t a fiction writer. Of the 15 books he wrote or contributed to, only the posthumously published Dechronization approached the genre of science fiction and even then from the perspective of an academic.
Before I get into the review itself, I would like to mention that I would be much less conversant on the matter of 1940s paleontology were it not for the substantial introduction by Arthur C. Clarke included in my slim paperback edition. Clarke discusses the sometimes unpopular opinions of Simpson that were eventually borne out by new discoveries, but also reminds the reader that this book was being written in the mid-1900s and some of what we knew then has since been proven wrong. Most importantly, he emphasizes the science fiction nature of the novella, drawing the attention back to the setting which makes some unusual assumptions about the shape of the future that might not be so far off reality.
The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is narrated from the perspective of a quintet of academics. In the vein of The Time Machine, these individuals are only referred to by tittle and remain mostly anonymous. At the start of the novella, they are discussing a hypothetical scenario in which an individual is cut off from the rest of humanity in such a way that he or she would have no chance of rescue but every chance of survival. The academics believe that such a scenario would be impossible because of the current reach of human civilization, but the Universal Historian claims that he has proof of such a case.
Over the following chapters, we learn the backstory of Sam Magruder, a chronologist (but really some sort of theoretical physicist) who happened upon a one-in-a-million temporal accident that vanished him from his laboratory in full view of his assistants. For years, no one knew what exactly had happened to him, until an archeological expedition to the American Southwest turned up anachronistic writing on a number of stone slabs that dated from the Cretaceous Period.
The majority of the book is the edited contents of these slabs: a chronicle of Sam Magruder’s arrival and survival in the Cretaceous Period alongside dinosaurs and early mammals and entirely without a way home. The story itself is fairly mundane, and it should be. Magruder’s experience with dinosaurs is rooted in the scientific facts of Simpson’s expertise. The novel doesn’t strive to create an artificial air of adventure or tension. Rather, it is content to let the words of a scholar, sad and increasingly lonely, spin a gripping, realistic, and above all else, a human story. Even with the clinical interjections of the narrating academics, Simpson shies away from over-analysis and ends the novella with a touching valediction, “‘May he rest in peace,’ said the Common Man. For once, no one else said anything.”
The appeal of The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is hard to pin down. On the surface, the narrative is dull and lacking in traditional dramatic tension. But once you take a moment and stop expecting the clichéd action sequence or the improbable rescue attempt, the story being told is deeply compelling. I started the book expecting the accuracy and realism, but I honestly wasn’t ready for the emotional connection I felt with Magurder, and to a lesser extent, the narrators as they confronted the sadness of Magurder’s situation. Simpson brings an emotional depth that would be surprising from a more experienced author, but is absolutely stunning from a first-time novelist.
I would hesitate to put The Dechronization of Sam Magruder on a list of great books, or to compare it quite so closely to H.G. Wells’ masterpiece of time travel fiction, but it is a very good novella. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loved dinosaurs as a kid (or an adult) and anyone who wants to be just a little more surprised by their science fiction.