Renowned scientist John Sinclair and his old school friend Richard, a celebrated composer, are enjoying a climbing expedition in the Scottish Highlands when Sinclair disappears without a trace for thirteen hours. When he resurfaces with no explanation for his disappearance, he has undergone an uncanny alteration: a birthmark on his back has vanished. But stranger events are yet to come: things are normal enough in Britain, but in France it's 1917 and World War I is raging, Greece is in the Golden Age of Pericles, America seems to have reverted to the 18th century, and Russia and China are thousands of years in the future. Against this macabre backdrop of coexisting time spheres, the two young men risk their lives to unravel the truth. But truth is in the mind of the beholder, and who is to say which of these timelines is the 'real' one? In "October the First Is Too Late" (1966), world-famous astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) explores fascinating concepts of time and consciousness in the form of a thrilling science fiction adventure that ranks among his very best. 'Fred Hoyle is the John Buchan of science fiction. His fantasies are not only rooted in scientific possibility but are told at a galloping pace.' - Julian Jebb, "Sunday Times" 'Fine storytelling.' - "Kirkus Reviews"
This novel started out with an intriguing premise similar to Murray Leinster’s "Sidewise in Time": different sections of the globe become chronologically jumbled. Thus, we have Periclean Greece existing beside a 1917 Western Europe, a glassy plane across Northern Asia (basically the melted surface of Earth in the far future) and a 1966 Britain. Unfortunately, no rationale is given for this, or, rather, no clear rationale. Hoyle starts out the book with a detailed look at the evidence of a huge torrent of information being beamed in the direction of the sun. It later turns out this information is probably the descriptions necessary to recreate this new Earth.
I liked the set up of this novel, the detail deductions revealing the information being beamed toward the sun. I liked the detached narrative tone. I liked the revelation of a time-jumbled world. I liked the beginnings of discussion as to the political (should 1966 Britain intervene to end World War I in Europe -- it does) and economic (where will Britain get its oil) effects of this new Earth. Then, however, Hoyle diverts to more traditional adventure material. We see nothing of how Britain, as, seemingly, the most advanced nation on Earth, deals with events. Rather the narrator goes to Greece and has his adventures before being reunited with John Sinclair, a physicist from the novel's beginning. There he works on his music, makes some commentary about the Athens of Pericles, sights a beautiful woman, and engages in a musical competition. (Actually, I found the surprisingly heavy musical content of this book interesting and enjoyable. The narrator is a composer and says some interesting things about composition, playing music, and the works of classical masters. Each chapter also has a title taken from musical notation. I suspect Hoyle, like many scientists, was a lover of classical music.)
Unfortunately, Hoyle never makes it clear if they believe the jumble of timestreams is an alien effort to spark human evolution, to shake them out of their stasis, and perhaps evolve man into something suitable for a galactic community. That is an insinuation though. In fact, Hoyle has a problem with clarity throughout the novel. Even another section, a serious speculation on the nature of consciousness mixed in with some speculations on quantum physics, wasn't all that clear.
Many other authors (popular science and sf) have addressed these topics more clearly. In short, Hoyle blows an interesting situation by going into a mini-Edgar Rice Burroughs routine with the sidetrip to Greece, and his speculations and themes are hurt by a lack of clarity
Forget your temporal non-interference directives; the modern politicians decide that they cannot allow the carnage of the Western Front to continue just a hundred or so miles away. They summon the generals of each side and when they refuse to believe the (admittedly fantastic) story they are told, they are ushered into a room where there is a wind-up gramophone playing. Then the modern politicians switch to the same music on a modern hi-fi system. When the generals have picked themselves up off the floor, they are pointedly told that weaponry has made similar advances, and if they don't call a ceasefire immediately, the modern powers will step in and enforce one by knocking a few heads together. Peace breaks out immediately.
Yes, I know it's a nice fantasy; but it appealled to my sense of the ridiculous yet rational. That scene stayed with me for years, both for its image and the utter sense of wonder in the situation, and the pragmatic good sense that Hoyle gives his characters. If only real life politicians were so sensible! (Sorry, I forgot. We're talking fantasy here.)
I don't believe Hoyle was a great SF author (maybe a good editor would have helped), but he was always entertaining. I only recall scenes from the novel. The pianist, the jumble of historical eras, references to WW1, and the debates. I would like to re-read, if I can find a copy.
I would recommend this book to those interested. An insight into the mind of a great man, and an example of writing from the 60s.
Richard is much drawn to Periclean Greece, and joins a small expedition that ventures there to live among the Athenian people. The expedition is concerned not to inflict too severe a culture shock upon the Greeks, and thus introduce themselves there as "strangers from afar" and abjure most of the trappings of modern civilization -- although Richard does take with him his piano. Because of the situation the novel portrays, there aren't any of the considerations to be taken into account concerning the alteration of the past; the visitors thus strive to put an end to the Athenians' war with Sparta, a war which, they know, will if left unchecked bring both cities to their knees and leave the civilization of ancient Greece ripe for barbarian conquest. They succeed in this through help given from an unexpected source: the Delphic Oracle.
Richard accepts a challenge from a beautiful priestess of Apollo: a musical contest between himself and her god. A huge audience gathers to watch Richard perform on his piano; the god, discreetly, performs out of sight. As they trade party pieces, it becomes evident to Richard that Apollo -- or whoever is invisibly playing -- has created music quite unlike anything he's heard before, and certainly far more sophisticated than the offerings he's encountered so far during his Greek sojourn. At the end of the contest, he and the priestess agree that the only fair outcome is to declare the contest a draw. They celebrate this judgment in a manner not usually associated with the Supreme Court (at least, we assume not) and then Richard falls into a deep and dreamless sleep . . .
. . . to awaken in the distant future. Sinclair has been brought here, too, and explains that, as he'd expected, at least one of the far-future societies brought by the "time machine" into coexistence with 1966 Britain has been concealing its presence from the rest of the mixed-era planet. Richard's "priestess", Melea, was in fact an explorer from the future who'd come to investigate his anachronistic presence in 425BC Greece; her pal Neria was meanwhile subverting the Delphic Oracle into a fit of pacifism. Melea introduces Richard to various far-future technological wonders, such as CDs that are conveniently only the size of dustbin lids. More somberly, the 20th-century visitors are shown a sort of movie of the history of the human species between their own time and the sparsely populated distant future of Melea and Neria. They learn that, not once but countless times over the past millions of years, humanity has allowed itself to expand uncontrollably until a moment of precipitate and horrific collapse, with inordinate suffering; in the wake of each catastrophe the small surviving relic has promised itself that this time they will learn from the past and it will be different, and yet of course . . . The question Melea and her society want the two Englishmen to answer is, in effect: Is it worth it? Of course, there isn't a real answer to that.
The tale is told in the same sort of Buchanesque mode that Hoyle adopted for Ossian's Ride; the contrast between the bluffness of style and Richard's supposed sensitivity as a musician works surprisingly well, and it adapts well too to the occasional didactic passage. These latter are always welcome components of Hoyle's novels; here he gives us a few pages (pp75-7) of happy speculations about the nature of time and consciousness. One oddity is that the events of the first few pages seemed to me wildly reminiscent, albeit it in a different order, of parts of Ian McEwan's 1998 novel Amsterdam; I wonder if McEwan read October the First is Too Late decades ago (as I did) and (like me) forgot most of the incidental content, only for it to come bubbling up from his subconscious when he was writing Amsterdam? There's quite obviously no question of plagiarism, deliberate or unconscious; it's just an oddly similar pair of juxtapositions of events. It's certainly pleasing to think that something of Sir Fred's hobby might still be swimming in literature's river.
Style: Fairly engaging narrative and interesting commentary on reactions of inhabitants of ancient Greece to the inexplicable "time travelers".
NOTES (spoiler alert):
Hoyle's lead-in scientific anomaly never gets explained, or even firmly tied to the time-shift and its reversal.
p. 93 (on music): "Great music has nothing really to do with technique or even honest determination. Technique, skill, experience, determination, all these are necessary factors, but they are only peripheral. For every musician who has achieved anything truly great there must have been hundreds with adequate technique and keen determination. The missing component was the wellspring of emotion. Unless the inner fires burn with a fierce intensity the rest serves only as a gloss..."
Note that studies of musicians indicate that the great ones (regardless of emotion) practice upwards of 800 times as much as the also-rans.