Book Review – Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright

How many stories have you read or films have you watched that incorporate time travel as part of the plot? Quite a few, I expect. And how many of those actually deal with the morality of time travel itself, instead of purely using it as a mechanism to generate a fish out of water scenario? Not so many. What would society look like if technologies existed to manipulate time however you saw fit?

Plural of Helen of Troy is one of a collection of short stories that deal with these very questions, entitled City Beyond Time, Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis.

Murder in Metachronopols and Plural of Helen of Troy bookend this collection of short stories and are both set in the city outside of time itself, in which the Time Wardens rule with impunity and seemingly limitless power, able to retroactively go back in time and manipulate every event to reach the outcome they desire, transporting people and technology from every time period in history to their magnificent timeless city to act as their servants and playthings. Both stories are centred around a hard-boiled film-noir style detective who used to work for the Time Wardens as a problem solver (i.e. hitman). In Murder in Metachronopolis, he is attempting to solve his own murder in the future, in Plural of Helen of Troy, he is trying to save the most beautiful woman in history, one of many versions of Helen of Troy, from being attacked by someone who is close to the Time Wardens and aided by one of their deadliest robotic henchmen.

Both stories are told out of chronological sequence, which suits a story about time manipulation and is done so well that it is not confusing, instead each jump forward and backward in time either throws new light on or raises the stakes of what is happening in the main story thread. There is a lot of great humour, for example:

I ran up the nearer ramp toward the girl and sprinted toward my death.

I’d had a pretty good life, I guess. I had no complaints.

Strike that. My life stank like an incontinent skunk pie sandwich with no mustard, if one of the slices was the crusty heel no one likes to eat, and I had loads of complaints.

And the action sequences are intense and tactically brilliant, including how the deadlock is broken between two weapon systems that can perfectly predict and counteract each other.

Of the two stories, I’d say that Murder in Metachronopolis has more depth and emotional impact, while Plural of Helen of Troy is more fun. Both are masterfully crafted, insightful and rewarding to read, and I cannot recommend them enough. I could say much the same for every story in the collection without reservation. If I had to pick between the above two stories, I’d go for Murder in Metachronopolis, but it was first published earlier than the rest, hence ineligible for the Hugo this year.

If you haven’t yet sampled this great collection from a master of the art, you are missing out.

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