In the last years of his life, Leo Frankowski’s books had veered from their previous character—a solid bit of science fiction with occasional quirks. Conrad’s Time Machine was, strictly speaking, a sort of prequel to Frankowski’s somewhat famous Adventures of Conrad Stargard1; certainly his publishers wanted to stress this fact, even though the book technically had nothing at all to do with (and certainly no mention of) Conrad.
In fact, the book’s narrator is one of the characters from the many interludes from the Conrad series—the infamous “Tom”—and when the story opens he is just leaving the Air Force after a several-year stint manning electronic equipment at a secure base in the 1960s. Meeting up with some old friends—the short, religious, teetotaler Ian and the prim, clinical Jim—they eventually stumble upon an amazing discovery, namely the technology behind time travel.
We don’t get there right away. Frankowski first attempts to establish a sort of boorish, Odd Couple camaraderie between these three men that feels stilted and forced, like dialog written by George Lucas; this despite Frankowski’s insistence that it was modeled after the “bull sessions” of his “salad years”, which either means Leo was not good conversational company or his ability to reproduce said dialog is poor at best; I suspect the latter, since Frankowski’s focus has never been on good dialog or character development, but on interesting stories, and in most cases he succeeded. Notably, Kren of the Mitchegai failed in both respects, and Conrad’s Time Machine, which came out a scant two years prior, falls into the same category.
Tom and his friends find the technology behind time travel by accident, and it so happens that the materials required are ludicrously simple—enough that a mediocre electrician could figure it out and his diminutive friend could engineer the physical objects (surprise!). Actually, the part of the book after their discovery but before they are whisked away to the Caribbean is the best part of the book: a solid chunk of narrative dedicated entirely to Tom and Ian’s experiments, their many failures, and the trial & error way they figured out how to use the technology; it hearkens back to the best parts of Frankowski’s Conrad Stargard series, but it doesn’t last very long. Almost immediately, the book devolves into an internally inconsistent mess of causality, looping time-travel, and the terrible, ridiculous wish-fulfillment nonsense that Frankowski became known for in his later books.
To be honest, even the internally-inconsistent mess of causality and looping time travel would be fine; Frankowski, even at his sloppiest, could write entertaining science fiction. The point at which the plot careens into a succession of exaggerated burlesques is also the point at which the novel ceases to be worth the time taken to read it. Frankowski even at his most ribald is pretty vanilla (Tom Robbins is kinkier), but there’s nothing much interesting in demure references to ménage à trois and less demure references 14-inch phalluses. This, I suppose, is the difference between good science fiction which either uses these things as part of the story or succeeds in spite of them, as opposed to the recent schlock that poor Leo churned out. Whereas the Conrad Stargard series, at least at first, managed to drown out Frankowski’s occasional misogyny and nonsense with a much more interesting political and engineering plot, Conrad’s Time Machine takes a still-interesting plot and drowns it in the extraneous and the ridiculous.
I wish that Frankowski had written this book at the height of his powers, when he could have done it the justice it deserved. In the end it’s so poor that it fails to rise even to the level of a guilty pleasure—it’s just a plain old bad book, made worse by the specter of its author’s much better past.
- I use the word “famous” despite the series still languishing in relatively obscurity since they are his most well-known and most bankable books.[↩]