Friday, September 20, 2013

Review of The Caltraps of Time by David L. Masson

The Caltraps of Time is a 1968 collection of short stories by David I. Masson.  In the vein of early 20th century science fiction, despite being published in the midst of the New Wave movement, the stories use familiar tropes to tell experimental tales.  Well written, there are points of originality poking through now and again, no common theme connecting the stories.  The collection essentially a one off, Masson would go on to publish only three additional short stories in his lifetime.  (These three have been added to the 2003 printing of Caltraps.)  The following is a brief rundown of the seven in the 1968 edition.

In a version of Britain where weather is emotional (yes, emotional), “Lost Ground” tells of a man who stumbles into a wall of time searching for his lost wife.  His mental well-being regulated by aerosols and others drugs taken in response to weather fluctuations, the man’s view of life radically changes upon crossing the wall.

Having landed amongst sentient aliens, “Not so Certain” tells of humanity studying and learning the new language.  Communication, however, is not so easy.  This piece not a story, it is rather an examination of “alien” phonetics.

Reminiscent of Lovecraft, “Mouth of Hell” describes a team of explorers’ slow descent into a mysterious opening in the ground.  Starting out haunting and ending up satirical, this is one of the better stories in the collection.

“A Two-Timer” tells of a man from the seventeenth century who finds his way into a time machine and lands in the twentieth.  Rich in language (a joy to read, in fact), the scope is nevertheless far too large for the story: the differences between the modern and the old world cannot be covered effectively in a short story.

“The Transinfinite Choice” is the story of a man involved in a science experiment who suddenly finds himself in a strange time and dimension.  The world populated beyond imagination, he helps to find a solution that, in time, may or may not be successful.

The weirdest story of the collection, “Psychomosis”, is about life, death, and life after death.  It will require two reads to begin making a stab at the underlying meaning.

The world caught in a maelstrom of a war, “Traveler’s Rest” is the story of a soldier’s discharge into the real world.  The best saved for last, this is the most cohesive, poignant piece in the collection.  Predating Haldeman’s novel, it seems almost certain to have directly influenced The Forever War given the extreme similarities.

In the end, The Caltraps of Time is a collection of sci-fi shorts that will probably appeal more to readers who prefer early offerings of the genre.  For others, it will probably seem to have aged poorly—despite the continued pertinence of many of the underlying concepts.  Regardless, Masson’s writing is clean and practiced and is the best aspect of the collection.  Thematically, the author drives at many important points, but given the weakness of several of the stories’ plots, it’s difficult to say the agenda always hits home with a ten-pound hammer.  Regarding mode, Masson opts toward satire and allusion more often than not, giving the pieces an ideological, abstract feel, save “Traveler’s Rest”.  All of these points add up to the fact it really depends what the reader brings to the table when determining whether or not the collection will be enjoyed.


  1. Ah, I've wanted to read this one for a long long while. I think it was rereleased by SF Masterworks?

    1. Indeed it was--and added the only other three other stories Masson published in his life.

      And do ignore the cover above. As can often be expected in sci-fi, it does not represent content. I just had a quick peek on Google at the SF Masterworks cover, and it is significantly better--more boring, but more representative.