“Time Waits for Winthrop” by William Tenn – Classics of Science Fiction


Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“Time Waits for Winthrop” by William Tenn #16 of 20 (Read)

Virgil Finlay usually created drawings and paintings that featured beautiful or fantastic subjects, but the interior illustration for “Time Waits for Winthrop” is hideous to see. But then, the 25th-century future William Tenn describes is supposed to be hideous to people from the 20th century, and the title character’s personality is downright hideous too, so Finlay does an excellent job preparing us for the story.

“Time Waits for Winthrop” is a plodding piece of fiction that speculates about the future in ways that make it worth reading, but just barely. That same statement could be made about much of science fiction. It’s a shame that “Time Waits for Winthrop” wasn’t better told because it could have been a genre classic.

The setup for “Time Waits for Winthrop” involves five people from 1958 swapped with five people from 2458 for two weeks. Tenn’s science fictional hypothesis is the future will be so different to us that we’ll find it repulsive. Tenn then plots the story around a clock driven conflict. At the appointed hour of return, all five people from both groups must return to the time travel depo to make the exchange possible. The kicker is Winthrop who loves the 25th century and doesn’t want to return to the 20th century. And the 25th century has one cardinal rule, you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to.

This means Dave Pollock, Mrs. Brucks, Mary Ann Carthington, and Oliver T. Meed will be stuck in the future that unnerves them, and the time travelers from the future will be stranded in the past.

“Time Wait for Winthrop” is a rather long story, a novella, and the plot involves the four 20th century people who desparately want to go home each trying to convince Winthrop or someone else to make Winthrop want to return to the 20th century. This gives Willian Tenn a chance to describe the 25th century. Sure, it’s pure speculation from the vantage of 1957, but I thought Tenn imagined some neat possibilities.

The first time I read this story over fifty years ago, I was under twenty, and I didn’t tune into what Tenn was trying to do in his story. I thought “Time Waits for Winthrop” was a somewhat funny potboiler. For my 2024 reading, I saw the story in a completely different light. In my first reading “Time Waits for Winthrop” came across as lame Sheckley. In this reading, “Time Waits for Winthrop” came across as Heinlein trying to be funny.

Winthrop and Mrs. Brucks were the old folks of the five 20th century travelers, and the group of four who wanted to return picked Mrs. Brucks to visit Winthrop and appeal to his moral decency. The other three thought since she was about the same age as Winthrop he would understand her best. Mrs. Brucks was a grandmother of two, and mother of six, and kind and genteel. Everything Winthrop was not.

Winthrop is the only person from the past who embraces all the new ways. It’s a rather wild future where clothes and floors appear to be alive and inanimate objects respond to human needs. You’ll need to read the story to get all the gosh-wow details. Winthrop relishes the opportunities offered and takes advantage of them all. He feels his companions from the past are rigid and scared. After Mrs. Brucks polite pleas, he still refuses. Winthrop says he’s obviously better off as a person in the future than he was in the past. Mrs. Brucks fails in her mission.

Next, Mr. Oliver T. Mead then agrees to plead their case with Mr. Storku, The Chief of Protocol for the State Department. This is where the story took off for me. Mead must track down Storku, but he’s at Shriek Field. In the future, humans are very well adjusted but that’s because they regularly visit Shriek Field or Panic Stadium to experience psychological release and transcendence. This 2024 reading now reminds me of many of the New Age therapies from the 1970s. I didn’t know of their existence the first time I read this story around 1969. Were such techniques already emerging in the 1950s?

Mr. Meads experience at Shriek Field is so prophetic that I decided to reprint those pages. How did Tenn guess this in 1957?

Doesn’t that sound like Primal Scream therapy? I believe Tenn also anticipates therapies like Erhard Seminars Training (EST) and other similar New Age personal development programs. This section of the story goes on for several more pages, and I felt begins the real purpose of the story.

Mr. Mead gets nowhere too.

Next up, the group decides Mary Ann Carthington, a pretty young woman, should try to convince Edgar Rapp from the Temporal Embassy to help them make Winthrop go back. She ultimately locates Rapp, but he’s in a microscopic world battling tiny cellular creatures. This section allows Tenn to explain what individual freedom means in the future. It was here that I was sure I knew what the ending would be, but I was wrong. This is the most fantastic part of the story, because Edgar Rapp can shrink himself down to thirty-five microns. This section reminded me of “Surface Tension” by James Blish, and Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov.

I’ve tried to read “Time Waits for Winthrop” one or two times between 1969 and 2024, and in each case, I thought the story was over long and dragged. I again thought that this reading, but I liked the story a whole lot more this time and was more forgiving. If that trend continues, one day I might actually love “Time Waits for Winthrop.”

The story is episodic. It’s a shame that it wasn’t fleshed out into a short novel and told with more realistic drama that tied the sections together better. Tenn is mainly known for writing short stories, but I absolutely loved his novel Of Men and Monsters, see my review, and heed my warning. Don’t read anything about the book or even the blurbs on the cover, because the book is so much more fun coming to it cold. But my point, that novel is also episodic, but it has a well-integrated plot with lots of drama.

All too often, science fiction writers hacked out their stories. Probably most are just tweaked first drafts. “Time Waits for Winthrop” feels like Tenn sat down one day and came out with the setup, then for four days in a row used four characters to describe a different aspect of an imagined future, then on the last day produced a quick solution to the plot. Now, I might be unfairly damning Tenn because I didn’t experience everything Tenn intended. There’s a whole lot to “Time Waits for Winthrop,” especially when you consider the last section.

Dave Pollock is a young guy who is a science teacher in the 20th century. The group gives him the unpleasant task of consulting the Oracle Machine about their problem. Pollock finds that distasteful because he feels it’s beneath his scientific mind to consult anything with the trappings of primitive religion. I’m guessing Tenn imagined the Oracle Machine as a kind of AI. Tenn even mentions chess in his story and predicts that machines will outplay humans in the future. He also predicts that humans will continue to enjoy playing chess and will even work together with machines to play. And this is what has happened, just sixty years into the future, not five hundred.

Again, the Dave Pollock section gives Tenn another platform to speculate about the future. And like the other three sections, speculation about the future also means commentary on the present. “Time Waits for Winthrop” is a wonderful contrivance for William Tenn to express himself on many topics. Each time he stops to philosophically tap dance, the plot freezes and the story’s momentum slows to a crawl. However, if readers enjoy the philosophical tap dancing, then they might forget the plot is about how to get back to the 20th century.

James Wallace Harris, 4/21/24

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