Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: The Dechronization of Sam Magruder

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder
George Gaylord Simpson

A bunch of intellectuals in the 22nd Century are sitting around talking about what it’d be like to be a person separated forever from the rest of humanity. One gets a chance to do just that—only he didn’t intend to. After radically slowing down his perception of time in an experiment, this happens to Sam Magruder:

…the deceleration was so great as nearly to stop time, and that this hit where I was between time quanta, where there was no present for me to be in. That shoved me wholly into…the time-dimension universe. I bounced right out, but not at the same place.

Sam’s thrown back 80 million years into the Cretaceous Era. Now, instead of lab routines, he’s trying to fend off dinos and find workable food, clothing and shelter. Here’s a bit from his encounter with a Tyrannosaur:

It was a carnivore, and it saw meat….Its teeth were six-inch daggers and gleamed white as it swung its ponderous head to face me….I was literally rooted to the spot….The awful monster launched its charge…

It’s not all action, mind you. There’s a highly involving psychological drive and complexity for such a short book. Sam struggles with a loneliness that transcends all: “a dully aching sadness, for which there is no remedy but death.” Robinson Crusoe had it comparatively easy. Magruder’s narrative ends on a note of hope, or at least resignation: “…I am a man, and a man is responsible for himself.” He buries his carefully-chiseled diary slabs, hoping against the void that perhaps someone in the age of humans will chance upon them. They in fact do; that’s why we have his account. Sam Magruder is, finally, impossibly, in some sense, however indirect, not alone. George G. Simpson, who most feel was the greatest paleontologist of the 20th Century, makes the plot continually defy boredom and keeps the dinosaur science top notch, of course. But he never published this tale. His daughter found the manuscript ten years after his death. I’m very glad she stumbled upon it. It’s a corker and a fine piece of philosophical musing. Action and introspection are finely balanced. Simpson apparently had no idea what a splendid storyteller he was. Perhaps, like Sam, he had faith in the future of his manuscript, a future he wouldn’t see. Or maybe he just forgot all about that bunch of papers.

Submitted by Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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