Great Work of Time
Great Work of Time is a novella by John Crowley. A science fiction story involving time travel, it concerns a secret society created by the will of Cecil Rhodes to preserve and expand the British Empire.
Originally published in Crowley's 1989 collection Novelty, Great Work of Time was also published on its own in a Bantam paperback edition in 1991. It is now available as part of the omnibus volume Novelties and Souvenirs.
The story was also published as part of a collection of short stories in A science fiction omnibus in 2007, edited by Brian Aldiss.
Explanation of the title
Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of Time,
And cast the kingdoms old
Into another mould.
The story sub-divides into chapters which initially seem to be completely separate, but a connection is starting to be formed in Chapter III.
- I: The Single Excursion of Caspar Last
- II: An Appointment in Khartoum
- III: The Tale of the President Pro Tem
- IV: Chronicles of the Otherhood
- V: The Tears of the President Pro Tem
- VI: The Boy David of Hyde Park Corner
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The first chapter is connected to the story only in that it explains the origins of the time machine later used by the Otherhood. Caspar Last, an unambitious, reclusive middle-aged mathematical genius, has created a time machine more as a solution for a mathematical riddle than in order to make use of it. He is well aware that use of time travel is hazardous, and that however careful the traveler, the act of time travel is bound to introduce random changes into history and present day reality far beyond those intended and deliberately caused by the traveler. In fact, the present to which the traveler returns "is not truly the one from which he departed". This effect would increase and multiply, the more that time travel is used (much as human interference with the physical environment would cause random, cumulative ecological change).
Therefore, Last determines to make one use and one only of his invention - to travel to 19th Century British Guiana, make himself wealthy by obtaining a very rare stamp, and thereafter never use it or let it be used by others. However, the energetic Britons of the Otherhood think otherwise; having found out about Last's invention, they take it over and embark on making a sustained and intensive use of time-travel for preserving the peace of the world and the existence of the British Empire (aims which they consider to be virtually synonymous).
The story moves in the second chapter to a timeline in which the British Empire has survived as a dominant world power throughout the Twentieth Century. The main character, Denys Winterset, a promising young official in the Colonial Service at Africa, is invited by an enigmatic civil servant named Sir Geoffrey Davenant to join a secret society that has the ability to alter time. This society, which calls itself the Otherhood (because it is not quite a brotherhood), was endowed by Cecil Rhodes in 1893 with the goal of preserving and expanding the British Empire.
The secret society is modeled on the well-known Roman Catholic order of the Jesuits (one early version of Rhodes' will did indeed call for the creation of a pan-English-speaking secret society based on the Jesuits; although this never—so far as is known—came into existence, this is where the author got his idea).
Invited to the Otherhood's secret headquarters, located out of normal time and space, Winterset is told that there had been "An Original Situation", whose description suggests our own familiar history. There, what Winterset knew as the six-month-long "War of 1914" had degenerated into a mass four-year-long bloodletting. It was followed by the rise of various dictatorships and tyrannies, more terrible wars and unimaginable mass murders, and finally the development of terrible destructive weapons capable of utterly destroying the world. The calamity also involved the complete dissolution of the British Empire, to which Winterset is staunchly loyal and which he regards as the main guarantor of the world's peace and stability.
All this was averted only due to the ability of the Otherhood's agents to go back in time, change the past, and create the peaceful, British-dominated world which Winterset had hitherto taken for granted. However, in the Otherhood's timeless headquarters, all this is still to be done.
Then Winterset is told that there is a vital role which he is predestined to play (or that he has, in this universe of non-linear time, already played) and nobody else could fulfill: he must travel back to the beginning of the group in 1893 and assassinate Rhodes. Otherwise, in the late 1890s Rhodes would change his will and dissipate much of his fortune, the Otherhood would never come into being, and the terrible nightmare of "The Original Situation" Twentieth Century would be restored.
When the President pro tem, later revealed to be Winterset, travels into the future, something previously outlawed by the Otherhood, he learns that the future they have created is not at all what they aimed for and in fact is a weak fabric, constantly changing and fluctuating. There is a "capital of an aged empire" which bears only a vague resemblance to London; the street plans, the systems of communications and public transportation, the orthography of books, are all constantly changing and shifting - in random response to some change made in time past by the Otherhood - and the new reality seems to have "always been there" but the President also retains the memory that but a short time ago it was different.
Moreover, there is a far more fundamental change - the world is no longer inhabited by a single intelligent race, but by many: several races of "hominidae" and reptilian "draconidae" who do the various kinds of menial jobs; true humans; long-lived, wise "magi"; and the mysterious "sylphidae" or "angels". The President thinks that to effect such a change in evolution itself, somebody must have traveled a million years into the past - though the Otherhood always took care never to go earlier than 1893, so as not to risk annulling itself.
The Magi and Angels, however, explain to him it is not so: no one had gone so far into the past, no one intentionally interfered with evolution . Rather, the Otherhood's basic aim of creating "a peaceful world of stable hierarchies" has generated countless unintended changes which accumulated exponentially and created this world. And while the lower hominids and draconids are unaware of the ongoing changes, the Magi have inferred their existence during "hundreds of years of pondering" which they know to have been "imaginary centuries". They are tormented by this knowledge, to the point that they long to die, to never have been and to put an end to this imaginary existence.
For their part, the Angels feel acute pain at any new change, "like the snap of a whip infinitely long" - starting from the very moment when they felt themselves come into being "Oldest of the Old Races, though the last which the Otherhood's changes brought into being". They know their future, too - unbearably, they know that the rate of random changes will become worse and worse, and that this world, which they love, is doomed to "sicken and fail". Therefore, they charge the President pro tem to "put out this world like a light". He must go back, prevent Winterset (who is himself) from killing Rhodes - and thereby annul the Otherhood, destroy this alternate history which the Otherhood brought into being, and restore the "true" Original Situation. Crying bitterly, the President sees no choice but to do it.
Meanwhile, a younger Winterset aims to kill Cecil Rhodes, but the moment of opportunity slips due to an outside interference, which Winterset assumes to have been purposely created (a dimly remembered apparition during his sleep, evidently the older Winterset/President pro tem using some kind of hypnosis). Rhodes survives, the Otherhood is therefore never formed, and Winterset is trapped in the past and enters the service of Rhodes and witnesses first-hand the ugly and brutal side of Empire-building, conveniently hidden in the later British Empire where he grew up.
In the final chapter, Winterset, a young man, now living in the "true" history, enters the Colonial Service though it is a doomed institution with the Empire being fast dissolved. He meets his older self in 1956 in Africa and learns of the truth. He helps his older self to escape from Africa and returns to London, where the story ends with their last meeting many years later.
As noted by critic Susan Young, "Great Work of Time" has the same basic outline as Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity - i.e. a secret society of well-meaning time travelers bent on remodeling history, and a young man recruited into the society in order to make a specific change that would bring this society itself into being. The details of what the time travelers do and where in time they operate are much different from those in Asimov's book. However, in both books, the society's operations come to a halt through the influence of people from the future, because the society's actions endanger the existence of the future.
- Novelty: Four Stories, 1989,
- The Great Work of Time, 1992, publisher: Spectra, ISBN 0-553-29319-2
- Novelties & Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction, 2004, publisher: Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-380-73106-0 
- A Science Fiction Omnibus, 2007, edited by Brian Aldiss, publisher: Penguin books, ISBN 978-0-14-118892-8
- World Fantasy Convention. "Award Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 4 Feb 2011.
- Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland. A. Marvell. The Golden Treasury
- "Susan F. Young", "Well-Meaning Do-Gooders and Time-Travel Paradoxes" in Edward Bell (ed.) "The Sociology of Science Fiction"
- fantasicfiction.co.uk accessed: 3 October 2008
- Books to Look For - Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1992, By Orson Scott Card, review of Great Work of Time
- Review on John Crowley by bookslut.com