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September/October 2011
 
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Curiosities

The Gap in the Curtain, by John Buchan (1932)

BUCHAN IS best remembered for action-adventures like The Thirty-Nine Steps (several times filmed) and The Power-House. The latter's hero Edward Leithen returns in this, Buchan's only outright sf novel.

According to the then-fashionable time theories of J. W. Dunne, we can laboriously train ourselves to glimpse the future. An eminent scientist proposes an experiment to let seven members of a traditional English house party see, just for an instant, the Times newspaper from one year ahead.

Leithen is distracted by the scientist's death at the crucial moment, and (as is the way of girls in adventure stories) the one female participant faints, but five men peep through that gap. A businessman learns of an important merger; a politician, an unexpected change of Prime Minister; a young man, news of his departure on a journey he'd surely never take; and the remaining two their own death notices.

Their very different exploits through the next year follow. Buchan takes the familiar moral line that a little learning is a dangerous thing: two characters come to grief (one with wry acceptance) by not knowing the full context of their revelations. For another, the by-then-forgotten glimpse proves to be personal salvation. One man struggles to game the system and alter the future. The last finds that even the Times can get it wrong.

John Buchan and his favorite narrator Leithen are reliably gripping storytellers. Between them, they tell these tales well. One little frisson of real prediction: the British General Election, just like that of 2010, leads to a surprise coalition government.

—David Langford

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