Time Reversal in Fiction by Evelyn C. Leeper

Time Reversal in Fiction by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.

SYLVIE AND BRUNO by Lewis Carroll:


CRYPTOZOIC! by Brian Aldiss:

TIME'S ARROW by Martin Amis:

"What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/11/2017]

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." --Soren Kiekegaard

The theme of this column is time running backward. I saw the film MY TOMORROW, YOUR YESTERDAY which uses this idea (somewhat) and I got to thinking that there have not been all that many books with it. So I figured it would try to read all of them to which I could find a reference--all five.

Well, only four and a chapter. The first known instance was Chapter 23 of SYLVIE AND BRUNO by Lewis Carroll (1889, ISBN 978-1-548-52393-0), in which Bruno has a magical watch that includes a "reversal-peg" which supposedly reverses time. And it does--sort of. The girls are "un-embroidering" quite accurately, and the conversation sentences are in reverse order, but each sentence has its words in normal order, and each word's phonemes are in normal order. (We know this because Bruno understands them all perfectly.) As long as you have dialogue in a time-reversal story in which the point-of-view character is not reversed, this problem will persist.

COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD by Philip K. Dick (1967, ISBN 978-0-547-57219-2) does not postulate that all time is reversed, just that (some) organic processes are. It is more a "Benjamin Button" [1] scenario, although apparently digestion, and even food preparation, also work backwards. Dick is not too specific on how food enters the body, but his people who have risen from the dead extract food from their mouths, put it on plates where it reforms with what is there already, and then uncook it and return it to what we would think of as its original sources. Dick is also not clear on whether this affects only humans or all life forms. (One presumes if the meat re-attaches to the steak and the steak gets uncooked, it must somehow ultimately get re-attached to the cow, which then ... comes alive again?

Because it is not a universal phenomenon, the language issue is not a problem. Nevertheless, people start conversations with "goodbye" and end with "hello." Maybe this is just an affection to acknowledge the organic reversal. The other affectation (and clearly both of these were consciously adopted after the reversal effect started) is that the mouth becomes the obscene end of the digestive tract (as in calling someone a "horse's mouth"), and the new expletive is "Feood!" Cute, but not likely.

So the time reversal in COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD is only partial, which does avoid the language issue but is extremely paradoxical from a physics standpoint.

CRYPTOZOIC! by Brian Aldiss (ISBN 978-1-497-63758-0), it turns out, is mostly a straight time-travel novel. There is a notion of time being reversed, but it is not the main part of the novel, and since this seems to be an example of the "New Wave", it was almost impossible to follow it.

TIME'S ARROW by Martin Amis (ISBN 978-0-679-73572-0) is the truest to the concept of time flowing backward. Early on, we discover that the narrator is apparently a separate consciousness in Tod Friendly's body who has some inkling that the "time reversal" universe Friendly is living in is "wrong." As he says early on, "Wait a minute. Why am I walking backward* into the house? Wait. Is it dusk coming, or is it dawn? What is the--what is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Why are the birds singing so strangely? Where am I heading?"

And later the narrator sees the dates going from October 2 to October 1 to September 30 on the newspaper Friendly reads, and asks "How do you figure that*? ... The mad are said to keep a film or stage set on their heads,which they order and art-decorate and move through. But Tod is sane, apparently, and his world is shared. It just seems to me that the film is running backward."

The narrator gives us a phonetic example of people talking--and here Amis covers the language issue, because it is as if it were a record being played backward: "dug" rather than "good" and "aid ut oo y'rrah" rather than "how're you today?" The narrator explains he found this (and the birds singing, and other sounds) incomprehensible at first, but learned to understand them, and hence what we get for the dialogue in the rest of the novel is really a translation.

Why* the narrator has a sense that time should go in "our" direction and not "Tod's" is never explained. He certainly has no explanation, even though he recognizes it. Once, after relating a conversation between Tod and a woman, the narrator says, "I have noticed in the past that most conversations would make better sense if you ran them backward[2]. But with this man-woman stuff, you could run them any way you liked--and still get no further forward."

Though he senses a reversal, the narrator's memory works in the flow of Tod's world--he has no foreknowledge of what is coming, which would correspond to our past.

But in addition to a stricter adherence to the "rules" of time reversal, Amis's novel is richer and deeper than the other works I have mentioned. As I wrote when I first read TIME'S ARROW in 1992:

All this sounds somewhat frivolous. But Amis is not being frivolous. [Friendly] turns out to be (have been?) a doctor in Auschwitz and part--but only part--of what Amis is doing is showing how much of life and our existence makes more sense when lived backward. Ecologically, for example, turning cars into iron ore and replacing it in the earth has a certain appeal that going in the other direction lacks. And clearly the Holocaust makes more sense run backwards than forwards. Many authors and philosophers have tried to make sense of the Holocaust and, while it's not clear that Amis's approach provides any practical answers, it does highlight how the Holocaust may be the archetypal example of humanity's tendency to do precisely the reverse of what makes sense. Conversely, of course, the normal function of a doctor (Tod T. Friendly's profession) makes more sense forward than backward. So in both our timeline and the reverse Tod T. Friendly (a name chosen with great care by Amis) moves from sin/evil to redemption--in a sense, anyway, though the actual situation is far more complex.

The last work I read, "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear", Bao Shu (pen name for Li Jun) (F&SF 03-04/15, and picked up for two "Year's Best" anthologies), is the most recent "time-reversal" work, although what is reversed here is not time per se, but cultural progress. As such, I suppose it technically does not belong here, but it feels* like time reversal--certainly as much as COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD. There may be more of this sort of work, under a different classification. When I first reviewed it, I said, "It is not a time travel story, though it has some ideas in common with that genre, and it is not an alternate history, though it has some ideas in common with that genre as well. Its underlying premise has been done before, though Bao Shu has a major variation from all the examples I have read before." The major premise was the reversal, though I wanted to avoid mentioning it there.

[1] "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald does not count, because time* is not running backward, nor is Button living backward. His memory (and his digestion) is running in the same temporal direction as everyone else; it is just that his physical body is getting biologically younger rather than older as time progresses.

[2] That is to say, backward in Tod's world, but in the direction of our world.

To order Sylvie and Bruno from amazon.com, click here.

To order Counter-Clock World from amazon.com, click here.

To order Cryptzoic! from amazon.com, click here.

To order Time's Arrow from amazon.com, click here.

To order "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" from amazon.com, click here.

Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.