Time Abyss

Tagged: Theme

The recognition of deep Time – the realization of truly awesome timescales – is one of sf's staple generators of Sense of Wonder. It is not solely the bald statement of temporal immensities which brings this thrill, but the sense that the gulf is or will be spanned by some understanding, some process, though the barely ponderable temporal immensity concealing from human view the heart of the Empire in Franz Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" (written 1917; many posthumous printings from 1932) conveys a sense of time abyss without salvage; the influence of this tale on authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Gene Wolfe is palpable. The significance of H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) is of course both more pervasive and more direct. The Time Traveller of this tale transports his own consciousness from Victorian England to the Far Future and on his return explains the great gap he has traversed. A huge period of time soon became a routine marker for the experience: forty million years pass between Professor Jameson's death and resurrection as a Zorome Cyborg in Neil R Jones's "The Jameson Satellite" (July 1931 Amazing), while the City of Diaspar in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) has continued its perfect functioning across the entire billion-year abyss of the novel's back-story. In the book version of E E Smith's Triplanetary (January-April 1934 Amazing; exp rev 1948), the famous opening line "Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding ..." indicates the span over which the Arisian Secret Masters' plan for the development of civilization has been in effect. Similarly, the extent of the Changewar in The Big Time (March-April 1958 Galaxy; 1961 dos) by Fritz Leiber is shown by the introduction of two fellow-soldiers, one from a billion years in our past and the other from an equally distant future. A E van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976) features an arduous psychic time-journey across the two hundred million years separating our present from the story's.

More recently, Gene Wolfe indicates a time abyss by subtler cues in the Dying Earth of The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols): planetary resources have been so pillaged over the aeons that copper is a precious metal, while mining is reduced to archaeological treasure-hunting since all accessible depths of the crust comprise humanity's ruins and rubbish. Stephen Baxter homages Wells with trips to the ultimate, entropic senility of our universe in The Time Ships (1995) and Time: Manifold 1 (1999; vt Manifold: Time 1999). Iain M Banks offers a final, dramatic shift of perspective in one plot thread of Look to Windward (2000), with a murdered character resuscitated after almost a full galactic revolution – some 230 million years. And in City at the End of Time (2008), Greg Bear homages William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land: A Love Story (1912; cut 1921) by transforming the trek towards a Last Redoubt (see Keep) at the End of Time that shapes that novel into a complex exercise in the use of the time abyss, with characters shuttlecocking from the beginning of time, via contemporary Seattle, to the very end of things.

Black-comedy views of the time abyss are found in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's The Sirens of Titan (1959), where a courier message whose delivery problems have warped the entire history of humanity – and which still has 18 million years to travel – consists of the single concept "Greetings"; R A Lafferty's "Been a Long, Long Time" (December 1970 Fantastic), playing out that famous Thought Experiment involving monkeys, typewriters and the works of Shakespeare across unthinkable stretches of real time; Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), in which the gloomy Robot Marvin is casually abandoned for 576 billion years in a car park ("The first ten million years were the worst ..."); and the opening episode of Red Dwarf (1988-current), whose protagonist wakes to the discovery that, having been in a Stasis Field for seven billion years, he has presumably outlived the human race. The grander the concept, the greater the opportunity for bathos. [DRL]

see also: Anachronox; Forerunners.

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