Time Distortion

Tagged: Theme

The pioneering sf story of distorted time is H G Wells's "The New Accelerator" (December 1901 Strand), introducing a Drug that "speeds up" Time for its users and makes the world around them seem almost to freeze. As far as others are concerned, the users have attained temporary Invisibility while in motion. Drugs achieve the same effect in Henry Kuttner's Gallegher Galloway story "Ex Machina" (April 1948 Astounding) – also featuring a converse slow-down to near-stasis – and in Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990), where "tempus" allows the just-married hero a subjective month of honeymoon in one day. Similar speed-up is achieved by Technology in Arthur C Clarke's "All the Time in the World" (July 1952 Startling) and – deftly exploited for comic effect – in John D MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything (1962). Other routes to personal speed-up are internal Cyborg rewiring in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996) and manipulation of time through Psi Powers in Clifford D Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing (April-July 1961 Analog as "The Fisherman"; 1961).

Communications with the three-world solar system of Robert A W Lowndes's Believers' World (September 1952 Space Science Fiction as "A Matter of Faith" as by Michael Sherman; exp 1961) are complicated by its location within a Hyperspace bubble where time passes twenty-five times faster than on Earth. Larry Niven's sf mystery "ARM" (in Epoch, anth 1975, ed Roger Elwood & Robert Silverberg) hinges on an inertia-reducing Invention which greatly increases the flow of time within its field of action. Such a "chronowarp" is used to accelerate healing and other Biological processes in Tuf Voyaging (coll of linked stories 1986) by George R R Martin; the similar "single-acting introverter" rapidly ages a baby lobster to full growth and readiness to eat in Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here? (1977); another time warp causes combatants to age rapidly during the final comic battle of The Ice Pirates (1984). The whole human race lives faster (without shortening of lifespan) in R A Lafferty's "Slow Tuesday Night" (April 1965 Galaxy), where every day is crowded with normal-time years of global upheavals in fashion, finance and fortune.

A device with a contrary, time-slowing effect is deployed in John Gloag's Slow (1954); the extreme case in which time slows to a halt is discussed under Stasis Field (see also End of Time). In Pat Murphy's sf Hobbit pastiche There and Back Again by Max Merriwell (1999), a variable time-distorter which can both speed and slow time for its user plays the part of J R R Tolkien's Ring. Though falling somewhat outside the scope of this entry, Aliens for whom time moves exceedingly slowly appear in Eric Frank Russell's "The Waitabits" (July 1955 Astounding) and Roger Zelazny's "The Great Slow Kings" (December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow). One interesting Proto SF story featuring aliens who live on a very much faster timescale than humanity is Gulliver Joi: His Three Voyages; Being an Account of his Marvelous Adventures in Kailoo, Hydrogenia and Ejario (1851) by Elbert Perce. Such a speeded-up existence is more plausible for tiny or microscopic beings, such as the misunderstood aliens of Katherine MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (August 1951 Galaxy), the Earth-evolved Gelthea of Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos) and the neutron-star-dwelling cheela of Dragon's Egg (1980) by Robert L Forward. More extravagant distortions appear in Dick's Ubik (1969) and Gordon R Dickson's Time Storm (1977). In Spin (2005) by Robert Charles Wilson, Earth itself is enclosed in a time-slowing bubble outside which over 100 million years pass for each terrestrial day – offering both a threat, since the death of the Sun seems increasingly imminent, and an opportunity to take advantage of Time Abysses by (for example) seeding Mars with Terraforming biota which produce results in days rather than millennia.

Distorted time effects in sf are most often found in the context of Space Flight subject to the laws of Relativity, in particular the time-dilation effect. Sf stories which play with time-dilation effects without invoking special relativity include Fredric Brown's flippant "Placet is a Crazy Place" (May 1946 Astounding) and James Blish's "Common Time" (August 1953 Science Fiction Quarterly). In the latter, side effects of a Faster Than Light drive cause the traveller to experience "micro-time" in which his surroundings and even bodily functions seem vastly slowed, with subjective hours passing between clock ticks and heartbeats; this effect is followed by its converse, the dizzy speed-up of "macro-time". Time-rate varies with military geography in David Masson's "Traveller's Rest" (September 1965 New Worlds), where many leisurely years of civilian life equate to mere minutes in the front-line bunker. The protagonist of Charles L Harness's The Ring of Ritornel (1968) experiences an almost indescribably prolonged Time Abyss during a few days' exile in the "Deep" beyond normal space/time; "The Jaunt" (June 1981 Twilight Zone) by Stephen King posits a similar madness-inducing experience for those who undergo Matter Transmission while conscious.

More obviously metaphorical is the time distortion which telescopes an entire human life into a single day or even less. Thus Richard Matheson's fantasy "Mantage" (in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth) fast-forwards the protagonist's life as a literal movie of just 85 minutes' duration – with all Sex discreetly elided in conformity with that era's cinematic mores. Further notable examples of such compression are Gene Wolfe's very fine "Forlesen" (in Orbit 14, anth 1974, ed Damon Knight), Elizabeth Hand's "Kronia" (Fall 2002 Conjunctions) and Robert Coover's "Going for a Beer" (14 March 2011 The New Yorker).

Time effects which may be partly or wholly subjective are also discussed under Perception. Illusory time distortion is sometimes employed as a plot device. Thus Gerald Kersh's "A Lucky Day for the Boar" (October 1962 Playboy) uses trickery and Psychology to persuade a prisoner that his brief incarceration has lasted for decades; destroying the sense of "time orientation" has similar speeded-up penal effects (see Crime and Punishment) in E C Tubb's "Sing Me No Sorrows" (February 1966 Science Fantasy). The removal of normal time cues in a sensory deprivation tank becomes a sophisticated form of Torture in "The Quaker Cannon" (August 1961 Analog) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth. [DRL]

see also: Zotz! (1962).

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