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Time in Reverse

Entry updated 28 November 2022. Tagged: Theme.

The notion of Time running backwards, with effects preceding causes, is both strongly counter-intuitive and fascinatingly easy to imagine: playing a movie in reverse is among the oldest and most familiar of special effects. The Time Traveller in H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) sees his housekeeper apparently moving backwards through the room during the final moments of his return journey from the future. Still earlier instances appear in Enrique Gaspar's "El anacronópete" (in Novelas, coll 1887; trans as The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey 2012), whose travellers into the past likewise see events in reverse, and Hudor Genone's Bellona's Husband (1887), which is partly set on a Mars whose inhabitants live backwards. Between the 1888 magazine and 1895 book versions of The Time Machine, Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (1889) introduced the Outlandish Watch, a miniature Time Machine which can reverse the passage of time. Albert Robida tackled the theme in L'horloge des siècles ["Clock of the Centuries"] (8 November 1901-11 April 1902 La Vie Illustrée; rev 1902).

Three well-known sf novels centre on this reversal theme, two published in the same year. Counter-Clock World (1967) by Philip K Dick shows an Earth which is partly, patchily reversed. Corpses come to life in graveyards and are rescued to begin life from the wrong end – but this is a genuine rescue, by an ambulance with a digging crew, rather than a mere inverted funeral. Brian Aldiss's An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! 1968) presents itself as a novel of Time Travel but ultimately argues that our familiar sense of time's arrow is an error of Perception and that the empty desolation of the deep past is "really" the Far Future. Perception of time is likewise central to Time's Arrow; Or, the Nature of the Offense (1991) by Martin Amis, in which only the ex-Nazi protagonist experiences time in reverse and – with hideous irony – perceives the World War Two Holocaust as a time of joyous creation. Further examples of single lifetimes experienced in reverse are Malcolm Ross's The Man Who Lived Backward (1950) and Sumner Locke Elliott's The Man Who Got Away (1972).

Several works focus on the physiological (see Biology) aspect of reverse ageing. Early treatments are found in Plato's The Statesman (360 BCE), as a brief Thought Experiment; in "When Time Turned" (January 1901 Black Cat) by Ethel Watts Mumford (1876-1940), which focuses on the experience of living in reverse; in J Storer Clouston's The Prodigal Father (1909), whose titular adult begins to grow inexorably younger; in F Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (27 May 1922 Collier's), whose protagonist emerges from normal childbirth as an old man and steadily regresses to infancy; and in Oliver Onions's The Tower of Oblivion (1921). In Gerald Kersh's "Note on Danger B" (5 April 1947 Saturday Evening Post), air pilots flying at very high speed regress towards youth; one crashes as a boy of nine or ten. Fritz Leiber's "The Man Who Never Grew Young" (in Night's Black Agents, coll 1947), Damon Knight's "Backward, O Time" (August 1956 Galaxy as "This Way to the Regress"; vt in Turning On, coll 1966) and J G Ballard's two stories "Mr F Is Mr F" (August 1961 Science Fantasy) and "Time of Passage" (February 1964 Science Fantasy) all follow time-reversed life to the logical conclusion of a literal return to the womb (see Psychology). Joseph Samachson's "A Feast of Demons" (March 1958 Galaxy) as by William Morrison extrapolates from the Maxwell's Demon Thought Experiment in Physics to postulate both anti-Entropy "demons" which reverse ageing and entropic demons which accelerate the process. Much emotional anguish is wrung from the predicament of a girl regressing physically and mentally to babyhood in Dan Simmons's Hyperion (1989).

Further examples of this surprisingly popular life-in-reverse subgenre are "The Code" (July 1945 Astounding) by C L Moore as Lawrence O'Donnell, "Foresight" (Summer 1987 Interzone) by Michael Swanwick and (partially) "Fortyday" (May 1994 Asimov's) by Damon Knight.

The reversal theme tends to blur distinctions between sf and Fantasy; an outright fantasy example is T H White's Merlin, who lives his life backwards in The Once and Future King (1958). In Axel Hacke's Die kleine König Dezember (1993 chap; trans Rosemary Davidson as Little King December 2002 chap) the eponymous king is met as a shrinking miniature creature, reaching the end of his backwards life and imparting wisdom.

The protagonist of Roger Zelazny's "Divine Madness" (Summer 1966 Magazine of Horror) experiences several bouts of reversed time until at last this irregular Time Loop takes him far enough back to undo a fatal error. Piers Anthony's Science Fantasy Bearing an Hourglass (1984) includes a sequence in which everyone on Earth except the time-controlling hero temporarily moves backward ("Drawkcab") through time. The Red Dwarf (1988-current) television episode "Backwards" (1989), set on an Earth that is time-reversed relative to the visiting series characters, gleefully exploits the slapstick potential of reversed fighting, eating, and (discreetly offstage) excretion; this setting is revisited in Rob Grant's spinoff novel Backwards (1996). A later example of the iterated use of time reversal is Wrong Place Wrong Time (2022) by Gillian McAllister.

A grandiose reversed-time Cosmology is central to Barrington J Bayley's Collision Course (1973; vt Collision with Chronos 1977), where forward- and backward-moving timelines both face Disaster when they coincide at the same "now". Also grandiose in concept if not entirely in execution is the film Tenet (2020) directed by Christopher Nolan, to which time-in-reverse narrative sequencing is central. [DRL]

see also: Michael Maurice.

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