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Time Out of Sequence

Entry updated 5 August 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The Perception of events in a shuffled or apparently random sequence – as distinct from the simple negative of Time in Reverse – is played for laughs in F Anstey's Tourmalin's Time Cheques (A Farcical Extravagance) (1891; vt The Time Bargain; or, Tourmalin's Cheque Book 1905), where it generates an escalating sense of comic confusion. More usually, the effect disturbingly emphasizes the illusory nature of free will in a deterministic universe. A prime example is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, whose time-disordered protagonist strives to live in the happy moments of a World War Two-traumatized existence. All events of a human life are perceived simultaneously but presented in arbitrary (though artful) order in Norman Spinrad's "The Weed of Time" (in Alchemy & Academe, anth 1970, ed Anne McCaffrey), where the effect is produced by a Drug; in the Watchmen episode relating the life of the Superhero "Dr Manhattan", who is destroyed and reborn as a kind of secular god (see Gods and Demons) compelled to act only as he already knows he will act; and in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden), filmed as Arrival (2016), where the reshuffled time perception results from deep comprehension of an Alien viewpoint and language (see Linguistics).

Most of these stories convey the chill of determinism, of inability to affect the already-lived future. The Alien Tralfamadorians of Slaughterhouse-Five know how the universe will end: prematurely, in a stupid accident that cannot be averted because in the eye of eternity it has already happened. The title character of Philip K Dick's The World Jones Made (1956) is trapped in a permanent fugue of Precognition as he simultaneously experiences the present and an inescapable future six months ahead. Kurt Vonnegut offers another vision of determinism in his final novel Timequake (1997), whose titular cataclysm causes everyone in the world of February 2001 to relive the previous decade from February 1991, with full memory of horrors and embarrassments to come but no power to alter events. A similar helpless replay, of a day rather than a decade, features in Philip E High's Blindfold from the Stars (1979).

Conversely, a Cyberspace experiment in Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994) makes what is either a subtle or a tautologous philosophical point by demonstrating that an Uploaded consciousness perceives time as linear and continuous even when its notionally successive mental states are being simulated in wildly random order. [DRL]

see also: Next; Milorad Pavić; Jocelyn Quilp.


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