The Very Slow Time Machine – Ian Watson (1979)
‘The Very Slow Time Machine arrives on Earth in 1985. Its sole inhabitant is old and mad. Soon it becomes apparent that for him, time is going slowly backward. With every day, he is getting younger and saner. The world, and its whole concept of time, science and philosophy, must wait for him to speak. But while the world waits, it changes…’
Blurb from the 1981 Granada paperback edition
There aren’t many authors who master the art of short story writing, but Watson is definitely in there with the greats. I remember reading a couple of these stories in their original publications and it is to Watson’s credit that the memory of the essence of the tales still remains. Watson is also one of the most inventive and creative writers around and a more diverse collection of ideas and subject matter from one author will be a tough order.
He is also particularly prolific, and has several collections of short stories available. They are all highly recommended.
Ian Watson exhibits a prolificacy and breadth and depth in theme, subject and setting in his short stories, something unusual in SF writers since their short forms on the whole tend to fall within certain parameters.
Furthermore, each story is exquisitely constructed, its brevity belying the wealth of concepts employed.
The title piece for instance examines not only issues of causality and paradox, but also looks at religion’s relationship with the media.
The stories here are a selection from the Nineteen Seventies, covering a period of about five years.
The Very Slow Time Machine (Anticipations – Christopher Priest (Ed) 1978)
Thy Blood Like Milk (New Worlds Quarterly 1973)
Sitting on a Starwood Stool (Science Fiction Monthly 1974)
Agoraphobia AD 2000 (Andromeda 2 – Peter Weston (Ed) 1977)
Programmed Love Story (Transatlantic Review 1974)
The Girl Who Was Art (Ambit 1976)
Our Loves So Truly Meridional (Science Fiction Monthly 1974)
Immune Dreams (Pulsar 1 – George Hay (Ed) 1978)
My Soul Swims in a Goldfish Bowl (Magazine of F&SF 1978)
The Roentgen Refugees (New Writings in SF #30 – Bulmer (Ed) 1978)
A Time Span to Conjure With (Andromeda 3 – Peter Weston (Ed) 1978)
On Cooking The First Hero in Spring (Science Fiction Monthly 1975)
Event Horizon (Faster Than Light; an original anthology about interstellar travel – Jack Dann and George Zebrowski (Eds) 1976)
The Very Slow Time Machine
A beautifully crafted piece where the themes are paradox and causality. A capsule appears from nowhere in 1985 containing a mad and incoherent old man whose life appears to be running backwards. The capsule appears to have been sent back in time from the near future and is impregnable, but the highly efficient recycling system inside the allows its occupant to sustain himself. As he grows younger and saner he begins to deliver a message.
Over the years the time-traveller begins to assume a Messianic status with the general public.
Ironically it would appear that the media storm around the capsule and its passenger has ensured that we build such a ship and send it back in time and has also ensured that that the occupant – who has grown up somewhere outside the capsule knowing of his destiny – will be compelled to come to the launch site, believing that he is destined to be God.
Thy Blood Like Milk
An ecological tale in which gangs roam the highways searching for sunspots; moments when the sun breaks through a permanent cloud layer caused by pollution and global warming. One of the leaders of the gang, who has revived the Aztec cult of the sun god, is being punished for a death he caused on the road . Having his blood milked for hospital use is paying his penance. The story however focuses on his relationship with his nurse who happens to be the girlfriend of the man he killed.
Sitting on a Starwood Stool
Watson is adept in packing several extraordinary concepts into a deceptively short story. Every 1.23 years aliens appear at a certain point in space to trade a few small cuts of the rare Starwood for valuable products from Earth; a Botticelli or even a group of humans.
Starwood is the product of trees grown on an asteroid with an eccentric orbit about its sun, and absorbs the energies of trees. When turned into something such as a stool, it will leak its stored star energy into whomever it comes into contact with, rejuvenating or curing the subject.
A cancer victim hatches a plot to steal the stool form a Yakuza boss, but things do not go according to plan.
Agoraphobia AD 2000
Watson again demonstrates his fascination with Japanese culture in this surreal tale in which an astronaut is required to enter a virtual environment in order to commit hari kiri.
Programmed Love Story
A highly stylised Japanese tale of a businessman who is requested to abandon his bride as she is rather too complaint to be a corporate wife. When she becomes a hostess at the Queen Bee they meet again, but in her work she has been endowed with the persona of an aggressive and ruthless Imperial Consort, and it is this with which he falls in love,
Beautifully written and beautifully structured.
The Girl Who Was Art
A story which examines Art and Japanese culture in which a young girl undergoes muscle training in order to reproduce three-dimensionally the work of a twentieth century photographer in tableaux forms. But Art, it appears, is fickle and transient.
Our Loves So Truly Meridional
The world becomes divided into segments along the meridians by immense glass-like forcefield walls. Two people in separate segments attempt to reach the poles to find out what happens at the nexus of the barriers. It’s in the detail where Watson excels, envisioning societies where a globe of the world has been reduced to a single bowlike segment with a steel string connecting the poles.
A man who may or may not be suffering from cancer believes that dreams are the body’s way of correcting errant DNA, He elects to become part of an experiment in which the part of the brain which suppresses volitional control during sleep is turned off.
My Soul Swims in a Goldfish Bowl
A rather weak tale in which a man is convinced by his wife that the amoebic creature he has coughed up is his soul, and keeps it alive in a goldfish bowl
The Roentgen Refugees
Following the unexpected supernova of Sirius, the world is blasted by the resultant flux of Gamma radiation and only a fraction of the world’s population are saved, mainly in the Western World. Set in South Africa (and written during the time of apartheid) it’s a philosophical piece about third world issues, faith and racism on various levels. Like most of Watson’s short fiction it is brief, yet complex.
A Time Span to Conjure With
A scheduled inspection of a young colony world finds the colonists childless and oddly philosophical. It appears that an indigenous species (spoken of as ‘fairies’ due to their apparent transparency and elusiveness) exist in Time in a different sense to ourselves.
The aliens appear to be very alien, made more so by the fact that Watson keeps them at arm’s length. We see them briefly on the page, but realise through the narrative that they are always around.
On Cooking The First Hero in Spring
Three human anthropologists examine an alien tribe who show little signs of intelligence and seemingly have only one word in their vocabulary, although a Buddhist member of the team looks at them from a different perspective.
Initially it is thought that the creatures had built an aisle of statuary, depicting themselves or their ancestors, but it transpires that every ‘dawn’ one of their number is chosen to be baked alive in a shell of clay, and then put in position among the statues forming a strange highway to nowhere.
Maybe the least accessible of the stories, this features a black hole which may or may not have a mind trapped with it, and some investigators, who achieve telepathic union by the use of drugs and tantric sex. It’s very much a tale of its time and seems – unlike the other pieces – oddly dated.