This example from my Cognitive Mapping columns was written and first published in 1999, in Vector 207, September-October 1999, to be exact. At the time I was writing about a rarely used science fictional device (as I say in the column, it is an easy and comic thing to do in film but not so easy, and certainly not so comic, in fiction); but since then it seems to have become somewhat more common. There was, for instance, the film of Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Benjamin Button’ (a story I had missed), there was a rather fine novel by Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, that came out in 2004, and I remember coming across the device, or something like it, in a story by Jay Lake. So maybe there is something about the device that speaks more to the 21st century than it does to the 20th?
‘You mean there may be other folk living like you?’
‘Perhaps. I don’t know. I have searched hundreds of faces looking for a sign.’
‘Not for sure. Anyone in my case would be clever to hide it. God made men into families and tribes moving on the same trek. Anyone going the opposite way would appear monstrous. No one, not even I, likes to be thought a monster.’
The Man Who Lived Backward (1950)
If I’ve changed the future, he thought, how can I ever know for sure? Since I exist in an endless past, it can make no difference in how I live. The universe he inhabited was a prefabricated place. The events of 112 years stretched ahead of him, a script composed, written, inscribed in granite. But I will be young again, he realised abruptly. His eyes fluttered open, bright with anticipation. My body will revive. I’ll live again, walk, talk, dance.
I will be born anew.
‘The Retro Man’ (1977)
We have always moved through time in two directions at once: in experience we go forwards, but in memory we go back. It was Soren Kierkegaard who said: ‘Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.’ It seems natural, therefore, that science fiction writers should explore that understanding.
In a sense, H.G. Wells gave them the chance to do so with his invention of time travel in The Time Machine (1895), but though most science fiction writers have at one time or another explored the possibility of sudden dislocation to another time, few have gone for the glimpse of understanding that Kierkegaard suggested might be found in a life lived backwards.
There are two possible reasons for this. One is that travelling backwards in time reverses the flow of causality that has been a staple of Western intellectual life since David Hume. Going backward, the effect will preceed the cause. Visually this can be fun, and film makers from the earliest silent comedies onwards have delighted in the opportunities presented by running the film in reverse, but for writers going beyond the visual joke creates genuine problems. Lewis Carroll explored this in passing in Through the Looking Glass (1871), but it was one of his games with logic, much like the film-maker playing a scene in reverse it was an effect without real affect. It wasn’t really until T.H. White produced an echo of Kierkegaard’s aphorism in the character of Merlin who lives his life backwards that the consequences of such an experience began to be explored. Merlin’s wisdom gained at the expense of remembering the future, and hence the fate that awaits everyone including himself, is one of the few shadows to hang over the otherwise almost unfailingly sunny first three books of The Once and Future King (1938-58). In the dark and brooding final volume, The Candle in the Wind (1958), the whole tragedy is seen to hinge upon the related problems of age, memory and nostalgia.
For though White made no attempt to address the logic or the mechanics of living backwards, he did recognise one overwhelming truth, and the second reason why so few authors have touched on the theme: it is a tragedy which, despite Kierkegaard, doesn’t really bring understanding. Rather, it dislocates the character totally from human experience — if the relationship between cause and effect is turned totally upon its head, then so is everything underpinned by causality, including our moral sense. As the protagonist of The Man Who Lived Backward suggests, it has turned him into a monster, not because of any evil act — on the contrary, he spends the book trying to do good (as the story opens he laments his inability to prevent the assassination of Lincoln, and throughout the book he makes repeated attempts to alter the course of history with, inevitably, no success) — but as he knows the effect has already happened, he cannot change the cause. Determinism makes monsters of us all. And determinism is unavoidable in stories of people living backwards in time, it is the only story to tell — a third reason why it is so uncommon in the literature.
The two most significant works of science fiction which explore this theme — An Age (1967) by Brian Aldiss and Counter-Clock World (1967) by Philip K. Dick — both expend most of their ingenuity in trying to sidestep determinism.
Although Aldiss and Dick approach the subject in different ways — in An Age our protagonist is an assassin sent back in time, in Counter-Clock World we are in an entire community suffering the after-effects of what is called the ‘Hobart Phase’ — they both use the image of a world gone awry to explore what was, for them, familiar territory. For Aldiss, time out of step is a symbol of the totalitarianism for which is protagonist is an agent, and the haunting figure of the Dark Woman is a symbol of rightness. For Dick, the dead rising from their graves, the reverse of social custom over matters of eating and excretion, are ways of expressing once more the unreliability of our consensus reality, the need to doubt what we see. Though Aldiss’s story is rather better than Dick’s, neither represents the writer at his best, and in neither case is the consequence of backwards time, the way it overthrows our normal moral considerations, explored with any conviction or determination.
It was left to Gordon Eklund, in his little-known story ‘The Retro Man’, to tackle the whole question of determinism head-on. After an encounter with enigmatic aliens, the 112-year-old entrepreneur finds himself slipping backwards through his life. In a Kierkegaardian sense this journey actually does bring understanding, but more than that the protagonist uses his understanding — his memory made flesh — to try and effect changes. He cannot see the result of his efforts, for the effect of each cause will always lie in his past (and, indeed, in a different past from the one he has experienced if there is any effect at all), but at the moment of his birth he is catapulted back to his 112-year-old present and finds that in a small but significant way he has been able to make a difference. He has, in other words, created what amounts to a parallel universe for himself.
The most recent book to take this theme, however, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), positively embraces determinism. The narrator rides inside the head of a man who goes from breaking whole bodies in the operating theatre and sending mangled remains out to the site of accidents, to working in a German concentration camp where he conjures a whole race out of corpses. We are meant to consider the way one good act can compensate for an evil act, then to ponder the question in the mirror of our familiar experience. But Amis’s mirror world is too neatly balanced, too perfect a reflection, to really carry the moral weight he expects of it. Maybe moral questions really do lose their point when cause follows effect.