This speculative short story, narrated backwards, was published in two parts in Bewildering Stories Vol, 994.
The first funny thing is that when I was young, I was like them. Moodily or recklessly I frittered away months at a time, as if being young and healthy with the world full of possibilities were a curse. I dived into trouble. I thought then that this was because I was too cool to stay straight. Now I realise it was because I had too much time, no direction, and a conviction that I would live forever. And it is, of course, my present perspective on life that’s correct. It’s always the latest perspective, based on the most information, that’s correct. Right?
I’ve had a lot of time to get my head straight. Time blurs the details and reveals the essence.
The second funny thing is that when I was young, I realised that businesses invent products nobody needs, then spend millions persuading us we need them. It was Jessica who guided me to this insight. I’d been running around collecting notches on my bedpost. Jessica drew me by her weirdness.
At first she was just another stamp in stamp collection. We shared the big, empty house her parents had left her. At first, the emptiness terrified me. Then it made me wistful, as if I missed something I’d never be able to name. Then I learned to accept it, to see in it a reminder, not scary but salutary, of the day death would empty my own life.
I realised I’d been filling my empty days with women, my empty house with things. Filling my life with people and things had been an escape from the terror of the blank. Now, living with Jessica, stripped down, I saw that life was essentially blank, that someday you’ve got to stop running.
I never became a minimalist. But I developed a hobby of scoffing whenever a new car, phone, or wallpaint colour launched. Today I’m 92. You know how old fogies reason: “If we’d really needed this thing, we’d have had it back in the 1910s.”
But when TimeShare came along — running beta-trials, through invitation only, no advertising, the scientists keeping it hush-hush — we didn’t cross our arms and sit back to mock. We stormed the premises. We bribed the scientists to take us as guinea-pigs. They didn’t even have to cook up sexy copy to tell us why we needed this new thing. TimeShare really was the thing we hadn’t known we needed.
The third funny thing is that when I was young, I wouldn’t have called living like this living. Giant insulin needle in the tummy thrice a day. Dialysis four hours a day, every other day. Clare and Sophie dead. My sisters and friends dead. At least I can still wipe my own arse and brush my own teeth. Those other tasks — cooking meals, buying groceries, taking out the rubbish — one by one, from my 80s, I let the Solstice staff take over. I don’t know if a 20-year-old smug in the pink of health would call this living. What I know is that this works for me.
It’s funny, what you can get okay with someone else doing for you. After all, we outsource by default our laundry, healthcare, garment design, and food production. Why then do we feel sure that the day we can’t wipe our own arse is the day we’ve lived too long?
A man who hasn’t the flexibility to wipe himself can still stroll around the garden. One lap might take him all afternoon. But so what? When you’ve looked death in the eye, and come back knowing you’re short on time, you realise you’ve always been short on time. Then there’s a period of black depression, and then, well, all the clutter falls away. What remains is one or two things you enjoy, and you’d rather do those one or two things well, taking your time. Wiping my own arse isn’t on the list. I’m looking forward to the day I can outsource that.
When TimeShare came along, Simon already couldn’t wipe his own arse. Simon refused the spot Jamie had bought him in the beta-trials. Simon went in his own time.
* * *
11:00 a.m. Coffee and cookies served in the lobby.
“When did you leave your room today?” Jamie asked.
“Just after 10:00 a.m.,” said Kurt.
“So you’re at an hour now,” said Jamie. “Your room’s the farthest out west, just about a half-mile. One hour to walk one half-mile!”
Kurt grinned. Kurt has never got used to his dentures: so we’ve got used to Kurt’s lisp, and to Kurt’s baby-gummed chain-smoker’s thousand-wrinkled smile, which looks at first like something from a horror movie gone comedy, and then makes you grin right back. “Well, I’ve nowhere else to be. I’ve finally got the perfect balance between the time I’ve got and the things I’ve got to do.”
“If only they could’ve given us the time when we were young!” said Jamie.
“Then we’d all have sold one kidney and one eye, instead of just our houses, to get in,” I said. “But they say that’s not possible. They can give us the time only now.”
“They say!” said Jamie, sulking. Jamie had wanted Simon to take the time. Simon wouldn’t. Now Jamie was alone. “They who came up with this! The thing that we’ve all wished for, so crazy that when we lay in bed whispering secrets and crazy wishes, we never whispered this wish. Now they say isn’t possible to give us the time, back in time. And you believe them?”
“Your logic’s a little off,” I said. “But listen: suppose that was possible. Suppose we could be young again, and healthy; but go back in time with all this wisdom. Mistakes made, lessons learned, youth pre-wasted. All that pointless rebellion, that clutter of hobbies, addictions, arrogance, playlists, books, and token-collecting over and done with. If we could go back, and have our youth again — plus five more years, eleven years — d’you really think we wouldn’t just imagine ourselves immortal again, and find new ways to waste all that time again? Isn’t it better to have the time now?”
“What good is it now?” said Jamie. “What can we do now that we couldn’t do a hundred times better at 25?”
“When I was 25, I could never have taken an hour to walk a half-mile,” lisped Kurt, grinning ear to ear. “Not if you’d paid a thousand bucks to do it. I never had the patience to finish a Sudoku, sit through a funeral, or see a thought through. So why would I go back to being 25? The only Personal Bests I made then were making bad friends and taking all my energy out by trying to destroy myself.”
“No,” exclaims Jamie, “you’re assuming we’d go back still stupid. Don’t you see? We’d actually be going back with old men’s wisdom in young men’s bodies. This time we wouldn’t waste our time. This time I could’ve settled down and made something of myself.”
“I think you’ve got to earn your wisdom in this body, for it to stick,” I said. “Look. When we were young, was there any shortage of people giving us advice? But we thought we knew better, didn’t we? We thought we were special: the rules didn’t apply to us. They didn’t see. We’d show them. If we could go back in time with our wisdom, it’d just be the wisdom of another old fogie, doling out advice because he couldn’t make anything of his own life. It’d be just another voice to ignore.”
“Pessimist much?” Jamie hissed.
“We have this time now.” Kurt was still grinning. Sometimes you wondered if his face had got stuck that way. The purple splotches on his pale gums gleamed like poppies on snow. “Are you going to spend all morning arguing? I’m off for the mini-golf course. The championships start at noon, so I’ve just time to walk down the street and stretch a bit.”
“Oh, just give up and take the cart!” said Jamie. Jamie couldn’t stand to watch the rest of us hobbling around like ants climbing a mountain. Jamie never lost sight of the mountain or of the thousand tumbles he had taken off it, trying to sprint up it.
“I’ll take the cart on the way back. Jamie! Watch.” Kurt held up one swollen-jointed finger with its persistently fungus-eaten nail. “One: how fun it is to walk slow. Two: how nice it is to know when you’re tired, rather than lazy, to know when it stop pushing yourself. There’s two more things I didn’t know when I was young! If they paid us to take this time when we were young, I wouldn’t.”
“You’d sell your liver to take it,” snapped Jamie.
“Sell this liver?” Kurt chuckled, his lungs rattling like marbles. “After all the scare and sickness of the transplant?”
Of the 120 residents at Solstice, Kurt’s just about the most decrepit. Kurt’s always laughing. I bet you Kurt’s the last to go, even without the extra time.
The technology is simple. It’s got nothing to do with time travel. We just take time from A and give it to B. Here at Chronologue, we had proprietary rights to all the elements for TimeShare by 2051. We just didn’t think there’d be a demand for this specific combination of elements. What sane person would give up time when they’re young?
2061 to ‘63 were bad years. The war was over, there was no boom to rocket us out of the recession, and the new dictatorships had shuttered our East Asia subsidiaries. That’s when Mum hired Polyopsis to review our assets, survey the market, and brainstorm new products.
Everybody at Polyopsis has an absolutely unique multihyphenate background: that’s how the think-tank identifies revolutionary opportunities. TimeShare was the wildest idea Polyopsis gave us. Mum pondered over it for months, deliberating over ethics and mechanics, then okayed the offer at the last minute, on a whim. Mum was always making decisions on a whim, complaining about not being able to resist whims, secretly delighted by her whims. Now I realise that her whims were simply the boldness of genius repudiating caution.
First, we had to find young people willing to give up time. Only then did our consumer psychologists tell us that this was one of the product ideas they’d filed on our database years ago. It had come out of routine potential-product surveys. You’re wondering how our marketing team had come up with this idea?
There’re a lot of things people want but never articulate, not even to the person who knows their dirtiest secrets. To strangers, though, people open up. If you don’t know me, you’re less likely to care what I think of you. But, stranger or not — if a need has never seen daylight, never dared to grope for words — how do you suddenly articulate it now? The answer is neuromarketing.
You put people in a brain-scanner, generally an MRI machine. Let their minds wander. The brain is never at rest: random neurons are always firing, exciting other neurons. Let a person lie “idle” long enough, and you’ll see whole networks in their brain lighting up. Like Christmas lights on an epileptic tree. Making apparently no sense. “Just a random thought,” the person himself might say apologetically, if you could translate that activity into words.
That’s when you bring out the brain atlases. You look up what it means when this network — down the left parietal lobe, and the bilateral prefrontal — lights up. Then you reverse-engineer from your crazy-lit Christmas tree to work out what it was this person was thinking when their brain lit up like this. Turns out our consumer psychologists had known for years that many young people fantasised about giving up their time. The idea must’ve been too weird for them to process, so we had to go peeking under the hood.
If you look at us right, we marketing professionals aren’t really vampires looking to suck you dry. We’re priests, probing for the one desire you don’t dare articulate even to yourself. We probe you not with gold-digging fingers but with fingers of love. If you don’t start with love, you don’t get far, not even in a conspicuously consumer capitalism. You can dupe the market once, but not twice. And Chronologue has always been in for the long haul.
So, thanks to the research our consumer psychs had filed away decades ago, now we knew where the time would come from: young people. And obviously it would go to older people. But how? We needed to do the upload and download simultaneously: for time-freezing technology to store time till you’re ready to use it doesn’t exist.
That’s why Mum hesitated. If you could take time from a person — when they were ill, depressed, heartbroken, addicted, or otherwise messed-up and misusing time, waiting for time to pass — and hold it for them, and give it back to them when they were well — that’d be a no-brainer. But who would want to give up their time forever?
Mum thought we’d have to wait for time-freezing technology before we could implement time-transfer. Mum wasn’t thinking of transfer at all: not between two people. It was only after Mum’s funeral that our consumer psychologists confessed what they’d known for years: that many young people want to give up time.
It didn’t make sense to me, either. I double-checked with nine practising psychotherapists.
“Yes, Ms. Zekinallos. I hear this very often. Many of my clients, in their 20s, 30s, and some into their 40s — they realise that they’re living the wrong way. But, from force of habit, they keep repeating the same errors, wasting time.”
“Living the wrong way? Do therapists still believe there’s such a thing?”
She laughed. “It’s the 21st century, and we still think therapy’s all about self-acceptance! No. You’ve got to accept your errors so that you can change. You forgive yourself so that you take the pressure off and give yourself a chance. Of course there’s such a thing as living wrong! As Tolstoy said: ‘Every happy life looks the same. Every unhappy life is unhappy in its own way.’ Routines disordered, emotions all over the map, immense ambition contending with crippling laziness, and you your own worst enemy…”
“Sounds like every unhappy life looks the same, too,” I observed.
“It does actually, when you blur the details to look at the gist.”
“That’s a rare gift,” I remarked dispassionately, as is fitting when the discussion has nothing to do with you.
“No, it’s just a feature of healthy aging… A lot of my clients, who’ve realised that they’re living wrong, tell me they wish they could just hibernate until they got wise, and wake up able to do the things they already know they should be doing.”
“What d’you tell those clients?”
“That there are no shortcuts. That we’ve got to work through what’s holding them back from doing what they know they should.”
“What’s holding them back?”
“Most often, it’s inertia. Or they feel bad for carrying on as they are, but not bad enough. Or they feel really bad, and shame cripples them… So what’s Chronologue’s interest in young-person problems?”
I fobbed off a likely story and rose and thanked her.
With help from our psychotherapist consultants and our in-house team, we’ve put together 120 hours of prerecorded psychotherapy lectures for young people who are about to give up their time to TimeShare. We feed the lectures into them — as the “Matrix” folk fed jiu-jujitsu into Neo so that, — when they wake up next morning, five or however many years older — they’ve learned how to do the things they knew they had to do. Manage time and emotions. Face their mortality and prioritise their goals. Distinguish what, in their own scheme of life, is goal from what is distraction.
Does it work? Can the wisdom of years really be transferred overnight from tapes you listen to as you sleep into lived action? Our plan was to find out via a tiny beta-trial.
They stormed our premises. The young people who wanted to give up time that, New Year’s Resolutions and tearful late-night confessions notwithstanding, they kept misspending. The old people who’d reconciled themselves to indignity after indignity, and found life — now that they had at last the final view, the right view of life — finally worth living.
They forced us to expand the participant pool for our beta trial from 50 to 100,000. Their ringleader, a 91-year-old woman with two steel knees and a colostomy bag, had her nephew hold a stun-gun to my temple. Betty wanted time. Young Ivan wanted to give it up.
Chronologue has always served the people. The people wanted to take a risk. They didn’t want to wait to see if it worked. Who were we to impede the course of human progress with cowardly red tape?
Now, two years into the beta trial, the old people are loving their extra time. Do some of them regret taking it? Many of our older participants are frail, ailing, and demented to varying degrees. But they know that killing themselves won’t give back the remainder of the time they’ve purchased to the young person they’ve downloaded the time from. So they exert themselves into making the most of their extra years.
Of course we’ve got our complainers. There’s a chap who’s been grumbling about our mechanics since the day he signed up. He makes a soapbox of every tea-break, sowing discontent. But he’s in a tiny minority.
Just this morning, on my facility visit, I had a man with purple gums and fingertips, no teeth, and grandchildren all dead in the war walk down the garden path a half-inch a step to thank me. To tell me this week’s Personal Bests, and to breathe on me in his wheezing laughter the odour of slow, gentle, sweet decay.
As for the young people, giving up their time, hoping to sleep through the age of folly and wake up in the age of wisdom, does it work? It’s too soon to tell.
I thought and thought, in circles as mad as an electron’s flight path, until I lay in bed, stunned and dizzy, sure that I was either a genius or mad. Through all that chaos, my thoughts kept circling back to one conviction. The problem is that I have too much time.
In 2071, Khadija Hasan was interviewing Stephen Webster. Webster was discussing his Oscar win and his best friend’s suicide. “We never knew he was struggling,” said Webster. “It burns me up when someone’s really struggling and they’d rather die than reach out.”
Hasan asked Webster if he’d ever struggled with depression.
Webster shook his head. “I don’t have the time to be depressed. I’ve got kids in school, a company to run… and two alimonies to pay,” he laughed. “Idon’t have time to be depressed.”
I’d struggled with depression for years, tried all the talk therapy and New Age rituals and experimental drugs there are. Webster’s remark stuck like a splinter in the marrow of my brain. On the one hand, he was being insensitive: speaking of mental illness as if it were garbage you’d forgotten to take out. You just have to keep busy and then you won’t have time to be ill. As if being ill were a pastime! It was a ridiculous perspective, and I knew it, we all know it. But it stuck in my brain.
I looked Webster up. I realised that behind all his massive successes, he’d had a hard life. He never spoke of it. And after that interview, I kept waiting for him to break down, to stop being so busy and start being real. I kept thinking, “You’ve got to resolve your issues. Sometime they’ll catch up with you. You can pretend to be tough, bury yourself in work, leave yourself no time to think but, some day, it’ll all come flooding out, and you’ll be a mess sobbing on the stage in the middle of your 78th consecutive night performing Cats on Broadway.”
But Webster never broke down. He died at 89: popular, critically acclaimed, father of two successful actresses, a philanthropist for controversial causes that scared other celebrities, his name untarnished. The idol of his generation and of mine. After seven years of chemotherapy, he opted for euthanasia.
So I looked, with his sceptical eyes, at myself.
If I had a child to feed, would I have time to shop compulsively, then punish myself with one meal a day for weeks? If I had a job I was paid to go to instead of classes my parents were paying for me to take, would I have time to mourn my guinea pig for weeks? If I had to work a job to put dinner on the table, would I let Yvette treat me like something the cat dragged in months after I’d decided to break up with her?
My first therapist told me that every problem behaviour has a specific solution. You’ve got to work out what rejection, in your infancy, makes you think you have to starve yourself to be lovable. What twisted inner voice tells you that you deserve to love only sick women? What unspoken need does smoking fill in your life? Once you know, you can begin to solve.
But what I learned from pursuing Stephen Webster down the rabbit-hole is that many problem behaviours also have one general solution: just take away time.
Fill, fill, fill your life with things to do. Boot-camp your mind into shape. Old injures won’t have time to heal in the sunlight, but buried deep they’ll be forced to scar over. You’ll manage to keep going, doing a little more every day. The old insecurities will lurk in the steel safe in the basement of your brain. Leave them there. Jump out of bed the moment your eyes open. Fall into bed only when you’re exhausted. Let the sickness of thinking and thinking and thinking gather dust in the attic. Stop thinking and start doing. Don’t wait till you’ve scythed your way out of your electron-cloud brain fog. Just do it.
And if you still can’t?
January 01, 2081. I’m about to upload seven years of my life into Chronologue’s TimeShare server. I’ve opted for closed transfer: I won’t see who gets my years. Some old woman: I wish her joy of my years.
And me? Tomorrow I’ll wake up. I’ll be 42. The age when, Grandma said, Mum finally came to her senses. Plus I’ll have the benefit of the therapy-sessions they’ll upload into me. “Truth be told, I was just the same,” Grandma told me when I was a kid. “Scatterbrained, self-destructive… Maybe it’s something I passed on to your mum. Maybe everyone’s like that.”
Grandma lived to be 120. Grandma won the Nobel Prize. How much I could achieve, if I could sleep through the dizzying, worse-than-useless, stumbling-in-circles imbecility of my youth!
I’m terrified. Tomorrow I’ll wake up, and the seven years I’ll have aged will be a blank. But why does a blank terrify me? The Chronologue psychologists told me: it’s because I realise that, if I stumble on this way, my whole life could be a blank. Sleeping through seven years overnight is a small price to pay to avoid seven years of running around in circles bat-blind, stubbing my toes against the same stones.
Grandma said there are no shortcuts. But this isn’t a shortcut. This has a price. This will work. Won’t it?
Tomorrow I’ll still be me. Just better than I know how to be.