Authors: The Very Slow Time Machine (v1.1)
The Very Slow Time Machine
the most purely brilliant of the new SF writers of the Seventies
-Fantasy & Science Fiction
of the few around who is not afraid to use the new sciences of communication as
well as the old ones of technology
most interesting British sf writer of ideas ... he writes a heady, zest-filled
prose that whips up a froth of speculation .
THIS YEAR’S WINNER OF
THE BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION
Here is a collection of his most exciting
stories, stories bound to take you to the outer edges of reality . . . and
THE JONAH KIT
THE MARTIAN INCA
THE VERY SLOW
BY IAN WATSON
A Division of Charter Communications Inc.
A GROSSET & DUNLAP COMPANY
360 Park Avenue
© 1979 by Ian Watson
All rights reserved. No part of this book
may be reproduced in any form or by any means, except for the inclusion of
brief quotations in a review, without permission in writing from the
All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or
An ACE Book
arrangement with Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Cover art by Paul Alexander
First Ace printing: April 1979
The Very Slow Time
first appeared in Anticipations edited by Christopher
first appeared in
a Starwood Stool
first appeared in Science Fiction
first appeared in Andromeda
2 edited by Peter Weston, 1977.
Love Story first appeared in Transatlantic Review, 1974.
Girl Who Was Art first appeared in Ambit, 1976.
Loves So Truly Meridional first appeared in Science Fiction
Immune Dreams first appeared in
1 edited by George Hay, 1978.
My Soul Swims in
a Goldfish Bowl
first appeared in
The Magazine of Fantasy &
The Roentgen Refugees first appeared in
Writings in SF 30 edited by Ken
Conjure With first appeared in Andromeda 3 edited by
Peter Weston, 1978.
the First Hero in
first appeared in Science
Horizon first appeared in
original anthology about interstellar travel
edited by Jack Dann
and George Zebrowski, 1976.
The lines of verse in The
(31 lines from “Diwan
over the Prince of Emgion” and 6 lines from “The Tale of Fatumeh”) are from
Poems by Gunnar Ekelof,
translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjoberg.
Ekelof, 1965, 1966.
Translations copyright© W. H.
Auden and Leif Sjoberg, 1971.
Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books
Nell and Bill Watson
Very Slow Time Machine—for convenience: the
its first appearance at exactly
1 December 1985
in an unoccupied space at the National
Physical Laboratory. It signalled its arrival with a loud bang and a squall of
expelled air. Dr. Kelvin, who happened to be looking in its direction,
reported that the VSTM did not exactly spring into existence instantly, but
rather expanded very rapidly from a point source, presumably explaining the
absence of a more devastating explosion as the VSTM jostled with the air
already present in the room. Later, Kelvin declared that what he had actually
seen was the implosion of the VSTM. Doors were sucked shut by the rush of air,
instead of bursting open, after all. However it was a most confused moment— and
the confusion persisted, since the occupant of the VSTM (who alone could shed
light on its nature) was not only time-reversed with regard to us, but also
infuriating thing is that the occupant visibly grows saner and more
presentable (in his reversed way) the more that time passes. We feel that all
the hard work and thought devoted to the enigma of the VSTM is so much energy
poured down the entropy sink—because the answer is going to come from him, from
inside, not from us; so that we may as well just have bided our time until his
condition improved (or, from his point of view, began to degenerate). And in
the meantime his arrival distorted and perverted essential research at our
laboratory from its course without providing any tangible return for it.
VSTM was the size of a small station wagon; but it had the shape of a huge
lead sulphide, or galena, crystal—which is, in crystallographer’s jargon, an
octahedron-with-cube formation consisting of eight large hexagonal faces with
six smaller square faces filling in the gaps. It perched precariously—but
immovably—on the base square, the four lower hexagons bellying up and out
towards its waist where four more squares (oblique, vertically) connected with
the mirror- image upper hemisphere, rising to a square north pole. Indeed it
looked like a kind of world
j lopped and
sheered into flat planes: and has remained very much a separate, private world
this day, along with its passenger.
faces were blank metal except for one equatorial square facing
into the main body of the laboratory. This was a
window—of glass as thick as that of a deep-ocean diving bell—which could
apparently be opened from inside, and only from inside.
The passenger within looked as
ragged and tattered as a tramp; as crazy, dirty, woe-begone and tangle-haired
as any lunatic in an ancient Bedlam cell. He was apparently very old; or at any
rate long solitary confinement in that cell made him seem so. He was pallid,
crookbacked, skinny and rotten-toothed. He raved and mumbled soundlessly at
our spotlights. Or maybe he only mouthed his ravings and mumbles, since we
could hear nothing whatever through the thick glass. When we obtained the
services of a lip- reader two days later the mad old man seemed to be mouthing
mere garbage, a mishmash of sounds. Or was he? Obviously no one could be
expected to lip-read backwards; already, from his actions and gestures, Dr.
Yang had suggested that the man was time-reversed. So we video-taped the
passenger’s mouthings and played the tapes backwards for our lip-reader. Well,
it was still garbage. Backwards, or forwards, the unfortunate passenger had
visibly cracked up. Indeed, one proof of his insanity was that he should be
trying to talk to us at all at this late stage of his journey rather than
communicate by holding up written messages—as he has now begun to do. (But more
of these messages later; they only begin—or, from his point of view, cease as
he descends further into madness—in the summer of 1989.)
hope of enlightenment from him, we set out on the track of scientific
our other, more important work.
laboratory projects—and the whole of physics in the process.)
indicate the way in which we wasted our time, I might record that the first
“clue” came from the shape of the VSTM which, as I said, was that of a lead
sulphide or galena crystal. Yang emphasized that galena is used as a
semiconductor in crystal rectifiers: devices for transforming alternating
current into direct current. They set up a much higher resistance to an
electric current flowing in one direction than another. Was there an analogy
with the current of time? Could the geometry of the VSTM—or the geometry of
energies circulating in its metal walls, presumably interlaid with printed
circuits—effectively impede the forward flow of time, and reverse it? We had
no way to break into the VSTM. Attempts to cut into it proved quite ineffective
and were soon discontinued, while X-raying it was foiled, conceivably by lead
alloyed in the walls. Sonic scanning provided rough pictures of internal
shapes, but nothing as intricate as circuitry; so we had to rely on what we
could see of the outward shape, or through the window—and on pure theory.
also stressed that galena rectifiers operate in the same manner as diode
valves. Besides transforming the flow of an electric current they can also
They separate information
out from a modulated carrier wave—as in a radio or TV set. Were we witnessing,
in the VSTM, a machine for separating out “information”—in the form of the
physical vehicle itself, with its passenger—from a carrier wave stretching back
through time? Was the VSTM a solid, tangible analogy of a three-dimensional TV
picture, played backwards?
made many models of VSTMs based on these ideas and tried to send them off into
the past, or the future—or anywhere for that matter! They all stayed
monotonously present in the laboratory, stubbornly locked to our space and
recalling his impression that the VSTM had seemed to expand outward from a
point, remarked that this was how three-dimensional beings such as ourselves
might well perceive a four-dimensional object first impinging on us. Thus a 4-D
sphere would appear as a point and swell into a full sphere then contract again
to a point.
But a 4-D octahedron-and-cube?
to our maths this shape couldn’t have a regular analogue in 4-space, only a
simple octahedron could. Besides, what would be the use of a 4-D time machine
which shrank to a point at precisely the moment when the passenger needed to
mount it? No, the VSTM wasn’t a genuine four-dimensional body; though we
wasted many weeks running computer programs to describe it as one, and arguing
that its passenger was a normal 3-space man imprisoned within a 4-space
structure—the discrepancy of one dimension between him and his vehicle
effectively isolating him from the rest of the universe so that he could travel
he was indeed travelling hindwards was by now absolutely clear from his feeding
habits (i.e. he regurgitated), though his extreme furtiveness about bodily
functions coupled with his filthy condition meant that it took several months
before we were positive, on these grounds.
this, in turn, raised another unanswerable question: if the VSTM was indeed
travelling backwards through time, precisely where did it
to, in that instant of its arrival on
passenger was hardly on an archaeological jaunt, or he would have tried to
long last, on
1989, our passenger held
up a notice printed on a big plastic eraser slate.
CRAWLING DOWNHILL, SLIDING UPHILL!
He held this up for ten minutes,
against the window. The printing was spidery and ragged; so was he.
could well have been his last lucid moment before the final descent into
madness, in despair at the pointlessness of trying to communicate with is.
Thereafter it would be
downhill all the
we interpreted. Seeing us with all our still eager, still baffled
faces, he could only
gibber incoherently thenceforth like
an enraged monkey at our sheer stupidity.
didn't communicate for another three months.
he held up his next (i.e. penultimate) sign, he looked slightly sprucer, a little
less crazy (though only comparatively so, having regard to his final mumbling
THE LONELINESS! BUT LEAVE ME ALONE!
IGNORE ME UNTIL 1995!
We held up signs (to which, we soon
realized, his sign was a response):
ARE YOU TRAVELLING BACK THROUGH TIME? HOW?
We would have also dearly loved to
WHERE DO YOU DISAPPEAR TO ON
we judged it unwise to ask this most pertinent of all questions in case his
disappearance was some sort of disaster, so that we would in effect be
foredooming him, accelerating his mental breakdown. Dr. Franklin insisted that
this was nonsense; he broke down anyway. Still, if we had held up that sign,
what remorse we would have felt: because we
have caused his breakdown and ruined some magnificent undertaking.
. . We were certain that it had to be a magnificent undertaking to involve
such personal sacrifice, such abnegation, such a cutting off of oneself from
the rest of the human race. This is about all we were certain of.
progress with our enigma. All our research is dedicated to solving it, but we
keep this out of sight of him. While rotas of postgraduate students observe him
round the clock, our best brains get on with the real thinking elsewhere in the
building. He sits inside his vehicle, less dirty and dishevelled now, but
monumentally taciturn: a
monk under a vow of
silence. He spends most of his time re-reading the same dog-eared books, which
have fallen to pieces back in our past: Defoe’s
Journal of the Plague Year
and Jules Verne’s
the Centre of the Earth;
and listening to what is presumably taped
music—which he shreds from the cassettes back in 1989, flinging streamers
around his tiny living quarters in a brief mad fiesta (which of course we see
as a sudden frenzy of disentangling and repackaging, with maniacal speed and
neatness, of tapes which have lain around, trodden underfoot, for years).
we have ignored him (and he, us) until 1995: assuming that his last sign had
some significance. Having got nowhere ourselves, we expect something from him
he is cleaner, tidier and saner now, in this year of 1995 (not to mention ten
years younger) we have a better idea of how old he actually is; thus some clue
as to when he might have started his journey.
must be in his late forties or early fifties— though he aged dreadfully in the
last ten years, looking more like seventy or eighty when he reached 1985.
Assuming that the future does not hold in store any longevity drugs (in which
case he might be a century old, or more!) he should have entered the VSTM
sometime between 2010 and 2025. The later date, putting him in his very early
twenties if not teens, does rather suggest a “suicide volunteer” who is merely
a passenger in the vehicle. The earlier date suggests a more mature researcher
who played a major role in the development of the VSTM and was only prepared to
test it on his own person. Certainly, now that his madness has abated into a
tight, meditative fixity of posture, accompanied by normal activities such as
reading, we incline to think of him as a man of moral stature rather than a
time-kamikaze; so we put the date of commencement of the journey around 2010 to
2015 (only fifteen to twenty years ahead) when he will be in his thirties.