Needle In A Timestack by Robert Silverberg
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 3/5 Rating
The butterfly effect!
About the author:
Robert Silverberg is an American writer widely known for his science fiction and fantasy stories. He is a many-time was designated a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. His books and stories have been translated into forty languages. Among his best-known titles are Nightwings, Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls, and the three volumes of the Majipoor Cycle: Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles, and Valentine Pontifex. His collected short stories, covering nearly sixty years of work, have been published in nine volumes by Subterranean Press. His attraction to the time travel theme is most notable in his novel-length work in books such as Hawksbill Station, House of Bones, and Up the Line. This story was originally published in Playboy in June of 1983.I think telling someone the genre of a story is “time-travelling” is actually a spoiler itself. Time-travel isn’t always used as the big twist – sometimes a story starts by saying they have the technology – but when you read an anthology where the bases of every story is going to be time-travel, well, the author is going to have to be creative if they want to use time-travel as the main twist.
It was interesting reading last week’s story, Ripples in the Dirac Sea (my review), where time-traveling to the past could not affect the your future, then to read this story, where not only does traveling into the past affect your future – creating the butterfly effect – but it is also readily available and as common as going away for the weekend on a vacation.
All of a sudden Nick got the taste of the cotton in his mouth – he only gets that taste when he is being phased. A phasing is a result of someone traveling into the past and altering something that affects you in the present. Because time-travel in a common hobby for people nowadays, phasing can happen quite often. They can be something small – like you wake up with a different hair cut – or it can be something major – like no longer having a wife.
When Nick got that taste he instantly called his wife, Janine, to see what see she remembered. After someone has been phased, they have a couple of hours where they remember their previous life and can figure out what has been changed before everything in their life seems completely normal. The reason Nick is calling his wife is because he believes these changes are being target directly at his life by a man with the name of Tommy, who happens to Janine’s ex-husband, and wants nothing more than to be married to her again.
So the positives:
I love time-travel stories where going into the past can effect your future. It gives a whole other level of depth and complexity to the plot, and I’m fascinated by the idea of the butterfly effect – where one seemingly small choice can end up having huge effects on your life.
One of the things that has always bothered me about changing my past in time-travel is how it would affect my memory. While I travel into the past, there a technically two separate me, and thus, there are two separate minds; so when I come back to the “present” – from where I originally left time to travel back – which memory would I have? Wouldn’t the me who time-traveled have no relocation of actually traveling, because I went back and changed the past, thus changing the reason I needed to travel back in time in the first place? I could go on analyzing this, but the point is, changing the past will change your memory. However, I really liked how Silverberg addressed this problem, but giving characters a 2 hour window where they can remember their previous self before everything “new” to them, becomes the normal and they forget anything has changed.
But the negatives:
With time-travel stories, it’s almost inevitable at times that you are going to need to be lenient on the accurately of the actual time-line. That okay. It’s difficult to write this type of genre without creating loop-holes, so if a couple of minor things don’t add up, no sweat. This story, I could not let slide all the loop-holes. It’s one thing for a single person to have the ability to change the past and affect the future of the same time-line, but in a world where anybody can do it, anytime they want, just for the cost of a vacation (how many people in the world do you think go to Disney every weekend?), our history would constantly be changing, and people would constantly be experiencing phasings. It only takes one single to change – a seemingly “minor” event – and you have instantly whipped out an entire family tree! With how this works in the world, people would constantly be coming into and out of existence! There is just as good a chance that one of these effects, could cause the person who made travel-travel or the people responsible for putting out for mass consumption (who would possible think that time-travel for anybody anytime for vacation would be a good idea???), to cease existing or cause them not be a part of the time-travel! Then what? How do you get back to the present when you destroyed the technology that allowed to go to the past in the first place? I could rant further, but you see where the many problems with accessibly for time-travel is going.
Putting that aside, and saying you just went with the flow, it is a nice plot about love; about a man going to any ends to keep the women he loves in his life. Very nice and touching, but, unfortunately, the plot surprised me. I say “unfortunately” because the surprise was, there were no surprises! It was as straight forward as it appeared to be; no shocking moments or unexpected turn of events. I can almost guarantee that if you guess how the pot of the this story would unfold, you would be correct.
I think that the reason I wasn’t expecting a “you get what you see” type of the story was because of the characters. Again, it was because I over estimated what I was seeing. Nick is solidly developed, and consistent throughout the story, but I cannot say that for Janine and Tommy. The words spoken and actions taken by Janine, do not add up the type of character she is portrayed to be at the beginning, and the same goes for the jealous ex-husband Tommy. I thought these “changes” in the characters was the authors laying the ground a big twist! However, it was simply bad character development brought about by their inconsistency.
Spolierific Speculations: (Highlight to read)
How many of you thought the wife was actually behind the phasing? It made perfect sense. She says that she loves Nick and doesn’t wasn’t to go back to Tommy, yet when the phasing happened again, she tells Nick not to talk to Tommy about it or go to the authorities. She wants to sit back and merely hope that Tommy gives up.
Then when the marriage is finally split up, Nick is throwing himself out there to find where she is, and when he finally finds her (because apparently she didn’t try his phone) she decides to give up because in a few hours they will forget anything even happened. Does that sounds like a wife who is madly in love with her husband? NO
To add to my belief that it was the wife, was the meeting of Nick and Tommy. I didn’t get the vibe that Tommy was hiding anything. I didn’t see any hints or clues that he was pretending with Nick and was responsible. Yeah he seems to still have feelings for Janine, and then we find out Tommy travels often to fix little things about his personal life, but there was no actions from Tommy during that meeting with Nick to make me suspect him more than the wife and to believe that he was putting up a front for Nick.
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The bottom line is, it’s not an unreliable narrator that tricks you into thinking one thing (the narrator is actually 100% truthful and accurate!) but bad character development. It was inconsistencies in the characters that leads me to questions the narrator.
Despite how much I just tore this story open, I did enjoy reading it. I do take points away for the loop-holes in the time-travel, but, while reading, I was able to put that aside to watch the butterfly effect in action, and I loved Silverberg’s 2 hour memory window as a solution to one of the problems of time-travel. And believe it or not, I was actually into the plot, because I actually thought there was more to it and the characters… wasn’t until I finished that I realized the reason why
Not a bad story – great time-travel use! – but it’s a straight forward, you see what you get.
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See you next Thursday for Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula K. Le Guin