The Most Important Thing in the World by Steve Bein
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5 Rating
The cause and effect of time
About the author:
Steve Bein is a philosopher, photographer, professor, translator, traveler, and award-winning author of genre-bending fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. HIs Fated Blades novels have met wit critical acclaim. Being divides his time between Rochester, Minnesota, and Rochester, New York. This story was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 2011.
Second week in a row now, reading a simple story with fantastic writing and a deeper message. This was actually one of our longer stories in the anthology so far, coming in at 18 pages, yet, it did not feel so. There were no slow parts, no info dumps of science, no struggle to understand anything; reading this completely effortless.
Ernie Sisco has been driving cabs in Boston for some thirty years now. A frequent occurrence is that people will forget items in the backseat on the cab: everything from wallets and jackets to even a baby! One afternoon, he picks up a young and smart-looking guy with two briefcases who asks to be dropped off at Harvard. Ernie puts one of the suitcases in the trunk, but the guy insists the other is too valuable to put in the trunk and says he’ll hold on to it. When the cab arrives at the destination, the young guy is so awe-struck with the look of Harvard and the buildings, that he completely forgets about the case he brought in the backseat with him. When Ernie notices later that day, he puts it the trunk to bring to the guy tomorrow – except when he puts it in the trunk, the cover pops open. Inside, he notices a suit covered in coppers wires and it has some sort of clock device on the front. Once Ernie gets home, he tries the suit, sets the clock, and suddenly notices that he has the ability to stop time.
Ernie Sisco has the feel of a real and genuine person. He is an average, fifty something year-old. He is a Bostonian, acting and talking like one with use of the word “wicked”. He lives a basic and simple life, is content with his cab driving job – often going to work late, or parking somewhere and reading an autobiographical-esqu book all afternoon. His is usually low on cash because of little work, but he enjoys his life. However, his wife is not too keen on his lack of motivations and is living with her sister for the time being. When Ernie discovers the suit can stop time, well, he thinks he can have the best of both worlds.
Ernie and his relationship to the suit is the heart and meat of the story. After he finds the suit, the next part of the story is him experimenting to figure out what it does, and seeing how he can use to his advantage. This is where he figures he can still slack off a work, but use the suit to steal some money, so it’ll look like he is working hard to his wife. After a while, Ernie starts to figure there must be some catch, and this is the next part of the story where Ernie seeks out the young man from the cab at a bar, pretends to not be the cab driver, and starts to a conversation to try to get him to talk about his research. In this conversation, we learn how the “time-travel” works, the consequences of it, and why the young man is so distraught and needs it back so desperately.
Even though how the suit works isn’t explain until the last third of the story, me giving a basic explanation of it, won’t spoil the story. The important information to story is how the young man used the suit and why he needs it back; then the revelations that Ernie has from this talk.
Bein does an excellent job at explaining this suit. Because the story is from Ernie’s POV (3rd person), everything is summarized as an average, Joe would try to summarize it as. Basically, this suit runs on borrowed time. With the clock on it, you select a date and an amount of time. Whatever amount of time you select, is how long time will be frozen for you in the present. Awesome right? Except this is borrowed time. Meaning if you borrowed 10 minutes from 1:00 p.m. this afternoon, when clock hits 1, you would blink your eyes and it would b 1:11. Why? Because you took away those 10 minutes to use earlier. While it may have seemed like a blink of an eye to you, to everyone else, you have been frozen solid. Seems like it would be easy to work around, however there is one catch to all of this…
My only point of contention with this story, has to do with when the time was borrowed from and how that “one catch” could be avoided. (Which is in the “Spolierific Speculations” below, and contains a major spoiler to the plot.) Aside from my theory, there was nothing that bothered me from the story. Even that didn’t take points away though, because it couldn’t have prevent the major issue in the plot. My thing is more of an afterthought about how we could “fix” it.
Spolierific Speculations: (Highlight to read)
I totally understand the borrowed time problem with Ernest, and how he screwed himself because of the radioactive decay discrepancy that causes you to lose more time that you borrow. However, who says you have to borrow time from your life time? If I can set to it to any time, why not just borrow time from year 4025? I won’t even be alive for then! Maybe the machine only works for dates that you are alive, but how would know when you are dead? To me, that an easy fix for the problem of borrowing time, and the extended freeze from it. If Ernest borrows from some thousands of years in the future, he’ll never lose time with his family.
If your comments contains a spoiler, please type “SPOILER:” at the start of your comment to alert fellow readers and comments. Thanks!
As of right now, I think this may actually be my favorite story, too. How the suit works (which isn’t actually time-travel) is fascinating, and the possibilities and consequences really drive home a couple of messages – most importantly showing Ernie what the most important thing in the world is. I loved the character of Ernie (might be biast on that though) 😛 and Steven Bein’s writing is effortless to read. The story is long for a short-story, but I didn’t even realize how long I’d been reading until I finished.
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See you next Thursday for Himself in Anachron by Cordwainer Smith