I’m kicking off my season of Time travel stories with a short story that’s an old favourite. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is published in the short story collection of the same name.
The distance between Hain and my home world is just over four light-years, and there has been traffic between O and the Hainish system for twenty centuries. Event before the Nearly As Fast As Light drive, when ships spent a hundred years of planetary time instead of four to make the crossing, there were people who would give up their old life to come to a new world. Sometimes they returned; not often. There were tales of such sad returns to a world that had forgotten the voyager.
The story takes the form of a letter, from Hideo, a farmer on the planet of O, to his old teachers on another planet, Hain, as Hideo is explaining the story of his life. He grew up in a traditional farming household with his mother Isako, sister Koneko and adored cousin Isidri. He’s an excellent student, and goes on to study advanced temporal physics and engineering at university, and from there is selected to join an advanced research group on Hain.
“The Fisherman of the Inland Sea” of the title is a fairytale, told by Hideo’s mother, about a man who is out fishing one day, when the sea king’s daughter falls in love with him. She convinces him to spend one night with her, but when he returns to his village, he discovers that he’s been away for four hundred years. “Did I know then that is was her story? that if she were to return to her village, her world, all the people she had known would have been dead for centuries?” asks Hideo.
The principle of time dilation (a consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity), at least, is familiar to the people in this story, as people who take space ships at nearly the speed of light between planets may only be on that ship for a few days, but meanwhile many years have passed. So Hideo’s mother has come from Terra (our Earth), which is hundreds of light-years away, and Hideo himself makes the round trip to Hain, and so is eight years younger than his contemporaries when he returns.
The story explores the effect of all this time-shifting weirdness on the people left behind. Even though Hideo’s mother has done the same, she is devastated when Hideo broaches the topic of perhaps becoming an ambassador and travelling hundreds of light years away. And the eight year age gap plays havoc with Hideo’s feelings for his cousin Isidri, as he returns home to find her eight years older than he is, already married. Through all of this, the old fairytale is used as a metaphor for the pain that people feel as a side effect of travelling in time.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it is perfect. I have always loved the blend of cutting-edge science and everyday domesticity which characterises Le Guin’s work, and this is one of the best examples.
For another short story about the effects of time dilation, I recommend Semley’s Necklace, also by Ursula K. Le Guin, and published in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.