The Man Who Walked Home by James Tiptree, Jr

James Tiptree, Jr is the pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice B Sheldon.
The Man Who Walked Home is published in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever or can be read online for free here. This review will contain spoilers.

IMG_0001-1Precisely what hashed up in the work of the major industrial lessee of the Bonneville Particle Acceleration Facility in Idaho was never known. Or rather, all those who might have been able to diagnose the original malfunction were themselves obliterated almost at once in the greater catastrophe which followed.

The man who walked home is Major John Delgano, the first and only man to travel in time. When he is sent forward in a time travel experiment, something goes horribly wrong, and he is sent far too far away, perhaps fifty thousand years in the future. So he tries to walk home, backwards in time.

Meanwhile, something that went wrong in the experiment causes an apocalyptic catastrophe on Earth. Most people perish, and civilisation reverts to a Bronze-age-style society of nomadic tribes. But every year, on the spot where the time travel facility used to be, the shape of a man appears, moving for just a second each year. His future is the past for those observing him, whereas his past is their future.

Like all Tiptree short stories, there are a surprising number of themes packed into just a few pages. We see the gradual rebuilding of earth’s civilisations in the decades and then centuries after the accident, as the people try to understand what this strange apparition of a man is, all the time suspicious of learning too much of the ‘hardscience’ that caused the catastrophe in the first place. But we also get to experience time from John’s point of view, as each second he sees a new scene flash before his eyes, and he watches all the people who watch him over time.

I have read this story several times, and it improves on each rereading. The structure of one story forwards, one story backwards is embellished with many clever details, so it rewards close attention. My favourite is the linguists on earth studying him for years, trying to work out what he is saying by how the shape of his mouth is changing, and they think it’s something like ayt — perhaps ‘date’ or ‘late’. But finally from John’s point of view we hear him frantically shouting his wife’s name, ‘Kate!’.

I picked The Man Who Walked Home as one of my time travel picks because as well as being an excellent short story, it approaches the time travel concept in such a unique way.

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