"The Man Who Walked Home" by James Tiptree, Jr. - Sci-Fi Classic Review
How can one look at this cover and NOT want to read it?
Late last year, one of my readers recommended the subject of this week's review as his "favorite short story," and I must confess, until that moment, I'd never heard of James Tiptree, Jr. I have since learned of this author's legendary status. A Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee, a frequent pen pal and friend of sci-fi master Ursula le Guin, and earner of several prestigious awards--including two Hugos and three Nebulas--Tiptree had built an amazing career by 1977, when the author, after amateur sleuths started uncovering the truth, finally revealed to the world that the name was a pseudonym, that "James Tiptree, Jr." was actually a reclusive married woman in her sixties named Alice Bradley Sheldon.
Alice Sheldon was a major in the United States Army during World War II, an ex-spy for the CIA, a doctorate of Experimental Psychology, and an open bisexual towards the end of her life. Sufficed to say, she is a fascinating figure in her own right, and she broke several boundaries of gender and prejudice during the New Wave of science-fiction. She continued to write under her pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr. until her death in the late eighties. Now that I've read a little bit of her work, I can say without reservation that she was also a hell of a writer, known primarily for her staggering short fiction.
That brings me to "The Man Who Walked Home," a story you can readily find online with a little bit of Google mojo. It starts out simply enough, with a short description of somebody seemingly being pulled out of his own existence and forced to find a way back. It then takes a broader focus on a crater of what was once a futuristic particle accelerator. A few details are given about some kind of cataclysm that wrecked North America--centered on this particle accelerator--and then time starts passing very quickly through the decades that follow. People come and make settlements around the crater, and it isn't long before they discover a strange apparition at its center, a "monster" that seems to appear very briefly once a year.
What I love about this story is how it plays with point of view. Sheldon does a lot of world-building in the background, but doesn't bother readers with antiseptic explanations of what's happening outside of this little crater in what was once rural Idaho. The story plays out like a description of a time-lapse video, occasionally stopping to examine a handful of typically nameless characters before zipping forward in time to briefly outline a few events like raids from outsiders or bad storms that change the dynamic of the regrowing civilization. A lot of story is being told in a handful of paragraphs, but readers are able to pick up pretty quickly that the "monster" is the real meat of it.
You don't get an explanation of what the monster is until near the end, and even then, the answer is largely incomplete, forcing you to fill in the gaps that Sheldon has left for you. Then you return to the man from the opening paragraph as he tries to return from a distant future to his own time, skipping backwards through each sidereal rotation of the Earth on an inevitable course to the disaster that awaits him when he collides with his past.
There's more to it than all that, of course, but it's a clever bit of storytelling that neither holds your hand nor leaves you in the dark. I have no doubt that Sheldon could have explained all the details that she left out, that the logic of events wasn't contrived without careful thought and work put into having an explanation, even if the final product only reveals part of it. This is how a good writer should operate (as contrasted with the "mystery box" approach, which is lazy and infuriating).
She is the Samus Aran of sci-fi writers
Sheldon also has a hypnotic style that isn't overly florid or strainingly naturalistic. She sets the scene adeptly and poetically in few words, and it all comes across as deceptively easy and simple, though anyone who's tried to write fiction should know better. Especially impressive in this story is the opening paragraph, where she tells you everything without really telling you anything, where Sheldon's careful diction gives you a clear feeling for what has happened without any concrete information to explain it.
"The Man Who Walked Home" is a straight-forward tale told in a unique way, a time travel thought experiment that uses setting to its full effect. You can probably tease out an allegory or two if you try hard enough, but as a short story, I don't think it's terribly interested in any themes beyond its own conceptualization and the ideas underlying it. Sometimes, you have to let science-fiction just be science-fiction, and that's what this is: a distilled sci-fi idea well executed.
I've already read a handful of other "James Tiptree, Jr." short stories, but I intend to read a lot more going forward, along with some of Sheldon's writings under the alternate pen name of Raccoona Sheldon. I do listen to my readers when they make suggestions, and I want to encourage you all to continue to hit me up with them. No matter how well-read I am, there's always a chance you could introduce me to someone as remarkable as Alice Bradley Sheldon.
-e. magill 4/23/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: