Short SFF review: The Man Who Lived Backwards

I had been debating whether or not to review Tales Before Narnia as a whole or to spatter these digital pages with references and piecemeal impressions. Perhaps I’ll take a middle ground and offer up a review or two of specific stories that did it for me. I already scribbled some thoughts about Undine, so.

Charles F. Hall is mentioned by C. S. Lewis in his preface to The Great Divorce, although not by name. He couldn’t recall the writer’s appellation, but his short story “The Man Who Lived Backwards” stood out in Lewis’ memory. Apparently Hall only wrote two or three (published) short stories and then disappeared. It’s unfortunate, because he seemed a talented science fiction writer.

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The story of “The Man Who Lived Backwards” revolves around a teacher slash scientist who becomes entangled in the repercussions of an experiment gone wrong. His story, from his perspective, begins on a Thursday evening and ends on the preceeding Tuesday afternoon, when he appears, naked and half-raving, in front of a neighborhood gardener. Jumbled public accounts tell of a schoolteacher who spontaneously disappeared from his classroom and was reported at the exact same time to have been found, a mile and a half away, in his birthday suit.

The bulk of the story focuses on the protagonist’s report of where he had been and what he had done, and we’re given an account of his experience living two days backwards through time.

The writing itself is interesting and well-crafted, but what struck me was the attention to detail Hall poured into the story. Throughout its telling, the main character makes all sorts of discoveries centered on the fact that the past is immutable. He cannot alter or affect it in any way. Consequently, he cannot eat or drink, as he cannot physically manipulate anything other than his own body. He muses at one point that even were he able to chew and swallow a piece of sandwich, it would tear a hole in him as soon as he moved, as it would be anchored to its place in time. Similarly he discovers the dangers of hazards such as insects, grass, and rain.

At its conclusion we are presented with a reasonable-sounding explanation for his apparent teleportation, which serves to tie events together and clarify the mystery of why his past self would have suddenly disappeared from his classroom.

“The Man Who Lived Backwards” is a great story, and definitely one of my favorites from the collection.

-Bushi

bushi

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