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The Experiment

by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 19 April 2006
Word Count: 1779
Summary: I've never written a sci-fi piece before, it was certainly interesting! The backwards thing made my brain hurt. Should come with a health warning :)

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The door opened and Millie came hastily in. Moebius, the cat, slunk in at her heels, unnoticed. Millie went to the table and began collecting empty plates, scattered with crumbs, cups with dregs of tea still in them. I watched her stacking them on the silver tray she carried, and with each motion she made my head reeled vertiginously. She appeared to notice nothing different about her actions. I closed my eyes, opened them again at once. I wasn’t going to miss a moment of this, terrifying though it was. I looked around at the rest of the audience. They were gaping like stunned fish at Millie, who quite unconsciously – used to the odd behaviour of scientific folk – went on stacking china. Moebius prowled near to the glass machine. Tail flickering, he crouched as if judging his jump.
Sunlight on the wall distracted me, something subtly, horribly different about its movement. I turned to the window, and I saw, behind me, the impossible motion of the clouds, the sun, even the sun…
That was why I didn’t see what happened, heard only the crash, the shatter of glass and Moebius’s startled, furious mew, and Professor Thomas roaring out some words that were strangely mangled and twisted, incomprehensible… and then everything – I gasped with gratitude – was back to normal.

Professor Thomas pressed the button and looked at us triumphantly.
“Are you sure,” began Professor Harrison, his hands fluttering nervously.
Thomas smiled, unhooked his thumbs from his belt. “I assure you, the experiment is already a matter of historical actuality. It is a unique and unqualified success, changing the way we look at time and the universe forever. Its scientific importance – its importance to humanity – cannot be overestimated.” He was a smug bastard, Thomas. Understandably so, he had a lot to be smug about. He took a step backwards, as if to reassure us. “Gentlemen – and lady, I congratulate you on being here. Let us begin.”
Yet you had to admire Thomas. The Nobel, only recently stripped from him, was proof enough of his clout, not only in scientific circles. I wondered how he felt about losing it all. Everybody loses things – it’s natural – but few had as much to lose as he did.
“Come on, Professor Thomas. I think you’re rather over-egging the pudding.” That was Hengist, of course, his thick beard wagging crossly as he raised his voice. “There’s no way the experiment can do what you say it does. Even if what you claim were possible, it would destroy the universe. It would be like trying to force a winding key backwards.” He cracked his knuckles with a sound that made me feel rather ill.
“Gentlemen! And lady, of course.” Thomas raised his voice, and glanced at me with a smile that was probably supposed to be charming. Smug git, I thought, smiling back, but I sort of like you. “The time-reversal experiment is perhaps the most important scientific advance that mankind has ever witnessed.” Thomas, his thumbs lodged in his belt, rocked on his heels, smiling, his pale blue eyes seeming to consider his audience. “There’s no mystery to it. A simple effect/cause reversal. I can promise you, you will never think about time the same way again. This is your chance to step through the looking glass.”
“You sound like some kind of bloody religious nut,” snapped Hengist. “It would make a mockery of forgetting,” he muttered, “and what about syntax, for that matter. Effect and cause; it’s written in.” I guessed he was more fascinated by the experiment than he would admit.
“In terms of eschatology, there’s also the rather intriguing plethora theory,” I suggested brightly.
“Then what about the effect on scientific theory? Imagine! Entropy proves we’re heading for the perfect zero. O. Nought. Nothing. A universe in which time was reversed… imagine their point of view. Living there would be like – like running blindfolded and full tilt through a pitch black world, never knowing when you’d run off the edge of the precipice.” He frowned, and inhaled sharply. “A miserable place.”
“But I suppose there would be other pleasures, in a universe where time ran backwards,” I said.
“These trendy novels that like to reverse time – the Arrow of Time or whatever it’s called – they never go far enough. They don’t realise that it’s not enough just to reverse the order of events. In a truly reversed world, everything would have developed to fit the needs of people who walk through time facing the wrong way. Our bodies would have evolved differently. The language – the alphabet would be reversed. Would we even have developed an alphabet? Or would we simply not need or want one – would we think so differently in reverse that we would no longer desire the advantages that having an alphabet gave to us?” Hengist paused, a look of strange horror in his eyes. “The pleasures of literature – the slow unravelling of the plot, the unknitting, the discovery – finding out how it all came to this – all would be lost. Not to mention the mess it would make of biography.”
Millie came in, shooing Moebius angrily along with her. Moebius: a scientist’s name for a cat. You could see why, though, as he wound himself around the chair and table legs, so sinuous and twisty you might believe there was only one side to him.
People’s lives, I thought, watching her. My own recent divorce had made me sensitive to other people’s love lives. Every marriage is a mystery story, I thought. In a reversed world, where would the surprise, the delight in each day be? Where would be the pleasure of growing to love each other, becoming more and more passionate as time went on?
As for Millie, though, it was really rather sweet. I watched her as she moved around the room quietly, attending to the tea and the biscuits. For years she’d just been Thomas’ housekeeper, efficient and, if anything, sharp and a little bitter. There’d been nothing between them, rather they seemed uncomfortable in each other’s company. But that’s so often how it starts.
Then, one day, that big bust-up – plates broken and everything, I’m told – and after that they’d been lovers, an open secret. Opposites attract, they say. Look at me and Mike. Lots of couples fall into each other’s arms after the excitement of a big row. Clears the air. Heats the blood.
Moebius leapt hastily from the table. Millie said something sharp and swatted at him. The wind-up mouse was under his paw, kicking its pink plastic legs, coughing up that krrrrrrrrk noise. The cat moved unexpectedly. On the sofa, he lay, tail curled and twitching, watching the wind-up mouse as it moved jerkily but stubbornly across the wooden table.
“It’s actually moving in an arc,” said Harrison.
We looked at the little plastic mouse, making its way towards the precipice of the table edge.
“Time only goes one way,” said Hengist, portentuously.
He picked up the mouse, gave the key a few sharp turns and put it into his breast pocket.
“Well,” I said, placing my own cup on the table.
Hengist spat out a biscuit and put it on the plate that Millie handed him, without looking at her. No manners, that man. Harrison put his full cup of tea down on the saucer.
“It was a failure, that’s what I believe. The biggest fiasco in science. That’s why it’s never been repeated.” Hengist was getting worked up. “Watch and you’ll see.” I looked at his beefy face, his hedge-thick beard that neither age nor time seemed able to wither, nor human hand to comb. Some people, I thought, were just made to be professors. You couldn’t imagine him serving in a grocer’s, for example. Not like Mike.
“I must admit –“ said Harrison, fiddling unhappily with his tie.
“I am curious to see the experiment,” I said. “After all, its impact has been huge – on both theoretical and practical science. I have always wondered why it was not repeated.”
The door banged as Millie went through, carrying the tray.
I found it hard to take my attention from the glass contraption by the door. Why glass? I wondered. Light transmission? Thermal shock resistance? From here I could see Thomas, adjusting something on the little computer screen that controlled it all. He looked a little like Mike, stacking crates of apples, concentrating, lost to the world, obsessed with his work. I like that in a man. Dedication, no matter what the work is. I noticed there was only one button on the machine: big, red. On/ Off. Forward/ Back. Stop/Go.
We three professors, Hengist, Harrison and Higgins (myself) are, if you can believe it, Top Brains. Professor Thomas, our host, is more than a top brain, he’s actually famous, a fame which is shrinking as he appears less and less on talk shows and on the blurbs of popular science books. He’s an outsider, a Yank, not even from a well-known university. Of course, none of us are as well known now as we used to be; just like everyone, we’re on the long slide into anonymity. I can’t say I’ll miss it. After all, fame is no substitute for youth. And Mike – he’s a bonus that I hadn’t guessed my youth would bring. I couldn’t see how a down-to-earth, practical man like Mike would fit in with my high-powered research job, flying all over the world for conferences – and all the temptations that brings. And of course, he didn’t fit in. There were rocky years both sides of the divorce. But he fits in just perfectly, now I’m not so busy, now I’m at home more – we’re just right for each other. I can’t wait to see how we met.
“Well, I’m certainly very interested to see how it turns out,” I said diplomatically. I watched Moebius turn his endless circles round the legs of the glass machine, almost tripping Thomas up.
“Poppycock!” said Hengist furiously.
“I think-“ began Harrison quietly.
“Bloody rubbish, all this,” said Hengist, gesturing towards the machine. “Time can’t run forwards!”
Even though we knew each other well, it was a long time since we’d all been together in the same room. We stood together, the three of us, Harrison his usual cripplingly shy self, Hengist towering over all of us with his big voice and his Challenger build, all of us probably feeling a little awkward, making conversation, our thoughts on the experiment which we had been anticipating ever since we died.

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Comments by other Members

eyeball at 08:58 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
This is very clever, Leila; you've written something in which the theme relates to the backwards motion of the story. Complicated, though, so I'll have to read a couple more times before I can make more meaningful comments on it. I think this is a great response to the challenge.

Steerpike`s sister at 09:41 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
You might be able to tell I am completely blagging the science bits :)

eyeball at 10:38 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
What else is there to do? :)

Harry at 13:40 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I think you've got a great take on the exercise here. I was wondering why everything in the first paragraph seemed so normal, and the revelation is so subtle - as it should be with this - that I nearly missed it.

There are certain elements that seemed a little cliched: the names and some of the dialogue, for example. But after thinking about it, I'm not sure that's a bad thing here. In fact, it suits the overall tone rather well.

The one big problem however, is that the subject matter is beyond 'showing.' The only approach is to accept that to tell it, it must be in the form we can understand. You must use 'our' time, not 'theirs'. If you see what I mean? Or 'naem I tahw ees uoy fi'.

Good stuff, I really enjoyed it.


Steerpike`s sister at 14:02 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
yes, I got really interested in the ammount of compromise it was necessary to make, in order to "write backwards." It's impossible, basically - or impossible to do and still make sense to "forward-thinking" people.
What I really liked doing was thinking about how relationships would seem in reverse, like Thomas and Millie's, and the narrator and Mike's. That's something I could imagine using again. So I think it was a really useful exercise.
Agree with your point about the cliches!

eyeball at 18:39 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
Once I’d got the measure of this, I thought the first section was great. And I like all the discussion of how our time direction would differ from theirs. I picked up on first read that they naturally went backwards (compared to us) but at a nice pace because much of what they say could be applied by us talking about their direction. I love the reference to literature, where he’s talking about the kind of structure you have in this story.

I wondered if 'Moebius leapt hastily from the table. 'should be the other way round. Moebius (great name for a cat. I have a dog called Moebius in my novel.) seems to jump from the table before and after catching the mouse, and I felt you could cut some of the adverbs, esp. his hands fluttering nervously. and his thick beard wagging crossly

Steerpike`s sister at 18:56 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
felt you could cut some of the adverbs, esp. his hands fluttering nervously. and his thick beard wagging crossly

yes, probably right.

Dee at 19:39 on 20 April 2006  Report this post
Leila, this is an excellent response to the exercise. Very subtle, and intricate.

The main area where you can improve this is, as Sharon says, the over-use of adverbs:

came hastily in.
There are loads of stronger verbs you could use here to avoid including the adverb – rushed/hurried/bustled…

with each motion she made my head reeled vertiginously.
reel, and I don’t think you need ‘vertiginously’ – reeling implies that already.

beard wagging crossly
shooing Moebius angrily
And there are several more you might like to try and eliminate.

And just one small structural point:
where would the surprise, the delight in each day be? Where would be the pleasure of growing to love each other
I think this would read smoother as:
where would be the surprise, the delight in each day? Where would be the pleasure of growing to love each other

Really enjoyed this.


DJC at 07:01 on 22 April 2006  Report this post

How utterly original - what a great idea! Very impressed - what made you think this up? I would never in a million years have guessed until nearer the end, then it all made so much sense. Great stuff. Just a few picky points:

I'll use the opening to suggest one or two things about your writing. There are a few superfluous words and you bring the characters perception in perhaps more than you should. I've put an alternate suggestion in italics:

The door opened and Millie came hastily in. Moebius, the cat, slunk in at her heels, unnoticed. Millie went to the table and began collecting empty plates, scattered with crumbs, cups with dregs of tea still in them. I watched her stacking them on the silver tray she carried, and with each motion she made my head reeled vertiginously. The motion of her stacking the plates on the silver tray made my head reel.

I try to avoid 'I watched', 'I noticed' etc, as it's better to show things as they are, unmediated through the character, even if it is first person.

Only one other thing: Smug git, I thought, smiling back, but I sort of like you.

The 'you' jars a bit for me. Perhaps better to say 'He was a smug git but I liked him nonetheless.' Or put the thoughts into italics.

Other than this, it's fantastic. V impressed.


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