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The One-Way Time Traveler

by Tom DeMarco on 2018-06-12

A Handmaid’s Tale in reverse: a 1970s man dropped into an aggressively matriarchal future . . .

American astronaut John Donegal has cheated death when his damaged re-entry vehicle veered away from the earth into deep space. He has flooded the cabin with liquid nitrogen from the reserve air supply to freeze himself in the hopes of eventual rescue when his orbit next brings him within reach, decades or even centuries in the future.

When he awakes, Donegal finds himself in what is surely a hospital, but seems more like a lavish manor house. He is in the care of two doctors and two nurses, all women. His first question — to learn how far into the future he has come — is What is the date? To his surprise, his kindly caretakers can come up with no very satisfying answer to this question. They tell him precisely what day in May it is, but as to the year number they profess to be perplexed. Why would anyone want to keep track that way? Well, to record history, Donegal says. They look disappointed and tell him gravely, “Those who remember history are doomed to repeat it.”
All knowledge of the past has been suppressed, along with such “dangerous” notions as nations, states, flags, and affiliations of all kinds. “Nobody today cares about such things.” It is clear that some catastrophic event in the past has caused massive societal change, but no one can tell him what it was. From what evidence he can piece together he realizes that he must have come at least several hundred years into the future. The patriarchal society he once knew has been replaced by one that is rigidly matriarchal.
After an initial exuberance at being alive at all, he is overcome with a mounting sense of loss. His childhood sweetheart, life partner and wife, Jill, has now been dead for centuries. Can he even grieve for someone who has been dead for so long? And yet, in his own frame of reference she was alive only weeks ago. They had known each other more than half their lives by the time the married, and now he believes he knows her well enough to be sure of one thing: She would not have let him go off into the unknown future without something from her. There must be a message somewhere waiting for him, a message from Jill. He sets out to find it.
As he goes about his quest he learns that the new world which so values peacefulness is full of bottled-up violence and a danger that comes at him from an unexpected quarter. He is warned of a kind of male humiliation ritual that is accepted by all and that he is expected to accept as well. What this society wants to suppress is not only ideas about the past but also an old-fashioned attitude that is so intrinsic to Donegal that he comes to be viewed as a “virus.” His very existence is a threat.
The traces of the past are so few and so diligently concealed that he begins to lose hope of finding anything about Jill and how the rest of her life played out. He has only a few dreams to sustain him, dreams in which she tries and fails to tell him something. On the brink of defeat, he hears a haunting melody in a fairground, a song one of the performers tells him is “as old as the hills.” The words make no sense to him at all, but as he encounters it again and again he comes to suspect that the song is the message, a cryptic love note that has reached out to him across the centuries.