The Time Machine
by Dino Buzzati, recommended by Kevin Brockmeier
EDITOR’S NOTE by Kevin Brockmeier
Dino Buzzati is one of the great literary practitioners of the dark marvelous. To my mind, he constitutes one corner in the triangle of indispensable 20thcentury Italian fantasists, a status he shares with his contemporaries Italo Calvino and Tommaso Landolfi. At his best, Buzzati is the most serene of the three, but also the most pessimistic. The satisfactions his fiction provides are every bit as abundant as Calvino’s and Landolfi’s, but each of them offers his readers a distinct sensation of travel: through Calvino’s books I feel that I am flying, through Landolfi’s that I am striding, through Buzzati’s that I am sinking — though his voice is so quiet, so reassuring, that I am never sure whether I am sinking into sleep or into the sea.
“The Time Machine” is one of his emblematic stories. I admire it for the jolt of human feeling Buzzati brings to what is, at its core, a work of hard science fiction. For the grace and precision with which he shapes his prose. For the potent simplicity of the conceit he adopts: Diacosia, which doubles its inhabitants’ lifespans by halving the pace of time, could be one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities (though in fact the tale preceded Calvino’s book by nearly twenty years). For the way the story’s air of magazine journalism shades gradually over into poetry. For its curious mathematical interlude, whose cadence so unexpectedly reproduces the phenomenon it describes, requiring us to slow our reading to a crawl before returning us to a sprint. And for the frightening vision around which it revolves — of lives that begin in stillness and leisure before they quicken suddenly into deterioration and old age. Remind you of anything?
It has been my misfortune as a reader, again and again, to fall in love with writers whose work has been only sparsely translated into English: Augusto Monterroso, Michal Ajvaz, Angélica Gorodischer, Ferenc Karinthy. Of Dino Buzzati’s books, three are readily available to American readers, each of them a jewel: his graphic novel Poem Strip, his illustrated children’s novel The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, and his masterpiece The Tartar Steppe, which I think of as the novel Ernest Hemingway might have written if he had been Franz Kafka, a battlefront epic without the battle, about the ease with which a life can be squandered on nothing more than hopes and routines. Five more of his books can be found in decades-old English-language editions: A Love Story, his semi-autobiographical novel of tortured romantic obsession; his SF novel Larger Than Life — an early examination of artificial intelligence that, alas, represents his lone misfire; and the story collections Catastrophe, Restless Nights, and The Siren, from which “The Time Machine” is taken.
Remaining to be translated are many more of Buzzati’s stories, essays, letters, and poems, along with his second novel, an allegorical fantasy called The Secret of the Old Forest; his meditation on mortality and the mysteries of the grave, In That Precise Moment, written following the death of his dog Diabolik; The Miracles of Val Morel, his book of illustrations and commentaries about 39 votive offerings honoring the miracles of a fictitious nun; plus a stage play, an autobiography, and five librettos.
Because I do not know Italian, I despair that I will ever read these books.
I’m looking at you, Dalkey Archive.
I’m looking at you, New Directions.
The Time Machine
THE FIRST GREAT INSTALLATION to slow down time was built near Grosseto, in Mariscano. In fact, the inventor, the famous Aldo Cristofari, was a native of Grosseto. This Cristofari, a professor at the University of Pisa, had been interested in the problem for at least twenty years and had conducted marvelous experiments in his laboratory, especially on the germination of legumes. In the academic world however, he was thought a visionary. Until, under the aegis of his supporter, the financier Alfredo Lopez, the society for the construction of Diacosia was created. From then on Aldo Cristofari was regarded as a genius, a benefactor to humanity.
His invention consisted of a special electrostatic field called “Field C,” within which natural phenomena required an abnormally longer period of time to complete their life cycles. In the first decisive experiments, this delay did not exceed five or six units per thousand; in practice, that is to say, it was almost unnoticeable. Yet once Cristofari had discovered this principle, he made very rapid progress. With the installation at Mariscano the rate of retardation was increased to nearly half. This meant that an organism with an average life span of ten years could be inserted in Field C and reach an age of twenty.
The installation was built in a hilly zone, and it was not effective beyond a range of 800 meters. In a circle with a diameter of one and half kilometers, animals and plants would grow and age half as quickly as those on the rest of the earth. Man could now hope to live for two centuries. And so — from the Greek for two hundred — the name Diacosia was chosen.
The zone was practically uninhabited. The few peasants who lived there were given the choice of staying or relocating with a sizeable settlement. They preferred to clear out. The area was entirely enclosed within an insurmountable fence. There was only one entrance, and it was carefully guarded. In a short time there rose immense skyscrapers, a gigantic nursing home (for terminally ill patients who desired to prolong the little life they had left), movie houses, and theaters, all amid a forest of fantastic mansions. And in the middle, at a height of forty meters, stood a circular antenna similar to those used for radar; this constituted the center of Field C. The power plant was completely underground.
Once the installation was finished, the entire world was informed that within three months the city would open its doors. To gain admission, and above all to reside there, cost an enormous sum. All the same, thousands of people from every corner of the globe were tempted. The subscriptions quickly exhausted the available housing. But then the fear began, and the flow of applicants was slower than anticipated.
What was there to fear? First of all, anyone who had settled in the city for any appreciable length of time could not leave without injury. Imagine an organism accustomed to the new, slower pace of physical existence. Suddenly transplant it from Field C to an area where life moves twice as fast; the function of every organ would have to accelerate immediately. And if it is easy for a runner to slow down, it is not so easy for someone moving slowly to bolt into a mad dash. The violent disequilibrium could have harmful or simply fatal consequences.
As a result, anyone who was born in the city was strictly forbidden to leave it. It was only logical to expect that an organism created in that slower speed could not be shifted to an environment that ran, we might say, in double time without risking destruction. In anticipation of this problem, special booths for acceleration and retardation were to be constructed on the perimeter of Field C so that anyone who left or entered it might gradually acclimate himself to the new pace and avoid the trauma of an abrupt change (they were similar to decompression chambers for deep-sea divers). But these booths were delicate devices still in the planning stage. They would not be in service for many years.
In short, the citizens of Diacosia would live much longer than other men and women, but in exile. They were forced to give up their country, old friends, travel. They could no longer have a variety of lovers and acquaintances. It was as if they had been sentenced to life imprisonment, although they enjoyed every imaginable luxury and convenience.
But there was more. The danger posed by an escape could also be caused by any damage to the installation. It is true that there were two generators in the power plant, and that if one stopped, the other began to operate automatically. But what if both malfunctioned? What if there was a blackout? What if a cyclone or lightning struck the antenna? What if there were a war, or some act of terrorism?
Diacosia was inaugurated at a celebration for its first group of citizens, who numbered 11,365. For the most part, they were people over fifty. Cristofari, who did not intend to settle in the city, was absent. He was represented by one Stoermer, a Swiss who was the director of the installation. There was a simple ceremony.
At the foot of the transmitting antenna that rose in the public garden, precisely at noon, Stoermer announced that from that moment on in Diacosia men and women would age exactly one-half as slowly as before. The antenna emitted a very soft hum, which was, moreover, pleasing to the ear. In the beginning, no one noticed the altered conditions. Only toward evening did some feel a kind of lethargy, as if they were being held back. Very soon they started to talk, walk, chew with their usual composure. The tension of life slackened. Everything required greater effort.
About one month later, in Technical Monthly, a magazine based in Buffalo, the Nobel laureate Edwin Mediner published an article that proved to be the death knell for Diacosia. Mediner maintains that Cristofari’s installation carried a grave threat. Time — we here present a synthesis of his argument in plain words — tends to rush headlong, and if it does not encounter the resistance of any matter, it will assume a progressively accelerated pace, with a tendency to increase to infinity. Thus any retardation of the flow of time requires immense effort, while it is nothing at all to augment its speed — just as in a river it is difficult to go against the current, but easy to follow it. From this observation Mediner formulated the following law: If one wishes to slow down natural phenomena, the necessary energy is directly proportional to the square of the retardation to be obtained; if one wishes to speed them up, on the other hand, the acceleration is direction proportional to the cube of the necessary energy. For example, ten units of energy are enough to achieve an acceleration of one thousand units; but the same ten units of energy applied to achieve the opposite purpose hardly produce a retardation of three units. In the first case, in fact, the human intervention operates in the same direction as time, with expects as much, so to speak. Mediner argued that Field C was such that it could operate in both directions; and an error in maintenance or a breakdown of some minor mechanism was sufficient to reverse the effect of the emission. In this case, instead of extending life to twice its average length, the machine would devour it precipitously. In the space of a few minutes, the citizens of Diacosia would age decades. And there followed the mathematical proof.
After Edwin Mediner’s revelation, a wave of panic swept through the city of longevity. A few people, overlooking the risk of abruptly reentering an “accelerated environment,” took flight. But Cristofari’s assurances about the efficiency of the installation and the very fact that nothing had happened placated the anxieties. Life in Diacosia continued its monotonous succession of identical, placid, colorless days. Pleasures were weak and insipid, the throbbing delirium of love lacked the overpowering force it once had, news, voices, even the music that came from the outside world were now unpleasant because of their great speed. In a word, life was less interesting, despite the constant distractions. And yet this boredom was slight when compared to the thought that tomorrow, when one by one their contemporaries would pass away, the citizens of Diacosia would still be young and strong; and then their contemporaries’ children would gradually die off, but the Diacosians would be full of vigor; and even their contemporaries’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren would leave the world, and they who were still alive, with decades of good years ahead of them, would read the obituary notices. This was the thought that dominated the community, that calmed restless spirits, that resolved jealousies and quarrels; this was why they were not agonized as before by the passage of time and the future presented itself as a vast landscape and when confronted by disappointment men and women told themselves: Why worry about it? I’ll think about it tomorrow, there isn’t any hurry.
After two years, the population had climbed to 52,000, and already the first generation of Diacosians had been born. They would reach full maturity at forty. After ten years, more than 120,000 creatures swarmed over that square kilometer, and slowly, much more slowly than in other cities where time galloped, the skyline rose to dizzying heights. Diacosia had now become the greatest wonder of the world. Caravans of tourists lined the periphery, observing through the gates those people who were so different, who moved with the slowness of MS victims succumbing to paralysis.
The phenomenon lasted twenty years. And a few seconds were enough to destroy it. How did the tragedy occur? Was it caused by a man’s will? Or was it chance? Perhaps one of the technicians, anguished by love or illness, wanted to abbreviate his torment and set the catastrophe in motion. Or was he maddened simply from exasperation with that empty egocentric life, concerned only with self-preservation? And so he purposely reversed the effect of the machine, freeing the vandal forces of time.
It was May 17th, a warm, sunny day. In the fields, along the fence that ran around the perimeter, hundreds of curious observers were stationed, their eyes riveted to people just like them, whose life passed twice as slowly. From within the city came the thin, harmonious voice of the antenna. It had a bell-like resonance. The present writer was there that day and he observed a group of four children playing with a ball. “How old are you?” I asked the oldest one. “Last month I was twenty,” she answered politely, but with exaggerated slowness. And their way of running was strange: all soft, viscous movements, like a film shot in slow motion. Even the ball had less bounce for them.
Beyond the fence were the lawns and paths of a garden; the barrier surrounding the buildings began at roughly fifty meters. A breeze moved the leaves in the trees, yet languidly, it seemed, as if they were leaden. Suddenly, at about three in the afternoon, the remote hum of the antenna grew more intense and rose like a siren, an unbearable piercing whistle. I will never forget what happened. Even today, at a distance of years, I awake in the dead of night with a start, confronting that horrible vision.
Before my eyes the four children stretched monstrously. I saw them grow, fatten, become adults. Beards sprouted from male chins. Transformed this way and half naked, their childhood clothes having split under the pressure of the lightning growth, they were seized with terror. They opened their mouths to speak, but what came out was a strange noise I had never heard before. In the vortex of unleashed time, the syllables all ran together, like a record played at a higher, mad speed. That gurgling quickly turned into a wheeze, then a desperate shout.
The four children looked around for help, saw us and rushed toward the railing. But life burned inside them; at the railing, a matter of seven or eight seconds, four old people arrived, with white hair and beards, flaccid and bony. One managed to seize the fence with his skeletal hands. He collapsed at once, together with his companions. They were dead. And the decrepit bodies of those poor children immediately gave off a foul odor. They were decomposing, flesh fell away, bones appeared, even the bones — before my very eyes — dissolved into whitish dust.
Only then did the fatal scream of the machine subside and finally fall silent. Mediner’s prophecy had come true. For reasons that will forever remain unknown, the time machine had reversed its operation, and a few seconds were enough to swallow three or four centuries of life.
Now a gloomy, sepulchral silence has frozen the city. The shadow of abject old age has fallen over the skyscrapers, which had previously been resplendent with glory and hope. The walls are wrinkled; ominous lines and creases have appeared, oozing black liquids amid a fringe of rotting spider webs. And there is dust everywhere. Dust, stillness, silence. Of the two hundred thousand wealthy, fortunate people who had wanted to live for centuries there remains nothing but white dust, collecting here and there, as on millennial tombs.