In David Wright O'Brien's novelette "Yesterday's Clock" (Fantastic Adventures, February 1943), an early example of the time loop story in which a particular period of time is lived through over and over by some character, protagonist George Bellows has endured an awful day when he encounters a mysterious man named Achmet. When he complains to Achmet that life isn't fair, Achmet responds: "Fate has a way of being quite unconquerable. One cannot run against its winds, my friend."
Whether one can or cannot—and why one might want to—are central concerns of Jack Skillingstead's visceral second novel, Life on the Preservation, a greatly expanded and enriched take on his well-received short story of the same name, published in 2006.
The book kicks off with two different sets of characters in two different times. Kylie and her sorta-mostly boyfriend Billy live in a post-alien-invasion Oakdale of 2013, eking out an existence in a world made toxic by poisonous rain, one of whose charming side effects is to make men impotent. Their local landscape is further made hazardous by the presence of Father Jim, self-appointed savior to local survivors (read, sexually-repressed cult leader), who has more than a passing interest in Kylie, as well as pesky zombie-like creatures which may or may not be androids. The second setup consists of Ian Palmer and his best friend Zach, living their more-or-less humdrum lives in a realistically depicted Seattle, on October 5, 2012. The exact date is important, because after several chapters of the Ian/Zach thread, we realize that they appear to be living through October 5 on repeat.
As we alternate between storylines, it becomes clear that Kylie and Billy's world, the world outside Seattle, is the "real" one, or as ontologically close as we're going to get in the work of an author known for repeatedly pulling the reality rug out from under our feet (see his excellent collection, Are You There and Other Stories , for multiple examples). Ian and Zach, on the other hand, are trapped in a Preservation Dome, a distinctly non-real environment in which at midnight the day resets and everything begins anew, exactly like before. Somehow, they develop an inkling or intuition that this is happening, but they seem to be the only ones, and often it's just Ian or Zach, trying to convince the other. This situation raises a host of fascinating questions. Does Ian, for example, really have free will, or is he doomed to repeat largely the same actions every time the day resets? How can they really know that they're stuck in their own personal Groundhog Day (1993), instead of just being, say, insane? (On page 27 Skillingstead provides an elegant description of Ian's abnormally acute sense of having lived through events before: "Deja Voodoo.") Knowing that they're inside a Preservation Dome, how and why did they end up there, and is there a way out? These mysteries are all eventually solved in a way that's satisfying because it provides just enough of an explanation, without becoming burdened by excessive back story. That's important because this is a case where less extrapolative world-building is more, since no matter how interesting the puzzle is from an intellectual perspective, the novel's ultimate focus is the characters' emotions, how they respond to their uniquely SFnal predicament.
The time loop presents a serious challenge to the storyteller, since the same events must be described multiple times. Movies like the aforementioned Groundhog Day and the more recent Source Code (2011), television episodes like Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect" (1992) and The X-Files's "Monday" (1999), and short stories like Charles F. Ksanda's "Forever Is Today" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Summer 1946) or Richard A. Lupoff's "12:01 PM" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1973) all have the advantage of being relatively short. Novel-length works featuring a time loop tend to compensate for the problem by making the loop last a lot longer than a day: in Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake (1997), for example, it lasts ten years; Ken Grimwood's World Fantasy Award-winning novel Replay (1987) features a protagonist who often lives through entire decades before the reset button is hit at death; and in the more experimental cousin of this sub-genre, Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967; originally titled Hell Goes Round and Round), the loop is comprised of the novel's entire contents. So how does Skillingstead manage to keep our attention through a dozen or more iterations of the same twenty-four-hour period?
At the level of the paragraph and the page, he does so through the craft of his prose, which demonstrates a keen sense of sensory detail. For example:
Sleep ran through him in a sluggish current. He thrashed in the current but could not drown. Sunlight slipped over the ceiling, gleamed briefly on the Nihiljizum band poster thumb-tacked next to his bed. Smells came and went: cooking scents, brewed coffee. His palate enjoyed a fleeting smorgasbord of flavors. He heard traffic, no traffic, traffic. Once, he opened his gummy eyelids, face mashed into one of his notebooks, and the apartment was dark except for a light in the bathroom. (p. 38)
At the level of scenes and chapters, he makes us care about his characters and sparks our curiosity as to how his two different storylines will intersect. Within the Ian/Zach loop itself, there are enough ingenious variations on a theme to keep us engaged. For example, it's intriguingly posited that while Ian and Zach may indeed alter their behavior, certain external events, like a sunbeam lighting up the top of the third tree in a specific park and a black crow then jumping up and flying north, happen with precise predictability. Then too, there appears to be a "Boogeyman" whom they suspect isn't human. One of the loop's sources of drama is that it repeatedly pitches Ian and Zach against a world made up entirely of other people; being overly literal and reductive for a moment, according to Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit (1944) that's the definition of Hell.
That seems fitting. Life on the Preservation presents us with some hellish experiences. It's an adult novel full of gruesome, adult situations, often graphically, disturbingly described. But there's also a strong focus on the redemptive possibility of two souls connecting: the love story that emerges in the novel's final section provides a powerful antidote to some of the earlier loss and desperation. In this regard, Skillingstead has something thematic in common with Theodore Sturgeon, many of whose stories are in some way or another about love. But whereas Sturgeon's tales often soar into lyricism, Skillingstead's prose tends to be cooler, as though the romanticism has been filtered through the hardboiled sensibility of a crime writer like John D. McDonald ("He slipped back in bed, pulled the sheet up to his waist, and handed her the cold bottle. She took a couple of swallows. He watched her and wanted to touch her again. She passed the bottle back to him and wiped her chin" [p. 225]). In a way, the novel made me think of Tim Pratt's reality-bending Briarpatch (2011), in which the city of Oakland is as much of a character as Seattle is here, and which also features a protagonist who for a long time is stuck in the denial stage of grief; in both works suicide turns out to be critical, as plot device and metaphysical rumination.
Since this is Skillingstead's second published novel, it's of interest to compare it to his first, Harbinger (2009). Writing about that novel back in 2010 I described its protagonist, Ellis Herrick, as "memorably tortured," and that certainly fits the bill with Ian, who has suffered severe familial trauma through, among other things, the suicide of his mother. Understandably, he's susceptible to depression and melancholia, something he shares with Ellis; both struggle to cope with their deep-seated suffering. In Harbinger, there was much talk about "consciousness evolution," and at one point during the novel's final section, set aboard a generation starship, Ellis wondered whether his reality wasn’t some sort of simulation based on his memories. In the current novel, which is lightly sprinkled with quotes from The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), Ian too wonders whether his world is simulated (a reasonable speculation, I suppose, if you realize you're trapped in a time loop) and eventually discovers even more bizarre forces and phenomena, like "Curators" and "Lensing." But there are some critical differences, too: Harbinger started small and went large, panning out into space, other worlds, and the ultimate fate of reality, whereas Life on the Preservation actually zooms in during the final section, coming together in a less dazzling but more emotionally intimate and satisfying way. Also, here Skillingstead has more than one protagonist, and we as readers benefit from the contrasting genders and perspectives.
All that said, despite Skillingstead's astute handling of his various premises and his gift for language, I found there were a few times when I wanted things to happen more quickly. In particular, there were instances where a character learned about something through dialogue, and then re-explained that same idea to someone else in a subsequent conversation with the same amount of detail as before, as for example with the far-out concept of "morphogenetic resonance." Also, in the Kylie/Billy thread, there was a little too much cat-and-mouse for my liking.
These concerns completely evaporated when I reached the final fifty pages that make up the novel’s final stunning section, in which we travel back to October 2011, a time that precedes both of the original storylines. Armed with the knowledge of everything that came before (and might therefore come again), I found myself utterly absorbed by Ian's attempts to convince the world, or at least one person in particular, that he was not crazy. Never has the disbelieved loner been more romantic or sympathetic.
And so we return to Achmet's words about running against the winds of fate. In that time loop story of 1943 George Bellows eventually discovered that things could be changed, because there was "one imponderable, incalculable quotant in the otherwise inflexible scheme of Fate—woman" (!). Skillingstead's novel, at least on a metaphorical level, suggests that we may be predestined to experience traumas that create their own time loops inside each of us, and may even come to define our lives if we let them. But love and compassion, though perhaps unable to erase the damage, allow us to transcend these self-made prisons. That's a truth worth remembering no matter how many times we hit the reset button.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series team-up published by Phoenix Pick (Nov 2012). Alvaro has also published short fiction, reviews, essays, and interviews in a variety of markets. He is still, however, waiting for his Aineko.