“Divine Madness” by Roger Zelazny (1966)

TITLE: “Divine Madness” (1966)
AUTHOR: Roger Zelazny
CATEGORY: Short Story
SUB-CATEGORY: Time Travel, Temporal Paradox
SOURCE: TRIPS IN TIME edited by Robert Silverberg (Wildside Press, 1977)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Magazine of Horror (Summer 1966), published again in New Worlds (October 1966)

Okay, here’s my second random pick from TRIPS IN TIME, “Divine Madness” by Roger Zelazny.

A tortured man is having seizures, during which he is seemingly being forced to relive a sequence of recent events in reverse. The doctors claim that this is all unreal, and that he is enduring a strange hallucination caused by a combination of epilepsy and grief from some unspecified recent trauma or loss. But we are led to believe otherwise, that he is actually trapped in some kind of temporal paradox, during which he really is reliving these recent events in reverse.

The seizures/time reversals are getting longer, starting off at a few minutes long, then hours, then seemingly days in length. And they are rushing inexorably backwards towards the point of origin, the mysterious unnamed trauma which seems to be the cause of everything. He can watch these events, but it seems he is helpless to change any of them. The laws of cause and effect have been turned upside down, and the actions which started the chain of events would not be revealed until the end of the story.

Things begin to become clear as actions continue to unfold backwards, through the funeral, the tragic phone call in which he is informed of his girlfriend’s death in an 80mph car crash, and finally onto the initial event which caused everything, that fateful final argument between them that led to her storming off in anger. Will he be able to say those all-important words to her once he actually reaches the crucial moment, or will he once again be unable to change anything, and be forced to watch helplessly as events unfold tragically, yet again?

“Divine Madness” is at heart a tragic love story with an ingenious SF twist at it’s core. There never is any explanation given for the strange time reversal paradox, why it was happening to this guy or what was causing it. Nor is there any need for an explanation. It just IS. I know that many SF authors and readers like to have the clever stuff revealed in every detail (I can be one of those people, at times), but sometimes I do think it’s nice to leave the occasional thing unexplained and mysterious.

Zelazny’s beautiful use of language always was a cut above many of his contemporaries, and I really liked the lucid descriptions of the reversal scenes – birds flying backwards, the cigarette growing longer and unlighting back into the lighter, the Martini being undrunk back into the glass, the fountain sucking the water back into itself, the birds replacing the bits of the candy bar that they were uneating, and various other everyday minutae unfolding in the opposite direction from the one they are supposed to occur. Some of these scenes are both beautiful and ingenious.

Over the years, the “time reversal” story has become a fairly familiar gimmick in SF literature, sci-fi movies and television series. I certainly remember an entire episode of the UK comedy sci-fi television series Red Dwarf built on the idea – I wonder if the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, ever read “Divine Madness”, as I know they’re huge SF literature fans. But when Zelazny’s story was published in 1966, (twice, first in the Summer edition of Magazine of Horror, and again in the October edition of New Worlds magazine), “time reversal” was a much fresher and less clichéd SF device than it is today.

Whilst this may not be the only “time reversal” story in SF, I can only think of one other off the top of my head that tackled the subject in such an elaborate manner, the much more light-hearted and comedic “Round Trip to Esidarap”, written by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., which was published six years earlier than “Divine Madness”, as “Esidarap ot Pirt Dnuor” in the November 1960 edition of If magazine. Maybe there are other “time reversal” stories of this type out there, but I can’t think of any right now.

However one thing’s for sure. Few, if any, SF authors could write as fine an example of the form as Roger Zelazny has given us with “Divine Madness”.

Rated: 3.5 out of 5.0

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