The story begins with Adam at the funeral of his wife with his son. However she is not being buried she is being dug up and instead of dying she is being brought back to life! From then the story goes “forward”, as events continue to go, from our point of view, in reverse. We learn that things are indeed changing. Typewriters replace computers, factories absorb pollution from the air and trucks bring it to the mines where it is deposited back into the ground!
Gradually things continue in reverse, Adam, (Like Adam the first man?), gets younger and so does his wife. Adam’s young son gets younger and younger and is finally a baby then in the womb and then absorbed by his mother. Then Adam and his wife have a “Wedding” Ceremony that undoes their wedding and their in High School and then they get to the day that they “meet”. After that Adam realizes that he is not “aging” i.e., getting younger. Time continues to go by and he encounters one women after the other has children who are then absorbed by the mother. Technology continues to reverse. The nuclear age ends and eventually Europeans “return” to Europe has things continue to reverse. Monuments built by man are taken apart like Stonehenge. Adam become Imhotep, but instead of building the Step Pyramid of Djoser he dismantles it! He is there when agriculture is “discovered” and returns the first harvested plants to the plant they were “harvested” from. Tens of thousands of years later men are hunters and gradually even the cave painting are taken apart. A cave artist unpaints Adam’s hand print.
Through all this Adam waits to find his mother but never does. Finally he swims out to sea, (The mother of us all I suppose.), while on a cliff the women Adam has known through the ages see him off and then turn and walk away.
Through all this we learn that the universe is contracting and because it is contracting time has gone in reverse. This is a common Science Fiction trope and certainly has given rise to unsettling stories. Even Scientists used to treat this has a real possibility. For example George Gamow:
Were you reading this book from the last page to the first some eight or ten billion years ago? And did the people at the time produce fried chickens from their mouths, put life into them in the kitchen, and then send them to the farm where they grew from adulthood to babyhood, finally crawled into eggshells, and after some weeks became fresh eggs?2
Sadly? it appears that this bizarre, freakish notion is not likely to exist in any sort of real world. Instead in a Universe with time going backwards the laws of physics would still apply along with quantum mechanics so that the sort of backward movement like you would you see in a film running backwards would NOT happen.3
Quantum stuff like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle at a quantum level would prevent events from duplicating themselves even in reverse.4
What Daniel Quinn does with this idea is sadly a disappointment. Frankly through what can be described as a failure of nerve he fails to push the idea through to its logical conclusion. The fact that the book also has a sort nostalgia for the pre-industrial past doesn’t help.
In the story Quinn seems to long for a society that was simpler, less polluted, more down to earth so to speak. He seems to be wrapped up with the idea that on this backward moving (literally!), earth that the idea of men returning to the womb to be united with their mothers imparts a certain optimism, positive life affirming value to this society as against out society where we bury people in the ground where they rot.
Aside from the rather obvious Freudian overtones, and possible satire of a quite literal returning to the womb, the problems with this are legion. It is quite clear that rotting in the ground or being absorbed by your mother death is death and frankly becoming a child again and losing the knowledge and abilities of an adult cannot be termed “positive”. The other problem is that this Universe is rigidly deterministic. You have all your memories has an adult of your future so to speak and you know exactly what your going to be doing and when in your future. You are trapped and you know it. This is illustrated by a scene in which Adam prepares ahead of time to untake a picture of his son; inserts the picture in the camera where it disappears. People know ahead of time when people are born in the ground etc. It is utterly deterministic.
Also Daniel Quinn seems to forget that in our Universe people accumulate memories in this onem since time is reverse,d people lose memories. Their future is absolutely determined and known, but concerning their past they have no knowledge, it is the undiscovered country. When they are born they know exactly how long they will live and how they will die, and where and when. Thus man steadily and methodically loses knowledge each generation knows on average less and less. Man removes all traces of himself from the moon. Pages typed are untyped. Slowly but surely man’s achievements are undone and knowledge of them forgotten.
What is remarkable is that Daniel Quinn forgets this. His hero Adam never forgets, despite this being a Universe in which man loses knowledge steadily, despite the fact the past should logically be unknowable he remembers the undiscovered country.
We are supposed to find this utterly deterministic Universe where people lose knowledge and everything is determined and repeats over and over again in an endless oscillation of expansion and contraction a positive vision. It reads to me like hell.
The failure of nerve comes in little things scattered all over the piece. Aside from the break in the logic of the piece that is entailed by Adam remembering his past, in a backward moving Universe of this kind he should be losing not gaining memories; all sorts of stuff indicate that time is not moving back. People have sex forward not backward, Adam swims out to sea at the end forward, not backward and the women who see him out turn around and walk away forward, the Priest at the beginning walks forward etc.
What we do not see is such things as Adam sitting on the can and a turd flying out of the sewer and up his ass through his digestive system to form a carrot in his mouth which he then “plants” in his garden where it becomes a seed, which he then puts in a package and takes to the store.
This is a world in which man looks “forward” to becoming more and more animal like, where eventually he will lose everything that makes him human and eventually all life will revert back to the primordial ooze and then vanish. Exactly how Daniel Quinn sees this has optimistic is beyond me.
All and all a seriously unsettling tale, which in my opinion is ruined to a large extent by a failure of nerve and a streak of witless nostalgia. A failure but a interesting failure.
1. Quinn, Daniel, The Man Who Grew Young, Context Books, New York, 2001, Illustrations by Tim Eldred.
2. Gamow, George, One Two Three … Infinity, Second Edition, Bantam Books, New York, 1961, p. 335.
3. Times Arrow, Wikipedia Here, Physics Forum Here. And see Asimov, Isaac, The Beginning and the End, Pocket Books, New York, 1977, pp. 149-152.
4. IBID, Asimov.