In Search of Lost Time by Karen Heuler
This novella is, well, rather strange, following Hildy, a woman who has been diagnosed and is being treated for cancer of the Tempora, the specific area of the brain that controls the perception of time. Because of her chemo, she develops the ability to see people’s time as auras around their bodies. These auras have different colors that correlate to what kind of time she’s seeing—memories, feelings, even future time that hasn’t been used yet. More than that, she gains the ability to interact with these auras, to taste people’s time, and even to capture it in jars for later use, either by her or others. It’s an interesting premise that the story runs with, exploring the morality of time, especially in a world where things aren’t fair or just. And it’s in that exploration that I found the story did the most to complicate this vision we have of time, and presented Hildy as a conflicted and conflicting character whose quest for knowledge and life leads her into a dark wood where there are no real guideposts or maps, just a great need that can never fully be sated.
Time is, after all, rather terribly unfair. Though many people treat it like every person is parceled out this specific amount of time upon their birth, everyone getting the same eighty years, say, and that those people either hold onto that time or somehow squander it, decreasing their life by making risky or unhealthy decisions. It’s a kind of moralizing that we don’t often confront, that we so often blame people for their own deaths, especially if the deaths come “too soon.” When, really, we can’t really know how much time we have, and it’s impossible to know what action will somehow “cost” us time. And it certainly isn’t fair. Some people live to a hundred years old. Some die in infancy. To think that there is some sort of plan or fairness to it is to demand that those dying cede their space just because they had the misfortune to be one of those with a shorter life. And...and the story does some interesting things with that. In some ways, after all, this is a vampire story. The consuming of time to prolong life is exactly what vampirism is about. It’s no surprise that Hildy is drawn to the healthy, to the young, to those whose time tastes better. Only here it’s not just Hildy that’s a vampire—she’s a vampire-enabler. Meaning that everyone around her is a vampire, starving for more time, and yet she’s the only one who can supply them with what they want, with what they need to survive.
The novella is very concerned with the morality of all this. Is it right for Hildy to take people’s time? Time is unfair, so why should Hildy be held to some doctrine of non-interference. She knows intimately what it’s like to be short on time, and she has this power that will allow her to continue, that will allow her to, in some ways, make the system “more fair” by taking time from those with time “to spare” and giving it to those who are dying. She’s given the power to intervene, and the story examines what the implications are of using that power. It’s this huge, life-altering thing, after all. She can keep people alive, people who are dying, who are suffering, who are asking for her help.
That’s part of the story, too—there are tons of people around Hildy asking for her help, demanding her help. People who are very self-motivated, who want to profit either personally or financially from her ability. There are also those, though, who are being manipulated. There are those with powers like hers who act like gods. There are those who are lost and broken. Hildy has to find her own path, and I quite like how she does that, finding a strength inside herself to push forward even as she feels adrift and scared and hurt. There’s the lingering question of “should she use this new power?” and the story never exactly gives a firm answer to that. Which I think is a great choice. Instead it shows what she does, and why she does it, and leaves her actions stand taller than her reasons. It requires the reader to confront how they feel about Hildy’s decisions—do we condemn her? Applaud her? Pity her? Nothing is simple and it makes for a complex, thoughtful read. There’s a little bit of action, but this is not exactly a thriller. It fits, though, with a story about chronicle illness, slow declines, and the injustice of time. And it makes for a fascinating read. For those who enjoy slower contemporary fantasy with some deep themes, I definitely recommend checking it out!