"Diary of a Former Science Fiction Writer" appeared February, 1975 in New Libertarian Notes No. 37. It is posted for entertainment purposes only and may not be crossposted to any other datafile base, conference, news group, email list, or website without written permission of the author.
Copyright © 1975 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
Diary of a Former Science Fiction Writer
by J. Neil Schulman
I am not certain anyone will ever read this account. In fact, I'm not sure anybody will ever again be able to read the thousands of words of science fiction I've written in my lifetime. I suppose it's just eternal optimism that drives me to write this at all and I dedicate it to the yet unborn revisionist historians seeking the answer of what happened during this period. This is, assuming the future produces any historians.
Yet I haven't explained how I, who have written science fiction under the name Maximilian Duke (and fairly well, at least according to my royalty statements), came to be leading a small cadre of revolutionaries charged with the prime responsibility for returning the English language to the good people of the United States.
Please don't misunderstand me: my literary background (except perhaps tangentially) did not qualify me for this task. On the contrary, all the fantastic tales I've penned didn't prepare me for this in the least, a situation I might have written about had I possessed just a bit more foresight.
If you press me, I suppose I could cite examples as far back as several years ago, but at that point the outbreak (as I first started thinking of it) was confined to a few individuals committed to mental institutions. It was only as late as this past December that the telltale signs were noted by a keen observer--which I was not (and my prime literary failing)--but even if I had been astute enough to attempt warning the public, it would have been regarded only as publicity for a new SF novel. Or if I had been taken seriously, I probably would have ended up in a padded cell--as far as possible from newspapers--myself.
To keep the record straight, however, it was my ex-wife, Leonore, who first took note of the phenomenon.
Leonore, for most of her life, has been a classical music buff, and Beethoven, naturally, her favorite. (I sometimes wonder if her name first sparked this affinity or whether a similar feeling by her parents selected her name.) In any event, we were sitting first balcony left, Symphony Hall, listening to an all-Beethoven program by the Boston Symphony Orchestra when Leonore first made her observation.
It was after intermission (the first half of the program was an absolutely awful rendition of the Emperor Concerto) and the orchestra was playing the sixth symphony; no, it was the seventh. Leonore took a pencil and paper out of her purse and wrote a note which she then handed me. It read: "The violin bowings are all backwards!"
I looked at her searchingly; she just pouted and shrugged. I took the pencil and paper then wrote back: "Explain."
"When the conductor's arm goes down," she wrote, "the violin bows shouldn't go up."
I took the writing implements again and wrote: "Nonsense. I'm sure the concertmaster knows what he's doing."
She then got very perturbed at my decision to place the concertmaster's judgment over her own and refused to write me for the rest of the concert.
I think it was such pigheadedness in the face of my overwhelming common sense that drove me to divorce her.
It wasn't a complete break, though, perhaps best evidenced by the evening's date, which ended up back at my apartment for an after-concert drink. We discussed the illogic--or logic--of her hypothesis (depending whose view you accepted) then we undressed each other and forgot the whole silly matter in the throes of ex- marital bliss.
I mean to say that I forgot about it until an incident right after New Year's brought it to mind once more. I had gone into the Pewter Pot Muffin House on Boylston Street--not far from Prudential Center. It was midafternoon and I often took a break to prevent my electric typewriter from overheating. I was seated at a small table near the rear, had tentatively decided on a blueberry muffin and coffee, when my waitress showed up to take my order. "Olleh," she said.
I raised my eyebrows. "I beg your pardon?"
"Olleh!" she repeated herself, more urgently.
I was growing rather concerned for her state of mind and was about to summon the manager when she suddenly recovered from her aberration. "Where have you been?" she asked, her tone suggesting that perhaps it was I who was not sane.
"Wherever it has been, young lady, I can assure you that English was spoken."
She looked as if I'd wounded her, poor thing. "Oh," she said sullenly. "I guess you don't know about it. 'Olleh' is 'Hello' backwards. It's a new fad," she continued. "The idea is to try saying everything backwards. Haven't you heard about it?"
Of course I'd read the usual "silly season" stories, but it is the sad lot of the writer to be cooped up behind a typewriter so much of the time that he sometimes loses direct contact with the very things he writes about. "T'nevah I tcaf fo rettam a sa no," I said.
She smiled. "You cheated. You do know about it."
"No I was being perfectly honest with you."
"Then how come you speak backwards?" she asked accusingly.
I sighed. I can never quite understand why the younger generation thinks it has cornered the market on fads and originality. "It just so happens, young woman, that when I was a lad this speaking backwards was standard practice among a certain group of my friends. We formed a secret organization--complete with clubhouse and secret handshake--to which I was elected leader because my backwards fluency exceeded all the others'."
"You certainly speak it well," she said enthusiastically. "I go to Boston University--this job is only part time--and you already speak much better than anyone there."
Again I sighed. "I sometimes note what trivia the human mind chooses to retain. If I'd had just half the retention in mathematics... But I mustn't bore you--what is your name?"
"If you're ready, Amanda, I'll give you my order very slowly." She nodded eagerly. "Eeffoc dna niffum yrrebeulb a ekil d'I."
"Yawa thgir, Ris, sey!" Amanda must have had a good backwards proficiency already because she got my order correct.
Well, the fad caught on like wildfire. Time magazine devoted two pages of "The Nation" to it, celebrities started talking backwards on the late night talk shows (to compete, one station started showing its movies backwards), and G. & C. Merriam Company came out with the Paperbackwards Dictionary. Selling for $1.50 it sold over two million copies in the first month.
It was into March already and I was rather surprised to find that fad lasting as long as it did; these things have a tendency to burn themselves out in a few weeks. Not that I wasn't enjoying myself, my boyhood abilities made me the life of many a party and, purely as a sociological aside, my fluency made me almost irresistible to the opposite sex. My SF credentials won me an invitation to meet Amanda's peers where I had the opportunity to test my hypothesis.
Then the serious side effects started cropping up: an unusual number of automobile accidents involving one or more drivers on the wrong side of the road, wrong telephone numbers as people started dialing backwards. I have been told by reliable New York sources that Carvel Ice Cream kept getting calls meant for Lefrak Real Estate, and vice versa. I can't say that I was totally immune; on one occasion I wrote most of a short story before I realized everything I'd written was backwards. I suppose certain persons didn't mind it, though. The mirror manufacturers were doing land office business.
Then the crisis came.
I woke up one morning to find the utilities turned off, radio and television off the air--even the telephones out of order. Any of these occurrences alone would have been normal--if everything had been working correctly that would have been abnormal--but for everything to be shut down at once. Even our grossly damaged economy couldn't manage that at one stroke.
I quickly dressed and ran out to the street. The scene was horrifying; mass panic in its most primitive form. Questions flying through my mind. Had that science fiction nightmare, the nuclear holocaust, finally come to pass? Were New York and Washington already gone, perhaps Boston to follow?
On an impulse, I started threading my way through the crowd toward Leonore's Park Drive apartment. I ran up three flights to her apartment and found her door unlocked. I knocked a few times, received no answer, and walked in. Leonore was sitting in front of her livingroom mirror. Crying.
I rushed over to her, put my hands on her shoulders, and asked her what was wrong. No response. I asked her again, she just continued looking frantically into my eyes. With perhaps a spark of intuition I tried the question backwards. She threw her arms around me and couldn't answer fast enough.
She couldn't speak forwards anymore, read forwards anymore. Everything she'd learned to do during an entire lifetime was now completely reversed--totally useless to her. And the same was true of everyone she'd encountered.
Excluding me, that is.
The next day, he came on the air--carefully speaking backwards himself--and proclaimed his ultimatum. Anyone who wanted to think forwards again--excluding a few hardcore recalcitrants--merely had to appear at the nearest army base for "conditioning." And those who didn't would be defenseless to resist.
I stole an abandoned car--its owner couldn't drive anyway--and made it to New York in under three days. Not bad, considering the thousands of wrecked cars blocking the highways. No one stopped me, they assumed anyone who could drive was authorized to do so.
In the next few weeks, I managed to contact seven members of the Bulc Srediar, the secret club I'd led as a boy. Of the remaining twenty-three members whose names I could recall, two were dead, three had lost all ability to speak backwards before the reversal--the rest had moved away from New York. The reason that we club members alone could now think forwards was because we'd mastered "backthink" before the poisoning had been started. It was perfectly logical: when a backwards image is reflected in a mirror it comes out forwards again. And we could think in both directions before the reversal.
It was because of our vital abilities that we started recruiting anybody with the least forwards proficiency--some were naturally ambidextrous--for forwards language lessons. We soon learned that anyone who could learn to speak forwards could extrapolate learning to do other things forwards as well. The alternative was impossible considering the deadline: designing our weaponry to operate backwards.
And we are working under a deadline.
We have determined that unless we can capture the secret of the reversal in just weeks, the effects will be permanent. But we have not yet lost faith. We will get the swine who did this.
Our battle cry is:
"Srellefekcor eht kcuf!"