Flash Fiction

As I write there's a Flash tv series on the verge of release, and a film about this DC superhero is scheduled for 2016. Gifted with super-speed by the traditional bolt of lightning hitting the laboratory, this was one costumed vigilante who never worried about needing to pee while clad in a skin-tight onesie – a vital problem neglected by comics writers until at last Alan Moore pondered the issue in Watchmen. The Flash could undress and dress again in nanoseconds, with a golden shower so swift that no bystander except perhaps Superman could detect the, er, flash flood.

H.G. Wells got there first with "The New Accelerator", published in 1901. No lightning bolts are needed in the lab of learned Professor Gibberne, who brews up a drug to speed human metabolism by a factor of thousands. With a bemused friend in tow, he whizzes invisibly through Folkestone holiday crowds, "going a thousand times faster than the quickest conjuring trick that was ever done" and playing a wicked practical joke on a neighbour's noisy dog....

Only as the elixir is wearing off do our speed freaks realize the hazards of fast-forwarding: "Friction of the air!" Their clothes nearly burst into flame, because they neglected the obvious safety precaution of wearing red asbestos onesies.

A favourite comedy about time distortion is The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything by John D. Macdonald (better known for his colourful Travis McGee thrillers). Just like Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator potion, that high-tech watch tweaks time into overdrive. In one riotous scene the hero's irresponsible girlfriend borrows the gadget and gleefully wreaks havoc on a Miami beach by invisibly removing a great many women's bikini tops. This, incidentally, is a loving homage to Thorne Smith's fantasy Topper Takes a Trip (sequel to The Jovial Ghosts), where the invisible hands of rowdy ghosts cause similar seaside chaos in France.

Another technological speed-up features in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, whose obsessed protagonist gets rewired as a cyborg commando able to switch into ultra-fast action. In one of the sillier episodes of Henry Kuttner's very silly Robots Have No Tails, the mad-scientist hero is plagued by an eerie unseen being that steals his food, and eventually turns out to be his own speeded-up grandfather (don't ask: it's complicated). Arthur C Clarke had a go at the theme in his gloomy morality fable "All the Time in the World", whose antihero has Earth at his mercy thanks to an alien time-accelerator device but can't turn it off since the planet is about to blow up.

Such tinkering with time-flow may be the only way to make the happy days last. In Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, our narrator is far too busy dealing with an invasion of mind-controlling alien slugs to get married and enjoy a month-long passionate honeymoon, but nevertheless manages to fit this sidebar action into a single day thanks to the useful drug "tempus" (no doubt a product of Gibberne PLC). At no point, except perhaps metaphorically, do he and his bride catch fire.

Likewise, the ultra-rich youngster who buys Earth in Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia is rewarded in the final chapter by a thousand years of utter bliss with his beloved cat-girl, all compressed by the magic of telepathy into twenty minutes. Which is somehow reminiscent of Richard Matheson's 1959 fantasy "Mantage", where a man's entire life plays out in fast-forward as a Hollywood movie 85 minutes long. "A good length," he thinks at the closing credits, but because this is 1950s Hollywood there are discreet fadeouts in place of the hot bedroom scenes. What a life. All gone in one 85-minute flash.

David Langford, as alert readers will have deduced, wrote the SF Encyclopedia entry on Time Distortion.