13

I know I've read this story at least twice. The first time was somewhere in the early 1980s (say, no later than 1984), but I strongly suspect it was already a few decades old at that point. I later accidentally ran across it in the mid-to-late 1990s. Both times, it was inside hardback anthologies which I had checked out from public libraries. (Possibly different copies of the same anthology; I can't remember what else was included in either volume.) English language; apparently set in a near-future version of the USA.

Here's the basic plot:

  1. The story starts with a veteran novelist having a chat with an executive -- an editor in a book publishing house, I think. The novelist is under contract to deliver a new manuscript by a certain deadline, and I think he's already blown it. This is unusual for him, so the editor wants to know why.

  2. They end up verbally reviewing the novelist's daily routine. (I gather he's a bachelor who lives alone in an apartment.) On working days (probably Monday-Friday), his alarm always wakes him up at the same time. He gets up, showers, fixes some breakfast, and then at a certain time (say, 8:30 to 9:00 AM) he does his morning exercises to keep fit. Then he sits down at his typewriter to get cracking on his novel . . . and he swears that he just doesn't know where the time goes! Sometimes it seems as if he's barely warming up . . . when suddenly his clock says it's time to stop for lunch or dinner. He is painfully aware that this sounds like a really pathetic excuse for his lack of productivity.

  3. This is where the story veers away from what might be expected to happen in the real world. Instead of berating the writer or insisting he try harder to eliminate distractions during his working hours, the editor is surprisingly sympathetic, as if he honestly believes that the writer is telling the literal truth. The editor refers the writer to a man who provides a special service. The specialist carries some exotic equipment into the writer's apartment and takes some readings.

  4. It turns out that someone was, in fact, stealing large chunks of the writer's time during business hours. I believe it is stated that our perception of time depends upon the presence of certain particles, and with "modern science" it is possible to add or subtract many of those particles so that a given person seems to experience, say, just five minutes of duration in a timeframe which an impartial observer with his stopwatch would clock at an hour. Or it can be done the other way around, if need be, to greatly increase the "amount of time" which a person experiences, so that he could squeeze an hour of work into a matter of minutes. Some crooks picked this bachelor writer as a soft target and have covertly stolen many, many hours' worth of time particles from him over the past several months (or however long it had been going on). Then they'd have a stockpile of "extra time" to sell on the black market.

  5. Please note: There was also a legitimate, government-regulated service that would help you voluntarily sell some of your extra time, or you could buy some that another person had provided, but I got the impression that the writer had not previously been aware of this new industry (neither in its legitimate nor criminal variations), which is why the sympathetic editor was needed to diagnose what might really be happening. I presume that the criminals undercut the standard price from the legitimate service, which they could afford to do since they were not paying anything to the involuntary "time donors."

  6. The thieves are apprehended by the forces of law and order, and the writer is notified that his now-retrieved "stolen time" is being held (by the legitimate service) in a new account in his name, and whenever he needs to add a few extra hours' worth of duration to his workday, he should just let them know. (I think a small percentage of his "stolen time" was kept by the legitimate service as their commission.)

  7. At the end of the story, the writer is back in the editor's office for another session, but this time he is far more cheerful about it. He's been getting lots and lots of good work done at his typewriter, and after some experiments, he found that most of the time he doesn't even need to draw upon his account in order to add "extra hours" of working time to his day. The editor comments that he too usually feels the same way, although occasionally he arranges to have "a forty-hour day" (or something along those lines -- I could have the number wrong).

As you can see, I remember the plot pretty well, but I have no idea who wrote it. Nor do I recall the title. I have a vague idea that the second time I read that story (in the 1990s), I may have thought to myself: "This wasn't written by Isaac Asimov, but the writing style is similar to how he used to compose his own short stories, back in the Golden Age."

Does anyone think this sounds familiar?

  • The part about blowing deadlines, is word by word, the story of my life. (Sorry, I can't try to find your story, I am already late with my work). – Sredni Vashtar Apr 10 '17 at 4:15
13

"Where the Time Went", a short story by James H. Schmitz, first published in If, November 1968, available at the Internet Archive. The only hardcover appearance known to the ISFDB is in the 1973 anthology Androids, Time Machines and Blue Giraffes edited by Roger Elwood and Vic Ghidalia.

Excerpts:

“I indicated that your problem could be solved, Mr. Belk,” said Dr. Gordon. "And indeed it will be. You see, this situation is so fraught with unethical possibilities that an organization exists which is dedicated to policing the transfer of subjective time among individuals. Such transactions may be quite legitimate. As I explained, a good many people have more time than they know what to do with, they have surplus time which is a nuisance to them. People who need additional time are allowed to draw it from such individuals, providing suitable compensation is made. Since our organization operates with as much secrecy as possible, the donor frequently doesn’t know there has been a transaction. But always he must be compensated. An unexpected stroke of good fortune comes his way; he may find a better job, more suitable to his unenergetic nature, suddenly open to him, and so forth. Both parties have benefited.”

“But why the secrecy?” George asked. “If everybody knew — ” “If everybody were aware of this, Mr. Belk, the situation might get completely out of hand. As I said, the process of extracting time particles from somebody else is very simple, once it is understood. We want no more people to know about it than we can help.”

“I see.” George hesitated. “Then you — this organization — will keep whoever has been stealing my time from doing it again?”

Dr. Gordon smiled. “We can do better than that. Much better. The drainometer recordings indicate that at various periods during the past two days as much as nine out of ten of your time particles have been surreptitiously diverted. This is a blatant crime. The fact that you are, as I previously indicated, inherently somewhat careless with your time has made you an easy victim. But now compensation must be made by those who took advantage of this. When you leave here, you will carry another instrument with you. The next attempt to tap the flow of your time particles will give us a direct line to the perpetrator. In all likelihood we shall find then that you have been preyed upon not by one individual but by a criminal gang.”

“A gang?” George repeated.

“Exactly. As I pointed out, Mr. Belk, time is a commodity. It has value. For some it has great value. Among such people there always will be a number who do not care whether the commodity they want can be obtained legally or ethically, provided only they get it. And there always will be criminal elements willing to supply the commodity for a price. We’re constantly on the lookout for indications of such a situation.”

“And you can make them compensate for what they’ve done?”

“Yes, we can,” said Dr. Gordon. “The organization has very effective means of dealing with such criminals and those who benefit unethically by their crimes. We shall establish exactly how much time was diverted from you and by whom during the past years, and to the last particle this time will be drained from the guilty parties involved and restored. Not in a lump sum, so to speak. But you will have established a time credit with the organization, on which you can draw as your requirements or wishes dictate. In other words, if you should like to operate for a while on the basis of a fully usable forty-eight-hour working day, or even a hundred-hour day, you will be able to do it.”

George was silent a moment. “I hardly know how to thank the organization — and you, sir!” he said then. “There must be some way I can repay you.”

Dr. Gordon cleared his throat. “Well, as a matter of fact, it is customary to charge a fee. The fee goes not to me but to the organization. As I say, time is a commodity. We all can use it. Would a fee of say ten per cent of the time you will regain seem fair to you?” “Eminently fair!” George declared.

He called John Carew next day to tell him of the outcome of the matter.

[. . . .]

“Fine,” said John Carew. “In that case, I’ll look forward to getting a new novel from you within . . . oh, let’s say the next two weeks."

And he got it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.