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Back in the 80s I read a story in an anthology book, in which unseen aliens "invade" Earth and force everyone to relive the same day over and over. They do this in order to thoroughly study humanity and find out what makes us tick. At the end of 1 million years (!), the experiment will be over and they'll grant everyone immortality.

The main character argues with his wife that morning, so ends up having the same argument every day for years. Eventually he meets a haunted looking woman on his daily commuter train. She tells him she's a "ghost." She dies in an accident on the loop day, and has to relive her death over and over. Worse yet, once the experiment's over, she'll die one last time and won't become immortal.

  • Hi there! That's some info already but could you please take a look at this handy guide on story-ID, see if that triggers any more memories you could edit in? For instance, any recollection of the anthology's cover? – Jenayah Feb 11 at 21:48
  • The OP posted on meta saying "Sorry, no idea what the anthology cover looks like. It's been 30 years since I read it!" – Rand al'Thor Feb 11 at 22:00
  • If she's aware of the loop and can talk about it, why can't she get off the train at the same stop as the protagonist? – moopet Feb 12 at 9:04
  • @moopet: Humanity gets an hour or two off from the loop every day, which is how the protagonist meets and converses with the "ghost" woman. Once their free period is over, they snap back into the loop. She can try as hard as she wants, but she can't ever get off the train. – bob Feb 12 at 16:03
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This may be "Absent Thee From Felicity Awhile" by Somtow Sucharitkul. There is a description here:

And speaking of Somtow, I recall someone asking about a short story last fall which they had the plot to and wanted to know the title and author. The story involved the Earth being forced into a time loop which made everyone repeat the same day over and over again as a study project for a sort of inter-galactic elementary school. The only reprieve the people on Earth get is two free hours every day early in the morning. Talk about being stuck in a rut... Well, anyway, in case that someone is still wondering, I just recalled those details; it's: "Absent Thee from Felicity Awhile..." by, of course (ah, that's the connection!), Somtow Sucharitkul. Hope my answer didn't come too late!

I found it by looking at the Literature section of TVTropes's Groundhog Day Loop and noting that one mentioned aliens and a million years.

It appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, September 14, 1981 among other locations.

I don't see any text of it available online, but the following excerpt shows up in the the Google Books preview:

Gail stirred uneasily. We had breakfast, and I didn't slap her face.

  • That's it, FuzzyBoots! Thank you! You have no idea how long I've been trying to find this story. And there's a pdf version available too! Thanks again! – bob Feb 12 at 15:57
  • @bob: You can accept it by clicking on the checkmark by the voting buttons. – FuzzyBoots Feb 12 at 16:12
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Pretty sure that story was "The Giftie Gie Us" by Timothy Zahn, originally published in Analog July 20 1981 and later collected in Cascade Point and Other Stories (looks like you can get it on Amazon). I remember that story too and think about it from time to time.

  1. Aliens observe human beings who are caught in a timeloop which repeats the same day for a very long period of time (one million years, I think). In the story, the aliens don't force the humans to live through the event; it's a natural event, and the aliens are just along to observe.

  2. Main character has an argument with his wife, which involved slapping her; but he is able to overcome that motion.

  3. I don't remember the "ghost woman" part, I'm afraid, but it sounds like something Zahn would do.

The line "The Giftie Gie Us" comes from a Robert Burns poem, "To a Louse".

  • Thanks for the quick reply, Richard. I googled The Giftie Gie Us" and unfortunately that's not the story. The one I'm thinking of wasn't in a post-apocalyptic world. It was set in the present (well, present at the time it was published). – bob Feb 12 at 2:32
  • 2
    You might be thinking of a story by Zahn (though I don't recognize it) but it's not "The Giftie Gie Us" which is a post-apocalyptic story of a veteran who has suffered permanent facial disfigurement from a chemical weapon attack and the "blind" woman he helps. (She is "blind" because she can't see through her own eyes.) – DavidW Feb 12 at 3:06
  • Not Zahn's "Time Bomb" either, I think. – FuzzyBoots Feb 12 at 13:15

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