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I’m trying to find a science fiction short story I read in the late 70s/early 80s, possibly in an older anthology: it was likely written in the 50s or 60s.

It’s about time travel and its limits: basically, humanity has found a way to travel backwards in time but not physically, just as onlookers.

So it’s used in forensics to travel back to when a crime has been committed and see who the felon is: I remember one of the characters saying that if you’ve been murdered they cannot prevent that nor bring you back to life but at least they have the means to capture your murderer.

I think they’re using kind of floating balls with built-in cameras for the task but I’m not sure about this, it could be from another story.

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    The alien visitors in Clarke's Childhood's End also have similar technology to look back at high-profile crimes, but that is a novel, not a short story.
    – b_jonas
    Mar 26, 2020 at 11:20
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    @b_jonas: The Overlords don't have any kind of time traveling crime solving abilities. The only crime described in any detail is a kidnapping, and it was solved by reasoning and detective work.
    – JRE
    Mar 26, 2020 at 16:20
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    Similar technology exists in the novella “E for Effort” (1947) by T.L.Sherred, and in the short story “I See You” (1976) by Damon Knight; but from your hints the plot is not similar. Ah, I hadn't seen this feature before: isfdb.org/cgi-bin/tag.cgi?4404 Mar 26, 2020 at 20:21
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    There was a story in the late '40s called "Private Eye" by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore pen name). The premise was that there was a machine that could basically look back in time, so crime investigators used it extensively. The protagonist decided to murder someone, so he devised a plan to manipulate his victim into getting into a fight with him. He ended up so distorting his life that after he succeeded in his plan, he was basically lost.
    – user888379
    Mar 26, 2020 at 21:31
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    Sounds sorta like The Light of Other Days, but that was written much later.
    – jmoreno
    Mar 27, 2020 at 0:09

5 Answers 5

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I suggested in a comment that the story might be The Dead Past by Isaac Asimov, and although it is only a vague match to the description a reply suggests it might be the story so I'll post more details.

The story hinges around a technology called the chronoscope that allows users to see images from the past, but no time travel is involved. The chronoscope works because the particles called neutrinos travel from the past to the present¹ and can be detected as images from the past.

The mismatch with the question is because the chronoscope was suppressed as soon as it was realised that "the past" is any time more than a moment ago and the chronoscope's ability to image from a moment ago makes it able to spy on anyone anywhere in the world. So it is not used for catching murderers or indeed solving any crimes.


¹ neutrinos do indeed travel from the past to the present, but sadly only at one second per second

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    The chronoscope was no good for observing the past more than some few decades back. That's why all the supposed papers written using the chronoscope for archeology were written from regular research. The limitation of "recent past" makes it useful for solving crimes and viewing current event at a distance with a very short delay.
    – JRE
    Mar 26, 2020 at 16:24
  • It is actually destroyed to prevent a possible "crime" from being solved.
    – LSerni
    Mar 26, 2020 at 16:58
  • Everything travels, the idea is that neutrino patten is altered less by the passage of time Mar 26, 2020 at 20:58
  • So, I've found and read the story: it rang a bell as memories surfaced from having read it in my younger days but sadly now I can say this wasn't the story I was looking for. Thank you for your help anyway!
    – Zab Zonk
    Mar 27, 2020 at 9:48
  • There is nothing in the story about the device being used to solve crimes.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 27, 2020 at 19:24
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I seem to remember one such story by Orson Scott Card, part of his "Pastwatch" series (it has novels such as this; the GoodReads entry is about the largest novel, The Redemption of Christopher Columbus).

"Pastwatch I" machines supplied exactly what you said, and were used for both historical research and murder solving. I remember some observation such as, "there was no longer such a thing as an unsolved murder".

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    One confounding factor is the only short story version I've found, "Atlantis" (hatrack.com/osc/stories/atlantis.shtml) wasn't published until 1992.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Mar 26, 2020 at 13:43
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    Thank you but none of these can be the story, they were published too late.
    – Zab Zonk
    Mar 26, 2020 at 13:56
  • Also, spoilers for the Christopher Columbus book (only one I've read so far), but rot13(Gurl jrer hygvzngryl noyr gb fraq crbcyr onpx culfvpnyyl). Mar 26, 2020 at 18:36
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Very low likelihood of what you are looking for but in the "Fuller's Apprentice" by Angela Holder, mages dispensed justice by using spells to go back in time to witness prior events. Include for completeness of time-travel-without-physically-going-back-in-time.

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Kristine Katherine Rusch has a story called "Blood Trail" with a similar theme https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7119958-blood-trail

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    Can you elaborate on how it matches, maybe quote the summary?
    – FuzzyBoots
    Feb 8 at 23:43
  • I'll look for my copy of the book with the story (an anthology called "Past Imperfect"): meanwhile, this summary: "Detective Wheldon, the top man in NYPD Homicide is approached by two FBI agents who offer to let him go back in time two weeks to observe the 4th killing by a serial killer. " Unfortunately, the time period doesn't fit (the story is from 2001).
    – Andrew
    Feb 9 at 0:35
  • Thank you for your suggestion but I'm 100% sure I've never read anything by this author. And the story is way too recent.
    – Zab Zonk
    Feb 9 at 22:35
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"Time Exposures", a novelette by Wilson Tucker, first published in the 1971 anthology Universe 1 edited by Terry Carr. You might have read it in one of these compilations, among which is the 1979 anthology The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction (Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh, eds.), which can be borrowed from the Internet Archive (free but registration required).

This is a story about police investigating a crime scene with the aid of a camera that can photograph the recent past. However, the camera is not in a "floating ball", and nobody remarks on the fact that "if you’ve been murdered they cannot prevent that nor bring you back to life."

From the editorial blurb in Universe 1:

a quiet, matter-of-fact account of crime solving in the future, with a police camera that can photograph up to fourteen hours into the past.

From the story:

The camera itself was a heavy, unwieldy instrument and was lifted onto the tripod with a certain amount of hard grunting and a muttered curse because of a nipped finger. When it was solidly battened to the tripod, Talbot picked a film magazine out of the supply case and fixed it to the rear of the camera. A lens and the timing instrument was the last to be fitted into place. He looked to make sure the lens was clean.

Talbot focused on the front door, and reached into a pocket for his slide rule. He checked the time now and then calculated backward to obtain four exposures at nine o'clock, nine-five, nine-ten, and nine-fifteen, which should pretty well bracket the arrival of the janitor and toy shop employee. He cocked and tripped the timer, and then checked to make sure the nylon film was feeding properly after each exposure. The data for each exposure was jotted down in a notebook, making the later identification of the prints more certain.

The plainclothesman broke his stony silence. "I've never seen one of those things work before."

Talbot said easily: "I'm taking pictures from nine o'clock to nine-fifteen this morning; If I'm in luck I'll catch the janitor opening the door. If I'm not in luck I'll catch only a blurred movement—or nothing at all—and then I'll have to go back and make an exposure for each minute after nine until I find him. A blurred image of the moving door will pinpoint. him."

"Good pictures?" He seemed skeptical.

"At nine o'clock? Yes. There was sufficient light coming in that window at nine and not too much time has elapsed. Satisfactory conditions. Things get sticky when I try for night exposures with no more than one or two lamps lit; that simply isn't enough light. I wish everything would happen outdoors at noon on a bright day—and not more than an hour ago!"

The detective grunted and inspected the ticking camera. "I took some of your pictures into court once. Bank robbery case, last year. The pictures were bad and the judge threw them out and the case collapsed."

"I remember them," Talbot told him. "And I apologize for the poor job. Those prints were made right at the time limit; fourteen hours, perhaps a little more. The camera and the film are almost useless beyond ten or twelve hours—that is simply too much elapsed time. I use the very best film available but it can't find or make a decent image more than twelve hours in the past. Your bank prints were nothing more than grainy shadows; that's all I can get from twelve to fourteen hours."

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  • Thank you for your suggestion: I've read it recently again and sadly it's not the one I'm looking for.
    – Zab Zonk
    Feb 9 at 22:34

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