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I am trying to track down a short story that I read during the COVID lockdown in 2020. Given the circumstances (all libraries and bookshops being closed) it must have been online.

It deals with a form of time travel that consisted of attaching a small device to an object, and then flipping it forward in time. Only time travel to the future was possible. The devices became so cheap and freely available that they began to supplant other technologies - for example, rather than putting milk in the fridge to keep it fresh for the next morning, you simply flipped it forward in time by 24 hours.

The protagonist was a teenage boy. His uncle suffered from lung cancer which was untreatable, so they decided to flip him forward by 20 years to see if a cure was available in the future. This became an increasingly popular way of dealing with problems - just go to the future and see if your descendants found a solution.

In the end the protagonist decides to go to the future too, and finds it run down and depopulated. With no incentive for people to solve any problems any more, society just decayed. He kept going forward and found that society decayed back to caveman standard, until after many jumps he eventually arrived in the 1950s. The point was that as a reader we had assumed his society was roughly our present day, but in fact it was long ago, separated from us by a huge gulf in which civilisation completely fell, and then rebuilt, caused by cheap, available time travel. There he destroyed his time travel device, saying it was far too dangerous to ever be rediscovered.

I do not think the story was by a "big name". I do seem to recall the author having an eastern European name, but I could not swear to it.

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    Is the object a potato?
    – Spencer
    Apr 7, 2023 at 18:36

1 Answer 1

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I finally found it, by wading through back issues of Clarkesworld magazine. The story is entitled I'm feeling lucky by Leonid Kaganov, and was published in the July 2021 issue (and was originally published in in Russian in Earth’s Last Song (Последняя песня Земли), 2006.)

The time travel device is simply called the "clip". The detail about sending food forward in time, and avoiding the need for refrigerators is described as the boy waits for his sandwiches to arrive from the past:

I run to the kitchen, climb onto a stool, and check the shelf. The sandwiches aren’t there. I have to wait. It’s boring to wait for sandwiches. Mom made them, and they’re flying in a bag fastened with a temporal clip. Mom sent them in the morning, but she didn’t say what time they’d arrive. We haven’t had a refrigerator in years; Mom said it wastes space in the kitchen. Everyone uses the bags.

The cheap time travel causes society to gradually collapse.

Take a guy who used to plant potatoes or drive a truck for a living. It was a meager existence with simple pleasures—to watch TV and drink with his buddies. And when the going got rough, he suffered through it because he didn’t have a choice. And then the clips appeared, and that guy got to thinking the same sort of thing you used to tell me about when I was a kid—what if twenty years from now there will come a future where the scientists will have solved everything, and he won’t have to plant potatoes, get old, get sick, and suffer hangovers?...

As a result there’s no one left to plant potatoes, to work construction, even to teach. I mean, not literally no one. It’s not like life fell apart and the famine came—no. There’s a scientific name for this: a human resources deficit crisis, and it is felt clearly on our own hides.

The title of the story comes from the advance of making a clip which propels you forward in time by a random amount of time:

There’s even a latest model, a clip with a button that says “I’m Feeling Lucky.” If you press it, you will jump who-knows-where—perhaps half an hour into the future, perhaps a hundred years, or perhaps a million. The chip randomly selects the destination.

The boy travels forward in time, meeting various adventures, until he finally encounters a time when the world has improved - our present day:

The jump threw me a hundred thousand years into the future. I couldn’t forgive myself for leaving my woman behind in that cave. The first thing I did was to destroy the clip. I crushed it into a powder with a piece of scrap metal I found underhand. I had been lucky—there was metal here! There were even computers here!

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