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The most famous example of this trope (at least for me) is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light." Picard is zapped by a mysterious probe and is seemingly transported to another world. After a few years he forgets about trying to get back to his old life, falls in love, has children, and dies of old age. He awakens on his ship, to find that only a few moments have passed, though he retains the memories of the decades he's just lived.

This has also been done by Adventure Time ("Puhoy"), The Magicians ("A Life in the Day"), a film from the early 90s that I'm still loathe to spoil, as well as – I assume – other TV shows and media.

I looked into this a bit and found the 1200 year old Chinese tale "The Governor of Nanke," but I'm wondering if anyone knows what the first modern telling of this story is, in a science-fiction context?

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    How fuzzy are you on "a life" and "a day?" Would a life that only lasts 8 days count? (That's "Frost and Fire" by Bradbury) Does it have to be a different place, or can a field locally affect the flow of time? (Larry Niven, "ARM") What about being trapped in a high-rate simulation? (Longyear, "House of If") What about beings that live millions of times faster than humans? (The Cheela in Forward's Dragon's Egg.)
    – DavidW
    Commented Mar 1 at 4:56
  • I think the whole point of these stories is the emotional impact to the protagonist (though that's probably a modern viewpoint that doesn't really fit with golden age storytelling) of living a long life as someone else, so 8 days probably wouldn't cut it. Local or personal time flow changes would certainly count; The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 2 #31 is a personal favourite.
    – miken32
    Commented Mar 1 at 16:00

1 Answer 1

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1935: The Green Man of Graypec, a novel by Festus Pragnell, serialized in the July, August and September 1935 issues of Wonder Stories (links are to the Internet Archive). The protagonist has his mind transferred by his mad scientist brother into the body of an ape-man on an atomic world:

No longer was I merely looking at an atom; I was actually on the atom, on a speck of matter so small as to be invisible under ordinary conditions. [. . .] I was on the atom, in the body of an ape-man, while the savage was in the laboratory in my body!

From the synopsis "WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE:"

Learoy Spofforth tells the story in the first person. He describes how he is in prison for the murder of his brother, Charles. He declares himself not morally responsible. The opening paragraphs show a state of confusion in his mind. He tells how his brother had perfected an ultra-microscope with which one could view electron-worlds with their swarming life. Charles finds an inhabited planet of the microcosm and transfers his brother's memory, under Learoy's consent, to the mind of Kastrove, a green, primeval ape-man of the world Kilsona and the tribe of Graypec. He finds himself in a group of his fellows attacking an injured air-ship in which they find Issa, a girl of another civilization, higher in the scale of evolution. Both of their races were degenerated from a former height of culture far superior to ours, caused in part by the evolution of the wild beasts of the jungle into creatures with primitive reasoning powers.

He lives a long adventurous life in Kilsona, and in his old age he is returned to his body in his brother's laboratory, moments after he left:

I opened my eyes. I was in Charlie’s familiar laboratory.

From object to object my eyes wandered, taking in the old, familiar things and remembering them again. A chair, a table, a rack of odd-shaped glass vessels, and Charlie's super-microscope that used up so much high-tension electric current—and Charlie himself, an empty glass in his hand, watching me anxiously. There was a lingering taste of whisky in my mouth. None of these things, not even Charlie himself, had changed a jot since I left them so very long ago; only I was changed, changed by the passage of a length of time equal to sixty normal years, a young man become old in a flash.

"Hello, Charlie!" I said, smiling foolishly.

Upon which Charlie exclaimed, "Thank God!"

I tried to stagger to my aged, feeble feet, when my legs responded joyously, vigorously, like the Learoy Spofforth of old. I was young again! Thirty double years had passed in the twinkling of an eye, had completely fallen from me as though they had never been! I took several steps for sheer joy in the springy litheness of my body.

"I had some doubt whether I had succeeded in getting you back; I was even not quite sure whether I had got hold of the right ape-man; and if I had erred it was too late to alter things again. All's well that ends well. You were away only a few minutes, but I suppose it seems longer to you?"

Passing a hand over my brow, for my brain was reeling, I answered hoarsely, "Charlie, I spent a whole lifetime on that tiny world!" A shudder passed through me.

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    A more modern science-fictional life-in-a-day story is Kevin O'Donnell's 1987 novelette "The Million Dollar Day" which was the answer to this old question but it's barely earlier than the examples mentioned in the question.
    – user14111
    Commented Mar 1 at 5:46

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