People who can see the future are fiddly characters to use. Especially if they can see their own immediate future. They can see the tangled plot threads you lay ahead of them and often decide that, no, they want to do something different instead. Which means they didn’t see that future, which means they didn’t react to it after all, and a tangled mess ensues. This is sometimes called Precog’s Uncertainty Principle. And if they blithely go along with what they predict, they can easily come across as being a mere puppet of the author with no free will whatsoever.
Having multiple people who can see the future is even worse. It’s all too easy for the plot to break down into endless rounds of ‘I know you know I know’ and a phenomenon which TV Tropes has helpfully labeled ‘scry versus scry’.
Which is why today’s story is audacious on a technical level alone. As the opening line puts it: The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.
Judy is nervous but excited, keeps looking at things she’s spotted out of the corner of her eye. She’s wearing a floral Laura Ashley style dress with an Ankh necklace and her legs are rambunctious, her calves moving under the table. It’s distracting because Doug knows that in two and a half weeks, those cucumber-smooth ankles will be hooked on his shoulders, and that curly reddish-brown hair will spill everywhere onto her lemon-floral pillows; this image of their future coitus has been in Doug’s head for years, with varying degrees of clarity, and now it’s almost here. The knowledge makes Doug almost giggle at the wrong moment, but then it hits him: she’s seen this future too — or she may have, anyway.
Doug has his sandy hair cut in a neat fringe that was almost fashionable a couple years ago. You might think he cuts his own hair, but Judy knows he doesn’t, because he’ll tell her otherwise in a few weeks. He’s much, much better looking than she thought he would be, and this comes as a huge relief. He has rude, pouty lips and an upper lip that darkens no matter how often he shaves it, with Elvis Costello glasses. And he’s almost a foot taller than her, six foot four. Now that Judy’s seen Doug for real, she’s re-imagining all the conversations they might be having in the coming weeks and months, all of the drama and all of the sweetness. The fact that Judy can be attracted to him, knowing everything that could lay ahead, consoles her tremendously.
Doug has been looking forward to Judy all his life. He remembers the future much as he remembers the past; he recalls significant moments and the overall facts, but not necessarily day-to-day details. He knows that this will be the best relationship he ever has, and that it will last six months and three days before they break up. He also knows that he will be dead at age 42, and he has long ago accepted that he can’t change anything.
Judy, on the other hand, sees many different possibilities radiating out. She can see that if she stops by a certain bar on the way home she’ll meet someone and have a torrid three-day fling with them. She doesn’t see all possibilities – she’s never found one where she gets rich, for example – but she watches for the better-looking fates and tries to head towards them.
As far as they know they are the only two people in the world who can see the future.
Now, the easy way to handle this setup would be to play logical games, to present a treatise on free will versus determinism, that sort of thing. But what I love about this story is how, by focusing it on the relationship between these two characters, it gets to grips with big, relatable themes about romance.
Doug represents anyone who’s ever gone into a relationship knowing it’s going to fail and end unhappily, trying to spot the seeds of destruction until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; which it is, as he sees it. And you can also see this as a story about two people with different worldviews who fundamentally don’t understand each other. Judy thinks Doug doesn’t try hard enough to avert his fate. Doug thinks Judy sees the exact future like he does, but with lots of fake alternates that she’ll never choose. And as the story goes on each tries to impose their worldview on the other; Doug starts telling Judy what he sees will happen to her later (and as he tells her these things she starts to see fewer forking paths), Judy keeps insisting he try harder to alter his destiny.
The story therefore turns out to be one of those where a speculative element (seeing the future) is used to literalise an abstract idea (by having them really seeing the future differently). This literalisation shines a stark light on the mechanics of Doug and Judy’s relationship in a way that mere metaphor cannot achieve. There’s no sense of ‘one of them is more ideologically right than the other’ when both of them are equally separate from the real world.
Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 8,500
Awards: Hugo Award winner, Nebula Award nominee, Sturgeon Award nominee
First published: Tor.com (available here)
Where else to find it: Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2011 Edition, edited by Patrick Nielson Hayden & Liz Gorinsky, 2012, Tor
Year’s Best SF 17, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, 2012, Harper Voyager