Out of Everywhere

A James Tiptree Jr. Critique

“The Man Who Walked Home” Review

“The Man Who Walked Home” Copyright © 1972 by James Tiptree, Jr.

First published in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home

Also appears in Byte Beautiful and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever


First of all, let me say that I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get back to this. I was busy with finishing up my final semester of college. But now that that’s done, I’m going to try to do at least one story a week. Anyway, as for the story, this is one of those interesting sci fi stories that deals with time and ideas around time travel and timelines. As I have been watching Doctor Who, especially the current season, I found I was really interested in this story. It plays on the same idea of timelines running in opposite directions, in other words, one person’s past is another’s future and vice versa. However, in the case of this story, it is more like one person’s time traveling experience is the world’s future and his past. I had read this story several years ago and remember being either very confused or not caring for it much. So I don’t know if Doctor Who has changed my opinion, or if perhaps I just didn’t get it then and understand it more now, which leads to me liking it better.

Spoilers. The story starts with a jumbled block of italicized text about falling and how the man needs to get home, needs to walk home. Then the story moves onto a very sparse fast-forward, beginning somewhere in the present to describe a catastrophe that atomizes a factory and changes the global climate and kills a lot of people, etc. The sparse is the jumps in time with descriptions of what happens, such as the movement of new hunter-gatherer groups of people to the crater of the explosion some years later, and the towns that grow up and came down on that site. All this revolves around this yearly reappearance of “the monster,” who, as each year passes, looks more and more like a man falling. This continues until we get to the fifth century after the catastrophe, in which the fast-forward is stopped and characters are actually given names. Here we learn about John Delgano apparently attempted to step for a moment into the future on the same day as the catastrophe, and current scientists believed his return is what caused it. We see him appear briefly again for a few seconds, like every year, and each goes off with his theory. The story ends with a chunk of italics again, this time with more detail and sense, but still with the same first person drive to walk home.

At the beginning of the story, when there were the first indications this was a man appearing for  brief seconds, it reminded me of Watchmen. If anyone had read the comic or seen the movie, then you know how Dr. Manhattan first reforms himself, starting as a neural system, then a skeleton, then muscles, etc. And he keeps reappearing for only a brief flash. While similar, these are not the same. John (also Dr. Manhattan’s real name) Delgano does change with each reappearance, but only minimally because each appearance the further back he goes, from the future he stepped into, is a few seconds into his personal future. However, the questions are never fully answered of what happened in the future to make him return so quickly, nor what happens when he returns to his present to cause the catastrophe. The point of the story is not to answer these questions, but I believe it is to explore the theory of time travel, the same as Doctor Who does, albeit on a somewhat simpler and lighter note.

While the story is somewhat hard to follow, especially as it begins with a block of text rambling, I still found it fascinating, and a much better read the second time around. Therefore, 4 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good and worth the read.

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June 2, 2011 - Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Death, Hard Science Fiction, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Review, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home | , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. This story has haunted me since I first read it when I was in my teens. I found it a fascinating and sad tale of scientific pioneers trying to master technology. Tiptree’s original and bitter-sweet telling of this stroy made it very memorable.

    Comment by Daedalus Parrot | June 16, 2012 | Reply

    • You summed up how I felt about this story in one sentence.

      Comment by Samantha Kornblum | July 9, 2012 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the ‘sort of’ explanation. It’s closer than I’ve ever got when trying to describe this beautiful and incredibly moving story. My battered copy of 10,000 light years from home got another airing just now as Felix Baumgartners leap to earth brought to mind this wonderful tale.

    Comment by anabelish | October 15, 2012 | Reply

  3. I read this today, and was struck by the similarity to the Dr Who episode Hide, which is how I found this post. Except in that case, the reveal was the first time-traveler was going with us in time, only appearing every now and then.

    As for the story, I think it’s implied all the people trying to test what was happening (and throwing stones, etc) unbalanced John, so that he couldn’t stop when he got back. Although whether it made any difference, and the fact that he was cut off in the first place implies the accident always happened. I think there’s a certain point in sci-fi involving time travel where you just have to give up.

    Comment by athorist | September 29, 2014 | Reply


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