John Barnes. Things Undone. (The Year’s Best Science Fiction 27th Annual Collection)

Originally in Jim Baen’s Universe, and online at

This excellent story is online, as per above, so read it before you go any further! Seriously, read it!

One of the most satisfying stories I’ve read for some time. It’s complex, and requires full attention, which is good. It’s clever, and doesn’t spell things out for the reader, and there are plenty of references to interesting facets to the political and society background(s) of the story that are left to the reader to ponder, rather than being laboriously spelt out in the narrative.

And what a narrative(s). The opening sentence sets out a challenge to the reader – it’s set out in ‘Year of Grace 2014’, but what does that mean. You don’t find out for some time, as the story drip-feeds background information through the dialogue. Simon Rastigevat is the main protagonist, doing contract work with a colleague, Horejsi. They’re of a different status in society, and so the feelings they have for each other have to be kept very, very hidden. He’s a mathematic genius/obsessive-cum autistic character, seeing the world and relationships and events through numbers and ratios.

The central conceit is that time travel to the past is possible, but that the universe is clever enough to iron out any actions that are carried out, so that the implications do not echo down through the ages. No butterfly wings in this universe.

We find out just why the society they live is in different from ours – a single unifying mathematical and physical premise discovered centuries ago, leading to a globe-spanning British, Catholic empire. And the crux of the story is that they need to find the person from the past who has been used as ‘ballast’ to balance the equation that allows someone to travel to the past.

But rather than a ‘can they find the person and save their reality’, the drama is much more subtle. The find the person they need to find, but then there is a complex ethical decision to be made. What if the changes that are beginning to be felt in their time, are for the greater good? What if the world they live in is one which they are better off not to have?

The story progresses as the changes have effect, and Rastigavet and Horejsi feel the past they know slipping from their memory. This is done cleverly, such as through them losing the detail of a children’s nursery rhyme used to commemorate the mathematical geniuses who led to their society (and who are being assassinated by the time traveller). There’s some dense mathematical jargon, but not too much, and after the ethical and philosophical issues, there are impactful changes to personal relationships.

One of the rare stories that I finish feeling emotionally and intellectually enervated, and know that I will read again, and am just simply pleased to have read it.

One thought on “John Barnes. Things Undone. (The Year’s Best Science Fiction 27th Annual Collection)

  1. This is absolutely one of the best stories in the collection. I like how the time travel conceit, which is very cool, actually feels secondary to the main characters’ relationship. Hard SF with a heart!

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