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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman - Harlan Ellison, Rick Berry In a future where humanity has become obsessed with timekeeping and punctuality, a single mysterious figure tries to make a change, by wasting everybody's time.

Try reading that in a deep movie trailer voice.

“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman is a whimsical and satirical dystopian short story that won both the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1965. In this future we have become so obsessed with punctuality that tardiness has become a crime and the duration of your tardiness will be deducted from your lifespan. This law is implemented by installing a device in everyone, this device is controlled by a “cardioplate” which can turn off a person’s heart if his allotted lifetime runs out. The people’s lifetimes are governed by “The Master Timekeeper”, also called “The Ticktockman”, but never to his face. The Harlequin is a superhero of sorts whose only powers are his imagination and defiance. His acts of rebellion are silly public stunts that throw people off their work schedule and cause the unthinkable: delays.

“The System had been seven minutes worth of disrupted. It was a tiny matter, one hardly worthy of note, but in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.”

The theme of the story is not exactly subtle as Ellison clearly indicates it in the text:

“We no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun's passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.”

This is a terrific little story, the prose is wonderfully stylized, surreal and whimsical. I don’t know how relevant the theme is today, certainly I am late for work every day and I tend to get away with it!

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Note: You can read this story for free online, just Google* the title. I don't want to post a download link when I am not sure of the story's copyright status.

* I am not sure what would happen if you were to Bing it!