"Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison
I have been meaning to re-read this short story since I saw the promising news about an upcoming movie based on it: the very fact that Harlan Ellison and J.M. Straczynski will renew their creative cooperation from the times of Babylon 5 – one of the very best science fiction series ever – gives me great hope and not little expectation for this movie.
The story is a classic: in a future world where time – and being on time, always – represent the one law whose transgression can mean death, a mysterious rebel tries to put a monkey wrench into this perfectly oiled mechanism. Not with impassioned speeches or acts of terrorism, but with pranks – and so he styles himself as Harlequin, the ultimate jester, hunted by the dreaded Ticktockman, upholder of the establishment and Master of Time.
The story appears fresh and actual even now, almost fifty years after it was written: it made me think about how Ellison’s writing style feels timeless, as do many of the topics he developed in his works. Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman, is one such example: time does indeed rule our days, either when we try to keep our busy schedules or when we wish for some free time of our own, the latter being such an elusive beast….
In this future dystopian world Time and punctuality have eaten humanity’s soul, robbing it of every joy that makes life worthwhile: there are two such examples in the course of the narration, and though they are polar opposites in mood, they give a clear picture of the society. The first concerns a woman receiving a dreaded Termination Notice from the Ticktockman: she desperately hopes that it’s for her husband (as it indeed is), because she’s terrified at the notion of losing her life – to the point that she wishes that fate on her spouse, or even on one of her children. As long as it’s not her. This chilling little detail speaks loudly about the way the totalitarian rule of Time has changed people. As does the other snapshot, the one about a medical convention whose participants laugh in high amusement at the Harlequin’s antics, as if they had forgotten the simple act of laughing, or the meaning of it.
I’m curious to see how the upcoming movie will portray all this, and much more: considering the involved parties, I have high hopes about the outcome.