"The Thousand Cuts" by Ian Watson: An Appreciation by Mike Allen
Fascination with the nature of consciousness and sentience runs throughout of Watson's work, from the hallucinatory alien encounters in early novels such as Miracle Visitors to the robots searching for identity in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
In "The Thousand Cuts," all of mankind begins to experience forward leaps in time, as if some powerful meta-being is cutting and splicing reality in the manner in which a film editor edits a movie. Events happen during the cuts: newspaper articles are published, treaties are signed, but no one remembers what went on; frightened members of the populace gather around radios to wait for announcers to inform what happened during the missing time.
Sometimes the results are disastrous, as people suddenly find themselves at the wheel of a speeding truck, or worse, behind the controls of a plane about to land at a strange airport; other times the results are humorous, as when television director Hugh Carpenter and colleague Alison Samuels are caught up in a hostage situation at a Russian restaurant, and then abruptly find themselves in the midst of lovemaking at Carpenter's flat, with no memory of the week that passed between.
Only one clearly positive thread results from the cuts: nuclear disarmament talks are moving along splendidly. Negotiations among the nations have progressed smoothly, but it's all happened during the cuts, the time no one consciously remembers. (The story was published in the early 1980s, when fear of a full-scale nuclear war informed daily life in a way that it doesn't today — though one could argue there's still plenty to be afraid of.)
In Watson's stories, when confronted with mind-blowing phenomena, his erudite and worldly characters strive to make sense of it. What could be dry explication masquerading as dialogue fascinates because of the complexity of the ideas explored — and in the case of "Thousand Cuts," the droll wit of Carpenter and his circle of friends. Perhaps God has finally taken an active role in shaping mankind's fate. Or perhaps these jumps in time have been happening all along, and only now are people allowed to be in on the joke.
In fact, Carpenter decides that the only way humanity can learn to cope with this strange new circumstance is to learn to look on it with humor. He directs what critics call television's finest half-hour, a comedy show that makes light of what Alison calls "the Life of a Thousand Cuts." The show circulates around the world, and Carpenter becomes a hero of sorts. Until the Creator makes it clear that higher powers have no tolerance for mockery, leaving the terrified director to desperately shout "Cut! Cut! Cut!" as his death approaches, only to learn he won't be spared the experience of his own final scene.
It's interesting to note that recent advocates of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and defies plot conventions don't seem to have discovered Watson, who has gleefully committed such transgressions since his career began in the 1970s — perhaps because he works with labyrinthine ideas rather than labyrinthine prose. Critics sometimes take him to task for wildly shifting genre gears mid-story, for example from religious satire to futuristic alien invasion ("That's how my mind works," he once told me). In "Thousand Cuts" he breaks an unspoken pact with the reader by offering no solution to the mystery. Like the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," the people living the Life of a Thousand Cuts learn the only answer is the final one. Our director protagonist complains to his Creator-—perhaps the author himself?--"Post-holocaust scenes now, I presume. No damn sense of continuity—-"
"The Thousand Cuts" first appeared as an original story in Ben Bova and Don Myrus's The Best of Omni Science Fiction 3 (1982). Ellen Datlow reprinted it three years later in The Fourth Omni Book of Science Fiction, then brought it to light again as a SCI FICTION Classic.
Ellen provided an invaluable service to readers everywhere by making short fiction gems from throughout the genre's history available at the click of a mouse. I regret that it ended so soon, too soon. I hope that readers will take advantage of what riches are still to be found there.
Link to story.