The story behind the story "Not the Wrong Planet"

First I should warn you that this little essay contains spoilers.

Per word, I’ve spent more time on “Not the Wrong Planet” (NtWP) than any other story I’ve ever written.  Time spent includes several prior submissions, many miscellaneous communications, and countless revisions.  If I recall correctly, before I wrote anything, I just thought about the concept for a whole week.  Next I wrote out a detailed sketch.  Originally I had in mind a full length short story, or even a novelette, but then I realized not only how hard this would be, but in reality it might not even be necessary.  The story is strong as is.

Okay.  Spoilers.
The idea of time reversal was mind bending.  Not things working backward so much, but how events moving backwards intersected with events simultaneously working forwards, like for example when Johnten writes his love message on his field notebook, I depicted his wife’s reaction before she even saw the note from his perspective.  Confusing?  Yes.  I made diagrams with the specific happenings of the story, which helped.

Only in a few moments of imagination did I conceive of how they made a baby.  Really, I didn’t even try too hard.  For their wedding, Johnten would need to arrive after or at the end, or he’d be late.  I pictured him walking across a playfield and a ball leaping from the ground and hitting him in the head as he passed between it and the thrower.  If you thought the films Inception and Memento were disorienting…

So, my time theory.

Time isn’t real, it’s only a human construct that measures relative rates of change.  It relates to the speed of light because we can only perceive events by means of light, or of things slower.  OK, then, if so, time is a mere function of physics.  For the story I pictured a region of space where physics works in reverse.  The spins of electrons just spin opposite of how they do for us.  I’m not a physicist, but this might be called antimatter.  Ordinarily when anti-matter and matter interact, both are destroyed, or so I believe.

Dark matter.  Dark star.  In the story they really aren’t dark, it’s just that all the light is moving toward the dark matter and dark stars instead of away.  If things appear to be luminescent, they do because light appears to emanate, but really is moving, from Johnten’s perspective, from a person or object back to the source.  Now that I think about it, even people from Earth would be luminous.

I really wanted the events to be unfolding only in “the present” of the story, but then there wouldn’t be a baby, so I fudged and for that aspect abandoned my “time is not real” idea.   Maybe you noticed.  I left the question (of it being time having a substance or of physics moving backwards) up in the air.  Could be just physics or not.  Johnten doesn’t know yet.

A poignant part of the story is that as Johnten lives with his wife and integrates somehow into this impossible world, their child will grow younger and younger, eventually be born in reverse and enter the womb, and then undevelop until for all intents and purposes, she ceases to exist except in his memory.  At some point Johnten’s wife will not recognize him like he did not recognize her at first.  Does he eventually leave Lumen? I don’t know.


Once an event has happened in the ongoing present, it creates a memory that did not exist prior to the event.  I showed only a couple instances, one being about the lei, but I leave you to work through any others, if you wish.  Think of how an event happening in the present stirs up ripples that move ahead in time.  Well, in this world, with Johnten and his un-named wife, events stir up ripples that move backward in time, at least for the other observer.

The title.  

From the beginning I had the idea that the main character would be awkward, but in world like Lumen, it might even be an advantage.  Maybe Johnten’s awkwardness was just made to order for this reverse world, that he of all the people from normal time/physics had the right genes that enabled him to adjust.  Then I wondered exactly what condition he might have.  I looked into Asperger’s and found a support website called Wrong Planet.  The perspective there is that Asperger’s people just happen to be on the wrong planet.  It’s not they that have problems, it's everything else.  I like that.  The rest of the story of the title is obvious: for Johnten, Lumen is the Right Planet.

Lastly, a thought moving through my mind during much of the early composition of the “Not the Wrong Planet” was how these two lovers, Johnten and the girl of Lumen, only could have a brief time together before the universe swept them past each other.  Like two ships.  Then I remembered the line, just one line:

“Ships that pass in the night.”

I looked up the line in context and found, to my utter amazement, that the line is from a  collection of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Tales of a Wayside Inn” and the specific poem of the whole is “The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth”

The words of the immediate context of the line might seem sad and forlorn, and they are.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Except for the even greater context.  Because after a long voyage, the story finally brings the lover John home to his beloved.

Then John Estaugh came back o'er the sea for the offered gift,
Better than houses and lands, the gift of a woman's affection.
And on the First-Day that followed, he rose in the Silent Assembly,
Holding in his strong hand a hand that trembled a little,
Promising to be kind and true and faithful in all things.
Such were the marriage-rites of John and Elizabeth Estaugh.

And such were the rites of Johnten and the girl of Lumen.


This essay above was written for the Penumbra blog, but seeing how they may not want it, I’m adding a note that I did not intend to include for them.

NtWP had a rough time with a particular flash fiction publication.  The editor said he loved it, comparing it to a H.P. Lovecraft cosmic horror story, and said he wanted to publish it.  Excellent, I thought.  But in the process of copy editing we kept hitting inexplicable snags.  He wanted me to make changes in the story that made no sense at all.  We argued back and forth for a week, and then I finally understood what the problem was.  He had misinterpreted the story.  In short, he thought it was about a Mirror Earth instead of Reverse Time.  When I explained the true nature of the story in plain terms, he wrote back saying that unless I changed it to meet his expectation, he would reject it.  Frankly that made me angry.

I wrote back saying that, while a couple little things needed fixing to prevent readers from traipsing down the Mirror Earth path, the story obviously was Reverse Time and that he hadn’t given the story a fair chance to be itself.  I asked him if he would give it to another editor for a fresh beginning. He said it was a gutsy request, but agreed and the new editor and I polished the story to his satisfaction and it went into Hold status.  However, just at that time the publication adopted a theme approach and NtWP didn’t fit any of their upcoming themes, so that Hold dragged on and on for months.  Since we hadn’t signed a contract, I submitted it to Penumbra in a slightly longer than flash form.  Purist flash fiction publications set a firm limit of 1000 words. NtWP is about 1080.  Like "Genius", which should come out soon at Stupefying Stories, NtWP really needed those additional words.

Interestingly, before they had given me an acceptance, I had explored withdrawing it from Penumbra and submitting it to the Writers of the Future Contest instead.  Good thing I didn’t.

But back to the publication with which I had the difficulty.  For fun, I did that rewrite, making NtWP  into a Mirror Earth story.  I call it A Cosmic Mirror, and once Penumbra’s exclusive rights expire, I might post it here or send it on to that publication.  It really does contain a cool idea.

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