The Turtle Problem, by J.M. Harte - 3 Stars

This is an interesting short story, penned in a handful of pages. It explores the situation of someone suffering a senseless tragedy, having nothing to lose and then directing all that negativity into doing something amazing. What’s happened to the central character is italicised, so you can’t confuse it with the story that develops in response to that. Fair dinkum, it’s a good tale.

“Turtles all the way down” is from an anecdote where someone has drawn their own conclusion about evolution, i.e. it didn’t happen. They suggested instead that we stand on our ancestor who stands on their ancestor “all the way down”. To where? Well, this short story describes no point of origin if the two ends of the chain can be linked into a loop via time travel.

The author probably thinks that the second half of this story and twist is an original idea and deserves stars for imagination but I have to break the news that it isn’t. Sorry about that. I suggest they’ve independently thought of something but another writer had got there long before them. Douglas Adams wrote this same idea twice, with three endings, in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and even before that in the superbly contrived Doctor Who episode City of Death (1979; starring Tom Baker, recommended, and at 16 million viewers the most watched Doctor Who episode on first UK broadcast ever). In the Douglas Adams versions, either two or three people travel back in a time machine to the moment when life began on this planet and they inadvertently start it off themselves by discarding 1 x half eaten cheese sandwich and 2 x exploding space ships. Essentially, we or resident aliens go back to witness the origin of life on Earth and end up introducing DNA and starting it off ourselves, creating a “turtles all the way down” oroboros infinity loop. Three people going back in a time machine and releasing biological samples is more of the same.

However, the story is still okay and it also gives a light touch treatment to the way in which we think about our origins, which it handles by exploring the question with a cast representing the approaches we apply to the big questions of life: A scientist, a priest and an undirected human crushed by the sadness of existence. Two of the three think they know the answers and in the end all three find a way to reconcile to a shared understanding of reality. The big picture unfolds, life unfurls and the cheese sandwich of causality disperses its biological contamination that one day will become what we quite like to think of as J.M. Harte and Douglas Adams. Two great minds think alike, perhaps, but I would guess that if life on Earth started like this it wouldn’t be scientific or religious imagination that discovered it, it would be a writer of entertaining fiction.

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