Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time” has a premise I can’t stop thinking about, but is marred by a whiny, self-absorbed main character.
Haig has a great idea: what if there were a condition that caused people to age so slowly that they live for hundreds of years? There is a real medical condition called progeria that makes children age much faster than they should. Haig imagines the reverse, a condition called anageria where people age one year for every fifteen calendar years that pass by. Anagerics have heightened immune systems so they don’t get sick. They’re not immortal, but will not die of natural causes for over a millenium.
My mind immediately jumps to all the things that you could accomplish with hundreds of years of healthy life. You could master hundreds of different skills, languages, instruments, physical feats. You could become a captain of industry, build massive structures, create intricate art, achieve enlightenment. (Which leads to the question of why I’m not doing all these things with my actual life… but let’s leave that aside.)
Haig chooses instead to focus on the downside of living so long. Mainly, people are afraid of the unknown, so being visibly different leads to danger. This is an interesting angle too. Tom’s closest relationships are ruined when his condition imperils his loved ones, and he concludes that he can’t become emotionally attached to anyone.
The problem is, Tom is such a sad sack. When we meet him, he’s wandering the streets pining after his lost love. Eventually we realize that his love has been lost for three hundred years. It’s time to get over it, Tom! He theorizes that people recover from emotional trauma by forming attachments with others, but he can’t because of his anageria. Boo hoo. Why not either risk it, or find somebody else with the same condition and very slowly grow old with them?
He does know a few other people with his condition. They are part of the mysterious Albatross Society, which is run by a shady guy named Heinrich who orders hits on people who come too close to publicizing their near-eternal life. This is a little X-Men-like — the anagerics need to hide so that society doesn’t turn against them. But unlike the X-Men, there’s no school or hideout where they can all get together. Heinrich is no Professor X; he prefers to keep the anagerics isolated and use them to do his bidding. This part, too, is disappointing. With unlimited time, it shouldn’t be that hard to find others who stick around forever without aging. But Tom doesn’t try very hard to find others like him. He’s resigned to following Heinrich’s orders, because life is pain, and this is his life, and he has no choice.
Tom’s real problem is that there is nobody to smack him around and tell him to grow up. If you had a friend who moped around and said that life was pain, and they had to do things that made them unhappy because they had no choice, you might talk to that friend. You might say, Friend, stop being so defeatist. Appreciate what you have. You DO have agency in your own life. Figure out what makes you happy and do that instead of complaining. Your friend would resent you, and you’d probably stop being friends. But maybe your friend would, at some level, hear and believe you. Tom doesn’t have a friend, and so he stays in this state for nearly the entire book. That’s my main problem with this book. In hundreds of years, hasn’t he gained any wisdom or emotional maturity? I’ve talked to eighty-year olds. They know a lot about life. Tom is immature for his physical age of 41, let alone his chronological age.
I finished the book, and I am ruthless about stopping mid-chapter when I’m not enjoying a book. I wanted to know what would happen. In the end, though, I was annoyed. It was like going on the field trip bus where you’re anticipating sitting with your best friend, but you end up next to the kid who can’t stop farting. The premise of this book was so rich, but instead of delving into the possibilities of near-eternal life, I was stuck with whiny old Tom.