Read for the 12 in 12 Challenge.
This story won the 1965 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Short Story.
In a dystopian future, the forces of order have managed to gain control over everything, including our time. Lateness is punished by having the number of minutes you have delayed removed from your lifespan, until eventually, the chronically late are simply “turned off.”
I would be dead already in this world, which is probably why I see it as far more sinister than others who have reviewed it have seen it. They see it as a funny and satirical tale of a dystopian future that makes commentary on society’s current obsession with schedules and rules. I don’t see it as funny at all. When the tyranny of control involves even the control of your time, then all aspects of life become firmly controlled out of terror – and that’s exactly what some people want.
Into this horrible world comes the Harlequin – who, like me, has no time sense, and therefore, is in a position to see the horror of this society. Consequently he seeks to upset it by throwing monkey wrenches into schedules. His stunts are almost Joker-like in the random chaos they seem to instill.
Harlan Ellison was a prolific story-writer, who left a long legacy of disturbing and thought-provoking stories. This is certainly one of the most memorable.
Stephen King fans will recognize his deliberate pastiche to the Tick Tock Man out of the Dark Tower series, and they probably have chalked it up to that odd mixture of humour and horror that he often uses; but I believe King understood the deeper implications of the Tick Tock Man’s tyranny, and while there certainly was and is an element of ridiculousness in the character (and the one who whom he drew the parallel in the Dark Tower,) I think his intent was all horror.
Everyone should read this story.