"Sketches Among The Ruins of My Mind"
a short story by Philip Jose Farmer
a rejected outline which was restructured as an original short story
Published in the Harry Harrison-edited anthology, Nova 3, 1973
report & analysis by David Eversole

Sunday, June 1, 1980

Mark Franham, age 35, his wife Carole, and their two sons, Tom and Mike, awake believing that it is Wednesday, May 28, 1980. Somehow, since the time they went to bed the night before they have lost four days of memories. The boys are delighted that it really isn’t Wednesday, since they won’t have to go to school, but Mark is afraid something more is wrong.

The Sunday paper arrives and fills in the missing pieces. The paper, which had gone to press prior prior to 1:00 am, reports that "The Ball," a giant spherical object which astronomers have been tracking for three weeks, has changed direction under its own power again, and is on a course heading directly for Earth.

Mark finds copies of the newspapers from Thursday, Friday and Saturday, all of which confirm Sunday’s edition. But he cannot remember those four days, he can only remember events from May 28, and prior.

Mark is terrified of going to sleep.

From the story:

Then, what if the same thing happens tomorrow? We’ll wake up tomorrow, June 2 with all memory of yesterday, June 1, and three more days of May, the twenty-seventh through the twenty-fifth, gone. Eight days in one solid stretch.

And if this ghastly thing should occur the following day, June 3, we’ll lose another four days. . . And the next day? And the next?

Mark’s fears are soon realized. Each successive day, at 1:00 a. m., the Ball sends out a signal that affects all humans -- the world wakes up and four more days of memory are gone from them. Humans who are awake at 1:00 a. m. fall asleep under the influence of the signal. Planes crash, automobile accidents occur. Soon all such traffic is halted for fear of further devastating accidents.

Mark (along with most people who are concerned with tracking what is happening) begins to leave tape recordings on his nightstand for himself to find each morning, explaining what is happening to his memories.

Scientists postulate that the Ball is peeling layers of memory away from each human the way one might peel an onion. Each successive layer contains four days worth of memories. Peel away the outer layer and four days are gone. The next day another layer is peeled away, and eight days are gone, ad infinitum until. . .

A television preacher named Anel Robertson believes it is a judgment from God.

We follow Mark and his family as they lose their memories and skills. Young people, losing memories, soon regress until 20-year-olds are acting like teenagers, then small children, then babies.

Fortunately before the retroactive memory loss began, the governments of the world put into motion a plan to stop the Ball with an armada of nuclear warheads launched from a space platform. Though it is difficult to pick up the work each day based solely on notes left from the day before, mankind slowly moves forward in this goal.

Mass suicides the world over. Mark’s youngest son is killed in an accident. His wife Carole takes the life of their other son, then commits suicide. Mark regresses back through memories of an extramarital affair he regrets, through the pain of the death of his parents, through marrying Carole, through meeting Carole, but as he goes backward through his memory, only his tapes, and later his notes tell him of these things.

The president declares martial law, and the people left band together in city camps.

True date: late 1988. Subjective date: 1956

Mark awakes, believing he is eleven years old. He is shocked to see the face of a man of 43 staring back from the mirror. His notes soon clue him in on the situation that has held Earth in terror for over eight years. Wow! Talk about your nutty Sci-Fi, Mark thinks.

September 5, 1988

At ten minutes to 1:00 a. m., the warheads should strike the Ball. All hope it won’t dodge out of the way, but the scientists still able to function believe that by setting off a small radioactive burst first, the Ball’s sensors will not detect the incoming warheads. Mark is terrified it will fail, wishes his parents were here, but knows from his notes that they died a long time ago/will die a long time from now/what the hell, they’re not here to offer comfort.

Fifteen seconds until impact, ten seconds, five seconds...

July 4 A. D. 2002

Mark is considering destroying his old journal entries, erasing all his old tapes. He’s now fifty-seven real time years of age, though his actual memories from the time he was "eleven" when the Ball was destroyed in 1988 until the present only equal 26 years of "internal age." His life during the "interim" consists only of his recordings. Carole, Mike and Tom exist only on paper, on tape, and in photographs. He has no actual memory of any of them, though he continues to put flowers on their graves.

He is a minister, is remarried, and, as one who came through the interim relatively sane, is attempting to comfort and teach the world which has not yet entirely regained its bearings after the destruction of the Ball. And sometimes he runs into people and wants to remember them, but cannot.

No one can.


The story takes a bit of time setting up its premise, but once you get used to the "onion layers" of memory being peeled away, it is not as complicated as you might think having only read my synopsis.

Philip Jose Farmer originally submitted this treatment (along with one called "The Shadow of Space") to Gene Roddenberry in 1966. In an interview in Starlog #156 (July 1990), Farmer recalled Roddenberry’s reaction:

"He said his criterion is what his little old maiden aunt in Iowa would understand, and he said, ‘She would not understand these.’

"Sketches In The Ruins of My Mind" originally involved a little idol that Captain Kirk had picked up in the ruins of a planet. It turns out to be a device that makes you lose memory two days in a row and you keep going backwards. . .eventually it’s a year before, and he’s in a new situation. . . I don’t think they could put "Sketches" across in a full-length movie."

I agree, it works much better as a prose piece, where time and detail can go into establishing the backdrop.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009): a Hugo and Nebula award winning science fiction and fantasy author best known for his Riverworld series of novels (the first of which was loosely adapted as a film on the Sci-Fi channel) and his World of Tiers series. His 1952 short story "The Lovers" is noted for being one of the first SF stories to deal with sexual issues between humans and aliens.

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