J.G. Ballard’s “The Chronopolis” tells of Conrad Newman who, while waiting on death row, contemplates his past and his discovery of the city of Chronopolis.
Conrad lives in a world where the concept of time is obsolete. (i.e., no checking your iPhone every minute and a half for no reason). His society functions lazily with timers and little else. When it’s time to leave class the students simply stand from their desks and leave with no formal indicator of it being time to go home. Conrad, seventeen, tries to build his own clocks so that he can maintain an efficient lifestyle, and spends every day after school upstairs in his workshop.
One fateful day he comes into possession of a broken wristwatch. It’s something he’s only heard of but never seen before, and he observes the taboo it holds over people. No one will indulge him in talking about the wristwatch, preferring that he put it away and forget about it. He vows to find out why the concept of telling time has disappeared from society.
Conrad’s teacher, Stacey, is the only one who is willing to tell him, to show him, the truth. Stacey takes Conrad outside the city limits to the abandoned stretch of land where thirty million people once lived. Their lives were governed with ruthlessly strict schedules controlled by one giant clock in the center of the city. (Remind you of anything? Jk).
Each person in this dystopian society followed a color-coded system which correlated to the clock in the center of the city. Their rank in society was assigned a color, and with that color a standard daily time schedule to follow. Chronopolis utilized the clocks in such a way that they began to control every moment of their lives, such as the time of day they could use the telephone and for how long. Stacey emphasizes the madness that this system created and why it is fruitless to try to exercise such control over every second and minute of society’s life, for the purposes of human dignity if nothing else. It was thirty-seven years ago at one minute past midnight that all the clocks stopped and at that moment their lives ceased to exist.
Life is better off without the watches, without the clocks, without the obsessiveness that time-telling leads to, Stacey tries to explain. But Conrad finds it to be fascinating and the synchronicity of the clocks enraptures him, especially when he finds out about the time zones. He ditches Stacey right then and there and runs off. He lives in the abandoned city for months. When he meets an old man who is also hiding out in Chronopolis, together they try to reset each of the thousands of broken clocks that litter the city. By the time the main clock at the center of the city is working again, many years later, Conrad has been jailed in connection to Stacey’s death. He unrelentingly continues to calculate the time each day down to the seconds using the sunlight and shadows which just barely appear through the window of his jail cell. The guards and other prisoners scoff at his preoccupation, but he remains forever believing in the lost art: the practice of time-telling.
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