Humans are always trying to become younger, to reverse aging and return to childhood. Here are some characters who live backwards — and find life in rewind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Benjamin Button (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald): A backwards life is no fairytale for Benjamin Button, who is born into a septuagenarian body and works back from there. Early in life, his father is ashamed of him and Yale turns him away due to his older looks. And, as he grows more youthful, he loses interest in his aging wife and his son refuses to acknowledge him in public. But at least his belated childhood brings with it a blissful amnesia.
Rachel Weintraub (Hyperion by Dan Simmons): While exploring the Time Tombs of Hyperion, archeology student Rachel Weintraub contracts “Merlin sickness” (from TH White’s The Once and Future King, in which the wizard Merlin experiences life in reverse). Rachel grows younger each day, and loses her memories as she falls backwards in time. Her professor father grows concerned as she nears the point of birth and takes the both of them on a pilgrimage to implore the god-like Shrike to cure her.
Everyone (“The Man Who Grew Young” by Daniel Quinn and Tim Eldred): In Quinn’s universe, people begin their lives being exhumed from the earth and rising from their coffins. They grow younger until they eventually return to their mother’s womb. But Adam Taylor lives for millennia without growing younger or finding his mother, forcing him to witness the devolution of man.
Everyone (“The Man Who Never Grew Young” by Fritz Leiber): Quinn’s story borrows heavily from Leiber’s, in which humans grow younger as their time on Earth grows longer, sloughing off responsibility and wisdom as they head toward the carefree years of youth and childhood. But one man seems arrested in the mid-thirties; he cannot remember being older and has lost hope of ever growing young. Instead he wanders backwards through ages.
Drom the Backwards Man (Spider-Man): Through a quirk of space and time, Drom’s infant self was switched at birth with his elderly self. Ever since then, he has lived his life in reverse. Not only does he age backwards; he speaks and metabolizes food in reverse. He’s dependent on special machines to survive, which require a great deal of (often ill-gained) energy to power.
Harmon Gordon (The Twilight Zone “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain”): Harmon Gordon finds himself unable to keep up with his wife, who is forty years his junior. Fortunately, he has a scientist brother who has invented an experimental youth serum. Unfortunately, there’s no stop switch on the serum. Harmon grows progressively younger until he returns to infancy, leaving his now much older wife to raise him.
Amelia Hazelwood and Anny Beth (Turnabout by Margaret Peterson Haddix): A group of nursing home residents unwittingly consent to special drug treatment that causes them to age in reverse. But as they grow younger, they find they gradually lose their memories from their forward life. Amelia and Anny Beth escape in hopes of finding a cure, as well as people they can trust as they grow younger and forget their former lives.
Edward Goodman (80 Days by Nicolas Vadot and Olivier Gueret): Eighty year old Edward Goodman prepares to die when the aging process is thrown suddenly in reverse. Each day for 80 days he grows one year younger, and relieves the unique joys of each age. His companion through this temporal journey is his nurse Juliet, a young woman with whom he grows closer as he grows younger.
Lamron Namron (2000 AD “The Reversible Man” by Alan Moore): Namron starts his life facedown in an ice cream cone and his life continues backwards from there. Life seems to progress for everyone else as it does for him as he grows younger, is progressively demoted at his job, loses his children, and is unmarried from and eventually unmeets his wife. It’s a poignant illustration that life in reverse is no happier or more sorrowful than life moving forward (supposedly their wasn’t a dry eye in the 2000 AD offices when the story went to press), though Namron finds himself growing apprehensive as he approaches his birth. Moore would later play with the idea of moving from adulthood through childhood and back into the womb in his autobiographical poem “The Birth Caul.”
Deceased Residents of Resurrection (Vampire Knight Requiem by Pat Mills and Olivier Ledroit): The hell world of Resurrection is a horrific inversion of our own. Those who were evil in life reap the greatest rewards, and the oceans are replaced by land and the land by fires. Instead of growing older, the residents grow younger and eventually fetal. They also lose their memories as they rejuvenate, and take an opiate to stave off the madness of the experience.
Deceased Residents of Elsewhere (Elsewhere by Zevin Gabrielle): A happier version of the afterlife is Elsewhere, where people who have died go to live out their afterlives. They remember their lives back on Earth, but age in reverse until, as infants, are reincarnated on Earth to begin new forward lives.
Max Tivoli (The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer): Born with the body of a 70 year-old man and plagued by a strange disease, Tivoli is constantly haunted by two things: he has known his whole life that he will die in 1941 and he has been tasked to keep his reversed aging a secret. But, as we noted earlier, the novel is, like the Benjamin Button film, a love story at heart.
Odilo Unverdorben (Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis): Amis was inspired by a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (whose protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has his own experiences in backwards living), to explore the Holocaust and the nature of war when experienced in the reverse. When bombs and gas chambers seem to bring people to life, morality appears inverted, suggested that the horrors of genocide can only be understood in a world turned on its head.
Everyone (Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick): In 1986, time begins to move in reverse, marking the start of the Hobart Phase. The dead rise from their graves, people age backwards, and eating and defecation occur in reverse. As the resurrection of Anarch Peak, a religious leader who died in 1971, approaches, various religious institutions war over who will claim rights to the man once he is revived.
Charles Freeman (“Mr F. is Mr F.” by JG Ballard): Like Gregor Samsa, Charles Freeman awakes one morning to find his body suddenly transformed. But instead of turning into a beetle, he finds himself growing progressively younger. The solution to his spontaneous rejuvenation seems to lie inside his pregnant wife. No longer his own man, Freeman has become the fetus growing within her.
Martin Wells (The X-Files “Redrum”): Martin Wells awakes on the day he will be assassinated, then finds himself on the previous day, when he learns that he has been arrested for killing his wife. Wells travels backwards day by day for three days until he can solve the mystery and avert his wife’s murder.
Kes (Star Trek: Voyager “Before and After”): Ocampa Kes already has a mayfly’s lifespan and she lives a version of it backwards after her dead body was placed in a biotemporal chamber. Although Kes ends up living out a different timeline’s future, her experiences do foreshadow the ship’s future.
The Drayan (Star Trek: Voyager “Innocence”): Another episode of Voyager features the Drayan, who been to look like humanoid children as they age until their physical form disappears entirely. As the Drayan are quite secretive and xenophobic, this causes confusion when other species encounter Drayan “children.”
The Planet Express Crew (Futurama “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles”): After a trip to the anti-aging pits, most members of the Planet Express team become children. But the Professor’s attempt to reverse the process backfires, causing them to keep aging backwards and threatening them with the horrors of pre-birth.
Residents of the Antimatter Universe (Star Trek: The Animated Series “The Counter-Clock Incident): In the antimatter universe, beings age in reverse. The crew of the Enterprise find themselves reverting gradually to children after a trip in the other universe, but naturally it can all be repaired with a trip through the transporter.
Lion-O (Thundercats “Time Switch”): Thanks to an accident with his suspended animation capsule, Lion-O is actually a child with the body of a man. So, when a strange gas causes him to become progressively younger, it may seem no great loss. But it quickly becomes clear that if the process continues, he will regress into non-existence.
Residents of the Backwards Universe (Red Dwarf “Backwards”): Everything happens in reverse in the backwards universe. People age in reverse, expel food back onto their plates, and experience broken bones and black eyes before getting in fights. Kryten and Rimmer decide to exploit their position as forward-thinking people by developing an act “The Sensational Reverse Brothers.” But the worst thing about living backwards is what happens when you relieve yourself (as the Cat discovers in this picture).
The Orkans (Mork and Mindy): The people of Ork age in reverse, starting as adults and eventually taking on a child-like appearance. The males of the species lay eggs, which grow larger and hatch the Orkan children, sparing Pam Dawber the considerable pain of giving birth to Jonathan Winters.