What Ifs


Thank you all for bearing with me during the well-known blogging holiday wherein regular bloggers do not post during the week of Easter and the week following.  I hope everyone had a safe and happy day, regardless of what you were or were not celebrating.




This Entry is Bizarro


In an Alternate Universe, I Posted this Last Week

List the last five decisions you made.

A little louder, please, the microphones didn’t quite pick that up.

Just kidding.  Anyway, whatever decisions you listed have brought you to the situation you’re in right now, as have all the decisions that have gone before it.  For example, I chose to leave my apartment and go to Phoenix to write.  I chose to buy a cup of coffee and a scone.  Almost five months ago I decided to do a weekly blog entry.  Those decisions (and others – too many to count) have led me to this table in one of my favorite coffee shops, sipping light roast and staring longingly at a plate of crumbs, tap-tap-tapping away at my computer to write another entry.

Now let’s back up.  What if I hadn’t chosen to get a scone?  What if I’d gotten a cookie instead?  What if I had decided to finish my other errands first, and write later?  What if I had petered out in January, or decided not to do this blog at all?  I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, writing this entry.  I might be somewhere else, doing something else, maybe sleeping or playing video games or big game hunting or skydiving or shooting heroin, or whatever.

Now, this isn’t a physics blog, and this entry is not about time travel.  It’s about alternate universes.

I said that this isn’t a physics blog, and I meant it.  For fun, easy to understand, internet-based physics lessons, check out Minute Physics on YouTube.  This one, on parallel universes, is particularly interesting and apt.  But this blog entry isn’t really about the science.  Right now I’m reading Hamlet on the Holodeck, an absolutely fascinating book by Janet Murray on the future of narratives in electronic media, and in it, Murray points out that stories in which alternate versions of the same events play out have been around for at least the past 70-80 years.

I know what you’re thinking, and it surprised me, too.  I would have put the invention of “alternate universe/timeline” fiction (by whatever name it was called at the time) at some point near the inception of science fiction (not the Inception of science fiction, you understand—three entries in a row!  Just waiting for the kick, now…).  Now, the date at which sci-fi was invented is debated by many; some count the Epic of Gilgamesh as the earliest science fiction story, others say the genre was created during the middle ages.  In any case, the origin of “alternate universe/timeline” fiction does not coincide with the origin science fiction.  In fact, alternate universes in science fiction are a relatively recent development.

Murray’s examples of early stories in this sub-genre (although I guess it’s really a trans-genre, but anyway…) are The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges and In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz.  These were written in 1941 and 1935, respectively.  Murray goes on to point out that this acknowledgment of the “splitting of reality” according to our choices, what she calls “pullulation,” and the inclusion of more than one possible chain of outcomes, is a characteristic of postmodernism (a literary period about which I know shamefully little, considering the fact that I have an English degree – luckily the pullulation of reading nonfiction introduces ever more titles to my reading list).

But if you watch that Minute Physics video on alternate universes, which I recommend you do, now, if possible, you’ll see that there is science behind (or at least proposed scientific theory behind) what Borges called the “forking paths,” and what scientists now call the many-worlds model.  Although, as the Minute Physics narrator points out repeatedly in that video, there is not yet any experimental evidence to back up any of the multiverse models.  But, a lot of that theoretical science really starts to get its feet beginning about 70-80 years ago.

Now, I don’t know which of those things comes first, science suggesting alternate universes or postmodern fiction wherein multiple versions of the same events play out (although I suspect it’s the latter), and even if I did, a thousand word blog entry is not a sufficient venue in which to explore the implications of that in detail.  In studying media history, I have learned that there are modes of thinking that we take for granted which are relatively recent additions to the range of human abilities.  The ability to critically analyze a story and some types of abstract categorization, for example, are actually technologies, by-products of the invention of writing.

Recognition of cause and effect is not uniquely human, but it is my understanding that regret is more uniquely human.  It’s why rewarding a dog for doing a trick works better than yelling at one for crapping on the living room floor.  As humans, we have the ability to think “If I hadn’t done that, then this wouldn’t be happening.”  For dogs, if they have it at all, that ability is significantly less robust.  Now, I am not implying that this sort of thinking is an invention of the earliest postmodernists.  However, it is interesting that “many worlds” in science and “pullulation” in stories should have become widely thought about around the same time.

There are modes of thinking that are only possible because other modes of thinking have come before them.  You can’t get to multiplication without addition.  You can’t get to literary theory without grammar.  Maybe sometime around the 1920’s, some combination of literature and physics and culture reached a critical mass in the human psyche, and suddenly we had the tools to start thinking about these things on a massive scale.  I like that thought:  that every idea we have, and every thing we write isn’t just an isolated piece of media, but rather a tool in the vast (and getting ever-vaster) human toolbox of mind tricks.  Cool.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Bob Fowler, Janet Murray, and the folks at Minute Physics.  Without the modes of thinking I picked up from all of them, I could not have put together these ideas.  A big thanks also to authors like Borges and Schwartz, because without them, Fringe and The Dark Tower (for example) might not be possible.  And as always, thank you to all of you for reading.

More to follow.


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