All the Myriad Ways is arguably Larry Niven's best short work from
his most productive period. Niven was one of my favorite writers when I was
a lot younger than I am now; at his best he makes you look past his
technical lapses and ham-handed characterization by dazzling you with
brilliant flights of imagination. Myriad Ways is an uncharacteristically
subdued work for Niven, lacking the FTL space drives and two-headed aliens and
planetary-scale engineering works for which he's more commonly known. It isn't even
set in his
Known Space future history. And it works because of its laser-like
Niven's story doesn't even display an awareness of the formal MWI.
Instead of dragging out quantum mechanics and state vectors to establish the background,
Niven has narrator Gene Trimble complain that he doesn't understand the theory himself,
except that the upshot is that the Universe splits every time "someone makes a decision."
A quantum physicist would pull his hair out at the vagueness of this, yet it's
a reasonably accurate rendering of the MWI.
Niven takes a straightforward SFnal approach to his alternate universes.
If you want to get somewhere, whether it's another world, another time,
or another parallel universe, you do it by getting in a machine that takes
you there. The people who run these machines are pilots, skilled people
boldly going where no one from their timeline has gone before. The man
on the street does not go to alternate universes. He reads about them
in the newspaper, and marvels.
While Niven touches briefly on the technological wonders brought back from
more advanced timelines ("and Crosstime held all the patents...") he
also cleverly notices that ordinary things like staplers and butane
lighters might be just as important as rocket engines and computers.
At the time of the story, cross-time
travel has only existed in Trimble's universe for eleven months.
The wonders are still mostly in the papers, but the promise of enormous
change hangs over everything.
For Trimble, the fly in the ointment is this epidemic of suicide
and random crime he is investigating. The story is told in the form
of a detective's meditation as he cleans his gun; he rambles a bit, recalling
encounters and events of note as he tries to piece together a puzzle
which, he feels in his gut, must somehow revolve around Crosstime
Trimble thought of a lonely woman making herself a drink
at three in the afternoon. She thinks of myriads of alter egos with
husbands, lovers, children, friends. Unbearable to think that all
the might-have-beens are as real as herself. As real as this ice pick
in her hand...
Trimble puts his gun together and wonders. At this moment he might
have the flash of inspiration that solves the mystery. It might slip
away, leaving him frustrated again. He might regard the gun curiously,
thinking of the suicides. The gun might go off accidentally. He
might dry-fire it at himself...
...and of course, he does all of those things, and more.
As one might divine from the title, Frederich Pohl wrote The Coming
of the Quantum Cats with quantum theory in mind. Pohl envisions
a huge machine which doesn't go with you when you cross between
universes; instead it gives you a push, and after awhile you tend
to pop back unless you're well planted in your destination. As the
story opens a belligerently militaristic version of the United States
(yes, even worse than this one) is about to use the technology to
mount an invasion in its own world by transporting the troops in
another. Jerry Brown is President and Dominick DeSota is the
major in charge of the invasion.
The invading world didn't invent the technology; they were contacted
and stole it from a world in which Dominick DeSota was an important
scientist on the project. In his world the President is Nancy,
not Ronald, Reagan.
In the world being used for the invasion Senator Dominick DeSota and
President Jack Kennedy are briefed by Dr. Dominick DeSota. Our own
timeline is mentioned specifically, when Dr. DeSota mentions those
lines where Ronald Reagan is President and Jack Kennedy was assassinated
by some guy named Oswald.
An improbable North American Muslim theocracy is also involved, in
which Nicky DeSota is a struggling mortgage broker. Nyla, the main
female character, is alternately a concert violinist, a thumbless
FBI agent, and Senator DeSota's mistress.
Pohl has great fun with the different politics and fates of his
characters. There is also an ominous backdrop; between each chapter
is a little vignette about some really weird out-of-place
freak event. Eventually it becomes clear that these "rebound" events
are a side effect of the dimensional travel. Just when the situation
is looking really grim a Deus ex Machina intervenes -- a
very advanced cartel of ten worlds which developed quantum travel
early and cooperated.
The cooperative has discovered the nasty side effect of parallel-time
travel; once vibrations are set up, they don't stop. Travel causes
bizarre spontaneous crossing of timelines; freight trains appear out
of nowhere in residential neighborhoods, buildings fade in and out
of existence, weather systems do not arrive where they are expected.
The cooperative doesn't like this. When they detect unauthorized
experimentation, they haul everyone involved off to a conveniently
empty world where the human race was wiped out by biological warfare.
There, dozens of Dr. Dominick DeSotas compare notes as they ponder
giving up quantum physics for farming.
Pohl has said in interviews that he is not a "hard-science" wonk;
he takes his one idea and chases it, usually concentrating on the
human side. Yet Quantum Cats is quite satisfying on the
technical side. The few loose ends are left hanging deliberately,
and one feels they belong as they are. There are no jarring
failures of belief in the story background, which sounds no crazier
than anything real scientists have been writing about lately.
Pohl, like Niven, is driven
by the effect such technology will have on people; all their
might-have-beens and what-ifs are now in their faces. He is
wonderfully inventive at mixing up the details of history and
experience to create basically similar yet shockingly different
worlds and personalities. As with the technology, all his
characters are believable and act naturally given their origins.
James P. Hogan has a well-deserved reputation
as a hard-science wonk and a history of working out marvelously
complicated, yet beautifully consistent systems of physics to justify
his fictional inventions. Yet Paths to Otherwhere is by far
the weakest work in the roundup, a surprising disappointment which
deserves forensic analysis.
The point-of-view world in Otherwhere is another militarized,
paranoid American dystopia. Hogan being Hogan, he takes half the
book to get us to Otherwhere; first we have to see how the
"intuition amplifier" works, and endure a ponderous explanation of
how DNA is a quantum antenna, cooperating across timelines to
achieve rapid evolutionary change when it's appropriate without
the intermediate forms which are so embarrassingly absent from the
fossil record. Hogan remembers to mention this once or twice,
but once it's explained it never becomes relevant to the story.
By page 80 or so the scientists have managed to discover that they
can project their consciousness into nearby alternate timelines, and vice-versa.
The evil paranoid government droids running the project see wonderful
possibilities for spying, since the nearby universes are similar
enough to ours to make espionage from them useful. But Hogan does
several things here that ring false to me.
Firstly, while I can see the logic of forbidding matter transfers
between universes, the way consciousness is projected is that your
body in this universe goes limp, while you take over the
body of your twin or "analog" in the alternate universe. Hogan
depicts several dangerous and embarrassing results of this, none
of which is remotely as creepy as the idea of "riding" your analog
like some kind of voodoo god. The experimenters also seem to take
it cheerfully in stride that they will occasionally zone out and
play host to a visitor from some other parallel universe.
Wrapped up in all of this is a thread about Eastern religion, and
how the quantum amplifiers somehow duplicate and enhance what
spirituality accomplishes naturally, the direct experience of
alternate quantum realities. It also seems to breezily assume
mental dualism, that the mind is somehow separable from the brain
and body it inhabits. Reading this in a James P. Hogan novel is
like seeing Linus Torvalds in an advertisement for Microsoft
Windows. I have the distinct feeling this book is a paen to all
the folks he has pissed off over the years with his anti-religion
rants, especially the Zambendorf character in
Code of the Lifemaker.
Around page 100 a renegade group of non-fascist scientists begins an
unauthorized exploration of "distant" worlds, against the wishes of
the military project leaders who don't see the espionage uses of
universes that don't resemble ours very much. Around page 180 they
begin to figure out how to aim. Around page 200 they realize that
if they project into an analog in an alternate universe, and don't
go through the shutdown sequence, they'll stay in the alternate
It strikes me as odd that they could learn enough to aim for a
particular universe and deliberately cause and reverse these
projections, yet not be aware that the projection is permanent
unless deliberately reversed. This doesn't make sense, and Hogan
obviously adopted it out of plot necessity; permanent projection
makes it possible to emigrate.
Finally, around page 230, we meet the title of the book. In the
Otherwhere universe World War I ended before it was well begun,
WWII never happened, and the nations of the world have lived in
mutually altruistic harmony ever since. In other words, it's the
planet Charon from
Voyage From Yesteryear, thinly transplanted to an alternate 20th
century. Everyone who visits Otherwhere, including the fascist
military leaders, loves the place.
In timelines as distant from ours as Otherwhere, not everyone has an
analog and your analog might have a different name and occupation and
live on a different continent than you do. Most of the rest of the
book is devoted to the good and bad guys locating and positioning their
analogs in Otherwhere so as to be ready to emigrate and, in the case
of the bad guys, to kill the good guys' analogs on general principles
so they can't emigrate. (Somehow, it appears that there is only one
Otherwhere, something vaguely to do with attractors in the hoohah
space of the temporal doubletalk fractal.)
The good guys devote all of two or three pages to the ethical problem
of emigrating into a body which has a previous occupant, with his
own history, memories, etc. Far along this is glossed over with
a happy-feely explanation that, as you hang around, your personality
merges with the one you've invaded into a gloriously blissful
combination superior to either individual. Thus, when a couple of
the good guys manage to emigrate and destroy the recall codes, leaving
limp bodies in their home universe, we're supposed to see it as a
triumph. (And what happens to the bodies? Nothing indicates that
they die. The whole issue is swept under a rug in the last few pages.)
And I'm left with a really bad taste in my mouth over the analogs
in Otherwhere, who (unlike the self-proclaimed "good guys")
did not get a choice in the matter of whether to be invaded.
Furthermore, we are given to understand that in some weird New Agey
sense the machine itself tends to turn fascist military scum into
touch-feely altruistic libertarians, offering a key to liberating the
seemingly hopeless home universe. (How? By strapping all the leaders
in and taking them for a ride?)
All in all it's a great big gushy nonsensical mess that takes 400
pages to reach an ethically unsatisfying and technically unbelievable
conclusion which contradicts everything else Hogan has ever written.
What in hell was he thinking?
I think part of the problem is that Hogan, like any sensible person,
is uncomfortable with the MWI on a deep level. Both
he and Pohl make an effort to limit the number of actual alternate
universes; Pohl by fiat, Hogan by invoking fractals. This softens
the impact and the strain on the imagination, turning what could be
a deep philosophical question into a travelogue. (Larry Niven
got this part best, looking the implications squarely in the face
and making them the point of his story.)
"Many Worlds" sound like the basis of a great yarn, but when you get
down to it there aren't many yarns you can tell, beyond the one Niven
told, without imposing limitations of one sort or another. Rudy
Rucker once alleged that the MWI multiverse actually contains
no information; I think he overstates the case but it does seem
pointless for the universe to exist at all if it never makes a decision.
By analogy, when we run a simulated universe in a computer we do it
because we are interested in the outcome, whether it's a game or a
physical process simulation. The only reason to run all possible
outcomes would be to draw a map, rather like the
Mandelbrot Fractal, which indexes those outcomes in the way Mandelbrot indexes
the space of Julia sets. One then has to ask what use
such a map would be, and to whom, and why. It does not seem like
the sort of thing that would arise on its own via an evolutionary process.
There might be a story in that idea. But so far nobody seems to
be thinking much past the kewlness of other timelines where you might
be rich, famous, and dating a supermodel. It seems like a theory as
profound as the MWI would yield more fictional possibilities than the
quick meditation on futility and the fun romp through alternate
history. But the competent author who has written several of my
favorite books turned in an embarrassing disappointment when he
tried to use MWI as the basis for a drama. It remains to be seen
if other authors will have better luck.