Locus Focus: Take Thirty-Six!
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The theories of time travel and the idea of parallel universes are philosophical twins. In a sense, traveling into the past or the future is a lot like crossing into a parallel universe--but not exactly so.
I once saw a fellow on TV who explained the "Grandfather Paradox" in time travel by saying that it doesn't matter if you do go back in time and kill an ancestor: you'll still exist because you've only killed him in a parallel universe and not in your own. Totally bogus, of course. James Cameron got closer to the truth when he had a character from the future send his own father into the past to meet his mother. There was never a John Connor who wasn't Kyle Reese's son; and there was never a 1984 without Kyle Reese. Cameron's only mistake was writing that "The future is not set." To be totally accurate, the line should be, "The present is not set."
But never mind that now, while we look at a setting that combines both the fantasy of parallel universes and an imaginative look at the future.
The Probability Broach:
The Graphic Novel
Story by L. Neil Smith
Artwork by Scott Bieser
Win Bear: "'CONFEDERACY'? Say, who won the Civil War--I mean, the War Between the States? You know, 1860-1865? Fort Sumter? Tariffs and slavery? Lee and Grant? Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis? Lincoln gets killed at the--"
Clarissa Olson: "I don't know what you mean, Win. Slavery eded peaceably in 44 A.L., thanks to Thomas Jefferson. I don't recognise any of the names you mentioned except Jefferson Davis, a minor president of the old United States, and . . ."
Win Bear: "And?"
Clarissa Olson: "And there wasn't any 1865. We called it . . . 89 A.L. [Anno Liberatis]."
In L. Neil Smith's political satire, the future is a function of the past, and history depends completely on popular philosophy. And to illustrate which opposing philosophies he believes are most right and most wrong, he gives us two versions of 1987: a dystopia in which meat is rationed by the government and Vitamin C is an illegal substance . . . and a utopia in which congressmen routinely propose the abolition of congress and cocaine retails at affordable rates. I can't say I'm very fond of either extreme . . .
When Detective Win Bear is blasted out of the United States of America into the North American Confederacy, the first thing he notices is that absolutely everyone there is armed: "More low-slung handguns, dirks, and daggers than in a dozen B-Westerns and Swashbucklers spliced together!" Later in the story, he bursts into a children's birthday party thinking it's where the baddies are, and reflects that he was lucky the kids were all younger than six years old, or else they would have had their own weapons and opened fire!
Thus Smith establishes a link between the right to keep and bear arms and the right to control your own property--for in this future, property is such a sacred concept that people aren't even taxed for anything. And if any of these political ideas sound familiar to you, then you already know that this alternative universe is a capitalist paradise where science has "naturally" made amazing leaps and bounds. (That one inevitably follows the other is a popular objectivist/libertarian dogma.) So the people of the future ride around in hovercrafts that can go hundreds of miles an hour, clone replacements for any lost body parts, and visit any planet in the solar system that they take a fancy to--and that's just a small bit of it!
But for all its fascinating features, this parallel future is only as wonderful as its history. Indeed, I'd say that half the fun of reading this novel is playing "spot the differences." So let's see . . . In the North American Confederacy, George Washington was shot for treason . . . and Thomas Jefferson, who was the fourth president, totally abolished slavery in North America. The first woman president was Harriet Beecher Stowe. But my favourite presidential twist is an obscure bit of history from A.D. 1865/89 A.L.: "John Wilkes Booth is touring the backwoods with an English play, Our North American Cousin, when an obscure Hamiltonian lawyer pops up and shoots him dead." (Bwahahahahaha! Although I'm not sure what poor Booth did to deserve that.)
Predictably, even the geography is different. Chicago is the biggest city in the world--but the state of Illinois doesn't exist. Galveston and San Antonio are still where you'd expect them to be (although the place is not Texas, but "Texico"), while Houston is way up north in what we'd call Alaska. New York City and Washington, D.C. are nowhere to be seen. But my knowledge of US history is so poor that I can only get the most obvious of these jokes.
But is it really that easy? Are political ideas really the bedrock of all human history (and geography)? Now, I like ideas--but I'm not impressed by the demi-god status they seem to have acquired since the Enlightenment. Smith's future utopia, based so soundly on rational political ideals, is fantastic and fun . . . but it ultimately leaves me cold.
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This Week's Other Locus:
Yann Martel's Island @ Birdie's Nest
Image Source: The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel by L. Neil Smith and Scott Bieser