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A lucky man

… sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler – Robert Frost

It was a typical hot and humid summer’s day, so I entered a nice dark bluestone pub, hoping the dark would offer some cool and beer. As it was about 11 in the morning, the bar was empty save for one fellow sitting at a table – one of three next to the pool table – so I got my lager, icy cold as God intended, and went to practice my trick shots. I have found that after exactly two and a half beers, I can hit shots that professionals would blanch at, and this persists from the remaining half glass. At least once I managed to lighten an American tourist of $100 after two really bad games and really good beers, up in Cairns.

Anyway, I was just entering that blessed state of hand eye coordination, making the cue ball spin on its vertical axis and travel around a snookering ball, when I apparently caught the eye of the solitary drinker.

“I’m impressed,” he muttered into his beer.

“Thanks,” I replied. “If I could stay exactly this drunk, I’d be a hell of a pool shark,” and we got to talking.

My friend was a bit morose, so after some small talk I asked if anything was the matter.

“Yes,” he said, “I’m going to be killed shortly.”

Now this is a rare opening gambit in a conversation, so he had my full attention. “What? Why?” I blustered, a little shocked and unsure if he was having me on or not.

“Well, it’s a bit hard to explain. Do you know of the scam where you send 10,000 random people the outcomes of a given sporting match?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” thinking of some mob tie-in or theft. “Actually, no.”

“OK, it works like this: pick a large number of people and send them, say, a prediction that has a small number of possible results. Win-lose is best. Next week send the 5,000 who got the right prediction, another random prediction, and so on each week until you have both a highly improbable sequence and a relatively large number of possible charlies. Then ask them for $1,000 for the next week’s predictions, and then, when the money is in, scarper. The fact is, you will have to have some charlies left, and they will all think of you as a real prophet.”

“Yeah, I think I heard of that happening in Melbourne once,” I replied.

“So, imagine if you could scan all the possible outcomes and pick the one which was optimal at every point in your life.”

“I don’t get where this is going,” I said.

“Bear with me. So when I was an undergraduate physics student, they told us about a view of quantum mechanics that said that every possible outcome actually occurs, but that each time a superpositional state collapses in one world, it collapses in all other possible ways in other worlds. All physically possible worlds exist, only they are inaccessible for the world in which you exist.”

I was just drunk and hot enough that this was a standard sort of pub conversation, so I went with it. “OK.”

“OK. Except, when I heard this, I wondered if by concentrating I could find my way to these other worlds. You know, undergraduate philosophical ramblings at three in the morning. Only, one morning I woke up and found that a bad decision I had taken the night before (to not chat up a girl, as it happened) had been undone by the morning. There was the girl I hadn’t taken home last night, and what was more, I remembered both worlds. I remembered not chatting her up, and also screwing up my courage and doing so.”

He drew a deep breath, and regarded me with the eyes of a condemned prisoner.

“As time went by I found that not only could I ‘undo'” (he used his fingers to draw quote marks in the air) “the past, but I could ‘see’ ‘around’ me for the possible world that had the best outcome for me. I finally figured out that I wasn’t changing my world, but which world I saw things from. I changed, you might say, my perspective from possible world to possible world.”

“So this isn’t the world you started in?” I asked.

“Not really, but then it isn’t the world you started in either. You just happen to be the final perspective that this line of possibilities generated. The difference between you and I is that I can sense, somehow, nearby possible worlds and the… I don’t know… satisfaction rating for me. You might say that I surf from world to world to the best of accessible worlds for me.”

I had done some literature at university, and I recalled something relevant.

“Holy Pangloss!” I said.

He chuckled at that. “Not exactly Pangloss. I’m no Leibniz, arguing that the world from which I see things from is the best of all possible worlds. There must be an infinity or something very like it of possible worlds, and I can’t leap to any one of them, just those that are within some, ah, distance in terms of bifurcating wave collapses from ‘here’. So I can’t pick stocks that are going to be high payoff in the future, but I can pick worlds where a recent choice of mine or recent events left me better off than I am in my present world.”

“So, the obvious question: what happened?”

Again, he came at it obliquely.

“Have you read the famous poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”?”

“I think so.”

“You know, the one where he says of two tracks in a forest:

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.”

“Mmmhmm.” I didn’t, then, but I know it now, word perfect.

“Well you can’t go back in time to a prior choice or splitting of the worldways, as I call them. Once you leap into a worldway, you are committed. Alternative worlds that used to be accessible fade into the ‘distance’. The track not taken is never again accessible to you. You have to take the tracks that this worldway leads to.

“It’s rather like evolution: a species that takes one ‘choice’ can’t backtrack to fix a suboptimal character. You know the human seminal vesicle? That’s the tube that delivers semen from the testicles. It loops over the urethra, which delivers urine from the kidneys, because our ancestors were four legged, and the whole geometry was different. This is like that. I found myself in an increasingly more constrained set of possible worldways.”

He proceeded to tell me about his involvement in corporations, shady figures, organised crime and corrupt politicians. I won’t repeat it here, because too many people could be hurt, including me, but the upshot was that he increasingly found his choices of worldways that were better or equal to his present one narrowed. Eventually, he found his way to this one, and this pub, with many people out to kill him. This worldway was the last remaining one in which he had a perspective. In short, this world was the only one he still lived, within his “reach”. And this worldway, it seemed, ended for him in a few minutes.

After this, we sat quietly for a few minutes, and then he said to me, “You had better finish up that beer and leave. It happens in a few minutes, whatever it is, and you don’t want to be nearby.”

I told him, I’d take my chances. They didn’t want me, after all. He started to object, but then his fatalism overcame him, and he just shrugged. So we sat and finished our beers. Then, without any warning, he had a fatal heart attack. Given that he was about 40kg overweight and smoked, it was no surprise, I guess. While we were trying to give CPR, this guy wandered into the pub, with a worrying trenchcoat, and stayed until we were sure he’d died. He left. After the ambulance had come, so did I.


  1. jeff jeff

    I sense the beginnings of a scifi novel, or at least a magazine piece…
    Ah yes, MWI and its brethern. True metaphysical reality, global “determinism”, and supposedly “objectivity”. Besides other difficult details, what is troubling is not occam and the multiplicity of worlds, but “objectivity”. You are not all of your multiple selves. What determines the path that “you” take through the tree? Why do “you” find yourself in this world and not another? (analagous in some ways to the all-important why-am-I-me question.)
    And as you explored in your piece, would any of these paths lead to non-MWI universes? An interesting alternative to quantum immortality that others have postulated. That kind of immortality would be hell indeed. I once read a scifi story were the protagonist went to a biblical-style “hell” – not abruptly as most would envision, but gradually over a period of time, until he eventually realized where he was.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    “I sense the beginnings of a scifi novel”
    The main character is called Paul Atreides.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous

    “I sense the beginnings of a scifi novel”
    The main character is called Paul Atreides.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous

    “I sense the beginnings of a scifi novel”
    The main character is called Paul Atreides.

  5. Anonymous Anonymous

    “I sense the beginnings of a scifi novel”
    The main character is called Paul Atreides.

  6. Peter Ellis Peter Ellis

    Aye, this is the basic premise behind the second/third in the Dune series. Once the prophet has chosen a future, he is locked into it – he has collapsed the wave form and can no longer choose what to do, even if all the choices lead to his death.
    I prefer the view of prophecy in Lord of the Rings – the Mirror of Galadriel scene. The Mirror shows potential futures, but not how to get there.
    For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell.
    Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds.

  7. Peter Ellis Peter Ellis

    I once read a scifi story were the protagonist went to a biblical-style “hell” – not abruptly as most would envision, but gradually over a period of time, until he eventually realized where he was.
    I believe you’re thinking of “Inferno”, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Hysterical in parts, especially when they not-so-subtly drop their fellow writers in to the various circles of Hell according to their misdeeds.

  8. It seems to me one of the benefits of many quantum universes is that they offer plenty of room for another good story using that premise. This piece is a nice change of pace. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. HP HP

    I once read a scifi story were the protagonist went to a biblical-style “hell”
    There’s an interesting film by Takashi Miike called Guzo, about a yakuza hitman sent to Hokkaido to take care of a boss who’s lost his mind. Things go wrong, and then progressively more and more surreal, and it turns out to be Hell, but in the Japanese Buddhist conception of Hell, which is rather different than the Christian one.
    According to Miike, Hell is a cold, grey midsized industrial city full of run-down strip malls and bad restaurant food. This, of course, is a universal human experience, and not specific to any religious tradition.

  10. Brilliant outline. If I could make suggestions for improvement, you need more detail about the bar, the man, the feelings of the narrator. When the time traveler pauses in his account, you could interject some detail of something that passes momentarily into the narrator’s consciousness. And, what’s more, if you sort of free-associate what such details might be, chances are you’ll come across some image that is not only evocative but self-referential, as I type with the sound of the television running some program with Patrick McGoohan…
    But seriously, well done, and if you add more details about the environs, it might be more spooky. And not at a distance.

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