I know it's exactly what I need to do.
I know that if I didn't have to live with consequences, I'd never gain any wisdom.
I know it's no harder for me than it is for anybody else. Still, it would be nice for life to come with just a couple of do-over tickets.
Or one. I'd take one.
But it might not matter even if I could.
Anybody who's ever seen It's a Wonderful Life has encountered the concept of alternate time lines, but what got my brain working on it was this book, which I bought when I was about 17, at the Intimate Bookshop in Charlotte, NC. Southpark Mall, specifically. It was a slightly life-changing experience.
Or, one of the stories in it was. The title is "Random Quest," by John Wyndham. It's about alternate universes. Specifically, it's about a man who temporarily trades places with the version of himself who is living out a somewhat different life in a different time-line.
This is going to get confusing, because the story contains these two "Colin Traffords" so I will call ours "Traff One". He's the only one we meet and know, the one who tells the story. He lives here in our very own universe, which I'll call Universe One. He works in a physics lab and gets knocked out when the test of a big new reactor goes rather badly.
He wakes up ... somewhere else. In a world both familiar and not. Some places and people are the same. Others are different.
There's also a Colin Trafford in this alternate Universe. Traff Two, Universe Two. He was hit by a Universe Two bus at the same moment that Traff One, here in our world, was knocked out during the reactor test.
They have swapped consciousnesses. Traff One's consciousness -- his memories, his knowledge, his self -- is now occupying Traff Two, whose own "consciousness" now, presumably, occupies Traff One's comatose body back here in our familiar world.
So here's Traff One's "awareness," "consciousness," whatever you want to call it, in Traff Two's universe. He finds it quite navigable but...odd. Technology is different, less advanced. This is the 1950's but he finds radio, but no TV. AM but no FM. Cars look funny. Fashions look funny.
The big thing is that, there in Universe Two, World War II never happened.
So. Because there was no WWII in Universe Two, Traff-Two didn't go to war and therefore did not follow his war work into the field of physics. He became a novelist instead.
He also became a nasty, unpleasant sort of chap.
He also found this really great woman and married her. But he's slowly destroying the marriage.
You can guess where that's going.
Back here in Universe One, Traff-One's comatose head regains consciousness after 3 weeks. That means Traff One is zapped back here into his own world and his own time-line.
But Traff One is NOT happy to be back. Not without Her. Perfect Woman, whom he's now obsessed with finding. After all, Trafford had managed to determine that both time-lines were alike until he was about 8 years old, so Miss Perfect likely exists here, but had a different life from that point, just as both Colin Traffords did. He sets out in search of her. Thus the "Quest" of the title.
As a teenager, I of course sighed over this "meant to be" love story.
I also was even more impressed by the fact that the exact date of my birth was mentioned. This is when Traff One first wakes up in Time-line Two, and wanders around trying to figure out what has happened. He picks up a magazine dated January 22, 1954.
This made "Random Quest" the most important short story ever written, in my mind.
Predictably it's been made into movies (Here's part one of a modern BBC version on youtube, in several parts), but they're basically love stories. They barely explore the uncomfortable questions of what's meant to be, or which history is the Groundhog Day type "right" one we keep stupidly failing at. Or whether there is a "right" one at all.
The original story gives Traff One, and us, only tantalizing glimpses of these fascinating ideas, entirely aside from the One Perfect Soul Mate thing. It took me a few years and a few read-throughs, but eventually I saw that the point of the story, made quietly, is that nothing was meant to be.
Or rather, that everything was meant to be, and is out there, being. In one alternate universe or another. Every possibility occurs. Ninth Grade physical science didn't really prep me to talk about theoretical physics, but apparently it gets into ....
Let me just type a "Random Quest" quote in here. Colin Trafford (Traff One) explains:
One was brought up against Einstein and relativity, which, as you know, denies the possibility of determining motion absolutely and consequently leads into the idea of the four-dimensional space-time continuum. ... In other words, although the infinite point which we call a moment in 1954 must occur throughout the continuum, it exists only in relation to each observer, and appears to have similar existence in relation to certain close groups of observers.Big help, wasn't it? Yes, that's sarcasm. Other sci fi pieces speak of alternate universes "splitting off" but that's apparently sort of an inaccurate metaphor. The theory seems more to say that every possibility is happening and perception of which one is "reality" is matter of where you are standing.
Trafford One can't find the moment of diversion at all. He can only narrow the date of the split down to a guess that it was when he was around 6-8 years old. His own life back in Time-line 1, and his alter-ego's in Time-line 2, were the same till about then.
Yet one world is not better than the other. The story definitely does not advocate the idea that one worked out "the way it's supposed to" and the other didn't. Some people are better off in Time-line 2, while others, including himself, are much more productive and emotionally healthy in Time-line 1. Wyndham has a lot of fun giving us inexplicable examples of differences that Traff can't track down in his mere three weeks there, so we can't either.
His titular "Quest" to find Miss Perfect allows some wiggle-room for the idea that something can be "wrong" and that the space-time continuum might, once in a long while, hiccup and make a correction.
But the idea that it's a correction is only an interpretation. It could be just a space-time goof. Wyndham drops some cool little hints about "good" and "bad" events.
So, the death and destruction of World War II didn't happen there in the Alt-Universe? "Good."
Well, maybe. Colin glimpses a newspaper story in which Germany is conducting nuclear research -- testing atomic fission at the time of the story, in 1954. You have to wonder if the world of Universe Two is one in which the war was merely delayed. Delayed until nukes were in the hands of Germany, and that in Time-line Two, the Axis might about be to unleash a war and win it this time.
Our world just marked the anniversary of the atomic bomb that ended the Pacific war in 1945.
A few years ago we acquired this copy of a map strategizing the Allied Invasion of Japan; the plan they'd have needed to follow if the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had not been dropped:
Lines show the Allies pushing forward across Asia, slowly pushing enemy lines to their hoped-for 1946 mark.
My dad was 17 when he entered the Navy in 1945. He once told my mother that if the bombing of Japan hadn't occurred, he would probably have been killed somewhere along those fronts so neatly mapped with nice little dotted lines as "1946." Or 1947. Or... Pushing across the landscape, as 10s of thousands more died.
So I might owe my existence to the bomb.
"Random Quest" got me thinking at an early age, when my brain wasn't yet petrified, about how the way things happen can't always be identified (with our limited knowledge) as good or bad. As one of those who's into God stuff, I actually manage to reconcile the two, since I believe that taking the inefficient route to where my Higher Power wants me only makes it harder for me but doesn't stop me from getting there. Likewise, I think Humankind gets off-track but back on.
If the theory works the way it seems to in sci fi stories, then in some alternate time-line, I'm a glaciologist. In another, the bomb never dropped and I was never born.
And in another one, I'm a lawyer. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
But read the original "Random Quest," and let it dance with your mind.