Quantum Theory and Alternate Universes
One of the major innovations in SF has been a turn to a whole new basis in the physical sciences—the quantum theory. In Newtonian/Einsteinian physics, reality has a definite existence, and conforms absolutely to the rules of the universe. Furthermore, these rules are, at least to physicists, relatively simple; they give law and order to a universe that we assume is knowable. Quantum theory, on the other hand, forces us to revise all our thinking about the construction of the physical world. Whole books cannot manage a complete layman’s discussion of quantum theory, so here we can only look at some major features of the revolution in thinking that quantum theory represents.
Scientists long enjoyed the assurance that at the visible level of reality matter behaves according to Newtonian/Einsteinian laws. And because objects behaved orderly at the visible level, they assumed that matter would behave orderly at the subatomic level.
But as physicists looked closer and closer at the atom, they found that its particles (its “quanta”) behaved unpredictably, even randomly. Quantum theory seriously challenges the centuries-old assumption that beneath the complexities of appearance lies the simplicity of law. (Einstein, in arguing against the assumptions of quantum theory, protested that God does not play dice).
Physicists discovered that a thousand electrons moving from point A to point B will move along a thousand different paths. This discovery was against all expectations of how subatomic particles would behave. The only way to predict the movement of particles is through statistical average. That is, the average path from A to B is straight—but no one path necessarily is.
Although we cannot predict the movement of any one electron, each electron seems to know where to go. This is yet another startling feature of the behavior of subatomic particles. The famous two-slit screen experiment shows that individually fired electrons know where to go to form an appropriately distributed light interference pattern.
How can any one electron know where to go (especially as no one electron has to go anywhere)? Some interpretations of the two-slit screen experiment involve the existence of alternate realities. The actual path that the electron takes in our reality is influenced by the paths in other realities. Because the available paths in the other realities are taken, the electron must take the path that is available to it.
The several schools of quantum theory have different approaches to the alternate realities. One school says that the alternate realities are merely mathematical models, having no concrete reality. But another school theorizes on an infinite number of concrete, existing alternate realities for every instance of reality that we perceive. Where are these realities? Presumably they transpire in some dimension totally inaccessible from our reality (unless, of course, you read or write SF).
It is this last version of quantum theory that interests SF writers. The alternate worlds, after all, make for an infinite number of new conditions under which to write SF. At the simplest level they provide a scientific basis for “what if?” stories that illustrate the probable results of taking a different turn at a significant historical juncture. Michael Moorcock (The Warlords of the Air, 1971), Norman Spinrad (The Iron Dream, 1972), Harry Harrison (Tunnel Through the Deeps, 1972), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle, 1962)—just to name a few—have set stories in alternate time tracks. Whether they are in any significant way illustrating the role of quantum theory in our daily lives is another matter.
It is an open question as to whether quantum theory has any significant relationship to human behavior. The moral extension of Newton and Einstein was that the universe was comprised of relatively simple and consistent laws (to the end-of his life, Einstein was looking for the unified field theory that would place all phenomena under one set of laws). The orderliness of the physical world translates, according to some, into orderliness in human behavior. If we follow nature, we at least have a reasonable model to imitate.
Does quantum theory make any similar kind of impact on human values? It is perhaps too easy a generalization to say that quantum theory reflects the indeterminableness, the randomness of modern civilization. Still, a writer like Philip K. Dick seems to reflect a chaos in the moral realm that he often links with the physical realm. And other writers have used quantum theory to illustrate a universe that is queerer than we can know, a universe that ultimately is indecipherable. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the physics of the quanta could provide a framework for pessimism, if pessimism is what we want.
Whatever our feelings about the moral dimension of the quanta, the theory has an important role in SF. Space-time SF is still a viable direction, but it cannot sustain another generation of creative writers. Quantum theory opens up a considerable amount of new and strange real estate for SF writers to build on.