e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

On butterflies and books

Recently I’ve read two books on the random intersections and consequences of the characters’ stories: more or less the butterfly effect (a butterfly flaps its wings in Nepal and, because of the sensitivity of the weather system, sets off a chain of consequences resulting in a hurricane in Florida). The whole thing is far too difficult to predict, and looks like pure chance.

The books are Sebastian FaulksA Week in December and Penelope Lively’s How it All Began – well thought of books by major authors.

Perhaps this is the new preoccupation – we control so much in the world but still who meets whom, who marries whom, who gets born (or not), who gets mugged or wins the lottery, is mainly outside anyone’s control and looks wayward and attractive.

What they do not write about is the other side of the coin – what doesn’t happen is as subject to butterflies as what does. Of course, the alternatives are unknowable and vast in numbers, a range of possible histories that no one can enumerate or describe.

Science fiction sometimes attends to some of them, usually on a macro scale: what if Hitler won the war? But behind such world-changing speculations lies, what if Fred and Freda never met?

Those who write about time travel may address the butterfly effect directly. What if I time travel to the Middle Ages and make one tiny change, would Hitler win the war? But would Fred and Freda meet in 1990 still tends to get short shrift?

In the actual world, Fred and Freda do meet, fall in love etc. The butterfly is still there, lurking in the future waiting to pounce. They can’t agree on their wedding day – she wants April, he wants May. So they toss a coin. Heads, and she wins. April it is. By the time they get to May, the little ball of cells that will one day be their darling Sally is alive and well in Freda’s womb and waging terminal chemical warfare on all Johnny-come-lately potential rivals. Sally gets born; Sadie does not. Sally marries John where Sadie would have married Tom. And so on. By 500 years later the entire population of the world is the way it is because of the toss of a coin.

C’est la vie – or not, as the sensitivity of the system of human affairs may have it.

Pics from Goodreads site.

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6 thoughts on “On butterflies and books

  1. Thank you..sent it off to friends..

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    • Thank you for sending to others. I found it interesting that one can consider human events with the same theories that apply to systems like the weather.

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      • A human emotional outburst may be tuned to a weather storm both coming from an excessive energy build-up and hence a possible scientific theory may apply that can be tracked.

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      • A human outburst can have a whole range of effects, many of them unpredictable and increasing, as you point out. In fact much of history probably results from outbursts of various kinds, frequently disguised as rational argument. The scientific theory is likely to be true of these outbursts but difficult to prove.

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      • “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”

        I found this post today from one of my internet readers and I thought it to be quite true.

        In my life time I have experienced the fear of failure and did not continue to finish my project when in fact the act of failing is a teacher to learn how not to fail next time.

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      • This is so true. I also think that failure is sometimes a warning that I chose the wrong path to follow. Whatever it is, it’s a time to reassess and learn. Thank you for this comment.

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