e a m harris

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Archive for the tag “How it all began”

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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