If you’re familiar with some of the more popular works by Philip K. Dick, you’ll know his characters often experience a shift in their perceptions of reality. If you’ve read further background into his life, you might know that PKD himself experienced occasional shifts in perspective. He described having the sensation that two different timelines were superimposed on our reality, but most of us never become aware of it. (I have no specific links for you, but do a search for “Black Iron Prison” and you might read about how it appears in his fiction as well as the details of the incident which triggered his visions.)
I’m not a fan of the theory of parallel universes. I don’t believe that a new reality forks off at every moment, nor that every choice we make spawns an alternate reality in which the opposite choice was made. Certainly quantum physicists can write theoretical equations for such possibilities, but that’s just abstract math to me. Even if reality is merely the illusion formed by waves of energy through space, there can be only one instance of the matter that coalesces out of these energy waves. At least that’s how I envision the mechanics of the universe, despite enjoying fiction like the movie “Primer” which defies explanation.
Today, however, I got a taste of what it might have been like for PKD to experience that overlap. I’ve been attending a Steampunk convention this weekend, sporadically dropping in on panels and taking in the ambience of the venue. The event is running in parallel with a major anime gathering, which in itself is a jarring mix of fandoms, but at least they are hosted in two separate hotels. While the anime (and manga and video game and general nerd culture) fans are all about the bright colors and exuberant self-expression, the steampunk enthusiasts are generally in favor of quiet elegance. And yet, they co-mingle in crowds and share the shuttle bus without prejudice or resentment.
My moment of heightened awareness came as I sat in a foyer and listened to the sound of a teletype machine. A corner of the hall had been converted into the working office of a telegraph company, complete with a ticker-tape clattering out the news headlines. A Victorian clock stood outside their door next to the company sign, and a messenger delivered telegrams to citizens in the hotel. The telegraph operator pinned pieces of paper to a cork bulletin board so attendees could read about events elsewhere in the world. In my peripheral vision I saw women in corsets and bustles, and men in top hats and waistcoats. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to believe that this was our modern reality. This was not a step back in time, but a projection of how time could have progressed from the Victorian era to an alternative now, veering away from the invention of mass communication (and so much more).
I saw the past superimposed on my present, along with an alternate timeline crossing in front of me, like a pair of train tracks running an electric rapid transit system in parallel with a steam locomotive. I could read the headlines about the United Nations and Syria typed out in monospaced capital letters on yellow paper with faded ink. And just when I had wrapped my brain around this scene, the bell on the teletype machine rang, a signal indicating an incoming priority headline as was done in its time, and was still being used when I worked in a radio station in college. I was simultaneously experiencing a memory of a real past and a simulacra of an alternate past-future, while also being aware of my modern clothes and lifestyle.
The illusion is not concerned with what is real, but which WHEN is real. Perhaps they are all simultaneously real when you strip away the filters of linear time. It is this kind of stuff which makes science fiction write itself.