We’ve Been Here Before

BIS Odyssey

Difficult questions on cause and effect. Published by Panther Books 1978. Cover illustration by Peter Gudynas.

We may all get that sense of déjà vu from time to time – the feeling that what we’re experiencing now is something that we have already experienced at some time in the past, but we can’t place it.  Or perhaps it’s something that never happened at all, and it’s entirely in our imagination.

Research has shown that a majority of people have had this sensation at some stage, but it’s usually no more than a feature of memory behaving in a somewhat anomalous fashion, or possibly a method of checking memories.  It’s nothing to worry about unless it becomes too prolonged, in which case it can be a sign of a more serious psychiatric disorder verging on hallucination.

However, in a previous Odyssey post, Getting a Grip on Reality, I talked about the disturbing idea (fortunately solely within the realms of science fiction) that the apparent infinity of alternative futures arising from the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics could also lead to doubts as to the accuracy of what has, or has not, happened in the past.  What you have in your memory right now may not be the final word on what actually did happen.  Déjà vu might then be something entirely more suspicious – it happened all right, but not in your current reality.

Trevor Hoyle’s ‘Q’ series of novels explored such concepts in a decidedly surreal manner.  In his 1977 novel Through the Eye of Time, his Myth Technologist Chris Queghan considers the fact that, in his world, it is probability, not certainty, which determines what we consider to be “reality”.  And he suggests that our common sense view of cause-and-effect, therefore, breaks down.

In the third novel in the series from 1978, The Gods Look Down, Queghan faces a situation where there appears to be evidence of highly advanced technology having existed in Biblical Old Testament times, where it certainly had no right to be according to what we know in our current reality.  But the theory of Myth Technology dictates that “there are any number of alternative pasts, any one of which might or might not exist in space and time.  Because we can only recall a single past doesn’t necessarily deny the probability of an infinity of others.”

So the universe as an objective reality doesn’t exist, which somewhat complicates Queghan’s quest to find out just where the machine in ancient Palestine came from, and who put it there. And if it came from its own future, as might be the most logical answer, which future would that be? Which leads us to question just who determines what happens. A superior intelligence?  Destiny? Fate?

The concept of the inevitability of what Fate has decreed comes out powerfully towards the end of Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Starbuck, chief mate of the nineteenth-century whaling vessel Pequod, questions Captain Ahab’s unswerving, seemingly never-ending quest to kill the great white whale, accusing him of a fanaticism “that’s worse than devil’s madness.”

Ahab declares, in what appears to be his delusional state, that he has never had any choice in the matter: “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.  Fool!  I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.” And so his fatal pursuit of the whale continues, to the destruction of his entire ship.

Should we be concerned about the reliability of our perceptions of the past, and whether we are in the hands of an uncaring Fate? Probably not, but it does no harm to think about it. We might adopt Queghan’s approach, expressed in Through the Eye of Time, that “it isn’t the task of the Myth Technologist to provide the answers; only to ask the questions.” A safe course of action, I think.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Worlds Next Door | Outside the Job Description

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