Although quantum mechanics might not be a familiar subject to many, Schrödinger’s Cat has become a pop science icon. The famous feline, both alive and dead at the same time, was even used to describe dating uncertainty in The Big Bang Theory. Robert Anton Wilson, in a trilogy of novels published from 1979 to 1981, expanded on the idea of co-existing, seemingly mutually exclusive possibilities to create a wild, funny and stimulating ride through multiple universes.
Each of the three books is set within its own reality but uses many of the same characters and situations. The narrative does not move in a linear fashion from beginning to end but spirals through simultaneous events. Just as we think the rules have been pinned down, they are suddenly altered. Characters switch gender, role and perspective, often to comic effect. Some of them are aware that they are living in just one possible universe and a few even realise that they are in a novel. Others are entirely enclosed within their own definition of reality.
There is a strongly satirical edge to the book. Wilson critiques religious and scientific fundamentalism as well as taking the more extreme ideas of ‘natural living’ to task. He shows up American racism in all its hypocrisy and uses bawdy humour to demolish prudishness. Drugs and sex are present in all the universes as the prime drivers of many of the characters lives.
Wilson’s authorial voice changes with the narrative. It begins sounding like the voiceover of a documentary series, with humanity as its subject, reminding us early on that we are just primates and not particularly more important than insects. A lewder, cruder voice appears at other points in the books and sometimes this changes in turn to a carefully constructed stream of consciousness.
With its constantly shifting narrative and gleeful trampling on ideas of good taste, the trilogy has some similarities with Burroughs’ Nova Express, which I reviewed earlier in the year. However, whereas Burroughs’ hallucinogenic world was enclosed and doomed, there is an optimism to Wilson’s writing. One Earth may die, but it is possible to escape to another if we allow ourselves to (an idea Douglas Adams seemed keen to explore in the later Hitch-Hiker novels).
The recurring theme of the book seems to be that if we can accept only one reality, only one narrative, we are trapped. Freedom lies in allowing ourselves to see and connect to other possibilities, even if they contradict what we think we know. It’s telling that the wisest characters in the book are those who are content to notice everything.
Inevitably, a book with such a broad range of ideas and characters can be confusing and there are times – especially in the first book – when the situations don’t always engage. For the most part though, the Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy is an excellent read. It gets inside the head and re-wires it to make the world a more interesting place. What more could you ask of Science Fiction?
My next book: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess