Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is an amazing book for a lot of reasons, but the thing that has stayed with me, after multiple readings, is this:
He presents the idea that not only are there other universes parallel to our own, but we touch them on a daily basis. The universe is big and our brains are small, but when we imagine something, we simulate the entire universe inside our heads. Say you have a leather suitcase under your desk. It’s touching your shoe, and as you tap your toe, it rocks a little with a rattling clip-clop. In it, there are stacks of green cash pressed into bricks and bound by paper ties. A million dollars.
This isn’t true (probably), but when we close our eyes, we can see the picture. We imagine an entire universe in which it is true, where events have led us to this point. A bank robbery, a bookie, Donald Trump’s accountant. It doesn’t matter. It’s a simulation.
Not so, says Anathem. A brain is too small to fit a universe inside. Instead, when we imagine something, we are not simulating a universe but rather accessing another nearby, one in which the thing imagined has actually come to pass. Our fantasy is their reality, we their What Ifs?. Parallel me, whom I can picture perfectly, is sitting at his desk, writing his confession. Sirens blare outside, a muffled voice stern and unintelligible on a megaphone. He is imagining a situation in which he never stole the money. One in which he is lounging in his office, gibbering on a blog that no one reads, imagining what life would be like if he stole a million dollars. To him, I’m the fantasy.
It’s an idea I can’t shake, and I catch myself worrying if, while clutching a strap on the 33 bus as we cruise up Theatrestraße we should get into an accident, that somehow it has actually happened to a parallel me. A me that’s not me but that’s linked to my universe through the doorway of my brain.
It freaks me out.
In October, Frau, Boo, and I took the IC 2222 to Berlin. Our alarms dragged us from pre-dawn beds, and we shuffled through our morning routine–Frau feeding Boo, me stumbling from room to room as I managed to dress myself. By 7 am, we were on the train, the sky bleeding purple, choo choos chuffing beside empty platforms. The conductor blew his all-aboard whistle, an alarm to wake the train from its slumber too, and we were off, rolling across the Rhineland, through Lower Saxony, jumping the old West-East border without fanfare, the line fading from German maps but not from their hearts. We ate sandwiches and watched the scenery, and six hours later, we rolled into Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
On the train, I thought of mundane things, peeking into universes only a sneeze away. I have two acquaintances in Berlin, and in another plane of existence, I grabbed coffee with each of them. In that universe, I’m more outgoing. I was never taught the lesson of preemptive distrust.
Instead, in this reality, we checked into our hotel, a concrete box with a private entrance, and ranged over Berlin streets, past the Neue Synagoge, over Museumsinsel, down Unter den Linden Boulevard, around the Reichstag with its easter egg top, back and forth across the river Spree, and returned to our room to flop exhausted on the bed as Boo bounced on the futon and climbed mountains made of sofa cushions.
We must have walked fifteen miles, and the next day I could barely move. I’d pulled a muscle in my back.
And lying there on the too-soft mattress, German TV blaring, back burning from the peppery muscle-ache goo that Frau had gotten from the Apotheke, I began to worry–what if other universes were closer than I thought? My pain might ripple through the multiverse. Another me sits an exam for a chemical engineer certification or roots in the dirt after World War III and suddenly pain flares in his back. The Germans call this Hexenschuss–to be shot by a witch–because you don’t know where or why, and it never occurs to you that it might be a sign from the world nextdoor.
My back hurt. The witches had got me, and worse: so had Neal Stephenson. Because what if I wasn’t the cause? What if something had happened to a parallel me, and my back pain was a minor wave of the ripple instead? I could hardly walk. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened.
And then I could:
The apocalypse must have broken out in a parallel Berlin, a hair’s breadth from our own. I got hurt.
And by imagining it, I guaranteed it. A window to another life. I could see it all:
We take the train to Berlin. A family vacation, there are sights to see.
The hotel is called Minilofts, just off Invalid Street. The room is gray, concrete floors and walls, but cozy in its way. We’re five stories up, windows overlooking the street, and terror squeezes my chest whenever Boo goes near them, tragedies from other universes filling my brain.
When we arrive, the room isn’t ready, its old occupant still packing his things. The caretaker suggest that we go for a walk, even drawing dots on a folding map she pulls from a desk drawer. I just want to kick off my shoes, but we acquiesce, pushing Boo’s stroller down Oranienburg Street to where the New Synagogue looms, glazed bricks and terracotta red against a gray sky. The streets teem with international students, cigarette smoke and broken English floating in their wake. Half the city seems under construction.
After two hours, I am tired, and we return the hotel, where the cleaner vacuums our rugs and builds a bed for Boo. The woman is young, Eastern European, an artist, I think, but in neither this nor that universe do I ask what kind of art she makes. She’s pretty, and I’m intimidated.
When she leaves, we collapse to the bed and turn on the TV, but every channel is blaring poorly-dubbed reruns of American sitcoms, and we cannot watch for long. The only thing that holds my interest is the Japanese women’s soccer team playing North Korea. Frau feeds Boo, and we plan the next day.
In this universe and the other, the next morning starts the same. We rise, already sore from our walk the day before. We eat and dress, scanning the map for the sights we want to see. The Parliament Building, called the Reichstag in our universe. Brandenburg Gate. Remnants of the wall. We know nothing of what is happening beyond our hotel, but we climb to the street on the belief that things are as they should be. We are trusting in that way.
In this Berlin, we walked enormous circuits through the city, crisscrossing from monuments to churches to English language book stores, and in the afternoon, I hurt my back.
In the other Berlin, something darker comes.
We start at the Berlin Wall Memorial, no man’s land now a park, acres stretching green, dotted with info booths and dioramas about anti-personnel ordnance that once guarded the border. The space is oddly empty for a Saturday morning, but it’s hardly a surprise. The weather has begun to turn, and it’s getting colder. Gray clouds threaten rain.
We cross Garden Street where the day before the Berlin North train station held dozens of people at all hours waiting to commute.
This morning we find it empty. The electronic board that announces arrival times is dead, a single orange cursor blinking its screen. Trains stand empty, interiors dark, engines silent. Trash litters the tracks–bookbags, briefcases, an empty baby stroller.
“Weird,” I tell my wife.
“Right?” Frau says. Boo has fallen asleep in her stroller.
“Think the train workers are on strike?” I ask her.
“Could be,” she says, and we push on.
Normally Berlin is crowded with people, dense with cafes and shops and schools and restaurants. But today everything is closed. The students are nowhere. Even the skies seem empty, as if the birds all have fled.
We follow Garden Street, through parks of empty play equipment and down side streets, till we reach Hackesch Market, an open square pierced by tram tracks and surrounded by empty shops and stores.
“Is today a German holiday that we didn’t know about?” Frau asks. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“I don’t think it is.”
“Should we go back to the hotel and check the internet?” she asks and bends to check on Boo, who’s still asleep.
“Let’s keep going,” I tell her.
We have no sense of the danger coming, and I can’t ignore a mystery.
In this Berlin, we crossed Hackescher Markt, pushing Boo in her stroller, reaching Berlin’s Museum Island from the east. In the other Berlin, we cross the same space, Hackesch Market, but stop short of the island.
“Do you hear that?” I ask Frau.
“Yeah,” she says. “What do you think it is?”
A low rumble rises over the river Spree, a thousand voices humming together, out of tune.
“Something on the river? A ship?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “It sounds like–I don’t know, like something I’ve never heard before. Like bees in a blender.”
Frau gasps and wordlessly thrusts a finger at the north end of the island, where a train bridge crosses beyond the Pergamon Museum, not 200 yards from where we stand.
We squint at brick arches stretching across the river, our bodies tense with energy we don’t yet know how to spend. It’s fight or flight with nothing to fight and nowhere to flee.
“It’s people,” Frau says.
“You’re right! But–what’s wrong with them?”
More people than I can count, some dressed in wrinkled suits, some in cardigans and shawls, a few wrinkled punks with graying mohawks, they’re all stumbling at a half-run, arms groping before them.
At the front is a man, brown face and black hair shining with sweat. The others are chasing him.
It is obvious he is tired, and as we watch, several hands stretch from the crowd and latch onto the flapping tails of his shirt, and like a crashing wave, the mob envelops him. He fights to the edge of the bridge, a whirlwind of arms and legs, and leaps off, plunging the 25 feet to the river below. A young woman in a flowered dress is wrapped around his waist, tearing at the fabric of his pants, biting him.
Above the moan of the crowd, he shrieks and their bodies splash. They do not resurface.
“Jesus!” I shout.
“What the fuck?” Frau says nearly simultaneously.
In this universe, we stood on the bridge leading to Museuminsel because the main attraction of the Pergamonmuseum is closed.
In the other Berlin, we watch as the horde follows the track across the river towards us. We clutch at each other, crying, momentarily incoherent. Boo begins to stir, woken by our outburst.
“What the hell is going on?” Frau asks, wiping her face. It’s a rhetorical question, but still I answer, shouting, “How should I know?”
She reaches for Boo’s carrying straps, what we call the pack and use sometimes in lieu of the stroller. In less than 10 seconds, Frau is lifting Boo, fitful but asleep, from her seat and strapping her to her chest.
“We can’t stay here,” she says. “Those people–I don’t know what’s wrong with them, but they’ll be here soon. So we shouldn’t be.” She loads her pockets with snacks for Boo and kicks the stroller aside. “They’re north, so we should go south.”
“You’re right,” I answer, and we turn to face the river.
“Wait!” I say before we go ten steps. I am thinking of the man on the bridge. The horde ran him down, and he wasn’t carrying a baby. “We have to hole up somewhere. We don’t know where this started or how far it goes.”
“Where do you suggest?” Frau asks, bouncing to soothe Boo.
I snap my fingers. “The U.S. Embassy!” We’d passed there just the day before. The place was a fortress. “We’re Americans! They have to let us in, and we’ll be safe there. Come on, it’s only 1500 yards from here. It won’t take us ten minutes!”
Ten minutes later, we’ve barely made it halfway.
(End Part One.)