“All is for the best in the best of possible worlds”
The world is one of many. It is but one, in fact, in an infinite set of possible worlds. Each world in the infinite set of possible worlds is composed only of an infinite set of propositions; call them p, q, r,etc. Each proposition can be either true or false at a world but its truth value can change from world to world. Every possibility is represented therein. Picture, for example, a hall of mirrors of the kind that reflects an image interminably in time and space. Only in this hall of mirrors, which we may call the universe, each image is identical to the last save for one altered proposition. One image may be of a simple mahogany table. Another, of the same table, only in cedar. The next, the same table with only three legs. And so on. These images are the different worlds in our universe. Every world is real although we may only ever see one.
Dr. Cornelius Khan, PhD, B.S, D.E.S, M.D, was present at the moment of conception of the theory, called by some a philosophical movement or a paradigm, and known as Strict Modal Realism. Of course, Khan was young at the time SMR was discovered (or invented, depending on whether one asks Dr. Melville Marks, PhD, M.D, B.A, M.B.A, and most surprisingly M.F.A, or Prof. Heinrich Schultz, whose various titles are so numerous and well-known they need not be enumerated). So Cornelius Khan, then a first year college student at the Stockholms Universitet, disoriented by the sinusoidal, labyrinthine corridors and minimalist Swedish signage, happily walked into the room where the tenured Dr. Marks and the senior Prof. Schultz verged upon what has been called by one bombastic commentator “the most important discovery [invention] of the twentyfirst [sic] century”. Khan studied logic under Schultz’s tutelage the remainder of his undergraduate years, and after a brief tour of France and Spain and an even briefer residence in Munich, returned to Stockholm to work in Schultz’s department. Khan would, however, never forget the wind that sifted through the trees of Munich’s Englischer Garten nor the distinct charm of Bavarian women offering him beer by the banks of the manmade streams.
Once back in Stockholm, Khan and Schultz, the latter of which was often called “the Shark” by his students (presumably in admiration), became increasingly engaged in esoteric experiments, the nature of which were unknown to even the most influential of the Universitet. Meanwhile, the more debonair and charming Melville Marks began publishing a series of books in which he attempted to make clear the tenets of his theory to a lay audience, and these books were translated into twenty languages including, quite strangely, Latin and came to comprise the canon of Strict Modal Realist literature. A year after Khan returned, Marks left Stockholm for a book tour that included stops in Tanzania, New Guinea, a Caribbean cruise ship, and a small football stadium in England, but only after organizing an extravagant farewell celebration at which neither Khan nor Schultz was present. It is unclear why the theory reached the astronomical popularity that it did under the reins of Marks. Perhaps because the public, since time immemorial, has been mesmerized by the hope of a world beyond our own.
In the following years, Khan and Schultz grew both closer together and more reclusive as rumors began to circulate that they were on the verge a creating a machine, a so-called vehicle, that could transport a human from this world to another in the multiplicity of possible worlds. Of the possible romantic nature of the relationship between Khan and the older, decrepit Schultz, I will say nothing. By this time, Dr. Marks had begun to distance himself from the now-global school of Strict Modal Realists in order to pursue, among other things, his truest passion: ornithology. Naturally, with the departure of its handsome and endlessly alluring leader, the cult of SMR began to undergo a gradual but irreversible decline. He offered no comment on the doings of Khan and Schultz, who likely never forgave Marks for his mutiny. This mysterious complicity continued until Heinrich Schultz, worn with age and every day slightly less sane, disappeared. He was presumed dead although his body was never found. Almost simultaneously to Schultz’s disappearance, at quite an alarming rate, Khan closed down the laboratory and relocated, quite surprisingly, to Argentina, where he purchased a property of four hundred hectares in the outskirts of San Carlos de Bariloche.
Worlds can be characterized by accessibility relations. A world w is accessible from another world w1if a change in w’s properties can result in w1. Some worlds are inaccessible from others. A series of worlds can be organized chronologically to represent time. So time is merely a string of possible worlds, particularly, the sequence of worlds that one experiences in one’s surrounding. However, all moments of time, all possible worlds must exist at once and permanently. “Time’s winged carriage hurries near” (Belnap, 1994). This is what some might call eternity. Of course, eternity is an illusion and so is time. All that exist are strings of worlds that transform into others.
Included in Khan’s unexpected land purchase in Argentina was a small island known as Isla Huemul just off the coast of the mainland in Lake Nahuel Huapi. Huemul had been, in the 1950s, the site of an eponymous project led by Austrian ex-Nazi physicist Ronald Richter, the goal of which was to develop nuclear fusion, and although Richter claimed to have succeeded, he was unable to ever replicate his results. Almost a century later, Cornelius Khan, freshly arrived on Argentinian soil and familiar with the above story, inspected the remains of the compound built by Richter on Huemul, and despite its being quite perfectly preserved (unnaturally so, in fact, as fifty years of abandonment is normally long enough for Nature to reclaim her property), Khan ordered the structure to be entirely demolished, and in its place, began a construction that almost single-handedly stimulated the southern Argentinian economy out of a recession. The construction lasted for the better part of five years and involved the importation of exotic materials from diverse countries but then stopped quite suddenly when Khan declared the project completed. The workers were asked to sign contracts forbidding them from discussing the work they had done, and with the end of the commotion and industry that had gone on on the island in previous years, the nearby towns and their residents returned to their quiet provincial lifestyles.
The compound as it exists today is an enormous modern state-of-the-art facility. Its official purpose, of course, remains undisclosed, and in keeping with the secrecy surrounding the project, the building is rather inconspicuous from the outside. Its walls are made of indiscriminate white stone, providing a thickness that makes it seem impermeable, a white monolith emerging from an otherwise rocky and uneven island (the compound covers nearly the entirety of the island’s surface). It is assumed by many of the villagers to be some sort of power plant, inspired undoubtedly by rumors of the Austrian Richter’s previous residency, and most are quite satisfied with this explanation. The townspeople are ignorant, however, of the compound’s interior, which resembles not at all a power plant or a factory, but rather uncannily, with every detail matched to a disquieting degree of exactitude, the baroque lobby of the Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski Hotel in Munich. Cornelius Khan was never known for having good taste in interior design, nor in fashion, as he was often spotted by townspeople on the mainland wearing a purple bishop’s robe and an old Spanish straw hat.
Take a moment to attempt to properly imagine an infinitude of possible worlds. There is a world somewhere that contains the proposition: “This world was created by God.” It is not this one. But such a world exists, and with it, so does an unending string of worlds accessible from it. (Keep in mind, please that this revelation in no way constitutes a triumph for believers, as there also exists a world containing the proposition: “This world was created by Lucifer.” In fact, there exist an infinitude of worlds containing each proposition). It is difficult to properly conceive of an infinitude. There exists a world that is identical to our own save that dogs have three legs. There exists another world that is identical to our own save that Germany won the Second World War. In fact, there exists a world identical to our own save that I never wrote this paper, another in which I never wrote the following sentence, another in which I never wrote the following word, letter, and so on. Such is the case with any other event or endeavor imaginable ad infinitum. Any conceivable accumulation of propositions constitutes a possible world. Go on: discover some worlds yourself.
In the following years, the number of visitors to the Isla Huemul was increasingly scant, so the arrival of a man in a tailored silk suit and chauffeured in an elegant black Rolls-Royce was seen as a shock to many of the townspeople. This visitor was none other than the largely forgotten Dr. Melville Marks.
Marks had made the long trip from New York, USA to southern Argentina following a brief but not insubstantial correspondence with his former colleague, a correspondence which Khan insisted ought to be carried out in paper with invisible ink so as to preserve the secrecy of the matters discussed. The content of their letters is mostly irrelevant to our narrative, apart from the admittance that Marks’s interest in bird-watching was nothing more than a cover for a long but ultimately futile pursuit of a woman, a former student in Sweden. The opening of one of his letters reads as follows: “Old friend, I have sacrificed not only a good part of the unredeemable time left for me on this earth, but also the remainder of what once seemed a truly promising academic career, and all for this rotten, bitter [illegible, due to invisible ink]”. Caught somewhere between pity and compassion, Cornelius Khan extended Marks an invitation to visit his facility in Argentina which, Khan said, represented the absolute zenith of their joint intellectual achievements. Naturally, Marks understood this to mean that the widespread rumors were true, that Khan had indeed finally succeeded in creating a vehicle to another world in the multiplicity of possible worlds.
Upon disembarking on the shores of Isla Huemul, beholding the massive white stone of the compound, Marks was greeted with the utmost enthusiasm by a Cornelius Khan in full regalia.
“What a pleasure it is to see you again, Melville! I began to think the day would never come,” said Khan with open arms, wisps of his grey curls blowing in the wind. Marks was struck by the way Khan had aged, but had trained himself over the years to betray no surprise in his expression. Marks followed Khan along a narrow dirt path surrounded by pines on either side to the entrance of the compound. Two towering gates crafted almost entirely of unmistakably pure ivory were before them, and Khan placed his hand on the white stone as if in a gesture of worship. The gates, imbued with some electrical apparatus, read his fingerprints, and approving of his identity, opened slowly, glacially even, to reveal the extravagant German baroque lobby, which Khan and Marks proceeded to enter.
“What do you think, Marks? It’s modeled after the lobby of the grand hotel in Munich, and modeled quite faithfully if I may say so myself!”
“It’s quite something. Very tasteful indeed,” Marks’s enthusiasm was feigned well enough that Khan failed to notice its falsity, nor did he notice the expression of near-horror on Marks’s visage.
“Follow me to my office. We can begin to discuss things there.”
Objects and individuals in our own world can have counterparts in other possible worlds. That is, objects and individuals in other worlds may seem identical to those in our own, but by virtue of their being in another world, are different entities in themselves. Therefore, there is an individual identical to you, dear reader, in another world, but that individual, logically, cannot be you. If one were, hypothetically, able to visit one of these possible worlds, one would possibly encounter his own clone. True, our world-traveler would be leaving behind his family and friends in our actual world, but let us not forget that there already exist an infinite amount of worlds in which (for various reasons) he has already abandoned his family and friends. And our actions in a given world are then quite meaningless, given that all possibilities are already accounted for. One must consider the liberating nature of this revelation. Everything is permissible, everything is possible exactly because everything has already been permitted somewhere, and everything has already happened.
Khan’s office was another curiosity. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were paneled in dark mahogany. A single window of thick glass above Khan’s immovable desk (also mahogany) was tinted in dark blue, flooding the entire room with a dank, submarine light. Beside his desk stood a Victorian globe rotating freely on a gimbal. On the walls, various landscape paintings from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, a television screen, off, embedded in the wood paneling, and the taxedermized head of a buck with an expression of complete agony.
“I hope your trip was comfortable.”
“Quite comfortable. Thank you.”
“You haven’t aged a day, Mel. You look fantastic. How long has it been?”
“Twenty years? Perhaps more.”
“Yes, more. Not since Stockholm. Not since the disappearance of our colleague.” Marks had been cautious not to speak of the case of Heinrich Schultz, but when it was mentioned, was not able to resist the curiosity. The day he heard the news of Schultz’s disappearance, Marks was in the penthouse suite of an outmoded hotel in Biarritz in which room were found after his departure: two empty bottles of bourbon, a velvet pillow, punctured and eviscerated, a pair of women’s undergarments, and stains on the wooden desk, from what can only have been water or tears. Marks knew that Schultz was not dead, but rather had only departed this world.
“Will you permit me to ask, Cornelius, exactly what it is you have so magnificently built here?”
“Why, I expect you already know the answer to your own question. I expect that the answer to your question is precisely the reason you have traveled half way around the world to visit an estranged former student in his very secluded new home.”
“Yes. And what have you decided to call it?”
“Well, the latest model, and I should say, quite presumably the final model, the one that you will see shortly, I have christened ‘The Conveyance’.”
“‘The Conveyance’. Yes. A fitting name. A beautiful name indeed. And I imagine it has been used before?”
“Dear Melville, do you really suppose I consider you, the oldest of friends, a test subject? Of course it has been used before and successfully every time. I would not think to offer you my service if I were not assured of its absolute safety.”
“How does one tell if the conveyance has been successful? How does one know whether the subject has properly been conveyed to the desired world?”
“There is no way to know certainly that the conveyance has succeeded in the same way that one cannot know certainly that the sun will rise tomorrow. The old problem of induction. But I assure you all of the calculations have been made with the utmost care and meticulousness. You should know. I have drawn quite extensively from your own work. Particularly your On the Nature and Ontology of Possible Worlds and the I think gravely underappreciated Strict Modal Realism as a Natural Science.”
“Please do not speak of my work. Those titles, Cornelius, those books were written solely for one person, and since she left me, I regret to say, I have known that I am finished with this world.”
“Then you were quite right to write me, old friend.”
Cornelius Khan stood from his desk and slid open a door that was previously unseen, not so much hidden as simply camouflaged seamlessly into the wooden paneling behind him. The taller Melville Marks was required to bend down aggressively to fit through the doorway and then saw before him another room unlike any he had seen previously, a phenomenon he had come to expect in walking through Khan’s facility.
“This here is the antechamber. Here on this console one sets one’s parameters. One programs the Conveyance, so to speak.”
The antechamber was lit solely in neon light, mostly red, though certain panels were illumined in a ghostly blue. The light, made of liquid curved in long plastic tubes, flickered at times, giving the inhabitants the awareness that the room was positively electrified. The console was a large, imposing thing, occupying approximately ten meters horizontally. It rested against the wall. Above it, a glass pane, which was at this moment darkened to opacity, when transparent gave view to the larger room that housed the Conveyance itself.
“What you must do now is simple. Type into the console the propositions specific to the world you desire. The computer will locate the nearest, that is, the most similar world to our own that contains the desired propositions and that world will be your destination.” Thus spoke Cornelius Khan while pulling various levers and turning manifold dials on the console. On the screen before them appeared the text “p = _____” and a cursor flashed. Melville Marks hesitated briefly.
“I can give you some privacy, Mel, if you please. Of course, it is not my business where you choose to travel.” But without saying a word, Marks typed in the designated line so that it read “p = I, Melville Marks, am in heaven”. With this, the previous jocularity descended into a solemnness; the two were silent, perhaps both moved by the honesty and utter desperation of Marks’s singular wish. His desire was beautifully simple. All intellectual musing, all sublime acts of reason always ending in the most animalistic and base of responses: fear of death (or was it rather want of eternal life?) The naiveté of his wish was mutually acknowledged, but seemed not at all to diminish its simple power.
Khan pressed a large circular button, before which he lifted three safety switches, and the Conveyance began to receive power. A low-frequency electrical sound emanated from within as if some massive magnet rotated. The sound dopplered down in pitch periodically. Cornelius Khan and Melville Marks walked into the final room.
The Conveyance itself was a rather small thing, which shocked Marks on the basis of everything else he had seen. It was a chamber about the size of a bed and plastic tubes rose from its cover, some connecting to the ceiling, others to immense tanks of various gasses that lined the circular perimeter of the room, at the epicenter of which was the Conveyance.
“You may lay here my friend.” Khan motioned toward the Conveyance while prancing around the room, turning knobs, dials, pulling levers, consulting gauges, undoing latches. Marks climbed into the machine as if into a coffin and lay his head on the cushion provided. Khan began to lower the canopy, sealing Marks within. Gasses flowed in the chamber through the serpentine tubes of neon in magenta, cyan, vermillion.
“Goodbye old friend! I imagine you are in for quite a ride!”
The possibility of world-to-world travel becomes more likely with every day that passes. A student and colleague of mine has, in recent times, begun conducting experiments in particle accelerators and other quantum-mechanical instruments to this very end (Khan, 2033). It appears however, that he has come to a quite inevitable and sobering physical realization: once an individual travels to a possible world, it is impossible for him to ever travel back.
All was silent and still in the Baroque lobby of the facility (“El Templo” as it was often called by locals) when Cornelius Khan walked in, still giddy from the recent conveyance, removed two glasses from a cupboard and poured in a translucent golden liquid which he sipped. From the far corner of the room emerged a darkened figure, hunched and cloaked, in a wheelchair-like contraption. The bald, fetal-looking creature was Heinrich Schultz. Khan genuflected.
“Your will is done, Professor!”
“Yes. Good. And what was his final wish?”
“To be in heaven.”
“Wonderful. Ironic. Well, there can be no better way to die than thinking one will live forever. Is that not the business we are in?”
“It’s beautiful really, the symmetry. All that remains of him is a husk.”
“Beautiful, the symmetry,” Schultz repeated.
In the small bay of the Isla Huemul, resting on the time-smoothed submarine rock, fathoms below the surface, in the impossibly dark and dense ever-moving current, Melville Marks’s corpse sleeps silently in a plastic bag, around which fish simply hold against the tide. A final breath materializes from his unwholesome lungs, and rises through the tiered ocean, stopping at the surface, then becoming one with the sea air, rising yet into the deeper unknown of the thinning atmosphere of our world, and no possible other.