An excerpt from FlashForward by Robert J. ì Sawyer.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 12

Day Five: Saturday, April 25, 2009

       "Dr. Simcoe," said Bernard Shaw, "perhaps you can explain to us what happened?"

       "Of course," said Lloyd, making himself comfortable. He was in CERN's teleconferencing room, a camera no bigger than a thimble facing him from atop an emaciated tripod. Shaw, naturally, was at CNN Center in Atlanta. Lloyd had five other similar interviews lined up for later in the day, including one in French. "Most of us have heard the term `spacetime' or `the space-time continuum.' It refers to the combination of the three dimensions of length, width, and height, and the fourth dimension of time."

       Lloyd nodded at a female technician standing off camera, and a still image of a dark-haired white man appeared on the monitor behind him. "That's Hermann Minkowski," said Lloyd. "He's the fellow who first proposed the concept of the space-time continuum." A pause. "It's hard to illustrate the concept of four dimensions directly, but if we simplify it by removing one spatial dimension, it's easy."

       He nodded again and the picture changed.

       "This is a map of Europe. Of course, Europe is three dimensional, but we're all used to using two-dimensional maps. And Hermann Minkowski was born here in Kaunas, in what is now Lithuania, in 1864."

       A light lit up inside Lithuania.

       "There it is. Actually, though, let's pretend that the light isn't the city of Kaunas, but rather Minkowski himself, being born in 1864."

       The legend "A.D. 1864" appeared at the lower-right of the map.

       "If we go back a few years, we can see there's no Minkowski before that point."

       The map date changed to A.D. 1863, then A.D. 1862, then A.D. 1861, and, sure enough, it was Minkowskiless throughout.

       "Now, let's go back to 1864."

       The map obliged, with Minkowski's light glowing brightly at the latitude and longitude of Kaunas.

       "In 1878," said Lloyd, "Minkowski moved to Berlin to go to university."

       The 1864 map fell away as if it were one leaf on a calendar pad; the map beneath was labeled 1865. In rapid succession, other maps dropped off, labeled 1866 through 1877, each with the Minkowski light at or near Kaunas, but when the 1878 one appeared, the light had moved 400 kilometers west to Berlin.

       "Minkowski didn't stay in Berlin," said Lloyd. "In 1881, he transferred to Königsberg, near the modern Polish border."

       Three more maps fell away, and when the one labeled 1881 was exposed, the Minkowski light had relocated again.

       "For the next nineteen years, our Hermann bopped about from university to university, coming back to Königsberg in 1894, then going to Zurich here in Switzerland in 1896, and at last to the University of Göttingen, in central Germany, in 1902."

       The changing maps reflected his movements.

       "And he stayed in Göttingen until his death on January 12, 1909."

       More maps fell away, but the light remained stationary.

       "And, of course, after 1909, he was no more."

       Maps labeled "1910," "1911" and "1912" fell away, but none of them had lights.

       "Now," said Lloyd, "what happens if we take our maps and stack them back up in chronological order, and tip them a bit, so that we view them obliquely?"

       The computer-generated graphics on the screen behind him obligingly did just that.

       "As you can see, the light made by Minkowski's movements forms a trail through time. He starts down here near the bottom in Lithuania, moves about Germany and Switzerland, and finally dies up here in Göttingen."

       The maps were stacked one atop another, forming a cube, and the path of Minkowski's life, weaving through the cube, was visible through it, like a glowing gopher's burrow climbing up toward the top.

       "This kind of cube, which shows someone's life path through spacetime, is called a Minkowski cube: good old Hermann himself was the first to draw such a thing. Of course, you can draw one for anybody. Here's one for me."

       The map changed to show the entire world.

       "I was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1964, moved to Toronto then Harvard for university, worked for years at Fermilab in Illinois, and then ended up here, on the Swiss/French border, at CERN."

       The maps stacked up, forming a cube with a weaving light-path within.

       "And, of course, you can map other people's path onto the same cube."

       Five other light paths, each one a different color, wended their ways up the cube. Some started earlier than Lloyd's, and some ended before the top was reached.

       "The top of the cube, here," said Lloyd, "represents today, April 25, 2009. And, of course, we all agree that today is today. That is, we all remember yesterday, but acknowledge that it has passed; and we all are ignorant of tomorrow. We're all collectively looking at this particular slice through the cube." The cube's top face lit up.

       "You can imagine the collective mind's eye of humanity regarding that slice." A drawing of a human eye, complete with lashes, floated outside the cube, parallel to its top. "But what happened during the Flashforward was this: the mind's eye moved up the cube into the future, and instead of regarding the slice representing 2009, it found itself looking at 2030."

       The cube extended upward into a block, and most of the color-coded life paths continued on up farther into it. The floating eye jumped up, and the highlighted plane was now very near the top of the elongated block. "For two minutes, we were looking in on another point along our life paths."

       Bernard Shaw shifted in his chair. "So you're saying spacetime is like a bunch of motion-picture frames stacked up, and `now' is the currently illuminated frame?"

       "That's a good analogy," said Lloyd. "In fact, it helps me make my next point, which is this: Say you're watching Casablanca, which happens to be my favorite movie. And say this particular moment is what's on screen right now."

       Behind Lloyd, Humphrey Bogart was saying, "You played it for her, you can play if for me. If she can stand it, I can stand it."

       Dooley Wilson didn't meet Bogey's eyes. "I don't remember the words."

       Bogart, through clenched teeth: "Play it!"

       Wilson turned his gaze up at the ceiling and began to sing "As Time Goes By" while his fingers danced on the piano keys.

       "Now," said Lloyd, sitting in front of the screen, "just because this frame is the one you're currently looking at" — as he said "this," the image froze on Dooley Wilson — "it doesn't mean that this other part is any less fixed or real."

       Suddenly the image changed. A plane was disappearing into the fog. A dapper Claude Rains looked at Bogart. "It might be a good idea for you to disappear from Casablanca for a while," he said. "There's a Free French garrison over at Brazzaville. I could be induced to arrange a passage."

       Bogey smiled a bit. "My letter of transit? I could use a trip. But it doesn't make any difference about our bet. You still owe me ten thousand francs."

       Rains raised his eyebrows. "And that ten thousand francs should pay our expenses."

       "Our expenses?" said Bogart, surprised.

       Rains nodded. "Uh-huh."

       Lloyd watched their backs as they walked off together into the night. "Louis," says Bogart — in a voiceover Lloyd knew had been recorded in post-production — "this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

       "You see?" said Lloyd, turning back to look at the camera, at Shaw. "You might have been watching Sam play `As Time Goes By' for Rick, but the ending is already fixed. The first time you see Casablanca, you're on the edge of your seat wondering if Ilsa is going to go with Victor Laszlo or stay with Rick Blaine. But the answer always was, and always will be, the same: the problems of two little people really don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

       "You're saying the future is as immutable as the past?" said Shaw, looking more dubious than he usually did.


       "But, Dr. Simcoe, with all due respect, that doesn't seem to make sense. I mean, what about free will?"

       Lloyd folded his arms in front of his chest. "There's no such thing as free will."

       "Of course there is," said Shaw.

       Lloyd smiled. "I knew you were going to say that. Or, more precisely, anyone looking at our Minkowski cubes from outside knew you were going to say that — because it was already written in stone."

       "But how can that be? We make a million decisions a day; each of them shapes our future."

       "You made a million decisions yesterday, but they are immutable — there's no way to change them, no matter how much we might regret some of them. And you'll make a million decisions tomorrow. There's no difference. You think you have free will, but you don't."

       "So, let me see if I understand you, Dr. Simcoe. You're contending that the visions aren't of just one possible future. Rather, they are of the future — the only one that exists."

       "Absolutely. We really do live in a Minkowski block universe, and the concept of `now' really is an illusion. The future, the present, and the past are each just as real and just as immutable."

An excerpt from FlashForward by Robert J. Sawyer.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All Rights Reserved.