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Friday, July 22, 2022

How Would You Replay Your Life?

Replay, Ken Grimwood's 1986 novel, keeps crossing my mind even a couple of decades after I first read it in the early 2000s. The premise is simple but utterly fascinating in its possibilities and limitations: Journalist Jeff Winston dies of a heart attack at age 42 in 1988, but awakens with all his memories back in his 18-year-old body while starting university in 1963. He lives his life with the tremendous advantage of his experiences and knowledge of the next 25 years to come, but no matter what, he dies at age 42 and starts the cycle all over again, with each "replay" growing slightly shorter. 

Winston occupies his replays in various ways. He finds a different love, he gets rich, he goes public with his knowledge of the future and winds up in the custody of the US government, all the while trying to understand why he's in this predicament and what it all means. 

A Replay with a Difference
I think anyone who reads this book has wondered what they would do in Jeff's situation. I've played out the scenario several different ways, but lately my hypothetical goal has changed, as have my parameters for my replay cycle. 

Imagine if whatever force of nature or diving being was behind the replays wasn't getting what it desired out of the cycles. Perhaps it was missing something fundamental. So he/she/it decides, or evolves, a different replay methodology. 

After my first death, I get a choice. Instinctively, I know that I'm going to be reborn in my own body at a younger age, but I have a fraction of time to choose the exact date. 

I choose April 5, 1976, the day after my brother Sean is born. I choose this death for two reasons: First, because my knowledge of the future and my inability to remember precisely what I was doing when I was seven years old mean that I might do or say something before my brother's birth that might affect his conception, delaying it or advancing it by the few crucial hours or days that would mean I'd likely wind up with an entirely different younger sibling. Second, because in a sudden explosion of near-death hubris, I decide I want to use my replay to save the world from climate change - and having the knowledge and experience of a, say, 60- to 80-year old man housed in the body of a seven year old would be startling enough to attract the attention of adults with enough influence to potentially do something about my warnings of future catastrophe. 

In this scenario, the later I die the first time, the better, because I can describe the worst effects of climate change to the people of the 1970s. But even if I died now (um, please no), I think I still have enough knowledge to convince the powers-that-be that the time to act is their "now." 

Strategy: Minimize Harm to My Circles, Maximize Chances to Halt Climate Change
My first concern would be to avoid traumatizing my parents, my new little brother, my friends and teachers at school, and my extended family, at least to the extent possible. I'm not a good enough actor to play myself at seven years old, but I might be able hide the sudden disappearance of the child that I was by growing even more introverted and thoughtful than I was. 

I'd do my best to act like the kid I remembered being in Leaf Rapids: I'd toboggan in the winter, play with action figures, read voraciously, play cops and robbers, watch Star Trek on CBC, one of two English television channels we had up there. But I'd also be spending (even more) time at the library. And I'd be writing letters. 

The First Outreach
First, I'd try Dr. Carl Sagan. Going strictly my memory, I believe that in 1976 he'd probably be working on either the Viking (or was it Mariner?) Mars lander and the Voyager 1 and 2 probes. My first letter might go something like this: 

"Dear Dr. Sagan, 

"My name is Earl J. Woods. I'm a great admirer of your work and your writing. As a scientist, you know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I have an extraordinary story to tell you, and I'm hoping we can talk about it. But first, I have to provide you with some extraordinary evidence, evidence that might take some months or years to come to light. 

"Sometime in 1980, you will write and star in a television series called Cosmos, based on your book of the same name. The show will air on PBS, and in it you'll tie human history and civilization to astronomy, astrophysics, and the great forces of nature that shape our evolution and possibly our destiny. The show will feature music by Vangelis; the first episode will be named "Heaven and Hell," which is also the name of one of the pieces of music by Vangelis composed for the show. The show will be hailed as a major work of education, and you'll become famous for your intonation of "billions and billions." (I don't remember if you actually said/will say this in the show, but it becomes an enduring meme.) 

"Voyager 1 and 2 will not only meet but greatly exceed their mission parameters. Or was it the Pioneer probes you worked/will work on? I don't remember the specifics, but rest assured Pioneer was also a great success.

"In the election of 1980, Ronald Reagan will defeat Jimmy Carter. The Iran Hostage Crisis will end shortly before or after Reagan's inauguration. There will be an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1980 or 1981; the would-be assassin will be John Hinkley, who had an unhealthy obsession with Jodie Foster, the young actress from Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver.

"Star Wars by George Lucas will be the highest-grossing film of all time in the summer of 1977, though Gone with the Wind will remain the true champion when adjusted for inflation.

"Director Alfred Hitchcock will die in 1980.

"A few years after writing Cosmos, you'll write Comet with your partner Ann Druyan.

"In 1983, the Soviets will shoot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 over, I believe, the Kamchatka peninsula. This action will precipitate a massive diplomatic crisis and is seen as one of the most dangerous events of the Cold War." 

"Conservative Joe Clark will become Prime Minister of Canada for a few months in 1979-1980, leading a minority government. His government will lose a vote of confidence and Pierre Trudeau will return from 'a walk in the snow' and lead the Liberals back to power in 1980.

"Dr. Sagan, by now you will think that I'm some kind of madman, or perhaps a stalker who's somehow discovered things you thought private, like your future plans. I'm hoping that my writing this letter will not cause the events I remember to unfold differently. My only hope of your belief is that at least a few of the events I've predicted come true.

"I'm writing to you because I want to share some very important future events with you. I believe you're one of a small percentage of people in the world who understand the existential threats our civilization faces. Currently I believe you're most concerned about nuclear weapons. Take some solace in knowing that in my experience, they have never been used as weapons of war since 1945. 

"The threat humanity faces is global warming caused by burning of fossil fuels. By 2022, scientists expect that the world could warm up by another 2.5 degrees Celsius or even higher by the year 2050. In my future, the impacts of climate change are already being felt in the form of more intense and more frequent natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, drought, and so on. The world's glaciers are rapidly melting, and government and industry have failed to take the actions necessary to prevent the worst from happening.

"I am not a scientist. I'm just a reasonably well-read layman. If I can prove my knowledge of future events to you and other influential people, there's a chance that my warnings about climate change could cause human beings to act more decisively and far earlier than they have in my time, which by now you'll have surmised is the early 21st century. 

"If and when you meet me, you'll probably be shocked by my appearance. But that's a problem for another time. For now, I can only hope that you'll be curious enough to reach out and perhaps conduct some scientific tests to determine if I'm telling the truth or if I'm just another crafty faker.

"I'll continue to try and remember events of the late 1970s before they happen in an effort to convince you faster. I'll write more letters as I gather my thoughts; this experience is still very new to me, and very difficult to navigate. 

"I've enclosed my phone number and mailing address just in case you threw away the envelope. How I wish I had e-mail or a cell phone to text you, but those things won't be invented for decades. Would you believe there's more computing power in my phone than there is in your most sophisticated equipment of today - probably by a factor of thousands? I'll tell you about it sometime. 

"I hope to hear from you. Thank you for showing how science is a candle in the dark. You were and are an inspiration. 


Earl J. Woods" 

Backup Plans
If Sagan failed to respond, I'd probably start writing similar letters to science fiction writers and the campaigns of national US and Canadian politicians. George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry might be good bets; I know enough about the production history of their creative efforts to boggle them. They don't have the benefit of 50 years of behind-the-scenes books and documentaries. 

Securing My Own Future
Somehow, I'd convince our family doctor to check my parents regularly for specific health issues I know they'll develop later in life. I'll be nicer to my brother and more forgiving and less clueless with people my age. I'd be tempted to direct my parents to invest a little money in sure stock hits, but boy, would I be wary lest I create enough of a butterfly effect to change the course of the future and make my predictions less and less accurate and therefore less convincing to the people in charge. 

I'd certainly avoid getting addicted to Coke, and I'd work harder in university. I'd pursue writing jobs more aggressively and start that career earlier, given my decades of subjective experience. I'd stay in shape; keeping weight off is a heck of a lot easier if you don't get fat in the first place. 

Success or Failure?
Even if my warnings were heeded, would industry and governments take action that was bold enough and early enough to save civilization? I have no idea now, and I'd have no idea as I aged from seven up. I might get an inkling by the 2020s; if things aren't as bad in that decade the second or third or fourth time around, I'd know my strategy was paying off. Maybe, as in the book, I'd survive my destined death once civilization was safe, and maybe I'd get enough extra years of life to enjoy the fruits of my efforts. 

It's a nice fantasy. How terrible that I need it. 


Sean Woods said...

I think about this sometimes, though with far less selfless intention. At the end of the day I don't think I'd change anything (aside from catching/preventing cancer and heart disease in loved ones earlier) because of the friends I made along the way. I'd hate to lose anyone (that is, not meet them) due to an unforseen some butterfly effect.

Sean Woods said...

Well, I also wouldn't stop working out after I hit 30. Ha ha.

Jeff Shyluk said...

This is an extremely Earl-centric ideal in this iteration. What I can't get my mind around is what happens to the rest of us? There are several outcomes, and to me they seem murky.

Boiled down to its essential state, it's Earl Woods Saves The World, which is fine by me: it can use saving. I trust Earl to do it.

But then what?

A) Earl Saves The World and then kakks. So we get a saved world, but those of us who needed Earl to help us level up in our own lives would be left out. That, and we'd have no idea what saved us. We'd just make this massive yet unearned jump to the next level of civilization. Explain that to the Metrons, once we get there.
B) Earl Fails To Save The World and then kakks. So Earl gets a do-over. But what happens to us?
B.1) We all have to reset every time Earl resets? If that's the case, what's stopping us from just kakking Earl to get our way? For example, if Earl is seven at terminus, I think I am around eight. At eight, I remember losing an epic battle at marbles, including having to part with an especially prized tiger-eye. So, you're saying if I beg my parents to go to Leaf Rapids and while there I dump Earl down a storm drain, I get my tiger eye back? Addendum: if Earl gets to make changes, can we make changes as well? Maybe at seven I will take up smoking, knowing that killing Earl will reset my Sin-O-Meter. Or maybe I will save the Earth first. Let's say I save the Earth, and that causes an automatic fail state for Earl, so he has to die. All of my work would be lost.
B.2) We don't reset when Earl resets. Earl kakks, and we all ride the Thelma and Louise car over the existential cliff anyway, it just takes several decades more. Presumably Earl restarts in some sort of parallel universe where he gets to try again, all the while we muddle through to our own end of days. If he fails, that universe goes down the drain as well. Rinse, repeat.
C) Earl fails to save the world and kakks. Well, that's very not good.
D) Earl saves the world and never kakks. We're pretty much going to have to worship Earl as our eternal saviour. I, for one, look forward to service under our new God Earlmperor, although I will never love the Early Sacrament Of The Peanut In The Ear.

PKD has covered a lot of this ground in his stories, quel suprise. He goes into some detail in his Exegesis, but that's far too big to tackle in this small bloggy space. I guess to boil that down: be happy with what you have, and that the true nature of the Universe remains unfathomable is probably a good thing.

Jeff Shyluk said...

Put another way, the idea of being able to call in a cosmic do-over, either intentionally or not, but always on a personal level, is pernicious, and at some level we all know that. It seems altruistic and charitable, but it is not. It is a selfish and self-serving attempt to escape our own decisions and the pain they carry. I feel that criticizing a cosmic-do over is also selfish and self-serving, and that it's almost impossible to do so without casting harmful blame. "It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history!"

For that matter, there isn't any concrete evidence that we absolutely will never get a cosmic do-over. The Buddhists among others believe in re-incarnation as well as the regenerative state of the universe. When we break the barrier of the speed of light, we will achieve trans-relativistic power, or so science tells us. Go fast enough, and the Earth will spin backwards, if only in our perspective from the spaceship. We may all even get the biggest do-over of them all at the very end of the Universe in 3.5 trillion years, when matter reaches its stretching point and rebounds with a snap into its singularity form. The entirety of everything gets to go back to square one - a superdeterministic Universe. Or Multiverse. We circle back to religion: Calvinism.

John Calvin points out that as far as Man has free will, that will is inclined towards sin, or transgression against God. God's domain, therefore, is completely pre-determined, and there are no random events - every constituent that belongs to God, right down to the last subatomic particle, is accounted for. Grace is achieved through God's will alone, and we have no reckoning on how that works, although to avoid total existential grief Calvin did suggest that faith can help.

From a purely secular view, there are still two important points you can take from this. The first is that everybody everywhere all through time feels this anguish. Going back in time would simply reveal another facet, rather than resolve any future issue. The second is that the Universe knows what it is doing. We cannot be the beneficiary of its munificence all of the time, but we do at least have some finite awareness of it. The Buddhists consider the astounding architecture of the dragonfly's wing, how it has been formed not only for its most efficient function of flight yet also achieves its highest standard of physical beauty, but acknowledge that the Universe cannot move on until the dragonfly dies and the wing decays back into where it came from, falling into pieces that in turn fall into pieces that are digested or subsumed by the necessary underthings.

"Lastly... Do not punish yourself for your feelings of vanity. Simply learn to control them. It is an affliction common to all, even on Krypton. Our destruction could have been avoided had it not been for the vanity of some who considered us indestructible. Were it not for vanity, why... at this very moment... I could embrace you in my arms. My son."