“Unexpected Outcomes” by Tim Pratt

IZ222 coverThere’s something bold, it seems to me, about using this title for a variation on an sf theme explored so many hundreds of times it’s hard to imagine any outcome being unexpected. I don’t think I’ve read this particular variation before, but I’d be amazed if it’s never been written.

The narrator wakes up to the revelation that his world is a simulation. An avatar of the scientists running the show appears and reveals that their experiment is over. Their ethics committee won’t let them turn the simulation off, but will let them carry out certain “reductions in non-essential services” to cut down on the cost of keeping things running: that is, removing everyone’s need to eat or drink, switching off their fertility, and locking the weather in its current configuration. Everyone will get to live until they die.

As I’ve hinted, there’s a further twist, one which neatly inverts the story’s themes. But this is a piece largely carried by charm, by the undeniable charge it gains from linking the revelation of reality’s nature to 9/11 (the tell-tale sign being that the planes stop dead in mid-air, inches away from hitting the World Trade Center towers; “This is like something out of a movie” is still everyone’s first thought), and by excellent pacing: it is simply very easy, enjoyable, and satisfying to read.

Oh, and by one other thing:

It was the end of the world, sort of, so I decided to take a road trip. My relationship with Heather didn’t even last until the end of September … Our world of possibilities had been beheaded. There was nothing else keeping me in Oakland. I’d lived there for about a month, having relocated when my old contract job ran out and Heather agreed to let me live with her, so I’d hardly put down roots. I’d only been working at my new job as an editorial assistant for a trade publishing magazine for a few weeks, and the few friends I had weren’t close enough to stay for, or else they’d scattered.

I suspect you get a bit more out of the story if you know a bit about the real Tim Pratt, enough to realise that he is the narrator, and that the story starts from his life as it was in 2001: that Heather is Heather Shaw, that they are now married, with the child denied in this story, that the “trade publishing magazine” mentioned is Locus, and so on. You can suspect this from the story (the narrator is called Tim, and used to be a writer), but it’s not made explicit (the narrator’s surname is never mentioned, nor does Pratt’s author biography give away his wife’s name, or his day job, though it does mention where he lives). I don’t think you need to know Pratt is playing with his own life to appreciate the story; but I think that if you do know it grounds things, lends the tale some real emotional weight; which perhaps is enough of an unexpected outcome for variation #647 on a theme.

(According to Pratt, the title comes from a Buckminster Fuller quote: “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” The suggestion, presumably, is that it was chosen for its appropriateness to the literal plot. But what does the author know, eh?)

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