Flat and Infinite
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2002

At 52 years of age, Ralph P. Sidewinder was a short, thin, slouching man. He combed his wispy grey hair from the left side of his head all the way over the top, to cover his bald spot. He wore thick glasses with square black frames. The lenses made his eyes look tiny. Thirty years of tabulating statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau had obliterated his native intelligence and curiousity.

During his morning coffee break, he skimmed a short article in the newspaper. The article announced that scientists had proven the universe was infinite and flat. The article said, in effect, that the universe stretched out like an endless tabletop, with stars and galaxies unfolding forever in all directions. Sidewinder had been an astronomy buff in his youth. Many nights he had gazed at the stars through his portable telescope, wondering about the vast regions of space that hid behind the thin visible layer. However, his interest in space had been buried under years of mundane activity.

Had he managed to retain some of his curiousity he might have been astonished by the claims in the newspaper article, for they were very astonishing indeed. If the universe had been curved it could have been curved in many different ways, like a glove or a raisin. To say that the universe was flat was to suggest, among other things, that the place looked more or less the same everywhere. The sculpting hand of chance had the same raw material, so to speak, no matter where in the universe it set to work. To say that the universe was flat and infinite together was to grant an ironclad certainty to every possible event, no matter how implausible it might seem at first. This was a basic law of probability. Put another way, an infinite string of random letters and punctuation would contain all the books ever written in that alphabet, every variant of every book, each separated from each by enormous strings of gibberish.

Sidewinder neatly folded the newspaper and put it back on the coffee table. Walking back towards his desk his attention was briefly diverted by some commotion out in the hallway. A homeless person had wandered in from the street and the secretary in the front office was in the process of evicting him from the premises. Moments later the bum was out the door and on his way. Quiet returned to the office as Sidewinder sat back down at his desk.

Among all the planets in the flat infinite universe, there were infinitely many just like the Earth. Infinitely many of these Earth-copies had versions of Ralph P. Sidewinder. On some of these worlds, the man called Sidewinder was slightly shorter or taller, wore thicker or thinner glasses, had a few more or a few less hairs combed over his bald spot. On other worlds, Sidewinder matched his Earth-counterpart item for item, molecule for molecule, thought for thought. On one of the copies-let us call it Earth2-the man known as Ralph P. Sidewinder-let us call him Sidewinder2-did not return to his desk after hearing the commotion out in the hall. Sidewinder and Sidewinder2 had been outwardly identical until that point, but just then the imperceptible differences, which had accumulated over 52 years, became visible.

Sidewinder had seen a documentary on the homeless eight years previously. Before turning off the television set and falling asleep he had thought briefly to himself that something should really be done to help these people. Sidewinder2 had seen the same documentary, and had thought the same fleeting thought before falling asleep. In Sidewinder2 the thought had registered with slightly more force. The documentary had made no lasting effect on Sidewinder, but had planted a seed of discontent in Sidewinder2. The seed grew year by year, beneath his awareness, slowly undermining his complacency.

Sidewinder2 threw his coffee cup down to the floor. He bolted out of his office and into the hallway. ``Goddam it,'' he shouted, ``why not give that poor jerk a break? Why not find out what he needs before shoving him back out on the street.'' Unexpectedly, he trembled with rage. Sidewinder2 looked back into into his dismal office. He saw the puddle of coffee on the cheap linoleum floor, saw his styrofoam cup floating in the puddle. In his mind's eye he saw himself standing in the middle of the wasteland that was his life. ``To hell with it,'' he said, ``I quit!'' Sidewinder2 stormed out the front door of the U.S. Census Bureau and into an uncertain future.

Ralph P. Sidewinder figured into the universal plan in infinitely many other ways. For instance, there was a planet, only a trillion trillion trillion light years from Earth2, inhabited by two-headed beings who otherwise looked like squirrels. The beings had blue fur that glowed so blindingly they could not look at one another. They amused themselves by drawing pictures of aliens. The imagined aliens looked exactly like Ralph P. Sidewinder, except for a second head. Another planet, much further out, had beings shaped like ping pong balls. For recreation these beings bounced around on objects identical to ping pong tables, slamming into paddles operated by mechanical arms the ping pong balls had designed expressely for this purpose. Genetics had conspired to paint pictures of Ralph P. Sidewinder on the surfaces of these living ping pong balls. However, the balls were completely blind and had no knowledge of the pictures.

Earth3 was so distant from Earth, Earth2, the squirrel planet, and the ping pong planet that it made them look like peas in the same pod. While identical to Earth2 in its present state, Earth3 had a radically different history. Whereas dinosaurs had roamed the surface of Earth2 long before the advent of Man, these giant creatures had no actual existence on Earth3, but rather were the fabrication of a previous race of humans living there. This previous race had lived peacefully for hundreds of thousands of years, developing a glorious civilization. However, the appearance of a certain kind of bird on Earth3 drove them insane. On the majority of the infinitely many worlds similar to Earth3, the initial race of humans took little notice of the birds, but for some reason the humans on Earth3 had a psychological quirk that made them go insane.

A small band of self-appointed saviors on Earth3 launched a scheme to restore sanity to their race. They rigged up a planetwide bomb that would selectively destroy the unusual birds along with their own species. They placed themselves in suspended animation, to be revived exactly one million years after the detonation of the bomb. To provide their successors with a clean slate, they manipulated geology in such a way as to create a fake past for Earth3. The fake record, written in land formations and fossil deposits, made it appear that Earth3 had a history identical to the actual history of Earth and Earth2.

For countless reasons, the scheme failed on the majority of the infinitely many Earth3-copies facing the same crisis. However, on Earth3 everything came off exactly as planned. Like everyone else currently living on Earth3, Sidewinder3 had no knowledge of the previous race of humans. The conditions of life on Earth3 were now indistinguishable from those on Earth2, and Sidewinder3 experienced the same feelings of rage and catharsis as he quit his job at the Census Bureau.

The resurrection scheme also worked on Earth4, but here there was a twist. On Earth4 one of the saviors was a genetic engineer by the name of Tronk Thinwhistle. Thinwhistle had secretly engineered a race of supermen, and placed one of the prototypes in suspended animation along with himself. His aim was to enrich the race when it was revived a million years down the line. He arranged that the superman gene would germinate undetected for a thousand generations. In the thousandth generation the gene would activate, silently altering the molecular structure of the carrier until, given the right stimulus, the new being would emerge from behind its human facade.

Thinwhistle, like the rest of his species, had been driven insane by the birds. His insanity made him obsess over certain details of his genetic enrichment scheme while completely neglecting other details. For instance, he relied on ninety thousand years of accumulated wizardry in molecular biology to design the superman gene so that the changes it made were completely invisible until the exact moment of metamorphosis. He reasoned that premature detection might endanger the budding supermen. On the other hand, he engineered a metamorphosis so dramatic and alien that it was almost sure to cause a dangerous panic wherever it occured. At times Thinwhistle disdainfully passed over the practical in favor of the esoteric: He might have linked to onset of the metamorphosis to some predictable biological marker such as puberty or menopause; instead he linked it to certain kinds of emotional output, such as righteous indignation or acute dissatisfaction.

Even though Thinwhistle had spent months calculating that one thousand generations was the optimal delay in the activation of the gene, he had done nothing to ensure that the gene would actually survive for a thousand generations. In fact, he made the gene recessive, to avoid overwhelming the human race with the new species. The gene did not bestow any advantages upon its carriers before the thousandth generation and therefore was subject to the relentless forces of random selection. By the thousandth generation, these forces had nearly crushed the gene out of existence on Earth4. It was confined to several dozen members of a small prison community established on a Mexican island.

On Earth5, a virtual copy of Earth4 located elsewhere in the infinite universe, the process of random selection had been even more ruthless, and there was only one carrier in the thousandth generation. The carrier was Sidewinder5. Despite their radically different histories, Earth2 and Earth5 had essentially the same present. In fact, they differed in only one respect: Sidewinder5 carried the superman gene, which had been silently working its magic on his molecular structure for 52 years, whereas Sidewinder2 was an ordinary man. The office incident provided precisely the right stimulus, and thus triggered the sudden transformation of Sidewinder5 into a godlike being.

Stepping out of the office building into the bright Monday morning sunshine, Sidewinder5 experienced his apotheosis. His memory became perfect and he saw his entire life unfold before him in crystal clear detail. He felt the veil of dullness fall away as his youthful intelligence rushed back into his head, augmented thousands of times. All his little disconnected thoughts, everything he'd ever read about or learned- everything unified into a glorious flowing tapestry of knowledge. His ability to sense things increased to the point of practical omniscience. He floated in the rich, dense sea of experience, sucking it into himself like a vortex. Absorbed as he was in these mental phenomena, Sidewinder5 hardly cared that his head had swelled to fifteen times its normal size. It was now a huge purple ball and it shot forth bolts of lightning. A terrified offduty policeman named Hank Fisk shot Sidewinder5 dead exactly forty seconds later.

On Earth6, Sidewinder6 underwent the same glorious change and luckily escaped the bullet. The homeless person, Bud Oldssen, who had wandered into the Census Bureau several minutes previously, was blessed with extraordinary hearing. Though already out of the building and halfway down the street, Oldssen heard Sidewinder6 shouting on his behalf. There were infinitely many worlds, like Earth6, where Oldssen had exceptionally good hearing, and there were infinitely many words where he became fanatically loyal to anyone who showed him a kindness, no matter how trivial. Earth6 was one of the infinitely many worlds in which Oldssen had both these traits, and furthermore, was positioned exactly in the right place on the street outside the Census Bureau. Positioned as he was, Oldssen stepped in the path of the bullet, thereby preventing Hank Fisk from shooting Sidewinder6. Having escaped the fatal shooting Sidewinder6 went on to become a living legend. His wondrous discoveries ushered Earth6 into a new golden age. Sidewinder6 was worshipped like a diety for the thousand years of his existence, but did not pass on his amazing genetic code, for lack of a mate.

Sidewinder7 survived for the same reason on Earth7, though his survival had a much different impact on the planet. Earth7 was similar in many respects to Earth6, except that a gasoline worshipping cult had sprung up a decade before Sidewinder7 had his rendezvous with genetic destiny. The Gasoline Cult travelled from place to place on Earth7, depositing large containers of gasoline in front of houses, buildings, and stores. They filled street after street, city after city, country after country. Even the critics of the practice had to admit the charm and sensuous pleasure of large open containers of gasoline filling the planet.

The fascination with gasoline appeared on infinitely many worlds, but in the majority of cases the inhabitants exhibited an overall psychology quite remote from someone living on Earth6. Even when the psychology matched the general practice of the Gasoline Cult was almost always grossly incompatible with the culture on Earth6. For instance, it usually required a certain reverence for fire. However, in the infinite universe one sometimes encountered worlds in which the fascination with gasoline had somehow been isolated and compartmentalized, then embedded inside an Earth6 culture-worlds, in fact, that matched Earth6 in virtually every detail except for the details related to the Gasoline Cult. Earth7 was just such a place: Men and women experienced the ticklish flutterings of first love, the disillusionment of wilted romance; little children squealed with delight upon opening their presents at Christmastime. Earth7 had golf tournamants, outdoor concerts, art galleries, the National Football League.

On some versions of Earth7 the Gasoline Cult had fallen short of its final goal, which was the complete linking of the cities of the world by containers of gasoline. On these worlds the Cult had run out of money, or gasoline, or public support; perhaps the leaders had shown a weakness of resolve or had been exposed as frauds. On Earth7 nothing of the sort had happened. The Gasoline Cult enjoyed overwhelming public support, virtually unlimited access to resources, robust and inspiring leaders. Rich, powerful members of society took a keen interest in the Cult and furthered its interest. On Earth7 it was said with pride that a person would walk from any town on the planet to any other along the tops of gasoline containers.

The former employee stood on the steps of the U.S. Census Bureau on Earth7, absorbed in fascinating explorations of his internal and external worlds yet simultaneously grateful that Bud Oldssen, a fanatically loyal bum, had taken the bullet meant for him. There he stood, Sidewinder7, lightning bolts leaping from his enormous purple head- unpredicted lightning bolts. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable occured. The only survivors of the apocalyptic blast were the passengers of aircraft, who watched the awesome calamity from space. Ironically, these few survivors perished when their airplanes ran out of gasoline and were forced to land.

On other worlds the fascination with gasoline was replaced by the fascination with another chemical compound, more or less flammible. The great bolts of lightning emanating from Ralph P. Sidewinder's purple head interacted with methane, turpentine, ammonia, vinegar, pomegranite juice, corn oil, curburetor fluid, cherry flavored glue. In their wake they brought laughter, tragedy, devotion, indifference, disdain, panic or apocalypse, depending on the planet. On some worlds it was not lightning that emanated from the huge purple head but rather frogs, or strips of sheet metal, or pieces of paper filled with holy writing, or wine bottles, or cans of sand. The head was not always a purple ball, but sometimes a green box, or a whirling potato, or pure sound, or a cloud of dust mixed with starlight.

There was nothing special about Ralph P. Sidewinder. On some planets, Sidewinder stepped back into the office building and apologized for his outburst, cleaned up his spilt coffee and went on with his work. On these planets perhaps the secretary, Susan J. Winwood, carried the superman gene and experienced the metamorphosis. Elsewhere it was the bum, Bud Oldssen, or Hank Fisk, the offduty cop, or someone else, or nobody at all. On other worlds the metamorphisis might have occured but was thwarted by the sudden failure of the air conditioner, or food poisoning, or the total destruction of the solar system, or the wrong note from a bugle.

These and all other combinations happened inevitably in the flat infinite universe inhabited by Ralph P. Sidewinder.