Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Circle of Zero by Stanley G Weinbaum

Weinbaum died of throat cancer in 1935, aged 33
First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1936

This story is one of the first in these anthologies to deal directly with current events, in this case the Wall Street Crash. Jack Anders, is a bond salesman who’s been wiped out in the Crash and his old professor from uni – with the unlikely name Aurore de Neant – has seen his retirement savings similarly decimated. They need a way to get rich quick.

De Neant, being a pulp sci fi mad professor, comes up with the obvious solution: endeavour to see into the future somehow to predict a market rally. To make it happen he’s sitting on two ideas that are interestingly ahead of their time.

De Neant is struck by the idea that if time is infinite, then all events must already have played themselves out at some stage in the past.
‘It’s true that there is eternity in the future; we cannot imagine time ending. But Flammarion before he died pointed out that there is also an eternity in the past. Since in eternity everything must happen, it follows that everything must have happened!

I gasped. ‘Wait a minute. I don’t see -’

‘Stupidity!’ he hissed. ‘It is but to say with Einstein that not only is space curved but time. To say that, after untold eons of millennia, the same things must repeat themselves because they must. The Law of Chance says they must, given time enough. The past and future are the same thing, because everything that will happen must already have happened.’
To me, this sounds very similar to the concept behind Greg Egan’s novel Permutation City. That novel is based on the premise if one establishes a pattern – say, a complex virtual environment – then that pattern will recur and develop somewhere in the quantum infinitude. Of course, It’s a very different application of the idea – and Egan deals with it all much more cleverly – but Weinbaum came up with it more or less the same thing without the mathematical theory that supports Egan.

So, De Neant goes on to outline his plan: through hypnosis, he believes he get Jack to remember back to this past version of his life through hypnotic regression. This was decades before the Bridey Murphy case in the 50s, which put the idea of regressing into past lives on the map. The concept must have had some currency – the Theospohists, for example, were keen on reincarnation and various sorts of psychic trance – but Weinbaum seems to have stumbled onto it on his own.

They do do get a hint that there’s a short-term rise coming in the markets – perhaps a classic dead cat bounce – but they have no capital to exploit it with. In a melodramatic climax old De Neant shoots himself, and his daughter Yvonne (also Jack’s fiancĂ©) is the beneficiary of a number of insurance policies that De Neant took out on himself. They thus have the capital to make the investments Jack foresaw in his trance and they make their fortune. (I thought life insurance didn’t pay out on suicides for the obvious reason, but never mind.)

However, there’s a somewhat ambiguous twist. Many of Jack’s visions it turns out were hypnotic suggestion from old Aurore. Was the vision of the market rally just an eccentric hint from a clearly dotty old man? There’s something about the symbolism of zero that underlines this ambiguity. Infinity is almost the same as nothing:
'You think time doesn’t go in a circle, don’t you? Do you know what a circle represents? I’ll tell you. A circle is the mathematical symbol for zero – time is a circle. Time is zero!’
The old professor's name (many ‘jokes’ of the ‘Dawn of Zero’ variety) is possibly taking this a bit far, and the story can’t quite escape it’s somewhat leaden melodrama, but it’s at least trying to do something a little literary.

Themes:  Vastness (The gulfs of time), the depression, love's young dream, sacrifice, past-life regression, capitalism, literary flourish

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