A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.
A Q&A with Przemysław Zańko, winner of the First Prize in the Open Category
What is your background in science?
I've always been interested in science, even if it quickly turned out that I'm not that good at it. As a child I devoured any science book I could get my hands on. Then I discovered Stanisław Lem's science fiction works and I fell in love with them. As for the quantum physics, as soon as I learned about it I became fascinated with its weirdness and its thought-provoking philosophical implications. It never ceases to amaze me that our reality is so strange and wonderful. And there are so many great stories that quantum physics can inspire.
How did you develop the idea for this story?
The vaguest outline of this idea has been living in my head for a few years, waiting for its time. Originally I wanted to tell a story about a general who one day thinks about destroying all the parallel universes - and then realizes that if he doesn't, his alter egos will. At the very end, the destruction would've been stopped by a group of his alter egos. But this version of the story never really worked for me, it was all sci-fi ideas and no human emotions. It wasn't until the 2017 Quantum Shorts contest that I finally found a way to make it work. The answer was simple: find a reason why someone would want to destroy the Multiverse.
Additionally, I like to think of this story as a possible sequel to my 2015 Quantum Shorts entry, "Time Management". Both include parallel worlds and a character named Beckett...
If you could move to another universe, would you? What would you look for?
If I could come back home - yes, I would! I would probably mostly look for parallel versions of my favourite artworks, books and TV shows - just to see how much different they would be. Maybe some of the TV shows that got cancelled prematurely in our world got a second chance in a parallel one? I'd love to watch those.
Do you believe in the multiverse, and why?
I don't, actually. I think it's just a handy metaphor that allows us to better understand quantum physics. The Copenhagen interpretation always seemed more believable to me. But what do I know!
What can you tell us about how you wrote the story?
The story took me a couple of days to write. I was unsure at first whether to even participate in the competition as I was quite busy at the time - luckily my girlfriend persuaded me to try! I always write on my laptop in Microsoft Word so I just sat down at my desk at home, drank some black tea and started typing. I found the voice for my main character pretty early on but then it took me a few tries to find the best way to express all of his conflicted emotions. At first I just wrote the story without counting the words and then I edited it down. I had to delete some funny lines about Oppenheimer but overall I didn't have to cut much - the story was already pretty concise. Then I sent it to some friends, asking them to check my English!
What other projects do you have on the go, or coming up?
In December I finished a novella in Polish about a dying WWII soldier who makes a deal with the devil and then tries desperately to wriggle out of it. It took me a very long time to write but I'm quite proud of it - and it's getting published this year! In January I started writing a short horror story about a small town frozen in time that I'm very excited about. It will probably take me a few months to finish. After that? Who knows...
Can you name one or two science-inspired books you've read in the past year that you would recommend to others? What did you like about them?
I don't think I've read any in the past year but I can recommend two books I've read in the past. The first is Michio Kaku's "Hyperspace" - it's a fascinating exploration of several scientific concepts such as parallel worlds and spacetime. You also don't need to know a lot about science to give it a try and it's fun to read. I enjoyed it immensely. The second book is much harder, but also much more rewarding - "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. It taught me a lot about mathematics, music and logic - and it was beautifully written. I probably only understood half of it but it was a great half.
What appealed to you about the Quantum Shorts flash fiction competition?
I've never really tried writing in English before so I saw the competition as a fun challenge. I've always enjoyed finding creative ways to overcome limitations so the strict word count gave my brain a good puzzle to solve. It also ensured that I won't try to turn this story into an epic seven-book saga, in which case I would probably never finish it... The possibility of winning a prize was also pretty motivating!