“The Uncertainty Principle” (novelette) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (Принцип неопределённости), 1973
Translated by Antonia W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: Akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle where either speed or location can be know but never both, time travel faces a similar quandary: one can set either the desired time or the desired place but never both. From the twenty-first century, scientists are able to disguise cameras as clouds and send them to the past in order to study the time in which they arrive; however, each of these cloud bear an antigravitator crystal, which, if found later by other scientists, would have a domino effect on the future; thus, all antigravitators need to be collected by someone traveling back in time. Around the year 1300, Berg is trained and assigned to retrieve the crystal before heading back to his time machine and his own time.
As he passes into the nearest town, he passes a gravestone bearing his own name, but he dismisses it as a coincidence. Once in town, he quickly detects the the crystals location, but chooses to bide his time in a local tavern instead. As he exits, the night guard capture him and deliver him to the bishop who accuses Berg of lewd acts and sentences him to the “seesaw” before throwing him in a prison cell. Berg aligns his body’s cells in a single rhythm to break his chains and cell bars in order to traverse the prison wall, where he meets and rescues his supposed lover: a nun. Baffled yet determined, together they hop over the city wall and flee to the forest, questions in Berg’s mind while a child in her womb. As they themselves approach their salvation, the guard too approach.
Analysis: We can give a further example of uncertainty in Schrödinger’s Electron Cloud Model to give percentage of likelihood in finding an electron at any given location; in other words, you can feel pretty good where the electron should be, but you can’t guarantee it. Applying this to the story, from the onset, you can feel that the story is a closed-loop time travel story (casual loop), but you can’t determine how. When you determine the location of electron, that blurry cloud snaps to; similarly, when you read the conclusion, the story snaps together… but the less you know now, the better the snap will be at the conclusion.
Review: It’s a simple story that could have been reduced to a short story. The story doesn’t hinge on its uncertainty principle as it’s merely garnish to an otherwise urbane causal loop time travel story. Berg himself is a faceless protagonist, so despite carrying the story forward, the reader doesn’t feel anything for him. Throw in the random ability to “aligns his body’s cells in a single rhythm” as many people of his time can do, then the narration feels lazy, choppy. It’s either a rather poor start to the eighteen-story collection or a sign of things to come… another cloud of uncertainty looms.