“White Curtain” (short story) by Pesakh (Pavel) Amnuel
English Publication History: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (May-June 2014), The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection (2015, St. Martin’s Griffin), The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 28 (201, Robinson), Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018)
Original: Russian (2007, Белая штора)
Translated by Anatoly Belilovsky, 2014
Synopsis: When younger men, Dima and Oleg shared two loves: that for theoretical physics and that for a girl named Ira. Many years later after their theories had a practical value, Dima seeks out Oleg who has become a so-called prophet for his ability to splice realities in the multiforce in order to improve the lives of others. Dima’s arrival is one laden with sadness as he wife had just died, an event Oleg was very much aware of as he had tried in vain to find a reality in which Dima’s wife did not die; however, instead of of finding that reality, Oleg went to 176 funerals. After an argument about a finite multiverse, Dima leaves rejected and Oleg facing frustration… until Dima receives a phone call.
Analysis: In fiction, “what if” is wondrous tool used by authors to explore a detailed alternative to our reality. At its best, it’s escapism shrouded in an intellectual exercise, something that keeps me coming back to the genre of science fiction. When we apply “what if” to our own lives, however, it can become a rabbit hole of escapism into regret in which we explore alternative branches of our lives while ignoring the present reality; it’s a useless exercise of pain, like visiting a sadistic physical therapist (true story).
In “White Curtain”, it’s possible to splice realities which may or may not be infinite according to the story. If this rabbit hole of exploring alternative realities shifted from theory to application, the hole would only grow deeper and darker. The teasing question of “what if” would then become “when can I” or “how can I”. It’d only be a matter of money, something which I would parallel to cosmetic surgery. Once you go under the knife to “improve” one thing, where do you stop? For most people, when the money runs out, but for those with deep pockets… is there happiness at the bottom of the hole? For both cosmetic surgery and alternative realities, once having a foot in the hole, the answer or “yes” can never be found. Like Buddhist doctrine teaches: happiness is in the here and now.
Review: The story has a familiar feel to it, perhaps a feeling that shared with other stories written in Russian. I’ve read a handful of Russian SF short stories, and the tale of old scientist colleagues meeting up again to discuss the avenues of their old research seems to be a recurring trend. So, there’s a familiar combination of love and science among scientists who were once friends in addition to science heavy dialogue, which detracts from the emotion of the story. It’s not my favorite story in the collection, but it’s certainly one that has a resounding conclusion, if not a tad predictable.