The Infinite Onion

Jeff rolled and unrolled the sheaf of pages in his hand. “This isn’t just paper, sir. It’s the fictional footprint of an entire civilization. We’re going to turn chaos theory upside down. Evolutionary biology, too. Even religion.” He handed the manuscript to Mr. Truman.

Erosion patterns on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

“This, sir, is the literary strata.” Jeff Carlson watched his boss closely for a reaction. Jeff had been given a very free hand with the parallel worlds research division and he knew he had taken things in an unorthodox direction. This was going to be a tough sell.

Mr. Truman glowered, eyebrows clashing like battling caterpillars. “Glass silos filled with paper.”

Jeff rolled and unrolled the sheaf of pages in his hand. “This isn’t just paper, sir. It’s the fictional footprint of an entire civilization. We’re going to turn chaos theory upside down. Evolutionary biology, too. Even religion.” He handed the manuscript to Mr. Truman.

Mr. Truman flipped through the pages, growing more sour by the moment. “A manuscript? If I wanted fiction I’d hire a writer, not an engineer. If I show this to the grant committee they’ll pull our funding in a heartbeat. Are you trying to make a fool out of me?”

“Sir, we’re not going to need grants anymore. Not with this.”


“Okay,” Jeff said, taking a deep breath. “Have you heard of the infinite monkey theorem? It’s the one that says if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter for an infinite period of time, he’ll eventually write all the works of William Shakespeare?”

“Get to the point.”

“The problem with the infinite monkey theorem is that it isn’t practical. To get anything worthwhile, you need a near-infinite timescale. Even if you could arrange that, where are all the typewriters and paper coming from? And worst of all, how do you find the diamonds in the rough, the few manuscripts that aren’t just gibberish?”

Mr. Truman rubbed his temples. “Solutions, Carlson, not questions.”

“Okay,” Jeff said. “With time-accelerated parallel worlds we don’t need to limit ourselves to mere monkeys. We can calibrate time differences extreme enough to watch continental drift happen in a heartbeat. We send a group of monkeys through with genetic memory to seek out the best writing. Of course it’s a while before they evolve writing skill, and even longer before they invent paper, but a day later on our side and the stories pour out.”

“If this is all the writing of a civilization, why isn’t there more?” Mr. Truman still looked cross, but he was listening. That was something.

“The genetic memory only makes them send through the work if it’s the best writing they’ve ever seen. Hence the literary strata. The top level is better writing than you’ve ever seen, because their culture is advanced beyond ours.”

“Their culture? Monkeys don’t have culture.”

“They’re no more monkeys than we are, sir. Each time we run the experiment, we can chart the entire course of human evolution in less than a day! Each time we start an experiment, we start everything from scratch back with the apes. You’d expect each world to turn out very differently, maybe even some where birds evolve to be the dominant species. Chaos theory demands it. And yet, with minor changes, it’s basically our own world every time.”

Jeff paused to gauge his boss’s response, but he couldn’t tell if Mr. Truman’s silence was interest or anger, so he went on.

“Even more bizarre is this manuscript. Every time we fill the silo, there’s always a story with the same title near the top. ‘The Infinite Onion.’ Each story with that name is different, but interrelated. Alone they’re good, even great, but together they weave together to form a tapestry of prose, each story playing counterpoint to the others, harmony and melody, crescendos and decrescendos.”

“Uh huh.” Mr. Truman tapped his chin. “What are the stories about?”

“Each one is about the existence of parallel worlds. Layers of worlds like the peels of an onion, but going on forever. In parallel, the stories work on many different levels, ranging from the simple to the profound. No matter what you’re looking for in the story, it’s there.

“It’s like the story is encoded in human DNA and each world carries just a snippet of it. If you want proof of a higher power, this could be it. You know how most writers tend to have one great book that outshines all their others? Together, these stories are humanity’s masterpiece.”

“It sounds like a bunch of hooey.”

“Please give it a chance, sir. You won’t regret it.”

Mr. Truman fixed him with a stare. “You’d better get me something concrete, something unrelated to this nonsense, by the end of the week or you’re going to be looking for a new job!”

When Truman returned to his office, he was surprised to notice that he was still holding the manuscript. He almost dropped it into the recycle bin, but hesitated. It would beat playing Solitaire. Carlson wouldn’t even have to know. He shut the door to his office.

The next morning he rose from his chair, back protesting from the long night’s abuse. Damned if Carlson wasn’t right. It was the best thing he’d ever read. He hadn’t stayed up all night reading a book since college. He needed to go home and get some sleep, but first he left the manuscript on his assistant’s desk with a note: “Find a good publisher and mail this ASAP.”

The assistant editor came across the manuscript at the end of a work day. He finished it late that night, but found he wasn’t even tired. The thrill of discovery was coursing through his veins and he had work to do.

He ran the manuscript through the copier. On the original he wrote “We’re going to be rich!!” and left it on the editor’s desk. The other he put in an envelope, and slipped it through a slot in the wall. He didn’t know why he did it. He didn’t know where the slot went — which was strange, since he’d worked in that office for twenty years. It was more muscle memory than conscious decision. Moments later, he forgot about it.

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