Story by: David Steffen
Using fiction to explore fiction is a gutsy move. It’s been my experience that such literary endeavours turn out one of two ways: either thoughtful or pretentious. Actually, if we’re being honest about things, I could add a third adjective on to that list: boring. I’m happy to report that The Infinite Onion is both thoughtful and provocative. While its tone is deceptively upbeat, David Steffen’s story offers some very pensive questions about the nature and direction of human literature.
As a piece of flash fiction, The Infinite Onion puts a premium on motif and theme, leaving character development and plot as secondary considerations. Within the story, Jeff Carlson is a scientist working in the “Parallel Worlds Division”. His work involves programming monkeys with a genetic memory/imperative to seek out the world’s best literature. Said monkeys are then injected into a time-compressed parallel universe. Within twenty-four hours the monkeys in the alternate world evolve to sentience, develop language and start sending back the best writing their adoptive world has to offer. This experiment, which has been conducted on multiple occasions, always yields the same results; every world reaches its literary zenith with a book about parallel worlds called “The Infinite Onion”.
One of the things I appreciated about this story is its treatment of parallel worlds. When Carlson explains his work to his supervisor, Mr. Truman, he states, “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.” Having endured the pseudo-science crap that was Sliders as a teenager, it’s rather nice to see a story that recognizes the nuances of Quantum theory wherein an infinite number of universes exist simply from choices as mundane as what people ate for breakfast. Oh no, I’m trapped on a world where I ate nothing but pop tarts for a week in the sixth grade.
Another fascinating idea to come out of this story is the concept of a literary strata. All of the writing that the monkeys bring back to our Earth is stored in a silo. This silo forms a literary archaeology wherein there is a clear correlation between societal development and literary achievement. To wit, alternate realities far more advanced than our own always have “The Infinite Onion” atop their literary strata. Even as Mr. Truman demands “…solutions, not questions,” I couldn’t help but think about our world’s literature in terms of a literary strata. Does writing get better as society develops? I remember a few professors from my undergrad days who would argue that the moment English literature abandoned poetry and embraced prose it was doomed to mediocrity.
I’m also left to wonder if The Infinite Onion isn’t a commentary on the state of storytelling within our world. Remember, the narrative establishes that all the parallel worlds are closely related. Thus, it stands to reason that all of those worlds have dabbled in time compressed extra-dimensional monkey business. Therefore, “The Infinite Onion” is an inevitable yet self-replicating endgame. The story within the story is a literary Von Neumann machine, where all other literature is just raw material to be converted into “The Infinite Onion”. Returning again to the high irony of Truman’s “solutions not questions”, could our literature be moving toward an infinite onion? Despite the growth of literacy and more writers writing now than at any other point in history, do the layers of genre and classification all yield to one grand human narrative? If so, is that a good thing? I’m reminded of the ambiguous ending of The Forever War wherein humanity is transmuted to a single narrative entity through cloning. While The Infinite Onion concludes on a positive note in which Truman seems to think that a species defining story is a good thing, I doubt many readers will be quite so certain in their evaluation. But I could be doing that over-analytical thing that I tend to do from time to time so who knows.
Though The Infinite Onion makes some sacrifices in its character development and plot, the trade-off is a fascinating look into the evolution of literature through quantum theory – as rare of a paring as one can hope to see in any sort of fiction. As a self-reflective and meta-textual thought piece, the story may not appeal to all, but I expect that those who like it will like it a lot.
Overall score: +3.5
You can read The Infinite Onion on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.