• The Study of Reality: On Trauma, Quantum Mechanics, and Writing Science Fiction

    Alaya Dawn Johnson Considers the Persistence of Real Life

    Before I dedicated my life to taking pot-shots at the nature of the universe—I mean, before I became a science fiction writer—I was a frightened child. Death scared me, but living was the constant terror. My father told me I had chosen this. I had come to him in a dream before I was born and begged to be guided by his wisdom in my current life. My fears multiplied: I screamed in the pizza parlor at the feel of the melted cheese sliding down my throat. I could not breathe under the bright lights of the hardware store, asphyxiated by free volatiles of fertilizer and fresh paint. I closed my eyes because I could not bear my awareness of my own blinking eyelids. I started to wet the bed again. I would only sleep with my sister. My father spoke of demons, malevolent creatures who would enter your soul and whisper tortured, impossible things. Was I a demon? He told me I was evil. I did not feel evil, but I did feel—everywhere—wrong.

    Truth, in our house, was precarious. My father would talk about his rejection of “consensus reality.” He would talk about the truth being in dreams, and the world around us being mere illusion. But he never concerned himself with my dreams, only his. What was real? Whatever dad said at that moment. Not whatever he did or had said. His past words and actions, in fact, vanished into a haze of disjointed realities, one superimposed upon another—

    “I never said that.”

    “I never did that.”

    His voice, dripping with wounded disappointment, “Why don’t you trust me, Alaya?”


    Anyone who spends time with trauma victims will quickly realize that we have a difficult time grasping reality. We question ourselves and everyone around us. We cannot trust our own senses or anyone else’s without checking and rechecking until the truth is reduced to indivisible quanta, a Planck length of Verity, that vanishes like a soap bubble in the quantum foam.

    As a child coping with trauma, in order to survive, I had to find a way to live in a world it would destroy me to believe in. Every traumatized child finds their own way to thread this needle. My solution was elegant, easy for adults to dismiss, excellent at keeping me hidden: I immersed myself in fantasy. I became a writer of fiction—fantastical, speculative, impossible fiction.

    I needed to examine the truth. But if the truth was a fundamentally unstable, contingent quantity, it could only be assayed by indirect, intuitive means. If I could not trust my senses, I decided from a young age that I could at least trust my imagination.

    The dark side of this coping mechanism has become clear to me as an adult, decades and thousands of miles away from those original traumatic events. Although I know that my current circumstances are nothing like those of the past, my limbic system remains unconvinced. I fall into fantasy at the slightest jangle of my ever-alert nerves. I dissociate until I am a head floating above a sea of unknowns, whose only solidity lies in their web of relationships to one another. My trick thus became a trap, a solipsistic nightmare in which nothing is false enough to be dismissed, and nothing is real enough to be believed—not even myself.

    So I decided to apply myself to the study of reality. The reason why Fantasy and Science Fiction are kissing cousins is that they are different modes of speculating upon our human existence. I spent my youth immersed in Fantasy. As I grew older, Science Fiction began to appeal to me more and more, and with it, basic science. I was drawn in particular to physics—cosmology, quantum mechanics, particle physics—because their preoccupations were, at heart, mine: What the hell is real and how can we be sure?


    All of modern physics could be seen as weird, the study of realities outside of our daily experience as short-lived social primates on a rapidly-overheating ball of condensed stardust on a minor arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy. Even Newton’s theory of gravity is counter to a certain land-oriented brand of intuition—the same force that makes an apple fall makes the sun rise? Let alone Einstein’s—the closer we get to the sun, the slower the apple falls according to a stationary observer back in Lincolnshire?

    The weirder part about modern physics, though, is that those two theories together produce incredibly accurate results in all practical applications, yet we know that they are partially wrong. We don’t know how they’re wrong—or, more accurately, many physicists come up with ideas like handfuls of Halloween candy, but those ideas have tended to be self-contradictory and difficult to test, let alone prove. Gravity is fundamental, and yet we know some aspect of our non-intuitive, fact-based, experimentally tested understanding of it is false.


    When I was nineteen years old, I moved in with a much older man. He had opinions about everything—the right music, the right food, the right way to speed through an art gallery five minutes before closing and snag wine on the way out. I told myself I didn’t mind: he reminded me of my father, but at least with him I could fight back. Then one day, he raised his hand. The next thing I remember, I was stumbling to the closet, ice-rimed, shivering. I took out my winter coat.

    Only one thought was left in my mind, barking like a puppy at the shadow of a hawk: You have to leave. I made it to the second floor before he caught me. By the next day, there wasn’t enough of me left to believe in. I looked at the bruises on my arm and thought, the poppy wine and the lotus seed: You’re always making things up.

    If I could not trust my senses, I decided from a young age that I could at least trust my imagination.

    More than twenty years later, I have not imagined myself into being, but I am using my imagination, as bound by the sensory inputs of this limited marvel of a body, to situate myself in reality.

    I think, therefore I’m still thinking. I keep thinking, therefore I have thought. I once thought things that were forbidden, that were terrible, that could not be true—but I always felt their truth. If I am real now, I must have been real then. If I was real then—

    Maybe I was never making things up?

    Could something be considered “real” even though you can never access or touch or remember it directly? Gravitational waves have been long hypothesized but were only directly detected for the first time in 2016. It took two massive kilometers-wide detectors and a galactic-force collision between two black holes to detect them. But what about those mundane ripples from your personal black holes? What if they affect you every day but you rarely notice how?

    If you accept the ripples, you have to accept the catastrophe. You have to close the paradox.


    There is something that hurts me. It is a memory. It has lodged beneath my skin, a stone in an old wound, barely scarred over, putrid. This is who I am: a foreign body in my own flesh.

    For most of my life, I performed acrobatic feats of distraction—both intellectual and sensual—to avoid confronting this fact. By the time I realized that my choice was between death by putrefaction and accepting the grave damage to my flesh and cutting, I was in my thirties, alone in a new country with no friends and a language I was only just learning to speak. A few years here in Mexico, a few loves, taught me better than thirty years in the States that joy was as real as my right foot, but that I would never reach it if I continued to place defending my father above my own well-being.

    The problem with an old soul-wound is that it is at once trauma and illness, which, if severe enough, can cause repercussive traumas in its own right. You step on a land mine in a reflective sphere, first torn apart by the explosion, and then bled from a hundred thousand cuts in the shock waves. If you only treat the infection from the wound, then while it might retreat, it will return and often in an intransigent, refractive form. The only cure lies in finding the source, that revenant memory, that forbidden knowledge, grown malignant on a diet of the lies and self-recrimination that crust like barnacles on the dark exterior of that perfect sphere.

    But what holds back the light can protect you from burning.

    Even hating yourself, even wanting to die, can feel safer than letting whatever inferno lies hidden inside, out.

    There’s a way out of this paradox, though. It’s actually a bit of sleight-of-hand, an old con. You crack open the sphere. You peer inside that great curved mirror. You see what you never desired to see.

    And then you don’t believe any of it. Why would you? You’re not real.


    The most famous experiment in quantum physics is also its simplest. The odd thing about the double-slit experiment is that no matter how many times I read it described, I come away with a slightly different understanding, a sense that some fundamental insight has scratched the back of my brain, but struggles to get out.

    Imagine a particle. A photon to be traditional about it, a tiny spark of light. You fire individual photons from a laser onto a divider with two closely-situated slits. The photon has a certain probability of going through one slit or the other. On the other side of the divider you have your detector: a sheet of photographic paper. Now, you fire one photon, it goes through one slit, is registered on the other side, just as you would expect. But if you fire many photons, the picture gets…wobbly.

    Put someone in that room with the detector. It doesn’t have to be a person, just something that “observes” the photons before they can land—consciousness has nothing to with this story. We watch the photons pass through the slits, one after another. You end up with a basic pattern that makes sense based on our intuitive understanding of how the world works: the bright lights of photons on the photographic paper register as two discrete lumps, each one corresponding to each slit.

    Now, take that “observer” out of the room. Fire those photons again. Develop that photographic paper. You expect to see the same thing, don’t you? Two discrete clumps of light, one for each slit. But you don’t. You see something much, much stranger.

    You see waves.

    But these aren’t groups of molecules, like ocean water, or the air in our atmosphere—they’re particles. Why would they fall on the paper as though they were waves? No, that’s not quite right—they move through the vacuum as though they were waves, but they land as though they were particles.

    Does this mean that the photons are at once waves and particles? As far as anyone can tell, it’s either that, or both interpretations are an error hiding a deeper nature (see: string theory). But more importantly for those of us preoccupied with the independent existence of our reality, this means that particles are governed by something physicists term the wave function: a specific quantum state, and the related equation (developed by Schrödinger) that describes how it evolves over time. A funny feature of this wave function, though? It branches. It does so naturally, along lines that seem to be probabilistic. Only one of these ever-branching equations describes the particular reality in which we can describe a single particle. But all, in some abstruse mathematical way, exist as part of the overall wave function of a particle.

    But is it real? Is it an error, as some quantum Baysean hardliners would have it, to “reify” the wavefunction? Or do its different branches exist even after measurement?

    That’s the weirdest part of the double slit experiment, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, light is both a particle and a wave; yes, the result changes if you have a detector/“observer” between the double slit and the final detector. But try to grasp this: the wave pattern on that photographic negative looks as if the branches of the wavefunction itself were the “fluid” of the wave. As if that “fluid” were what appears to us as a particle when it entangles with one branch or another. This implies a corporeality to the wave function itself, quite apart from the mathematical abstraction we use to calculate it. We are aware of this, moreover, precisely because the branches of the wave function brushing against one another create an interference pattern that we see fossilized in the double-slit experiment. Modern versions of the experiment, tantalizingly, have even managed to show a single particle interfering with itself.

    What is that, if not the wave function robustly exhibiting its own independent reality? We have solid philosophical foundations to believe in the existence of every branch of the wave function, not simply the one in which we find ourselves.

    I am an “I” in a sea of “I”s, branching fractally every quantum moment, a mirror-hall of Alayas, saying together in a chorus we can never hear: It was real. It happened.


    The idea of the quantum multiverse is just one interpretation, of course. But I have always preferred the Everettian, or many-worlds, side of the debate, the interpretation developed originally by Hugh Everett as his doctoral thesis in 1956 and favored in modern times by such luminaries as Sean Carroll and David Deutsch. There are other ways to look at the picture.

    The perception dogmatists would actually be those of the Copenhagen school, the interpretation favored by most modern physicists. In their view, our intuitive understanding of reality is so real that the wave function itself is the abstraction, a simple tool we use to calculate probability. Once we have landed in one branch of the wave function, all of the others shut down, vanish like quantum foam, collapse—and the one in which we find ourselves is the only reality we need concern ourselves with.

    But ignorant layperson that I am, I have always been suspicious of the Copenhagen school’s complacency. How do you know that you are perceiving that reality correctly? If the equation splits, how can you be so sure that our reality doesn’t?

    The peculiar thing about perception is that it requires imagination. If I want to be able to see all that is in front of me, I first must be willing to imagine its existence.


    I am a superposition of two states: real and unreal. How do I calculate the odds of finding myself—the Science Fiction writer, the professional doubter, the scared child—in one universe or the other? Put the unstable isotope in the box with a geiger counter; wire it to the poison gas; wait for the click.

    Real? Unreal?



    Reportedly, Hugh Everett, an infamous sybarite who died of a heart attack at 51, was a believer in quantum immortality, one of the strange philosophical gyres that emerge when one attempts to map theories of consciousness onto those of a branching wave function. According to this line of speculative inference, our subjective point of interaction with the wave function will always be that of a conscious observer, since if we were unconscious we would not be here to observe it. If this sounds tautological, it’s difficult to disprove: everyone reading this sentence is on some level a conscious observer of the particular branch of the wave function in which they find themselves.

    I am a superposition of two states: real and unreal. How do I calculate the odds of finding myself—the Science Fiction writer, the professional doubter, the scared child—in one universe or the other?

    I think of quantum immortality as a kind of trickster god: if we only engage with the wave function as a subjective consciousness, then even if there are infinitely many branches of the wave function in which we are not conscious (dead, or in a coma, or quite simply never having lived), we will always find ourselves in one of the ever-dwindling number of worlds in which we maintain consciousness. Keep chasing Brer Rabbit around that bush long enough, and you end up with quantum immortality. Even though most of your wave function is not-conscious, some version of “you” will keep puttering along indefinitely simply because no matter how improbable, your continued existence is not impossible in some abstruse branch of the wave function.

    Schrödinger’s cat, that infinitely mistreated animal, never dies; she simply reduces the copies of her own existence. Even if decades have passed, even if you’ve moved thousands of miles away, even if you speak a different language and watch the sun go down over a different ocean—some part of you never escapes that black box.


    I have gone through periods of my life buffeted by squalls of déjà vu, days and weeks accompanied by the unshakeable conviction that I have lived them before, and that I fucked them up. In fact, the worst storms tell me in that moment of horrified recognition: you remember this because this is the moment of your death.

    The fact that I do not, in fact, die never makes disbelieve the next conviction, or the next.

    I’ve thought a lot, naturally, about what it would mean to relive your own life over and over again. And then I thought: what if time could not be considered linear in this state of constant re-life? What if, instead, all of the different possibilities of your life exist all at the same time?

    Just like the wave function.

    I take comfort in this idea, sometimes (I even wrote a novel based around it). Even if my simultaneous semi-awareness of my parallel selves fills me with the borrowed terror of their lives, in my own I can make different choices. I can half-leave my first boyfriend and then, decades later, take the last of my things out of his storage unit. I can move to a different country, learn a different language, marry a man who makes me feel seen and cherished, who creates like he breathes, who builds with me.

    Even if I am trapped as Schrödinger’s Cat in 99% of the branches of my wave function, in this one I made it out.

    When I was just a willful child, refusing to place someone else’s reality ahead of my own, I understood that I might be killing myself. I knew that by refusing his reality I might have no recourse to any at all. I imagined myself dissolving until I vanished into foam.

    But it turns out that reality is not so fragile as all that. It turns out that, even denied, even if it is horrifying, or counterintuitive, or humbling—it persists.


    The Library of Broken Worlds by Alaya Dawn Johnson is available now via Scholastic. 

    Alaya Dawn Johnson
    Alaya Dawn Johnson
    ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON has been recognized for her short fiction and YA novels, winning the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i," which also appears in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (2015), guest edited by Joe Hill. Her debut YA novel, The Summer Prince, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Her follow up YA novel, Love Is the Drug, won the Andre Norton Award in 2015. A native of Washington, D.C., Johnson is currently based in Mexico City, where she received a masters degree in Mesoamerican studies and sings in a blues band. Her new novel, Trouble the Saints, is now available from Tor Books.

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