Jehan is a pretty 12-year-old Islamic girl who sees visions of her own possible futures. These visions suggest that she will be raped in an alley, disowned by her fundamentalist Muslim father, and forced to live as a whore until she dies. Or she could kill her potential rapist first, but if she does that she will be executed, unless somebody saves her by paying the blood price… There are too many “ifs” and too many potential paths and, as a child, Jehan is haunted by all the possibilities and her knowledge that something bad will happen, but not knowing exactly which of those branches her life will take.
Interspersed with these disturbing visions, we see Jehan in a possible future as an assistant and then a colleague to the men who are, during World War II, trying to unravel the secrets of quantum physics. Their findings will enlighten the world, but may also give the Nazis the knowledge they need to design horrific weapons. Does Jehan have the power to influence these sorts of future possible paths, too?
The title of George Alec Effinger’s story, Schrödinger’s Kitten, refers to Erwin Schrödinger’s famous paradoxical thought experiment now known as Schrödinger’s Cat, which he used as an absurd argument to challenge the ideas of Einstein and his colleagues about the role of the observer in the dual state of subatomic particles. The title also refers to his assistant Jehan, whose strange visions of different possible personal futures represent the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, which Hugh Everett developed to explain Schrödinger’s paradox. Jehan, a spiritual woman who is a faithful Muslim and personally experiences the understanding that her life has many potential branches which could all possibly be real, suggests that quantum physics is God’s game that he plays with humans.
Schrödinger’s Kitten is one of those rare stories that have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It’s a well-constructed, mind-expanding story. I enjoyed the discussions of quantum mechanics and the way that Effinger, in such a short space, successfully married quantum mechanics, nuclear war, parallel universes, and spiritualism.
I listened to Infinivox’s audio production, which is 1 hour and 16 minutes long and is available at Audible.com for only $4.95. It was read by Amy Bruce, who did a nice job.