REVIEW: “An Advance Sheet” by Jane Barlow

Review of Jane Barlow, “An Advance Sheet” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 127-148 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a marvelous story. Reading it, it was hard to keep in mind that it was written more than a hundred years ago, how unexpectedly timeless, prescient, and modern it was. We are quickly introduced to the main characters in the first page, Dr. Warden and Dr. Thomas Harlowe (the 1st person POV), two medical doctors who work in a mental institution, and a patient of theirs, John Lynn, who ended up in the institution after a nervous breakdown caused by anxiety over his university exams, a story all too familiar in the early 21st C. The focus of the story is Lynn, and a strange encounter that he relates to Harlowe. The trope involved is not an uncommon one in early SF: Travel to another time or another world via mental projection alone.

But what really took me with this story was the detailed explanation that Lynn gives Harlowe not about how such travel is possible, but about why we should even think these other worlds and times exist. Barlow’s explanation is uncanny: First, she articulates a version of the many-worlds interpretation of the universe:

“I refer to the fact that such a limitless atomic universe necessarily involves the existence, the simultaneous existence, of innumerable solar systems absolutely similar to our own…” (p. 129).

But not content to start there, she has Lynn immediately make the analogical step from the existence of different worlds to the existence of our own world at different times — and all of these different worlds being causally isolated from each other.

See, when I’m not writing, reading, and reviewing speculation fiction, I’m a philosopher who focuses on questions of modality and time. One of the most important developments in the logic and metaphysics of modality during the 20th C was David Lewis’s developments of modal realism, the idea that there are other “possible worlds” that are of exactly the same type as ours, but which are causally inaccessible to us. Lewis himself took time to be represented by different “stages” of these possible worlds; but it is also possible to take the possible worlds model further and identify times with worlds themselves, speaking of “possible times” instead of “possible worlds”. For Lewis, these worlds are out there, fully developed, and independent of ourselves; while we cannot access them through spatio-temporal relations, we can think of them, and, with a bit of a loose metaphor speak of looking through a telescope to these worlds to see what is occurring in them. Lynn adopts a very similar metaphor, as a means of explaining clairvoyance:

For, if what I have said is factually true, the explanation is simply this: the clairvoyant has somehow got a glimpse into one of these facsimile worlds, which happens to be a few years ahead of ours in point of time, and has seen how things are going there” (p. 1310)

The parallels in the views are remarkable, and even more remarkable that Barlow as writing 75 years before Lewis, and without the benefit of the philosophical and educational context that Lewis had in the 1950s and 1960s. Having read Barlow’s story, I’m now totally convinced I need to read more by Barlow, and write up a paper on this curious 19th-C Irish female precursor to one of the most important developments in contemporary analytic philosophy.

(Originally published in 1898.)