[originally posted here at Castalia House]
The Diversifal by Ross Rocklynne originally appeared in the Winter 1945 issue of Planet Stories. It was reprinted “by Popular Request” in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories and in at least three other anthologies. It can be read here at Archive.org.
The Diversifal is very different from the other two Ross Rocklynne stories I’ve read. It had a rather interesting premise and a heartbreaking ending. It was not the ending I wanted, but I can’t deny that it was a moving ending.
Bryan Barret, an ethical journalist and “Seeker of the Truth” has been visited by a strange being from the distant future called Entore. Entore is a creepy looking Homo Superior with telepathy and a striking resemblance to Brainiac; he can manifest himself in a strange semi-transparent physical manner in the present as he guides Bryan down a path that will change the future:
There is a woman Bryan Barret must never meet, must never fall in love with, must never marry, and must never have a child with – the fate of humanity in the midst of an interdimensional war in the year 800,000 AD depends upon it!
Rocklynne covers his bases when it comes to the pebble in the stream theory of timeline alteration. Entore has prepared a list of Alpha, Delta and Gamma Group events, all of which could lead to Bryan meeting a woman and fathering the child that would eventually result in the branching of the human species into Homo Superior. Alpha events will all lead to an almost immediate meeting of the pair. Delta events are a bit more round-about, introductions by friends, right-place-right-time occurrences that come from Bryan’s immediate group of associates. Gamma events are the most seemingly random and unpredictable sets of occurrences that will lead to their meeting sometime in the distant future. Entore is determined to sever all of these lines, avoiding things from getting into the wrong taxi, ending up in an accident where the woman is in the onlooking crowd, to not buying a tie which will end up in the hands of a maid who makes a quilt, gets it in a department store window where Bryan will run into the woman while obligingly paying a look to quilt.
Bryan dutifully goes along with Entore’s plan to save humanity, at the cost of his integrity, happiness and almost his sanity, as one by one those opportunities are clipped away. He ends up becoming a media hack writing for a propaganda rag, becoming fabulously wealthy as he alienates his old friends and becomes an apparatchik. One of his old buddies even tries to gun him down in the streets! After years, Bryan finally loses it and kills Entore, realizing that Entore has been lying to him, pointing out that if Entore succeeded, the man from the future would vanish in a poof of paradox.
Remembering one of the Gamma group threads that Entore mentioned once, Bryan is able to track down the woman, despite never having known her name – a chance encounter at a musical comedy. It turned out that Entore had actually approached the woman first, but she had refused him because she “was living in the present, and eight hundred thousand years from now is eight hundred thousand years from now.” All those years, she’d known and waited, hoping. In a moment of doubt and cowardice, however, Bryan decides to martyr their future for the sake of mankind. And the woman leaves, forever.
Only a second he stood there, remembering that tortured expression. Then a thunderbolt exploded inside him. This is the present, and eight hundred thousand years is eight hundred thousand years—as long as eternity, as meaningless!
“Ann!” he shouted—screamed the name as he stood on the street. She was not in sight. And he knew he would never see her again. The black, nauseating wind of self-hatred poured madly through his brain, and carried the mocking memory of Entore. The last punctus of the Gamma Group of events had been dissipated. He was truly his own master again. He had the choice of facing straight ahead into the unwelcome future or—of fastening his mind on some more pleasant memory of the past, fastening it there permanently, and assuming the expression of an idiot.
While he ultimately has become the master of his own destiny again, he’s damned himself in a Faustian manner—by both fearing and accepting his destiny, he is blind to his ability to shape his own future until it is too late.
It’s interesting that this story was reprinted not only here but in the Best of Planet Stories; clearly some important taste-makers liked it a lot. What struck me, however, is how unexpected this downer twist ending must have come, considering Planet’s penchant for heroes, heroics, and happy endings. It’s also worth noting that this story was from 1945 and by someone who’d written several SF Romances, so it can’t be written off as a part of the negativity-creep I’ve seen in several of the stories from around the cusp of 1950. At the same time that the Diversifal is tragic, it is open-ended; while brought low by his choices, Bryan may still eventually redeem himself, but it’s hard to escape the sense of Bryan’s cowardice that both feels so out of place and uncharacteristic of what one normally would see the pages of Planet. Rocklynne is a great writer, and he tells the story powerfully, but I’ll admit that I enjoyed his other Raygun Romance stories much more.