An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.
A single, solitary scream. With this Nate Silver had been born into Earth 2. Not the raw-throated, quivering howl of every infant’s entrance to the world but a single voice that ushered him into being and echoed in his wake. Its timbre conveying to him the terror of its owner, condemned and left behind on Earth 1. For Earth 2 was an entire world carved off and created by the actions of several thousand people in the state of Wisconsin. The final schism was not sealed by rightness or even righteousness but through the error of Nate Silver’s prediction. Only once the moment of reckoning took place would it become clear which direction he would be taken down the forked path. This was not a world created by individual choice, where whole separate lives could be lived in tandem, one following the right or noble course, the other down a path of wickedness and immorality. It was a world with Nate Silver at its center. A world where outcomes and actions unfolded based on his ability to foretell them. Since the beginning, infinite worlds had spooled outward, careening into nebulae as Nate Silver sought to imagine—to predict—his place in the future. But as he grew, the nature of these splits became less extreme, worlds peeled apart. After this split and the howl was infinite calmness. Nate Silver had come into Earth 2 with lucidity and a belief that he knew what awaited him here. He had heard the howl for a reason. It brought with it the reassurance, “We live in the best of all possible worlds.”
Last recorded communication received from Nate Silver of Earth 2 to Earth 1:
“Greetings, citizens of Earth 1! I’m filing this dispatch from Earth 2, where Hillary Clinton got just a few more votes last November than she did in your world. Earth 2 preserves about as many of Earth 1’s features as possible, other than the things that just can’t be the same because you have Trump as your president and we have Clinton as ours . . . It’s hard to know what comes next, but despite Clinton’s win last November, we may be witnessing the final throes of the old political regime.”
The light blinded him as it flooded into his pupils, rapidly dilating them. His finger slid across the phone screen and darkness enveloped the room once again. Tensing and slowly releasing each limb, the awareness of his surroundings, their meaning, and his place within them came keenly into view. A cursory glance at the phone’s pulsing screen told him all the necessary metrics from the night’s sleep. As expected, there was still embedded in him a steady and consistent biorhythm. At this thought he looked down at his slight paunch, ran a hand through his rapidly receding hair, taking stray dead ends under untrimmed nails, and sighed. He had resolved not to concern himself with things he couldn’t change.
After all, he had never quite understood the obsession with ancestral lineage. Generations of men willfully taking up the family’s tools of the trade with pride but no further questioning. What a narrow view of the past, with lines of succession wound tight enough to asphyxiate those within. None of this mattered. What mattered was the tools you were given, how you could sharpen them to craft an assurance of the future and your place within it, beating down anyone in your way. He thought of his childhood spent watching the meticulous hold his father had on data, managing his punch cards, exposing the fallacies and lies of the Soviets and what they offered to the public. These were the things he clung to when constructing his linear models, so that everything he offered to his own public was irrefutable.
The world was full of the uncertainty, gaping chasms that the masses desperately sought to fill. But rather than charting a course across this uncertainty they just latched unquestioningly onto identities. Why would you tie yourself to these points, constraining yourself and others when looking to the future? What shared collective purpose could possibly be gained by binding yourself and others to a post that was no longer fixed? Their fluidity, their impermanence, and the ease with which people could move in and out of them rendered them useless. He was sexually gay, ethnically white. This was just noise, superfluous details that would influence his choices but not determine them.
He knew this of himself and of all those around him. These couldn’t predict solely what people would do; it was why all these rapidly spawning activist groups collapsed. There was no single choice they would all make; inevitably they would splinter, becoming nothing more than the debris of data. This gave rise to nothing more than mild bemusement in him. They never impacted opinion polls much, so it was hardly troubling to dwell on in the early hours of the morning.
Stepping outside his home, he was batted back by what felt like humidity pressing up against his face. His stomach fell, knowing otherwise. It was one of those days where worlds pressed up against each other. The razor-thin space between Earth 1 and Earth 2 meant he still remained fearful that some vestige of chaos could rise up and move into his world by osmosis. Days like these rarely came anymore, but they still filled him with unease at what was to come and what he couldn’t contain, both outside and within himself. These were the times when he most desperately felt the need to visit the Others. The lingering sense that his last visit was a mistake still clung to him. He had been too cavalier, too cocksure. The sharp squeak as he ground his molars against each other with the remembered pronouncement to Jody that “lunch is still a big deal on Earth 2.”
He tried to quell these thoughts by rigorously considering where he would get his lunchtime burrito from. Booting up an algorithmic process within his brain he slowly circled through evaluative categories: construction/balance, presentation/five senses, meat — flavor/seasoning, steadily refining the choice, tightening the circle, making eliminations. Category, restaurant, score, in, out, in. The repetitive nature of the task soon calmed him and his breathing.
He was bathed in sweat on reaching the office; every movement he made these days seemed to take more and more out of him. Since returning from Earth 1 it had felt as if body and mind were steadily becoming uncoupled. He had always believed that the world repeated itself in a wholly manageable fashion. It was with this knowledge that he built his predictive models, their feedback loops circling incessantly, updating, refining, winding tighter and tighter. While at his desk he would course through days in a state of near-constant flow. Responding, pivoting, adjusting his thoughts and actions perfectly in tune with the choices of those around him. The United States didn’t withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Merrick Garland was still on the Supreme Court instead of Neil Gorsuch. Clinton didn’t enact a “travel ban.” Kellyanne Conway had a CNN show.
But on rising from his desk, from the masses of data in which he was enmeshed daily, it was as if he was moving through treacle. The difficulty of this physical navigation of his world gave him a keen awareness of his own body, and his unease at what was going on within it. His mind cast back to last fall, run-down and shaking at the end of his bed, his partner pacing the room waiting for the thermometer to settle. “You’re two above normal, 41.1. You’re running yourself into the ground.” The sentence continued on beyond this, but it had turned to radio static in his mind, it had to be pushed to the background as he grappled with that figure. 41.1. Two above normal. 39. Yes, we were messy, leaking bodies, but contained within all of us was a fixed internal logic, data points that remained within steady parameters and rooted us to our place in this earth. 39 was not part of this. The view before him swam, and though he could not see it, the retch of his stomach and accompanying sound told him he had vomited. It had been brought on by the realization that he had always known his normal temperature should be 37. He could never voice this thought, for certainty in numbers was what he traded in, just as he could never tell his partner that his body was still reeling from his last visit to Earth 1. Was this indeed a glitch, a mutation, a warp of the world’s underlying code, or had been wrong all along?
Worlds had split apart with him at their center, for there were few people that were capable of holding multiple thoughts in their minds, jostling for attention, let alone vast expanding universes. An innate calmness had been possible for him at first. The infinite worlds spreading out were just like the models he had first begun with, starting as messy mental models, filled with cluttered confounds and flawed priors. The cold and depraved Earth 4044 with Jim Gilmore at its helm mattered little to him, as was the case with all the exponentially increasing other worlds. But he knew an alternate, almost parallel path was being followed, within another world. He knew that it was alive, pulsing and breathing in tandem with his own. Things were not that different when he had visited, though here everything was supposed to be knowable, to be a calmer reflection of that unfolding since November 8. His predictive models were coming slightly amiss, and the physical toll his body was taking left him wondering if he could return to Earth 1 and understand what course that world was taking. The portal would by no means remain open long enough to construct a nationally representative weighted sample derived from a pool of several thousand liberal voters; it would be absurd to think otherwise. Anything he would discover went against all of his best instincts, but it had to be done.
A pressure on his sockets that blurred all that lay before him. Emerging in Earth 2 he collapsed to the floor, an immeasurable weight coming down upon him, a blistering heat surrounding him. Tightly clenching his teeth he curled into the fetal position to protect himself from the battering his body had received and tried to make sense of his journey to Earth 1. No towns or cities were feeling the brunt of nature’s force, this battering ram of weight pressing down, threatening to break the frame that held him up. It mattered little to the voters in Earth 1, but it shook him to his core. What was going on within him? Within this world?
All his life he had known to ignore the whims and actions of single voters, the stories they tried to construct about the lives they led. The plural of anecdote is not data. But, carving open worlds and travelling across them, he had left the portal open too long. His actions were wreaking vast physical changes, and no model could effectively account for this. The need to probabilistically weight for the differences in new-voter turnout between Earth 1 and Earth 2 had sucked him in but left the passage to Earth 2 exposed and at the mercy of the ever expanding universe pressing against it. Eventually it would crack, fissures would emerge, and gravity would buckle underneath this force. It meant one could no longer be weighed up against the other; numbers, polls, all his carefully constructed models no longer held if even physical order was absent here. The future was entirely unknowable to him. He could no longer rely on the thoughts of others to calmly navigate his way through time.
Acrid smoke was billowing into the office from the world outside. Fire and ruin was rising before him, but so too was a realization bubbling to the surface. The time to answer questions that had lingered within him for the entirety of his existence had come. Questions that he batted away with each poll released into the world. To know your future you need to look within. You predicted this; what is to come? Traversing across worlds, you have set into action a chain of events; where do they end? There was only one person left that he could reach with these questions: another Nate Silver.
Trembling, quivering, he lay before the portal once more and opened it for the last time. He dared not enter for fear of what would await him on his return. Whatever answer awaited him he would accept unquestioningly, anything to claw himself back from what was to come. The future is something that we construct, that we will into being. As data points were strung together within rigorous empirical models, the true question he sought to answer lay just out of reach. Maybe if he finally understood this there was a chance that he could avoid the worst of the destruction befalling the world around him. He bellowed his question into the depths of the portal, waiting for that howling voice to answer.
With an echoing that resonated across worlds, the jaws of multiple Nate Silvers clanged open, and they spoke in unison, all of them cast out across the universe along paths forking unceasingly from ill-made predictions.
The temperature was rising steadily, and his head pulsed with the weight of the atmosphere around him as he lay on the floor beside the closed portal. This was the best of all possible choices.