The Probability Box
Even at the height of its popularity, no one really understood
how Probability Boxes worked. It was possible, in fact, that they
didn't work, and that the whole Probability Box phenomenon was built
on malfunctioning technology. That uncertainty was the other problem
with the Probability Box. Besides not understanding it, no one was
sure where it came from. The consensus was that it was probably based
on alien technology smuggled out of the notorious Vladivostock
landing site sometime between late 2012 and the quarantine in
What, exactly, was a Probability Box? Looking like an old
television "box," a Probability Box was a video medium which displayed a
range of possible and impossible signals. The technology first gained
popularity in academic and techno-geek circles when the initial working
sets would spontaneously play movies and television shows that didn't
exist: Casablanca starring a young Ronald Reagan. Orson Welles'
never-filmed versions of Don Quixote and Heart of Darkness. A run of the
TV series Kung Fu, but starring Bruce Lee. An extra season of Twin
When stories of the wonders that could be viewed on the
boxes crept into the mainstream media, the public response was immediate.
At the end of the first year of retail distribution, the Probability Box
had become the most popular consumer electronic device of all time.
Then things began to go wrong.
Along with variant versions
of movies and television shows, viewers would sometimes catch news
broadcasts or emergency reports. Like the movies, many of these seemed to
be from some alternate timeline where, for example, a story on the Aztec
invasion of modern Paris made perfect sense. What truly disturbed viewers
were the broadcasts that seemed to come directly from their own futures.
A grey-haired version of their local newscaster would appear and announce
that the viewer's town had been wiped out by a freak asteroid fall or
some mysterious viral outbreak. Other viewers might catch a story
regarding their own murder or fiery death in a freeway
Worse yet, habitual Probability Box viewers began to see
an alternate world even when the devices were off. Living rooms would
melt into radioactive wastes in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Traffic in
the street would morph into a herd of bison or triceratops, heading
for green grazing lands. For these viewers, the skies were always full
of transport zeppelins and pteranadons.
Theories as to
what was causing the hallucinations if they were hallucinations were
plentiful. The most popular was that because the Probability Box was
based on a not-well-understood extraterrestrial technology, the sets were
giving off an unknown radiation that was mutating the rods and cones in
viewers' eyes into some alien configuration. Three months after the first
hallucinations were reported in the press, the sale and possession of a
Probability Box was outlawed by Federal mandate. Citizens turned in the
devices to hazmat teams at their local fire and police stations. The
boxes were burned, sealed in leaded glass, and buried in the Yucca
Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Of course, even the
most diligent government effort couldn't account for all of the boxes. To
this day, secret websites and underground newsletters hint at a thriving
collector's market. Customs officials regularly seize shipments of DVDs
burned from those impossible movies and series. No one is sure what
effect viewing Probability Box images away from the sets will have.
Possibly none. But, for some viewers, it's likely that mastodons and
Graf-Zeppelins will haunt their streets and skies forever.
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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.