Shannon Gilligan’s “Cup of Death” is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style novel where the reader makes decisions about which path to take every time the storyline comes to a crossroads. The core of the story revolves around finding who took a valuable tea bowl from a Japanese tea ceremony. What is peculiar about the story is that it has multiple outcomes that exist in the same universe, yet are stout contradictions with the other branches of the timeline. For instance, if the reader chooses to investigate Hiro Narita, a Japanese congressman and guest at the tea ceremony, the resolution of the story is that a maid by the name of Akiko Tanaka took the bowl and has multiple motivations for the act based on your actions, the most innocent being she wanted her ill grandfather to have a nice bowl for likely his last New Years’ tea ceremony. However, if the reader chooses to investigate Shoji Hata, an official from the ministry of the arts, or Noriko Oda, a gem dealer, you learn that they are in cahoots to steal the valuable bowl to sell on the black market. With this line of reality, many more nefarious outcomes become available, such as the reader being drowned in the trunk of a car or being shot while hiding in a closet.
Since the different outcomes cannot even agree on the basic principles of the story, such as having the same criminal, it’s tempting to dismiss the book as nonsensical. However, our perceptions are skewed by the omnipotence that we as readers are granted by rereading the story multiple times to discover the contradictory outcomes. If one were to just read one outcome and only that outcome, the reader would leave satisfied as the story provided, while short, is logical based on the information given. It’s only by viewing the timeline of the book as a tree of decisions instead of linearly, as we would experience it in real life, that the book starts to lose its cohesiveness.
But is it not the same as real life? Our lives are filled with what-ifs and hypothetical scenarios that we can only play out in our minds. What if this book presents a “butterfly effect” type of thinking in reference to time and that the effects are extreme? For instance, perhaps Akiko borrowing the bowl drives something in the reader to choose to investigate Hiro Narita rather than Hata or Oda. Our actions have not caused Akita to take the bowl, but instead her actions have affected our choice. Instead of only seeing the viewpoint that our decisions create the outcomes, maybe the other characters decisions have affected our timeline so that we choose to investigate different suspects accordingly. This leads into a debate of the existence of fate as a predetermined linear timeline that cannot be altered once certain decisions have been made, but that is a topic for a much longer paper.
A beautiful tie in for both the idea of seemingly contradictory timelines and the futuristic dystopian theme this course often takes is the game series Fallout. The game is played from the viewpoint of “the Chosen One,” the person who will come from a vault to restore humanity to a nuclear wasteland across America. The game is very in depth with the factions of people with which one can interact and the outcomes are heavily affected by the missions completed and the “karma” of the character based on their crimes against humanity, such as theft, murder or cannibalism. The combination of your actions and the actions of the factions can change your outcome from purifying a water source in Washington D.C. to save the city to becoming a ruthless wanderer who enslaves innocent people for profit. In both Fallout and “Cup of Death,” all possible outcomes are equal and rational, but the choices that we and the other characters make can completely change the story to the point of being nearly unrelated.