With the exception of the ability to travel across time, the first glimpse of Detective- Lieutenant Gene Trimble's world seems very similar to twentieth-century America. As the narrative of "All the Myriad Ways" advances, it becomes evident that there are distinct differences between the history presented in the story and actual events that happened in the twentieth century. References to the Cuba War and eradicated cities give the reader clues that not only is "All the Myriad Ways" about alternate timelines, but it in fact takes place in an alternate timeline.
In the story, Harmon is an eccentric millionaire who has invested his money for years in impractical projects. One of his ventures succeeds, however—machines that can travel across time. This ability has made Harmon rich and has enabled people on Earth to introduce new technologies from other, more advanced timelines. A curious effect of the discovery has also been an extraordinarily high rate of suicide among the pilots of the time machines as well as the population at large. Is it caused, as Bentley suggests, by "a new bug from some alternate timeline," or by something even more sinister?
"Breathes there a history student with soul so dead, that he has not wondered what would have happened if?" asks Niven in his introduction to "All the Myriad Ways" in his N-Space. Niven believes that this question is the foundation of the interplay of ideas that attract young readers to his alternate history fiction. In the case of "All the Myriad Ways," he challenges the validity of the very concept of alternate histories by revealing the contradictions of physics that would be inherent in the concept. He humanizes the problem by having people act out the contradictions such as having Trimble shoot himself, and yet not shoot himself. It is an absurdity that the bullet would choose different directions to go in different timelines.
Niven asserts that alternate timeline stories are not actually science fiction, but fantasies "without fantasy trappings." By this, he means that the stories have more in common with tales of unicorns and dragons than with stories in which science is to be taken seriously. Further, he says, "In fantasy, more than in other forms of literature, the obligation is to teach something universally true about the human condition." Thus, when one studies "All the Myriad Ways" or Niven's other alternate timeline fiction, it would be well for one to keep in mind that Niven is trying to communicate something about the human condition. The suicides, murders, and crimes in "All the Myriad Ways" reveal something about human beings in general. Clues to what Niven wishes to say about people may be found in such phrases as "If every choice was cancelled elsewhere, why make a decision at all?" and "If alternate universes are a reality, then cause and effect are an illusion. The law of averages is a fraud." People, these assertions suggest, need the certitude of cause and effect; they need the knowledge that when one takes a particular action that it will have particular effects (the effects need not be known ahead of time, just so long as they exist). Every cause has an effect, every effect has causes. Without this, human beings become insane, taking spontaneous, crazy actions because the actions have no true effects.
(The entire section is 1,698 words.)