They’re expanding everywhere: an infinite series of novels, an endless number of parallel stories, each one populated by people who seem similar to us but whose lives have changed in just one salient way. It’s easy to hop from earth to earth in this multiverse of fiction, just by flicking from book to book along the shelves. In fact, often you don’t even need to look for them. They pop up unexpectedly right next to the one you’ve just been reading over.
What is it with parallel worlds? I’ve just started reading Extinction Game by Gary Gibson, following hot on the heels of Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown, and the ever-growing series of The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. In each case, parallel worlds loom large in the storyline. Extinction Game has been a great read so far with a cool dystopian setting, and Jani and the Greater Game is also highly recommend, but there are too many of these multiverse novels out there. Obviously these writers all started work many years ago, so it’s just coincidence that they are all appearing at the same time.
This trend must have been triggered by the growing scientific belief that we may indeed be living in just one universe of many, in one fragment of a greater multiverse. Professor Brian Cox this week announced that he too supports the idea, so it’s not just an idle fancy of modern novelists. Nevertheless, my problem with parallel worlds is that I just don’t believe in them. It is beyond me to suspend my disbelief to think that somewhere there is a parallel me busy writing a blog about how much I love parallel worlds.
The only time it really works is in long-running TV or comic series, where we get to enjoy seeing our heroes in real danger, such as in this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (both Marvel and DC have long set their comic book stories in an ever-growing multiverse).
One of the very best Doctor Who stories is 1970’s Inferno where the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) accidentally leaps into an alternative earth where all his UNIT colleagues have become agents of a fascist state. The Brigadier is particularly nasty, sporting an eyepatch and being without his moustache (actor Nicholas Courtney’s moustache was fake during the classic series run).
The facial hair was going the other way in the legendary 1967 Star Trek story Mirror, Mirror The Enterprise encounters Spock sporting a goatee aboard an alternate Enterprise, where promotion is achieved by killing superior officers. Consistently voted one of the best chapters of the original series, the parallel universe conceit weaves its magic onscreen because it gives the cast something new to do, a chance to flex their acting muscles. The Mirror universe, as the parallel world became known, grew to be a major element in Star Trek comics spin-offs long after the original series had been cancelled.
The problem is that once an author sets the action on a parallel world, death and tragedy don’t really count for anything. People can just pop off to the next world in line, which is what I’m starting to feel like doing every time I’m dropped into yet another one of these ever-expanding multiverses.