In my recent discussion about time travel I touched on the idea of the branching timelines. It’s an idea that is very attractive. We’ve all thought, at one time or another: “What if I had done something different? What if I had just walked away? What if I had turned left instead of right?”
What if that universe, the one where I did something different, was just around the metaphorical corner? What if I could travel to that other universe and see the consequences of a different action than the one I took.
The idea that multiple realities exist just out of reach, and the possibilities that we can travel through them is not a new idea in science fiction. The “parallel universe” trope was explored by H. G. Welles in his 1923 novel Men Like Gods. Wells posits a utopia that exists in another reality.
Murray Leinster’s 1934 story “Sidewise in Time” introduces the concept of “sidewise” time travel to allow characters to pass through many different alternative histories, all descendant from some common branch point.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s H. Beam Piper used this concept, naming it “paratime” and writing a series of stories involving the Paratime Police who regulated travel between these alternative realities as well as the technology to do so.
Keith Laumer used the same concept of “sideways” time travel in his 1962 novel Worlds of the Imperium. Novels such as Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem explore human-scale readings of the “many worlds” interpretation, postulating that historical events or human consciousness spawns or allows “travel” among alternative universes.
Many of Michael Moorcock’s novels and short stories take place in a shared Multiverse: an array of interconnected parallel universes, many-layered dimensions, spheres, and alternative worlds, spanning from the Big Bang to the End of Time and from planet Earth to faraway galaxies.
Interestingly enough, this crazy idea is not limited to science fiction.
In 1957 American physicist Hugh Everett III first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, which he termed his “relative state” formulation. In contrast to the then-dominant Copenhagen interpretation, the MWI posits that the wave function never collapses and that all possibilities of a quantum superposition are objectively real. This implies that all possible outcomes of quantum measurements are physically realized in some “world” or universe.
Everett was universally decried as a weirdo for this. Indeed Everett was described by one of Niels Bohr’s associates as “undescribably stupid”. The consensus was that Everett simply did not understand the simplest things about quantum mechanics. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that his ideas were taken seriously by physicists.
In more recent times, the Many Worlds concept has begun to enter the mainstream and it comes with a slick new catchphrase: The Multiverse.
The Multiverse encompasses all of these earlier concepts, the “parallel universes”, “other universes”, “alternate universes”, or “many worlds”. Together, these universes comprise everything that exists: the entirety of space, time, matter, energy, information, and the physical laws and constants that describe them.
In fiction the multiverse has been adopted in a big way by the American comic book industry. Oh, sure, one could be cynical and view it as a convenient way to reconcile the continuity mistakes that have built up over many years that certain comic book titles have been publishing, and, there is a lot of truth in that statement.
But beyond that it is an exciting concept that allows writers to explore alternative takes, and to play with established canon with relative impunity.
So here we are today, with the Multiverse serving as the backbone of several high profile film franchises. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gave us a glimpse of every spider-man variation there ever was from Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen to Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir by introducing them as spider-heroes from different multiverses.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home Doctor Strange inadvertently opens up portals to the multiverse as an excuse to bring the actors and villains from the Sony Spider-Man films into the MCU film.
Then the MCU released Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in order to introduce new and variant versions of the Marvel heroes.
But is the multiverse just a clever tool to allow characters and actors licensed to different studios to play together in the same sandbox? Or is there something more to it than that?
Take the recent film from A-24, Everything Everywhere All at Once. This absurdist comedy-drama stars Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese-American immigrant who, while being audited by the IRS, discovers that she must connect with parallel universe versions of herself to prevent a powerful being from destroying the multiverse. The film has garnered a lot of praise and more than a few awards and has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Picture. I expect to see it mentioned more than once come Oscar time.
But what is it about the idea of a multiverse that people find so compelling? What is the appeal of the idea that alternate universes could really exist and, possibly, be accessed?
Could it be that the general feeling of movie audiences is one of dissatisfaction with the universe in which we live? Or is it something more?
It’s interesting that these multiverse stories have become popular at a time when we in the Western world, face an overwhelming range of choices in our daily lives. Streaming services give us multitudes of entertainment to choose from. The services themselves provide us with a choice: Netflix or Amazon Prime? Apple TV or Disney Plus? Hulu or HBO Max?
Hungry? Burger King or McDonald’s? KFC or Popeye’s? Olive Garden or Outback Steak House? Coke? Pepsi? Sprite? 7-Up? Mars Bar? 3 Musketeers? Arrow? Caramilk? The choices are dizzying and we seem to face more of them every day. Is our consumerist society nearing a breaking point? Is that the angst that feeds the desire for stories about the multiverse?
Or is it points of view? With Facebook, Titter, Instagram and Tik-Tok we have never been more connected to other human beings. We have never had such access to different points of view. And yet some people are rebelling against it. People have so much access to new information and different perspectives that some are fearful of losing their identity in a sea of otherness, and they fight back. There are movements that are attempting to claw their singular realities back, to shut the curtain, so to speak, on the multiple branches of reality. There are those who, through fear and hatred, are trying to shut out the other points of view and to drag everyone back with them.
Or is it all just an excuse to have a fun romp through different possibilities?
You tell me. Where do you stand in the multiverse? Do you embrace it or is it driving you to madness?