Parallel Universes

Doc Rampage has posted an interesting comment on the idea of the concept of a multiverse in Science Fiction writing.

How can there be drama when you know that by hypothesis of the story, every good thing that happens is accompanies by an infinite number of grotesquely evil things that happen? How can you even have moral choices? Sure, the hero can save this damsel, but then he is condemning some other damsel in the possible world where he didn’t save her. Why not let his own world be the one where she is not saved, thereby letting some other him in another world live happily ever after and taking the tragic consequences himself? Wouldn’t that be the noble action?

In a multiverse where everything that is possible is real, nothing real matters.

I wanted to make a couple comments on this idea. First, I disagree that in a multiverse nothing really matters. In fact, all that really matters in any story is what the author chooses to tell us. In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War the author uses the concept of a multiverse to explain interstellar travel. Someone has invented a device that pushes a starship into another universe. With the concept that there are an infinite number of possibilities, there exists a universe where the the ship will appear in the desired location, and the story continues following that character. There is little chance that through this method the ship, or character, would ever return to their ‘original’ universe since the concept is that only a nearby universe can be jumped to. The more time that goes by, the greater the divergence is between universes, and the less likely it is you will jump back to the one you came from.

While this concept took me a while to get my head around, I think it is a great use of the idea of alternative universes. In fact, when you really think about it, any fiction is already a world of infinite possibilities. An author creates their own universe based on the decisions they make. In the example of the damsel, hero and train, the author creates the world where the damsel is saved or lost – the only thing that ultimately matters is the story that’s put down to the paper.

Lawrence-Watt Evans, whose essay On Infinite Possibilities Doc references in his post, discusses the folly of attempting to write a story that diverges from any particular point in history (past, present or future).

Choosing one particular variant is all very well for fictional purposes, I suppose–but for me, it turns the story into pure fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy, but most alternate histories strike me as a rather drab sort of fantasy. That’s why I haven’t written very many, and why I declined invitations to submit stories to Mike Resnick’s other “Alternate” anthologies.

Using this reasoning, doesn’t all fiction become ‘fantasy’? Isn’t every story based on the concept of taking a character from a starting point and creating a world he or she lives in?

Sounds to me like the difficulty comes when an author attempts to create their own universe, at least one that is predicated on the one we live in. A story that is set in the world we live in, and just focuses on the activities of the characters is fine. Likewise, a story that exists in a world that never is or was connected to ours is also fine, although that is obviously pure fantasy. Otherwise, I don’t see how it matters if there are infinite possibilities, or just the one the author creates. The result is the same – it diverges from ours and becomes a fantasy story.