Have we gone multiverse crazy? Iain Banks' latest novel, Transition, is just the latest of a long line of sideways-traveling books, and this theme is more prevalent than ever. Here are some of my favorites, with spoilers and foul language.
The idea of traveling between alternate realities is a common theme in speculative fiction. Multiverse stories are a logical extension of allohistory, and a close relative of that other grand old convention, time travel. The idea is often explained as inspired by the Many-Worlds Interpretation first formulated by Hugh Everett in 1957, but its use in literature and storytelling has been long with us. Jorge Luis Borges used the theme in his 1941 story "The Garden of Forking Paths". There are earlier examples in Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World of 1666 (recently revisited by Alan Moore) and in one of the stories in the One Thousand and One Nights. Ancient multiverses can be found in the Hindu cosmology and the nine worlds of the Norse mythos were around long before Jack Kirby.
Right from the start, Banks' Transition has superficial similarities to Michael Moorcock, especially the Jerry Cornelius stories. Both books feature amoral agents with shifting loyalties, flitting between versions of Earth. They party down in exotic locales, averting or causing global calamity — like rock stars trashing an infinity of hotel suites. Victorian airships and super-assassins abound. The theory goes that all of Moorcock's fiction is one big multiverse, from the Sword and Sorcery worlds of Elric of Melniboné or Corum Jhaelen Irsei to the decadent Dancers at the End of Time. All the various characters in these works are aspects or avatars of a stock cast of meta-players often compared to the Commedia dell'Arte theater tradition with its tricksters, oafs, and backstabbers. Jerry Cornelius is a 20th Century face of the slightly mis-named Eternal Champion. He's an anarchist secret-agent, a super-slick antihero whirling in a blaze of intoxicants and ready fuck anything that fucking moves. David Bowie as Doctor Who, turned up to fuckin' twelve! While quite entertaining, it should be no surprise that these quintessential examples of SF's New Wave movement can be a wee bit disorienting. Product of the times.
For a speculative fiction ride of sex, drugs, and rock&roll that's less experimental (ahem, easier to read), I prefer Mick Farren, singer of the proto-punk band The Deviants, White Panther Party member, and Elvis scholar. Out of print, but well worth the hunt, are his multiverse romps in The DNA Cowboys Trilogy and Necrom, some truly weird fun shit. The dimension-tripping demon Yancey Slide from those adventures also turns up in the more recent Kindling and Conflagration He also wrote the Victor Renquist novels, a series of vampire novels that aren't totally lame. 2002's Underland has the CIA, vampires, and Nazis duking it out with flying saucers in the Hollow Earth beneath Antarctica. Yeah. Hell, just track down anything you can by Mick Farren.
Along with Moorcock, two other Monsters of Multiverse Literature ( or "Mul-Lit") are The Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny and the series that inspired that, World of Tiers by Philip José Farmer. They have much more of a fantasy feel than the above, especially because of an overuse of courtly language in the former and centaurs and other classic monsters in the latter. You'll also find plenty of complex machinations by powerful groups or families (Zelazny is notorious for Daddy Issues) and decadent, lusty adventure (more of Farmer's bag in trade, but evident in both). I enjoyed both of these series as a teen, but to be honest that was a long time ago and my impressions are murky at best. I recall the fiveTiers with more fondness, but that might be due to the risqué covers by Boris Vallejo. I can assert with some authority that the reader should stop after the first five Amber books, do not read the second series, do not collect the recent stuff written by John Gregory Betancourt. Sadly, Amber suffers from a terminal case of Herberts' Syndrome.
The quirky standalone Roadmarks by Zelazny could be considered a multiverse book. In it, the space-time continuum is an actual highway accessible to a few. The protagonist tools around the centuries in a dusty old pickup running guns to the Persians at Marathon. Occassionally he passes Hitler, his VW bug parked at the side of the road looking for the weed-choked off road to where he won WWII. I'm going to try and fit in some Amber andTiers, maybe revisit Riverworld too, just for old time's sake.
Now that I'm thoroughly soaked in nostalgia, allow me to wax rhetorical on multiverse comic books I always liked. Yes, they're old, I'm old; get used to it, and get off my urine-covered stoop.
The capes-and-tights set is plagued with multiverses, and they're always having Ultimate Critical Infinity Wars — boooring. A refreshing change from all that was the " Zenith" strip in2000 AD (1987-1992). This was young Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's contribution to the British superhero deconstruction attack of the 1980s. It had battles between multiple Earths, hippie/fascist versions of the same superheroes, the Lloigor from the Cthulhu Mythos, and a hero who was a real asshole. Yeowell's brushy B & W artwork was a sweet counterpoint to the usual 4-color superhero look, too.
For graphical goodies of a more science fictional bent, you cant go wrong with the ligne claire and spacey psychedlia of Jean Giraud better known as Moebius, co-creator of Métal Hurlant magazine. The Airtight Garage is a series of artificial pocket universes built into the asteroid Flower 51. They are the playgrounds/battlefields for the likes of Lady Malvina, Major Gubert, the crew of the spaceship Ciguri, and Jerry Cornelius. Hey, whaaa? Yep, Moorcock allowed other artists, writers, and musicians the use of the character in a sort of Open Source deal. For a while Marvel had a problem with that and the character was renamed Lewis Carnelian for a while. Weird. There are songs about Jerry by Blue Öyster Cult and Hawkwind, but I digress. Moebius returned to the Airtight Garage in '96 with Man from the Ciguri from Dark Horse. All lots of fun.
Bryan Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is also often compared to Moorcock, and in many ways improves upon him. Frankly, when you want to read about sexy psychic spies fighting transdimensional evil, it's hard to top the Arkwright stories. I love Talbot's vision of alternate Britains, like the one where Cromwell's Revolution still rages on and the Puritans terrorize the skies from massive airships. The complex plot jumps around jarringly in the original series, before finally coalescing, as you begin to see the multiverse as Luther does. There is also an audio version with the voices of David Tennant and Paul Darrow, I've never heard it — but wow, fangasm. The later 1999 sequel, Heart of Empire from Dark Horse again, follows the story of Luther's daughter in a much more linear fashion, with absolutely gorgeous art and much of that retro-Victorian futurism the kids like.
I have a particular fondness for the idiosyncratic doodles of doom by of Matt Howarth. His anarchic city-world of Bugtown is the home of indestructible assassins, rockstars, giant sharks, and nuclear goddesses; all of whom flit through the most surreal and impossible alternate universes imaginable. The series Those Annoying Post Brothers and Savage Henry are just packed full of crazy. Many experimental underground musicians make regular appearances in Howarth's work. There are adventures featuring Conrad Schnitzler, The Residents, and Micheal Moorcock collaborators, Hawkwind. Geez, that guy gets his beard into everything. Howarth also draws great aliens that look really alien, like cacti crossed with really uncomfortable furniture. Look for the very funny SF Konny & Czu strips.
"So Grey", I hear you say, " how about something less reminiscent of your college-dorm lava-lamp days? Something more, y'know [describes a circle in the air] for the kids?"
Well, the most well known Young Adult books with multiverse themes would probably be Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Chris Roberson should be getting a lot more attention for his time-space tripping adventures of the Bonaventure-Carmody family in novels likeHere, There & Everywhere, Paragea, and End of the Century. Oh and big surprise, Roberson has worked with Michael Moorcock often.
For something different, try Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin. This is a collection of bright and witty capriccios about a woman who discovers how to shift to alternate worlds by being bored and dyspeptic in airport waiting rooms. As usual, LeGuin makes many wry observations about society and class. There's one story about a civilization of flightless avian people and their transcontinentaln migrations...the ending is beautiful. I could mention Dark Tower series by Stephen King or Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes but I'm just not into them, so I won't. Philip K. Dick's doesn't make the cut either: that's really only a duoverse.
I really loved Neal Stephenson's Anathem and it's all about the multiverse, but does it really belong with these other stories? Well of course it does! If for no other reason than it's completely different from the Michael Moorcock imitators. Yes, all the action takes place in one cosmos — going to another world is a one-way trip and requires a big honkin' generation starship. There is the mystery of Fraa Jaad, who appears to be able to move at will between the slightest possibilities. I noticed something odd, even though Stephenson beats us about the head and neck with tons of higher mathematics and metaphysics, he's awfully vague about the actual mechanism for traveling from one reality to another. This is probably the smartest move. Some writers do a lot of handwaving about Quantum and dress it up in blinky lights and an Einstein-Rosen bridge. But usually, it just boils down to closing your eyes and clicking your heels three times. How very apt for a thought experiment.
Multiverse stories are becoming more prevalent on TV these days. That kid from Stand by Me fought Nazi cavemen from Dimension X or whatever in Sliders. The color coded Charlie Jade looked interesting, but I haven't watched it yet. Lost has used the Many Worlds Interpretation, but they will try just about anything these days.
I see Leonard Nimoy is going back and forth in alternate worlds a lot these days (in Fringe and the Star Trek movie.) Glad to see that sort of thing again.
Somebody asked me recently if multiverses were the Next Big Thing in Speculative Fiction? I like the multiverse concept and would like to see different takes on it, that aren't all about decadent ubermensch and their interdimensional power struggles.
And honestly, we don't need Next Big Things. Trendy conventions in writing are a symptom of a lack of originality. Speculative fiction itself should be a glorious sprawling multiverse exploring all manner of settings and styles. Right now, too many of the worlds in the new book section are getting too recognizable, I'm looking at you Contemporary Urban Fantasy! And you with the top hat and goggles, we've talked before about this, you need to seek help.
So yeah, this trip down multiverse lane has been fun — but I think it points out a flaw in sub-genre stories. Why do they all start running together? Why so many Shadowy Conspirancies, Power Hungry Libertarian Scensters and Moral Relatavisim in a majority of these alternate reality adventures. The Multiverse must have more possibilities than that.
Special thanks to Alan Beatts and Chris Braak for their helpful ideas.
Top image from Heart of Empire by Bryan Talbot, 1999.
Commenter Grey_Area is known on many worlds as Chris Hsiang. He brachiates through the endlessly forking branches of possibility frightening all the turtledoves.