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Do I Know You?
Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates...
“Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates... When I pointed it out to my roommate, he said, "Do I know you?” - Stephen Wright
Multiverses are all the rage.
They've been a staple of science fiction & fantasy since as far back as the 18th century, but it seems like they're everywhere of late.
They're at the center of Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is still raking in awards, including eleven Oscar nominations. Disney's Marvel Money Machine just released the next film in what's shaping up to be a multiverse saga, while Sony is about to follow up Into the Spider-Verse with Across the Spider-Verse. Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere series spans several overlapping and intertwined universes. He raised $41M in a single Kickstarter with the latest books in the series.
And that's only a few recent examples. I could mention Star Trek: Discovery, but why?
While it's tempting to blame the trend on lack of originality, movies, TV shows, and books with multiverses are growing more popular, not less. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the movie critics held up as evidence of fans tiring of superheroes and multiverses because of "low sales," is hovers at just short of $1B in revenue.
Why do we love parallel worlds? Are they a form of wish fulfillment? A tool for showing us better (or worse) versions of our lives?
My first memory of multiple worlds is in DC Comics. They rebooted their superheroes in the mid-1950s, then introduced "Earth-2," where the "original" heroes lived, in a Flash comic in 1961. By the time I started reading the books, Earth-2 was a place the heroes visited from time to time, and graying versions of Superman, Batman, and their super friends were regular guests and sometimes even leads.
DC was always a little weird about their comic continuity. They would often label stories as "imaginary," which even little Ricky knew was silly. "Earth-2," and its inevitable variations and offshoots made sense; they could maintain two versions of their moneymakers without the stories being, uh, imaginary?
But it took Heinlein to show me the real potential of multiverses.
In the The Number of the Beast, a mathematician and his friends use a unique craft to travel to the Land of Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom (Mars), and eventually meet two Heinlein characters from other novels; Lazarus Long and Jubal Harshaw.
It doesn't sound like much now, and the story is an example of Heinlein at possibly his worst, but to a 14-year-old kid reading excerpts in Omni magazine, this was heady stuff.
My favorite characters could meet? That was allowed? Multiverses as wish fulfillment.
Not too many years later I binged a stack of Philip K. Dick novels while stationed on Crete. (Long story.) Two of them deal with parallel universes. In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, a venal, arrogant, and entitled aristocrat is sent to a universe where he doesn't exist and he has to fend for himself.
Finally, I read an example of parallel universes used as more than fan service! Not that it's rare. I was a just a multiversal late bloomer.
You've probably heard of the other, even if you've never read it. The Man in the High Castle starts out as alternate history and ends up in parallel universes. The Amazon Prime series is excellent and worth a watch, but doing the book justice in any sort of adaptation is impossible. Dick builds a bleak vision of a world where the Axis wins World War II, then uses it to write a story about everything including, oddly enough for him, hope.
It was this book, and the Stephen Wright joke, that I thought of last week when I watched Coherence (2014). I can't say much about this movie without spoiling it, but I can say that it uses the idea of multiple universes, and multiple versions of you and yours to ask some deep questions. It's well worth the 90 minutes it asks of you.
While they're in almost every way completely different films, Coherence and Everything Everywhere All at Once are examples of what stories about parallel worlds can be: stories that make you think about the universe you're in, rather than help you forget about it.
Give them both a shot if you haven't already.
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