Okay, to begin with, I’m writing an article which might be rather spoiler-y. If you fear you might be playing a current popular video-game with, shall we say, an infinite nature that this article might spoil, you might want to stop reading now. Just saying.
Everyone still here? Good.
While watching Steve play the ending of Bioshock Infinite with its musings on alternate realities binding together, we started a small discussion on the nature of alternate realities and multiverses. It’s hardly a new idea; it actually shows up in ancient Hindu mythology and One Thousand and One Nights long before modern sci-fi gets ahold of it. Important events can cause time or reality to diverge, creating two separate realities, or variant realities exist side-by-side where things are subtly, or not so subtly, different.
It got us talking about some famous multiverses, and I thought it might be interesting to look back on them. Perhaps they’ll inspire you to ponder on your own reality…and what alternatives there might be.
One of the most famous multiverses is one that most people probably don’t think of as a multiverse most of the time. I doubt even DC Comics considered their creation a multiverse at first. They had their Golden Age creations from the 30s and 40s, and then they shelved them in order to create new versions of many of the same characters in the Silver Age of the 50s and 60s.
After a few successful guest appearances by the old Golden Age characters in Silver Age comics, DC had the idea of being able to use all of these characters whenever they wanted. They did so by creating the idea that the Golden Age was still going on “Earth-Two” while the Silver Age stories existed on “Earth-One”. Suddenly we had two alternate worlds. A year later, Earth-Three was introduced – a world on which the superheroes we knew and loved were complete villains.
This multiverse concept allowed DC Comics to pass quickly over any number of continuity gaffs. They bought the rights to other comic-book company characters as the companies failed, and each one could be given a “new Earth” to be its home.
After a while, DC felt they wanted to streamline their books, which ultimately led to the infamous culling of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The concept of multiple Earths was done away with, and all of the heroes now existed on one world (although Grant Morrison pulled out the Earth-Three concept in JLA: Earth Two by way of an “antimatter universe” containing villainous versions of the JLA.) The desire to explain continuity weirdness was spun into the “Hypertime” concept of The Kingdom, but since Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, the two writers who primarily brought Hypertime into existence soon left DC Comics, this fell a little flat. Further attempts to explain continuity resulted in Infinite Crisis, in which we end up with multiple Earths, and then a New Earth which combines them all.
Finally, DC decided it was time for the multiverse to come back, and, in 52, we witness the secret creation of 52 parallel Earths, allowing once again for different realities to explain any continuity oddnesses. This led to a wonderful Booster Gold series in which Booster ends up as a partner to Time Master Rip Hunter, carefully patching the fragile time stream that has resulted in this kooky new multiverse.
Finally, with the change to the New 52, we still have a multiverse, or at least two Earths. These two Earths seem to be fairly similar until the invasion of Earth by Apokolips. On “our” Earth, Darkseid is defeated by the Justice League. On Earth-2, it seems that only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were around as “Wonders”, and they gave their lives to stop the invasion, leaving a world with no heroes. New versions of the Flash, the Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, the Atom, and others are slowly coming together to form what is likely to be the new Justice Society in the comic Earth-2. Meanwhile, in World’s Finest, Supergirl and Robin from Earth-2 have crossed over to Earth-1 and assumed new identities as Powergirl and the Huntress.
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
In an absolutely fascinating meta-idea, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series has essentially transformed all of Stephen King’s novels into a Multiverse. In this series, the Dark Tower is the nexus of all realities, and people from various realities (many of which feature in Stephen King stories) join together or fight one another.
Roland Deschain is a gunslinger (pretty much a knight) from the land of Gilead in In-World. He is questing to find the Dark Tower, seemingly to climb it and question whatever god he finds atop it. It turns out that, not only are there parallel worlds, but that Roland is forced to constantly relive this quest, entering the Dark Tower only to end up at the beginning of the quest again. At the end of the quest covered by the novels, however, Roland seems to have finally learned about love and family, and the suggestion seems to be that the next time he performs the quest, it will be the last.
The parallel worlds of the Dark Tower include our own (and indeed, Stephen King appears as an important character in the story), In-World, Mid-World, where Roland meets Jake, a boy who’s destiny he is tied to, and other strange realities that are tied together by “Beams” with the Dark Tower at their hub.
Over the course of the novels, Roland and his companions battle with Randall Flagg (who was also the villain the The Stand and The eyes of the Dragon), ally with Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot, and even draw elements from Star Wars and Harry Potter. It’s a multiverse of multiverses in its way, and many Stephen King books refer to elements of the Dark Tower series.
Brilliant Books, Terrible Film
It’s a shame that the movie of The Golden Compass was so bad. It would’ve been very interesting to see the film-makers tackle the dark directions that the series took at the end of and further into the books of the His Dark Materials series.
In the series, Lyra and Will, the two main characters, do a lot of travel through and jumping between parallel worlds. Will, in fact, seems to be from our own Earth, though he escapes into the multiverse by way of an invisible window. Eventually, he becomes the wielder of the Subtle Knife, which can cut windows between worlds. They travel through various worlds, including a vast city full of only children, the Land of the Dead, and the Clouded Mountain, home of the Authority (a.k.a. God).
The Wood Between the Worlds
Not to go too much further, as this article is getting long, but the concept of a multiverse shows up in a quiet way even in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Mostly, the stories take place in only two worlds – Earth and Narnia. There’s a rather striking moment in The Magician’s Nephew, however, which suggests that there may be many worlds indeed.
Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke, the novel’s child protagonists, are tricked into using magic rings to travel into what Polly calls The Wood Between the Worlds, a place where nothing happens. The Wood apparently connects many worlds by a series of magic pools. Charn, where Jadis (a.k.a. the White Witch) comes from is a world that’s mostly used up, but she uses the Wood to travel first to Earth and then to Narnia at the moment of its creation.
Since the Wood contained many pools, it can be assumed that Narnia is part of a multiverse, although we don’t visit many of its worlds in the series.
Clearly, the concept of the alternate reality is alive and well in fiction. I know I’ve used it myself in D&D games, especially as a way to have the players fight evil versions of themselves, or to end up in a blasted, Hellish version of their own world (when I wanted to run some Dark Sun without starting a new campaign.
The multiverse takes the concept of an alternate reality or history just a few steps further positing multiple realities that’re tied together. When given such an incredible tool, an author can really work with no limitations. Anything is possible when everything is possible.
Do you have a favorite multiversal storyline? Is there a crucial series I’ve left out of my accounting? I know I’ve touched on just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m sure I’ll think of a million examples as soon as my article is done. Let us all know what you think.