Reading the wonderful and wild Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore a few months ago got me thinking about alternate dimensions–specifically, about their use in stories. The concept appears across a range of speculative fiction, including both sci-fi and fantasy stories, and across a variety of media. It can be an interesting way to explore the age-old question “What if?” as well as the idea that even the smallest events or decisions can change the course of lives.
So here’s my list of some favorite parallel universes in fiction. I wanted to tend more towards the idea of multiverses, so I haven’t included any stories where there are only two dimensions, such as Star Trek’s mirror universe, the world of Fauxlivia and Walternate in Fringe, and the Light/Dark worlds of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
The Flash (CW)
After scientist Barry Allen was gifted with super speed during an accident with Central City’s particle accelerator, he became the superhero known as the Flash. Barry can do some pretty crazy stuff with his speed powers, including traveling through time and opening portals into other dimensions. The breaches between dimensions weren’t originally intentional, more of a side effect of Barry trying to fix something else he’d done unintentionally. (This kind of stuff happens to Barry a lot.)
The Flash probably comes the closest on my list to a true multiverse idea. Barry Allen’s world is Earth One, the centerpoint or juncture of the multiverse. There are theoretically an infinite number of worlds comprising every possible existence (though about 50 are known in the show), each vibrating at a different frequency so they don’t normally interact.
Accordingly, some worlds have “doppelgangers” of our main characters; the Barry Allen of Earth Two, for example, is also a scientist but is not a meta-human and has no powers. There are also worlds where there is no Barry Allen.
This TV show was originally a spin-off of Arrow, and later crossed over with Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow as well. Together, the Arrowverse has been able to do some really fun stuff with dimensional travel, including an obligatory visit to a dimension where the Nazis won WWII.
A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab
I wrote in praise of this series a little while back, and one of the things I liked about it is the world building. The main character, Kell, is a magician who can travel between worlds: there are four total, and each has a version of London (Black, White, Red, and Grey). In fact, each has a specific tavern in a specific spot in the city, which serves as a kind centerpoint, but that’s about where the similarity between the worlds ends. Our world is ostensibly that of “Grey” London, the home of Lila Bard, which is ruled by the Prince Regent (later George IV) and has no magic. Black London, however, was basically destroyed by magic, and White London still feels the effects of this, struggling to hold onto what power they can, which manifests in major societal and political upheavals.
Red London, Kell’s London, does still have magic, and Kell is their ambassador to White and Grey, being one of the ancient line of Antari, who can do blood magic to cross worlds. Antari are few and far between, and are distinguished by a single black-filled eye (the color black is closely associated with magic in general in this series). They draw magic seals with their blood, speak a phrase in the language of magic, and use a token from the other world to cross over (leaving us to wonder how the first Antari got their tokens, but that’s really not important to the story). They can also travel between two points in the same world, but when crossing worlds always travel to the same geographic point they left in the last world.
These four worlds are parallel in time, but not civilizations or events. Because so few people are able to travel between worlds, and transporting objects is forbidden, even the cultural exchange is extremely limited. There are no doppelgangers here, and while a world may die like Black London, there is no evidence that new ones are ever created.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
This series, sometimes thought of as the “anti-Narnia,” begins with hints of alternate dimensions in The Golden Compass, but it’s not until the second book, The Subtle Knife, that the idea begins to really be explored. This cosmos is also theoretically a multiverse, which concept the characters refer to as the Barnard-Stokes Theorem. Just as in ADSoM, the two main characters, Lyra and Will, come from two different universes.
There are several ways of crossing between universes, the most prominent being the titular Subtle Knife. Will becomes the owner of this double-edged blade, one side of which can cut a window between worlds. However, this power is not without price: the children eventually discover that each piece of inter-dimensional fabric that is cut off becomes a Spectre that menaces adults (kids are safe).
Several worlds are visited in the course of the story. Will’s world appears to be our world, and Lyra’s is relatively similar (they both even have an Oxford University). Some are completely different, such as the world of the mulefa, animals that have evolved to use wheels, or the land of the dead. The story does not present any doppelgangers, either because they don’t exist or because the chances of actually meeting one in the multiverse would be slim.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Nine Princes in Amber has one of my favorite openings of any novel ever: our protagonist wakes in a medical facility (presumably in our world) with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there, only the vague sense that he was injured and is now being kept incapacitated. He eventually remembers that he is Corwin, Prince of Amber, the one true world; all other worlds are simply shadows of Amber.
The royal family of Amber can manipulate the Shadows, essentially creating whole worlds where they can live like kings, or disappear into obscurity. They speak of “adding” and “subtracting” things as they travel through various realities on the way to Amber. With such mathematical language, it make sense that Amber turns out to be only one anchoring pole of reality, that of order; the world of Chaos is its opposite pole, with the Shadows existing between them. The royals also have a special set of cards, trumps with their own portraits, that allow them to communicate across worlds.
The parallel universes are the backdrop for a grand political struggle among the royal family, taking place over generations. Corwin in particular has spent a lot of time in the Shadows, but eventually makes his way back to Amber to fight for the crown. One interesting detail is that different universes can apparently have different laws of physics; some have different color skies, for example. Also, gunpowder does not ignite in Amber, which results in a lot of sword fighting in the books.
My favorite authors of Japanese manga are a group of 4 women collectively known as CLAMP. Over their prolific career they have produced dozens of stories, most of which crossover to form a loose universe. Nowhere is that so evident than in the two series XXXholic and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (which directly crossover, but can be read separately). In the CLAMPverse, crossing between dimensions requires such great magical power that only few can do such a thing; one of these is Yuuko the Dimensional Witch, who runs a magical store where wishes can be granted for a price. A group of travelers comes to her asking to be given the power to journey between dimensions, not just once but many times (they all have their own reasons for this quest), and she gives them white Mokona.
What is Mokona exactly? “Mokona is Mokona!” the creature helpfully cries. Mokona (a version of character originally created for Magic Knight Rayearth) has the power to take the group between dimensions by kind of sucking them into a giant whirlwind in its mouth. It’s catchphrase when traveling is “Mokona Modoki mo doki doki!” which loosely means “Mokona is getting excited, too!”
The number of dimensions in the CLAMPverse is unknown, but it seems to be many, if not infinite. We see several dozen of the throughout the course of the story. We also meet versions of many, many characters found in CLAMP’s other works, most importantly Cardcaptor Sakura (my all-time favorite manga). Each version of the character we meet is different, living in under different circumstances, but they each have the same soul and therefore have many things in common, often having similar personalities, characteristics, preferences, and mannerisms. For example, Tomoyo (first seen as a schoolgirl in CCS), is a princess in one world and the president of a toy company in another, but is always polite and caring.
Honorable Mention: Sliders
I would include this 1990s TV show on my list, except that I haven’t seen enough of it to really count myself a fan. It follows the adventures of a group of travelers “sliding” between universes to try to get to back to their home dimension. The show also has a multiverse concept; because some universes are more technologically advanced than others, it also lets the show occasionally explore time travel-type scenarios as well.