My Top 5 Parallel Universes

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

CLAMPverse

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Sakura, Syaoran, Mokona, and Kurogane from Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle Omnibus v.4

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!”

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Mokona: Cutest method of dimensional travel

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.

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The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you guys are looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, check out The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix.

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Sean Bean stars as John Marlott, a London investigator tracking down the origin of a disturbing creation: a corpse that is actually an amalgamation of multiple children.  Does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, is trying to pass?  Or with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and theories of galvanism?  The show has wonderful atmosphere and suspense.  I really liked the twists in the first season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the second season, which is now available.

The science of the show is pretty hand-wavey, but that’s forgivable given the show’s strengths.  It does incorporate several real historical figures and events, including Peel, Shelley, and William Blake.  It is set about ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, which was a great choice because not only can we see the impact of the novel on society, but it also gives the show a more steampunk vibes, being closer to the Victorian era than the Regency.

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The show is clearly inspired by Frankenstein itself, and I think this interpretation is preferable to another straight adaptation of the novel.  It gives a great perspective on the monster!  When Marlott reads the novel in the show, it inspired me to finally read the classic story, which is very different than the popular conception of it.

Here are some Frankenstein Facts:

  1. This year is the 200th anniversary of its publication.
  2. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she conceived of the idea for the novel, after a suggestion by the poet Byron that he, Mary, and her future husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley each write a ghost story as a kind of party game.
  3. It is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters and journal entries.
  4. Its subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” after the Titan that helped create man, then gave them fire in defiance of Zeus (only to be sentenced to an eternity of solitary torment).
  5. It was ranked #43 on the Great American Read list.
  6. Popular conception of the story comes from the Universal Pictures 1930s series of movies starring Boris Karloff as the monster, as well as the later Hammer Films series of movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
  7. It is considered one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre.

As a novel, I found Frankenstein mildly underwhelming.  I’m not sold on the framing narrative involving an Arctic explorer writing letters home to his sister, and the prose lacks the wit of my Regency favorite Jane Austen.  However, as a forerunner to modern sci-fi, its importance cannot be overstated.  At its heart, science fiction is not about spaceships and plagues, but about society.  Frankenstein deals with scientific inquiry, or more specifically how far it should go.  Just because we are capable of doing something, should it be done?  Is it ever okay to “play God?”

In this way, the story is similar to another sci-fi favorite, Jurassic Park (#52 on the GAR list).  Holly at Nut Free Nerd has a great comparison of the two stories as part of her Classic Couples series.

 

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What are you reading and watching for Halloween?

 

Great American Read Wrap-Up

Have you all been participating in the Great American Read?  I first wrote about it back in May, and since then I’ve been reading some books from the Top 100 list, voting for my favorites every day, and watching the weekly specials on PBS that highlight some of these favorite novels of the American public.

It was all leading up to Tuesday night, when the winner of the voting was announced.  You can see the full list of results here. According to the GAR votes, here are the five best-loved novels in America:

5. The Lord of the Rings (series)

4. Pride and Prejudice

3. Harry Potter (series)

2. Outlander

1.To Kill a Mockingbird  

To Kill a Mockingbird

My guess prior to the announcement was that it would be To Kill a Mockingbird, but even I was a bit surprised how overwhelming it was: it started out at number one and never wavered once over the months.  TKAM is a wonderful book with broad appeal, but I think it remains so popular because it is quintessentially American.  It’s a coming-of-age story of a young Southern girl; it deals with race relations; it shows the merits and flaws of our justice system; it provides an enduring role model and hero in Atticus Finch.  And it doesn’t hurt that it’s taught so frequently in schools that probably most Americans have read it (certainly the ones voting on PBS programs).

I really enjoyed the GAR and hope PBS will do similar events in the future, perhaps for American authors or nonfiction, plays, or poetry.  I now have a whole lot more books on my to-read list as well! I had already read 32 of the 100 on the list, and I read three more during the course of the GAR.  Here are some brief thoughts on these three novels.

Rebecca coverRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This novel had been on my to-read list for a while, so I picked it up to read over vacation…yeah, it’s not really a light beach read.  It’s a gothic suspense story featuring the new, young wife of a widower with many secrets, especially regarding his late wife, Rebecca. I loved the atmosphere and very much enjoyed the twists and the ending.  I’m looking forward to reading it again, because I think this is one that improves upon closer acquaintance. I also watched the TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn by the same author and loved it; you can find it on Netflix.

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist cover

I’ve heard wonderful things about this inspiration novel, which tells the story of a Spanish shepard who journeys across Africa to find his Personal Legend.  I enjoyed reading it and it made me think, but in the end it didn’t strike me deeply. The plot and characters were too vague and archetypal for my taste; if I’m going to read allegory, I’d prefer it to have some more personality, like the Chronicles of Narnia. I also felt like it didn’t have much to say to women; I can only remember one named female character, and we aren’t very interested in her self-actualization.

Bless Me, Ultima coverBless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

I don’t know how I missed this book all these years!  I had even mentioned it in a 2014 blog post for Banned Books Week, because it made the Top 10 Challenged list for the previous year.  Yet not only had I not read it, I knew nothing about it. It’s a wonderful coming of age story from a Chicano perspective in the southwestern US, where Antonio feels pulled between different family expectations as well as traditional and modern cultures as he tries to find his place in the world. I related to it very personally because I also come from a Catholic family, and I really enjoyed the meld of Christianity and the traditional practices of the curandera, or healer.

Have you guys read any of these?  Which of the 100 books did you vote for?  I voted mostly for Pride and Prejudice, but I voted for many others along the way, including those in the top 5.  I was really pleased with the choices for the top 5–how about you?

If you still want to get involved in the Great American Read, you can:

Banning Books Silences Stories: BBW 2018

Every year, the American Library Association and other groups sponsor a week-long celebration of intellectual freedom: Banned Book Week, the last week in September.  The main goal of BBW is to protest censorship and acknowledge books that have been challenged, praising them for their value and meaning and their ability to change lives.

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All graphics from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/bannedbooksweek/ideasandresources/freedownloads

The theme this year is very meaningful in light of the #ownvoices movement, speaking to the idea that banning books takes away the voice of authors and readers who are seeking to validate their own identities and experiences through fiction.

Did you know that books are challenged in schools and libraries every year?  In 2017, there were 354 challenges, up from 323 in 2016.  Here are the top 10 most challenged books from the last year.

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It is an interesting mix; the majority of the books deal with racial or LGBT+ content.  There are classics, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was also included in PBS’s Great American Read list.  And there are some brand new books, such as The Hate U Give.  This is a very interesting inclusion because it was only published in February of last year, yet it already made the most challenged list.  That says to me that it is a powerful book, which is certainly corroborated by the number of awards it has won.

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I’m excited to be reading The Hate U Give this week.  It has some difficult subject matter; as you can see, it was challenged for its “vulgarity” and depictions of drug use, to say nothing of its very timely portrayal of a police shooting.  You can read more about the challenges against the book on the Banned Books Week website.

As a parent myself, I understand the instinct to want to shield our kids from anything upsetting or dangerous, thinking that they are not prepared to handle it.  But drug use and police shootings are facts of life, and how will kids ever be prepared to handle these concepts if they don’t first read and think about them?  We are not required to agree with the viewpoint of everything we read; in fact, we can better understand our own feelings and opinions by reading points of view that challenge them.

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The Hate U Give has a lot to offer readers of all ages, including a fresh, young, authentic voice in its protagonist Starr.  I love Starr’s progression as she processes her grief and trauma, finding her voice and speaking out for justice with courage.  I really recommend it, and I’m looking forward to the movie adaptation coming out next month, too.

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Have you guys read any of these (or other) banned books?  Which is your favorite?

Choose Your Own Adventure for Grown-ups

Photo by Sushiesque on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Did you read these as a kid?  I had one that was about a mystery in a horse stable (Google tells me it was #127, Showdown.)  These type of books are sometimes called “gamebooks,” because the narrative structure allows you to participate in the story by making choices.  There are multiple plot threads and endings to the story, which can be “good” or “bad.” It can even end with you dying!

These books were targeted at young teens, but I read two books recently that update this concept in a more mature fashion, though each in a distinct way.

Jane, Unlimited

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This novel, the latest release by Graceling author Kristin Cashore, was originally written in the second person as a choose-your-own-adventure with five different possible endings.  However, in the revision process the protagonist developed into the titular Jane, and the different endings, which split off about a quarter of the way through the book, should be read in order to get the most out of them.

The story begins with Jane being invited for a visit to the island mansion Tu Reviens; her late beloved Aunt Magnolia curiously made her promise to go there if she ever got the chance.  At Tu Reviens, Jane’s curiosity gets her embroiled in a number of mysteries, and each of the different ending spin out of which one she chooses to tackle first.  Though she’s struggling to find her place in the world, Jane is a fun and quirky protagonist; she likes Doctor Who and Winnie-the-Pooh and makes umbrellas as a hobby.  She also reads as bisexual, though the romance aspects are relatively minor.

In short, don’t judge this one by the ugly cover.  It’s one of the most creative books I’ve read this year.  Though the endings build on each other, each one also takes on qualities of a specific genre: heist story, spy drama, psychological thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy.  I don’t want to say too much else, just be ready to hold on and enjoy the ride.

One neat concept that is threaded through the endings, and is in fact tied to the choose-your-own-adventure format, is the idea of a multiverse: summed up by one character, “everything that could conceivably happen does happen, somewhere, in alternate universes across the multiverse.”

“…every time something happens, everything else that could have happened in that moment also happens, causing new universes to break off from the old universe and come into being.  So there are multiple versions of us, living different lives than the ones we live, across multiple universes, making every decision we could possibly make.  There are versions of us we wouldn’t even like, and some we’d barely recognize.”

It’s a great concept, and one that makes me want to re-read Jane, Unlimited to really appreciate its depth.  Is each ending taking place in a different dimension?  Is one of those dimensions “ours?”  There is some evidence that says yes…and some that says no.

Lastly, this book owes a lot to two classic Gothic stories of “orphan comes to a house of mystery:” Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which has inspired me to read and re-read them, respectively (they are both also selections for the Great American Read).  There are a few other interesting literary and artistic references as well.

My Lady’s Choosing

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This entertaining book is billed as an “interactive romance novel.”  It reminded me greatly of the old Choose Your Own Adventure format.  You begin the story as a penniless companion to Lady Craven and can go on to have any number of adventures including getting kidnapped in the Egyptian desert, delivering a foal in the Scottish Highlands, visiting a London brothel, and staying at a creepy Gothic manor.

There are four main love interests that you can end up with: Lady Evangeline, Lord Craven, Sir Benedict, and Captain McTaggart.  Each has several storylines and endings, plus there are a few other “side” endings you can also choose.  My favorite was ending up with Kamal, the nerdy curator of Lady Evangeline’s Cairo museum of artifacts.  We also have “many adorably studious children.”

This is not a serious romance book, but rather a bit of a satire of one.  It pokes fun at Regency romance tropes, including using a plethora of terrible puns and creative euphemisms in the sexy parts.  I found it absolutely hilarious, possibly because I read a lot of Regency romance.  If you would laugh at phrases like “a vision of Scottish virility” and “You kiss as though you are discovering islands off each other’s hidden coasts,” plus a mansion named “Manberley,” you are in the right place.

The “choose” points come up pretty frequently, and have hilarious little flavor text such as:

What, did you actually think you could fight off four enormous henchmen single-handed? Come on now.  Think of a better plan and turn to this page.

I was reading this on a Kindle which was an interesting experience for a choose-your-own-adventure.  It was nice because of the automatic links at the choose points that immediately direct you where you want to go.  But the links also mean there is no easy way to go back one choice and try a different path, which I used to do in the print versions by holding pages.  You’d have to keep making and deleting bookmarks or something.

I read through many of the endings because I was having so much fun.  I don’t think I would buy this book to read again, but it was definitely good for a few hours of entertainment.