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?

 

Things I’ve watched on Netflix while feeding my infant

Before they send you home from the hospital with your newborn, they really should surgically attach two more arms to all moms.  Because everything with babies requires two hands: nursing, feeding bottles, holding them while they cry for seemingly no reason, making sure their pacifier doesn’t fall out of their mouth. Et cetera.

So all you can do to keep your brain from turning to baby mush is watch TV, because this requires no hands at all.  Bonus points if you never have to change the channel.  At Christmas, I watched every single holiday movie on the Hallmark channel at least once.  Now it’s HGTV or Food Network.

But the better option obviously is binging TV shows on Netflix.  So here are a few of the things I’ve enjoyed recently.

Castlevania

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This is a Netflix original animation inspired by the classic video game of the same name.  The story follows vampire hunter Trevor Belmont as he and his group attempt to stop Dracula from taking revenge on humanity after the vampire’s wife was unjustly executed for witchcraft.  I’ve never played that game series, but my husband recognized several elements from it.  It is also quite violent and gruesome, so I wouldn’t recommend it for children despite the fact that it’s animated.

I give it major points for the quality of the writing and animation, plus the voice cast is great, featuring Richard “Thorin Oakenshield” Armitage as Belmont.

The first season is only four episodes, which mostly just sets up the story, introducing characters, etc.  The second season will be out this year, and there are more planned after that.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

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I read and enjoyed this series of books around 15 years ago, and this adaptation is quite frankly all I could have asked for.  The story follows the three Baudelaire orphans as they try to escape the clutches of the evil Count Olaf, who is after their fortune.  It is narrated by the fictitious author Lemony Snicket with a tone of surrealist dark humor.  Also the theme song is absurdly catchy.

The cast is excellent, featuring Patrick Warburton, Alfre Woodard, Catherine O’Hara, and especially Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf.  The three Baudelaire children are also excellent and carry the series easily.

The first season covers the first four books in the series, with two episodes per book, and the pacing is perfect.  The second season, which I am looking forward to in March, with cover the next five books over ten episodes.

The Punisher

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I’m still working my way through this one, but so far it’s been on par with the better Marvel Netflix series.

This is a series I certainly would not have had much interest in…until the portrayal of Frank Castle was the best thing about season two of Netflix’s Daredevil.  Now he has his own series, and his own season two is on the way.  Frank is still dealing with the loss of his family as well as secrets from his time serving in Afghanistan; after the events of Daredevil, only a few people even know he’s alive.

This show has the intensity you would expect, and I thought the violence was about on par with Daredevil, perhaps a little more brutal.  I tried watching this back in December, and while I thought the first episode was a great start to the series, I just could not handle it in my post-partum state.  I cried straight through the last ten minutes of it.  So now I’m trying again.

I don’t think this show has gotten as much hype as the other Marvel Netflix shows, so I would encourage you to check it out even if you haven’t seen the others.  It’s nice to have a story with an antihero every now and then; Punisher is much more “grey” than the other Defenders main characters.

Sword Art Online

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People have been recommending this one to me for years, and with good reason.  It follows a group of gamers stuck in a virtual reality MMORPG.  The premise reminded me of .hack//Sign, an anime from the 2000s that I enjoyed.  Having played MMORPGs, a lot of the concepts were familiar and worked well with the story (but you don’t need to be a gamer to enjoy it).

I actually watched the English dub for this one and I thought it was pretty good.  The animation is nice, too, but nothing revolutionary.  I very much liked the episodic way the story is laid out; it sometimes skips ahead months to the next quest/raid/boss battle.  The two main characters, Kirito and Asuna, are great, and there’s a nice supporting cast.

The tone of the story is a nice balance; it’s not very dark, but it does deal with some serious concepts about life and death and reality.  The second story arc is less impressive, sidelining Asuna in a weird, rapey plot.  Overall I would definitely recommend it, but it’s probably not among the best anime I’ve ever seen.

Others

I’ve been further catching up on my anime with Death Note, and enjoying the new Japanese drama The Many Faces of Ito.  I always enjoy a good BBC drama, and Call the Midwife has been really interesting to me, having recently had to do just that!

What are you guys watching right now?  Any recommendations?  Especially light comedy or drama!  I also have Amazon Prime, and I’m contemplating getting Hulu so I can watch The Handmaid’s Tale and Runaways.

Iron Fist: Yup, it’s just kinda there.

The latest Marvel Netflix outing, Iron Fist, came out last Friday with some pre-emptive strikes from critics.  But keep in mind, critics only saw the first six episodes; I (and many other fans) have now binged the whole thing in less than a week (less than a weekend for some), so I’m here to give my spoiler-free thoughts.

Marvel's Iron Fist

In short, I enjoyed it, and if you were already planning to watch it, or have seen the other shows and are interested in The Defenders, I think you will too.  Just keep your expectations on the low side going in, because it is not nearly as good as the three previous series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage), and if you have no interest in superheroes/the MCU/etc. don’t even bother.

I went into Iron Fist hoping for a kung fu show, but what I got was a corporate drama with some occasional ninjas…sorry, not even ninjas, mostly just random thugs.  Unlike the three previous shows, this show didn’t really have much to say.  Danny Rand’s origin story appears as a watered-down version of Batman or Oliver Queen.  His parents are killed in a plane crash in the Himalayas; he’s rescued to the hidden mystical city of K’un Lun where he trains and earns the title of Iron Fist; he returns to reclaim his parents’ company.

It gets off to a very slow start.  The first episodes that the critics saw could easily have been condensed into two or three with better pacing.  (It even manages to make sex scenes boring.  How does that happen?!) But it does pick up quite a bit in the second half as new characters are introduced and twists revealed, and I really enjoyed the ride.

Unfortunately, we hardly get to see anything of K’un Lun or Danny’s time there.  There are a few flashbacks, but mostly just the same one of his parents dying over and over.  There’s a reason the first season of Arrow worked so well, and I think this show should have taken some notes.  We don’t get any sense of where Danny is coming from until really late in the season, which I think hampers our ability to relate to him and understand his mood swings.

The show also suffers from lack of focus on a villain.  DD season 1, JJ, and the first half of LC all have one thing in common: a strong, compelling, central villain.  There are several antagonists throughout this series, and while some are great (particularly Madame Gao and Harold Meachum), it sometimes felt more like a set-up for the Defenders series than a story for Iron Fist in his own right.

The side characters are the real shining light in the show.  Colleen Wing is great overall and has a great character arc.  The clip of her cage fight in her classic white tracksuit had already convinced me I would like her.  Ward Meachum consistently improves as the series progresses, also getting his own character arc.  Danny’s friend Davos is a wonderful foil for Danny, and I hope we will see more of him in the future.  And Claire Temple immediately breathes life into the show when she appears in episode five.

My biggest disappointment with the show was probably the martial arts action.  Again, it wasn’t bad…it was just kinda there.  I was hoping for a real martial arts show, but the choreography was no more impressive than Daredevil, and I really disliked the use of lots of quick cuts during the fights.  There is a bit of discussion of different styles of martial arts, but I wish they had shown the differences even more, especially when Colleen with her katana faces off against a Chinese wuxia-style fighter.

The best fight comes in episode eight where Danny faces a Hand guardian who’s using the “drunken master” style.  (During that fight, I said to my husband, “Can we keep this guy instead of Danny?”  Because he has about 10x the charisma.)  But if you really want to see a martial arts show, go check out Into the Badlands instead—the first season is now on Netflix and the second season is currently airing on AMC.

I would put this show at least on par with the DC shows currently airing on the CW (Arrow, Flash, etc.)–least anyone think that is an insult, I’ll reiterate that I enjoyed all of them.

Anyone else have opinions?  We can get spoilery down in the comments if you want.