When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Twilight Zone. My mother was obsessed with the show, as it was a staple of her childhood—and thus she made it one of ours, too. There were a lot of memorable episodes, but one of the stickier ones was called Mirror Image. It’s the story of a young woman who’s waiting at for a bus at a depot in Ithaca, New York. She’s excited to start a new job in Cortland. As she bides her time in the depot, she experiences little moments of dissonance: the guy at the ticket counter tells her she has already asked three times why the bus is late, but she has only asked once. She notices a bag identical to hers on the seat behind her, but she is clutching her own. While in the restroom, she glances in the mirror and sees, as the door opens, an identical version of herself sitting on a bench outside.
What ensues as the episode progresses is the young woman’s mental meltdown as an evil double takes her seat on the bus, effectively stealing her life while the young woman is hauled away to an institution by the police. Some terrible rip in the fabric of the universe had allowed the woman’s doppleganger to slip through.
This dark scenario stuck with me for a long time, and was certainly an influence on writing my own epic fantasy in which parallel universes collide, The Mirror Empire, and its sequel, Empire Ascendant. While many alternate reality stories ask “What might have been?” parallel universe stories literalize the war between good and evil that plays inside each of us every day. It’s what makes this type of story so perfect for many fantasy tales: we’re all just a coin flip away from being entirely different people. Or are we?
Writers of all things speculative have played in alternate and parallel worlds for a long time—everyone from Stephen King to Philip Pullman to Tanith Lee—and it’s an obsession that likely isn’t going away any time soon. Here’s just a tiny samples of the must-read (Moorcock) and little-known (Milkweed Triptych) parallel world books to check out.
The Eternal Champion, by Michael Moorcock
The most famous and far-reaching parallel universe story is probably contained in the works of Michael Moorcock. His Multiverse encompasses the world-hopping Eternal Champion who has numerous identities across a dizzying array of alternate Earths existing all at once, each version stranger than the last. Within this layered series of universes and dimensions, the forces of Law and Chaos rage eternal, with no side ever allowed to gain the upper hand. The Eternal Champion Sequence alone is made up of 15 volumes, but lucky for new readers each is self-contained. Start at the beginning with The Eternal Champion.
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Kell is among the last of the parallel-universe jumping magicians called Travelers. Officially in charge of carrying correspondence from his London to the royals of each city in the parallel Londons, he is also unofficially a smuggler. In this story you will slide into many different Londons: White London where people fight to control magic, Red London where magic is revered, our own mundane Grey London , and learn more about the unmentionable Black London. It’s got magic and treachery and a plot not just to save a single world—but all of them.
The Merchant Princes series, by Charles Stross
The enterprising businesspeople of the Merchant Princes novels use their genetic ability to travel back and forth between worlds to build a trade empire. Because why go to war with another world when you can profit from it? In The Bloodline Feud—an omnibus of the first two novels—we’re introduced to journalist Miriam Beckstein, who is transported to a parallel world where she gets caught up in the political and financial feuds of her world-hopping family.
Fair Coin, by E.C. Meyers
What happens when you find your dead double? If you’re sixteen year old Ephraim Scott in Fair Coin, you go through your dead double’s belongings, and you find a coin – one that grants your wish…or so you think. In this parallel-world hopping adventure, Ephraim can travel to a multiplicity of worlds and get any individual things he wants – but the ripple effect it leaves across the multiverse is dangerous. Worst of all, he’s not so sure it’s left him with a way to get home, either.
In War Times, by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“An alternate universe novel of a different present” is the sub-title of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s novel, In War Times. WWII veteran and jazz player Sam Dance is seduced into planting some mysterious devices all around the world that have… reality-shifting results. And if you like WWII settings with mind-bending alternate and parallel worlds in tandem In War Times, you must check out the woefully under-read Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis, starting with Bitter Seeds, which features a particularly terrifying reality-shifter named Gretel whom you won’t soon forget.
Looking for more parallel universe action? Share your favorites in the comments!
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.