The Universe Next Door

The concept of themultiverse—a plethora of individually infinite universes of every conceivablenature, coexisting yet separated from each other in some fashion—holds aparticular horror for those who fancy that their lives derive meaning andethical stature only from a sense of self-determined uniqueness. Ontologicalnausea and revulsion swiftly set in when such a person begins to contemplatebillions of his doppelgangers enacting perverse, bizarre, and morally repulsivescenarios imbued with just as much existential gravitas as the one hisparticular consciousness in this universe experiences and privileges. Such avision embodies self-betrayals of the most intimate possible nature.

Butfor those of us who relish the notion of a limitless plenum in which everypossible outcome of consciousness, every possible arrangement of matter, everypossible set of natural laws, is given concrete expression somewhere—eventhough these other universes lie forever beyond our reach—the concept of themultiverse offers a triumph of the imagination and spirit. No flight of fancy,however wild, is denied existence. Every potential aspect of one’s character,suppressed in this universe, finds manifestation elsewhere. Bad fates in thisuniverse are avoided in an infinity of others. And the multiverse settles allperplexing questions of “Why this?” with a simple “Because wesee only one thread of an infinite tapestry.”

Andyou cannot really avoid forming a reaction to the notion of a multiverseeither—assuming you respect science—since almost all contemporary physicsaccepts and even demands the reality of parallel worlds. Love it or hate it,the multiverse is here to stay.

It’s not hard to guess—inadvance of reading Brian Greene’s latest survey of the actual physics behindthe multiverse, The Hidden Reality—which side of theemotional fence he comes down on. Having gone to the effort of producing a hypnoticallyfascinating book-length explication of the concept, Greene is plainly investeddeeply in the awesomeness of multiple realities. His enthusiasm and passion forparallel worlds infuses every iota of this ideationally dense yet essentiallycomprehensible opus.

Greeneinforms us at the outset that he will explicate nine types of multiverses. (Yes,we are about to encounter a multiverse of multiverses!) The first seven aredirect outgrowths of discoveries or theories in modern physics: cosmology, stringtheory, etc. The final two are more purely conceptual or speculative exercises.So, because the first set requires grounding in several branches of science,Greene devotes plenty of space to topics that are foundational: how gravityworks, the Inflationary Big Bang, and so forth. Admirably, he skips the boringand redundant primer level, which so many popular science books continuetimidly to include at this late date, but assumes that his readership ofinterested twenty-first-century laypeople has a solid acquaintance already withthe science of the past hundred years. This tactic is much appreciated, andnever abused, as any sticky or abstruse points are still treated withappropriate depth in Greene’s trademark crystalline prose studded with handyand often amusing metaphors. (“Imagine you work for the notorious filmproducer Harvey W. Einstein, who has asked you to put out a casting call forthe lead in his new indie, Pulp Friction.”)

It’simpossible for this review to summarize every step of Greene’s balleticfootwork, by which, like some multi-limbed Asian deity, he dances into beingeach different theoretical framework that could support multiple universes. Sufficeit to say, switching analogies, that his arguments are constructed likeclassical cathedrals, with intricate arches and buttresses that all uphold thecentral spire. Sometimes you think he’s lost in the details of some sculptedgargoyle, only to realize how essential to the whole structure this particularfeature is.

Hestarts with the simplest of multiverses, the “Quilted” one. In thiscase, a purely spatial infinity is all that is needed to produce an infinity oftimelines, separated merely by lightyears and not other dimensions. Heconcludes with the “Ultimate” multiverse, a philosophical constructowing much to the speculations of Robert Nozick. In between, we get bubbleuniverses and “branes” and five other mind-boggling ways in which thecosmos we know can be viewed as merely one member of an endless family ofpossibilities.

ChapterSeven, coming right at the midpoint of the book, is a very useful diversionfrom propounding new theories, a breather in which Greene examines thecontroversies surrounding the very notion of a multiverse, and whether thesespeculations that cannot be tested, observed, or falsified truly adhere to thespirit of science. Coming down staunchly on the side of unfettered yet rigoroushypothesizing (and leaving open the possibility that our descendants will beable someday to verify our flights of scientific fancy), Greene emerges preppedto ascend even greater heights in the second half of the book.

Thetension between the two camps—lovers and haters of the multiverse—that Idescribed in my opening paragraphs is a constant motif throughout the book, asGreene continually seeks to justify the rewards inherent in accepting “thehidden reality” of the multiverse. His concluding sentences sum up hisstance bravely and concisely: “But it’s only through fearless engagementthat we can learn our own limits. It’s only through the rational pursuit oftheories, even those that whisk us into strange and unfamiliar domains, that westand a chance of revealing the expanse of reality.”

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Greenenamechecks several fictional treatments of multiversal concepts in his openingchapter—Star Trek‘s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Borges’s”The Garden of Forking Paths,” Run Lola Run—and indeed thisconcept has received extensive treatment in science fiction and other types ofliterature, rendering its outlines familiar to even the most casual reader andviewer. The well-developed scientific treatment of parallel worlds inliterature goes back at least as far as H. G. Wells, and has received extensiveelaboration from writers as diverse as Edmond Hamilton and Fritz Leiber, RobertSilverberg and Keith Laumer.

Curiouslyenough, one of the most seminal and impactful introductions of the conceptoccurred in a comic book, the now-classic September 1961 issue of The Flash,with its feature story “Flash of Two Worlds.” Scripter Gardner Fox,long-steeped in pulp writing, imported the notion of multiple timelines to thehome turf of Superman and Batman (Marvel Comics belatedly followed suit), andan explosion of multiversal narratives ensued, to the point where parentcompany DC Comics felt obliged to stage Crisis on Infinite Earths some twenty years later,to pare down the proliferation of alternate worlds.

Butif one had to pick a single author who has done the most to portray the quirksand potentials of a functioning multiverse, that figure would undeniably beMichael Moorcock. First employing theconcept almost five decades ago, Moorcock has since woven nearly all hiscopious output—tightly or loosely, as circumstances allow—into one vast braidedmultiverse of story. So identified is Moorcock with the multiverse, in fact,that upon his ascent to SFWA Grandmaster, I was able to easily evoke a humorousscenario involving the author andhis doppelgangers that any of his readers would instantly recognize. 

Moorcock’slatest, Elric: Swords and Roses, is the sixth andconcluding installment in his chronicle of the doomed, Byronic, albinoswordsman who functions as a kind of template or seed character for so manyother antiheroes in the Moorcock multiverse.

Weopen the omnibus (which also contains a previously unpublished screenplay, anovella, and several essays, as well as pages of artwork) with its corecomponent, a complete novel from 1991, The Revenge of the Rose. Whereasmany of Elric’s early adventures dealt with the multiverse only implicitly,this late-period outing foregrounds the nature of creation in Moorcock’s fiction.The multiverse nearly assumes the role of an actor in the adventure. Forbeneath the expected inventive sword-and-sorcery decadence (Elric, a womanwarrior named Rose, and a poet named Wheldrake are all plucked from their separatetimestreams for exploits in a strange world foreign to them all, as Elric huntsfor the plot-coupon soul-in-a-box of his dead father), Elric must continuallyconfront the senses-disturbing and mind-shattering—yet also uplifting—nature ofparallel worlds.

NowElric was caught up in a kind of intradimensional hurricane, in which athousand reverses ocurred within his brain at once and he became a thousandother creatures for an instant, and where he lived through more than ten otherlives; a fate only minimally different from the one that was familiar to him;and so vast did the multiverse become, so unthinkable, that he began to go madas he attempted to make sense of just a fraction of what laid siege to hissanity….

Butthe upside is this vision, as recounted by a seer:

Itis our firm belief that we shall one day learn the plan of the entiremultiverse and travel at will from Sphere to Sphere, from realm to realm, fromworld to world, travel through the great clouds of shifting, multicolouredstars, the tumbling planets in all their millions, through galaxies that swarmlike gnats in a summer garden, and rivers of light—glory beyond glory—pathwaysof moonbeams between the roaming stars.

Andthus, through Moorcock’s exuberant prose, is Brian Greene’s carefully controlled and channeled mysticism—the unnamedengine that powers his researches, yet which must be throttled in the name ofscience and hidden away—given ultimate lyrical expression.