Three examples and a few notes from my own experience
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Parallel or overlapping universes are a popular subject in classic science fiction but they are also appearing in so-called ‘serious fiction’. In my first novel, The Rememberers, I didn’t set out to create alternative or magic reality but…my protagonist found himself with a capability to move into other versions of his world, a capability that turned out to be a little riskier than he anticipated…and a lot more enlightening.
Pantsers and Plotters
In fiction writing I am a pantser, which means I develop the story by the seat of my pants, rather than being a plotter, who thoroughly outlines before writing. So this alternative universe thing was a surprise and where it led turned out to be an even bigger surprise. But this article is not about my novel. It is about a pattern I’m either seeing or noticing more because of my own writing experience. But first a note about the pantser thing.
When I started writing this book I only had a vague idea about where it was going. After writing numerous very down-to-earth non-fiction books for money, I was trained to outline. Not just to outline but to have a line in the outline for each page in the finished book. This outline, along with sample chapters, is what sold the book. So, I was an outliner. But with fiction I didn’t like having everything planned out for me. I’d made many false starts on novels and usually tripped up because of overthinking it. I wouldn’t write consistently and consequently I couldn’t finish things. So when I started The Rememberers I decided to take Stephen King’s advice (and that of most successful authors) and write a certain number of words daily without giving a thought to quality or plot. For that book the magic number was about 900 words a day.
But this sort of stream of consciousness thing began to almost immediately get interesting. All I really had to start with was a title and an abstract notion that my character felt there was a place out there he was missing. After getting fairly far into it, it began to bother a me a bit. Was this the way real novelists worked? I did some homework, focusing on a couple of my favorites, Michael Ondaatje and Haruki Murakami. I found interviews where they discussed process and guess what? Both are pantsers, though I doubt they know the term.
Ondaatje, for example, only had an image of a man wrapped in bandages with a nurse in a bombed-out castle in post WWII Italy when he started The English Patient. If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, you know it is an elaborately complex story that weaves back and forth in time, a tour de force. So, I felt vindicated.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Not coincidentally, both Murakami and Ondaatje mess with space and time in their stories, yet they are hardly seen as science fiction or pure fantasy. Both are ‘serious’ literature. But both also question the reality of time, perception, memory, and place. And they are not the only ones. Let’s look at a recent discovery for me, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. This novel, which was short-listed for the Man Booker prize, opens with a young couple meeting in a city gradually being ravaged by a civil war. The city, though not identified, is likely modeled on somewhere in his native Pakistan or perhaps neighboring Kabul. As conditions get more and more untenable for them, they begin trying to figure out how to get out of the city to someplace safer where they can have a life. As the situation grows desperate, they find an agent who, for a price, can get them to a door to another place. Welcome to a multiverse.
Minor spoiler alert: The door takes them to a refugee camp. Then more doors appear around the world. The book is a beautifully restrained imaging of a world, not unlike our own, where more and more populations are displaced by war and disaster. He handles these doors in a very understated manner, not building backstories or logic into his story.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
Ozeki’s novel starts with a narrator, Ozeki herself, finding a lunchbox sealed in plastic that has washed up on a beach in the remote Canadian Pacific island where she and her husband live. Ozeki’s character in the book is a novelist and writer (as in real life), and when she finds a diary and an old watch, along with a sheaf of letters in Japanese in the Hello Kitty lunchbox, she gets pulled into her own story. An unhappy young girl in modern Japan, her suicidal father, and his 100 year-old plus Zen nun aunt pull Ruth into an investigation of the girl and her story.
The book changes viewpoints from chapter to chapter, alternating the girl’s diary entries with Ruth’s attempts to get answers on her remote island. The element of the aunt, whose Zen does not differentiate between so-called reality and other states, is the glue that holds the story together. As Ruth and the girl bond, things start to get less conventionally bound. It is really worth the read.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
My third example is, in some ways, even more abstract. A young man attempts to unravel his memories of youth in postwar London, memories of a mother and father who were not apparently what they seemed on the surface. The multiverse here is memory and reality. How much of what he remembers is what it was when he was experiencing it? How do new character’s perspectives rebuild the stories over and over again? This experience, which Lawrence Durrell described in his front notes to Balthazar, the second volume in his Alexandrian Quartet, offers a space/time analogy:
“Modern literature offers us no Unities (sic), so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.
Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.
The first three parts, however, are to be deployed spatially (hence the use of ‘sibling’, not ‘sequel’) and are not linked in serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.”
Written in 1957, this structure works brilliantly in the Alexandrian Quartet though I do not include it as a multiverse, except as a multiverse of memory and differing perception of events, not unlike Warlight. Coincidently, Durrell was regularly expected to get a Nobel for these books and both Ondaatje and Murakami are considered contenders for that honor in these times. The time of the multiverse in stories has come.
These stories rely on a few unwritten rules of technique. The strangeness is observed but not explained. Magical occurrences are limited, which increases their power. The multiverses primarily exist to define the choices and actions of the characters. The one flaw, to my mind, of much Sci-fi and fantasy (which I grew up on) is their literalness- the need to explain and demonstrate how these things work. And all too often magical things* are used to ‘fix’ a plot flaw. The examples I give here do not rely on the reader understanding each and every occurrence. They are mysterious, which to my mind makes them more realistic.
*In The Rememberers there is a magical object. When it first appears I was totally unprepared for it. I decided it would have a very limited utility that could not directly save the day. For me, writing the passage where the main character discovers what it is was truly magical- I did not know what it was until another character pulled it out of a closet . That was seriously fun!