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A Multifarious Multiverse Reading List

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

“When the multiverse was confirmed, the spiritual and scientific communities both counted it as evidence of their validity.

The scientists said, Look, we told you there were parallel universes.

And the spiritual said, See, we’ve always known there was more than one life.”

From Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds

Confession: I love multiverses.  I enjoy them in pretty much all their incarnations, from fantasy to science fiction to horror, from the Spiderverse, to Marvel’s Loki and What If…?, to Star Trek’s alternate timelines, to Everything Everywhere All At Once, to Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. Thinking back, I believe the first time I encountered the idea of a multiverse as a reader was probably in “the wood between worlds” in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew where pond-like portals in a strange forest allow travel to Narnia, our world, and various other realms.

At first glance, the multiverse might seem like a modern concept, but of course it isn’t. One of the most fascinating things about multiverses is that they have been around pretty much since human beings became human beings.

Some kind of multiverse is an integral part of most religions, old and new. In Norse mythology, there’s the Nine Realms connected by the World Tree Yggdrasil. Ancient Hindu literature specifically mentions the existence of “innumerable universes”, and Christianity has its heaven, hell, and purgatory (with Dante and Virgil traveling between them). In fiction, early examples of the multiverse idea include the story “The Adventures of Bulukiya” from One Thousand and One Nights, the novel The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish published in 1666, and Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884.

All this to say that the idea of a multiverse, of our universe being just one of many, and that these universes might intersect and that you might travel between them, has been around for a long time.

These days, multiverses can be found in various genres and subgenres of speculative fiction. There’s alternate history, parallel universes, parallel timelines, time travel (sometimes with the idea of every choice and change creating new timelines / universes), portal fantasies, and more. Examples of multiverse-fiction from the last few decades include His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow’s, This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, and Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. The list could go on until the book pile reached into an alternate universe of its own.

One of my favorite multiverse books from the last few years is Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds from 2021 where the multiverse consists of parallel timelines that have all followed somewhat different trajectories. The book is set in a dystopian future where multiverse travel is possible, but where you can only travel to worlds where the local version of you is already dead. The story’s protagonist, Cara, did not survive in most worlds, a sad fact that makes her singularly useful to the multiverse-travel corporation she works for. There are a lot of things I love about this book, including the way Johnson, through Cara’s travels, explores how small changes and minor differences in circumstance—personal choices, accidents, good or bad luck—can ripple through lives, communities. I also love how Johnson describes multiverse travel as being exploited as a business by its inventor and how this astonishing scientific discovery is primarily being used to advance the power and financial positions of people in the world where it was invented. Johnson has a sharp and clear eye when it comes to the forces of capital, power, and privilege and that gives this book a satisfying edge. While the story reads as straight up science fiction, there is a ghost in the machine: a shadowy presence Cara encounters in the void between worlds, hinting at powers beyond our understanding of science. Fans of this book (me!) are in luck because Cara is returning in Those Beyond the Wall, the sequel to The Space Between Worlds, coming from Del Rey on March 12.

Another one of my recent favorite multiverse novels is Cadwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters and its sequel We Are the Crisis. No Gods, No Monsters is set in a world where werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires, and various gods and magic-users have long lived in secret, hidden from regular humans. When a video of a man/werewolf being shot to death is posted online, the secret begins to unravel and the truth about monsters creates all sorts of societal upheaval. As the story progresses, we come to understand that all of this is playing out in a complex multiverse consisting of parallel timelines as well as universes with different natural laws, inhabited by a plethora of gods and monsters and ancient secret societies that have been battling each other for eons. With unseen forces moving in the shadows, all the universes are being pulled into a conflict that could spell the end of the multiverse itself. There’s a thrilling depth to these books, with Turnbull twisting and turning tropes and expectations, continuously adding new levels and layers to a story that is truly dizzying in its scope. (Read my review of We Are the Crisis here at Psychopomp).

In Essa Hansen’s Graven trilogy (Nophek Gloss, Azura Ghost, and Ethera Grave), the multiverse does not consist of parallel timelines where you might meet different versions of yourself. Instead, it is made up of innumerable bubble-shaped universes stuck together like foam. Once upon a time there was only one universe, Unity, but a transformative event in the distant past kick-started the creation of the smaller universes, each one with its own specific environments and laws of physics. Travel between universes is possible and even common, as long as you have the right technology, though it’s not always safe. A multiverse-spanning conflict kicks off when the powerful Abriss Cetre decides to reunify the multiverse by collapsing all other universes and absorbing them into the original universe. Facing off against Abriss is Caiden, an orphan on the run from his past, who wants to preserve the multiverse and prevent the destruction of the civilizations and life forms that have evolved in the separate bubble-verses. Beneath/inside/around this physical multiverse, Hansen adds a spiritual realm called “the luminiferity” that plays an increasingly important role throughout the trilogy. (My review of Ethera Grave.)

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    There are plenty of multiverses in speculative short fiction as well.

    No Spoilers” by Ben Murphy is set in the Many Worlds collectively imagined universe where several writers (including me), write stories set in the Simulacra, a multiverse influenced by an entity called the Simulacrum: “The Simulacrum doesn’t just copy the world, it adjusts it, adds things to the world, deletes other things. But its most terrifying power is its ability to alter meaning: to change what people care about or find interesting or the very relationships people have to things, to other people, to themselves.”

    In “Of all the New Yorks in All the Worlds” by Indrapramit Das at TOR.com, astudent of multiversal time travel slips from  one version of New York to another, discovering that love may transcend timelines, but so too can heartbreak…” For more multiverse fiction by Das, read his beautiful, dragon-haunted novella The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar.

    The Cat Lady and the Petitioner” by Jennifer Hudak in Translunar Travelers Lounge is an unusually joyous example of multiverse fiction. It’s the story of Laurie who is looking for signatures for a petition, the cat lady she encounters, a talking cat called Bob, and of the thin places where there are “universes threatening to burst through at all hours.”

    Devoured Stars Over Dublin” by Méabh de Brún in Giganotosaurus is a darkly humorous tale set in an alternate version of Dublin in a world claimed by the pitiless Old Ones. Occasionally, inhabitants of other (cleaner) parallel universes fall through cracks in the fabric of reality into the muck and despair of the starless world. When that happens, some of the locals try to cash in on their arrival but that doesn’t always work out quite as planned.

    Falling Through” by Steen Comer at Escape Pod (narrated by Roderick Aust) is the story of a man who has become unstuck in the multiverse and is slipping through the fabric of time and space into different versions of his own life in different worlds. He shifts between universes without anyone else noticing, and often, the shift is so subtle he barely notices it himself: “When I wake up in another bedroom, or in another city, or in the middle of a war zone, it’s easier. At least then I’m more certain that it’s not just me.”

    In Timothy Mudie’s “Different People” in Lightspeed, refugees from a destroyed parallel Earth suddenly appear in our world. The newcomers aren’t supposed to go looking for the other versions of themselves, but some of them do anyway. The story explores ideas of fate and love, and if we’re able to change who we are, or if we always end up making the same mistakes, no matter which universe we find ourselves in.

    12 Worlds Interrupted by the Drone” by Fargo Tbakhi in Strange Horizons is set in in twelve alternate worlds where the same characters appear in different iterations. In each world, the drone’s appearance brings about despair and destruction, without reason or justification. Here, the multiverse is both a haunting metaphor and a harrowing reality:

    “There was and there was not a world in which we asked daily for forgiveness from the mountain, whose earthy silence pointed out in us a desperation too large to acknowledge. Each day the mountain opened up another hole in the ground and swallowed another of us. The holes came closer and closer to the edge of the city, and we were certain that we could not appease its anger for much longer. Then the Drone came, and there was fire, and there was no more mountain. The hole that opened in its wake spread larger than it had been, larger than the city, larger still than our imaginations, larger than any words to describe its edges. Now we ask forgiveness from nothing.”

    I’ll close this reading list with another quote from Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds:

    “The multiverse isn’t just parallel universes accessible thorough science. They are in each of us, a kaleidoscope made of varying perceptions.”