Parallel Universe

There’s a world out there that’s still ruled by the Roman Empire. Another world is dominated by Adolf Hitler. In a third, it’s pretty much the same as ours, but you turned left instead of right when going for that job interview, got caught in traffic, and didn’t get the job. That will have changed your entire life and, according to some, that’s being played out somewhere in the multiverse.

Sounds like something out of HG Wells, doesn’t it? A lot of stories have been written about parallel worlds, even before science began talking about the possibilities of them existing in reality. Before I talk about the reality, I want to share a few of my favourite parallel world stories;

  • Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) deals with a successful German Reich.
  • Stephen King’s series The Dark Tower has doors that send travelers to different parallel Earths, or, as termed in the story, different levels of the Tower. King also uses this idea in other stories, such as The Mist, From A Buick 8, The Talisman, Black House, and Insomnia.
  • The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan looks at the world of dreams, and the Mirror Worlds which represent what could have been had various events in history happened in different ways.
  • H. G. Wells wrote the first explicit alternate history novel, Men Like Gods (1923), complete with a multiverse theory and a paratime machine.
  • In C. S. Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia series (1950–1956) children come and go between our world and Narnia, a land populated by talking animals. In The Magician’s Nephewi, the Wood between the Worlds gives access to several worlds.
  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (1995–2000) deals with two children who wander through multiple worlds, opening and closing windows between them. The final book elaborates the same idea (as C.S. Lewis’) that all the worlds share a common heaven, and in this case, underworld.
  • Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is set in a parallel universe which is very similar to ours but has (amusingly) different history. For example, Britain and Russia are still fighting the Crimean War in 1985. As the story develops, the world of fiction also emerges as another parallel universe, and the characters learn how to move between them.
  • Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline deals with a parallel universe called the “Other World” in which Coraline’s surroundings are the same, but the people who are supposed to be her parents are actually evil impostors.
  • In Robert J Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series (2003) a parallel historical universe exists in which it was Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, who survived to become the dominant species. In a quantum physics experiment gone wrong a Neanderthal scientist is accidentally transported into the universe of Homo sapiens.
  • Harry Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic series of books (2003–2008) by Harry Turtledove centers on an Earth that has discovered access to alternate universes where history went differently. “Crosstime Traffic” is the name of the company with a global monopoly on the technology.

Ironically, despite the concept of parallel worlds being around in fiction for a long time – the first such recorded story was written by the Duchess of Northampton in 1664 – nothing was formally postulated scientifically until 1954, when a young Princeton University doctoral candidate named Hugh Everett III came up with a radical idea: that parallel universes exist and are all related to ours, but with important differences; wars have different outcomes than the ones we know. Species that are extinct in our universe have evolved and adapted in others. In some, humans have become extinct; in others still, we have already expanded to the stars.

The idea that we live in a ‘multiverse’ made up of an infinite number of parallel universes has long been considered a scientific possibility – although it is still a matter of vigorous debate among physicists. The race is now on to find a way to test the theory, including searching the sky for signs of collisions with other universes. I don’t know how people can look for things like this, but apparently they can.

There have even been cases of people purporting to be from other worlds; I find this particularly interesting and, despite whatever we might think about their mental health, their stories certainly come across as compelling. Let me share a couple of stories with you; this first one is in her own words, having been transcribed from an online forum in 2008;

“Hello, my name is Luz, I am 41, and I think I jumped into a parallel universe.

One day I woke up and everything was different, nothing spectacular, but many things were different. It’s little things, but important enough to know that at one point there was a turning point in which things are different.

Four months ago, I woke up on a normal morning. I was in my rental house where I lived for 7 years, everything was the same except that the set of sheets on my bed was different. Well, my office building was the same one where I had worked the last 20 years. But when I got to my office, it wasn’t mine. My name wasn’t on the door. I checked, and it seemed that I was still working there but in another department reporting to a director who I did not even know. Everything else was the same – my cards, my ID – but I did not change department.

Ever since, I’ve been out of step.

Six months ago, I left my partner of 7 years and began a relationship with a guy in my neighborhood. Now, however, he has disappeared. I’m still with my old boyfriend, and the new guy seems to never have existed here. My own family does not remember things, like my sister having surgery on her shoulder a couple of months ago.”

Here’s a similar story from Japan. A man flies into the country with what appears to be a valid passport only to find that nobody has heard of his country of origin. The man professed his shock; according to officials, the passport had been issued by a country that did not exist, and that had never existed.

Although passports exist issued by non-existent countries (known as camouflage passports), this passport was real and had custom officials’ stamps on various pages including stamps by Japanese customs officials from previous visits.

The man was well-traveled and Caucasian; he said the country was in Europe and had existed for almost 1,000 years. He carried legal currency from several European countries, an international drivers licence, and spoke several languages.

After being detained for almost 14 hours in a small security room at the airport terminal, some government officials took pity on him and transported him to a hotel. They ordered the mystery visitor to wait there until they decided what to do about the matter. From the reports, the Japanese were just as confused and flustered as the mysterious man without a country.

Although two immigration officials were posted with instructions not to permit the man to leave his room, the next morning the guards discovered he was gone. The only exit was the door they watched and the only window had no outside ledge and was 15 stories above a busy downtown street.

So, what are we meant to think? Are these stories just fodder for the gullible? Mere tripe? Or is there something more going on?

Is it possible that there’s a universe out there where everything happened exactly as it did in this one, except you did one thing different, and had your life turn out different as a result? It’s an incredible notion, a scary one, but also somewhat thrilling. I hope we find an answer to this question in this universe soon.

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