Multiversal Musings and the Long Earth

I‘m fascinated by the multiverse. Actually, I’m most fascinated by different dimensions – particularly the fourth – and their place in a multiverse.

In Doctor Who, parallel worlds seem to stack up like a deck of cards, the space (minimal though it may be) occupied by the core force at work in Titan Comics’ The Lost Dimension: that is, the Void. And it’s pretty rare Doctor Who explores parallels, the notable occurrences being Inferno, Rise of the Cybermen/ The Age of Steel, and Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday. (That’s without considering that the events of classic serials set in a future that we live in, events which didn’t actually happen, might be set in parallel dimensions, or indeed that the show itself takes place entirely in a different universe.)

For me, the more interesting notion of the multiverse is somewhat represented in The Pilot, in which the Doctor tells his audience that all our lives happen at once, but separated by time, playing images in a linear fashion; separated from this stricture, everything is occurring now. In the place you’re sat, other people are sitting too. Some are wandering. Some are being born, and others are dying. The past, present, and future all become one, but our perspective, and experiences, are solely that of a film: things happening in order.

Now think: what if that’s how the multiverse works? What if all those different iterations are happening now, but the fourth dimension isn’t the only factor separating them from us.

Sounds mental, doesn’t it? Almost unimaginable. Except watch The Girl Who Waited. The Doctor mixes the filters of Two Streams’ various timelines and Rory briefly gets the chance to view things, at least partially, how a fourth dimensional being does. He can’t step willingly between them, but nonetheless sees the patients at the facility becoming an overwhelming blur of everything.

Still, for the most part, we think of parallels in a linear way. Literally, parallel, like straight lines drawn on a long piece of paper, never destined to touch. And that’s fine: it might be right.

What happens in the gaps between? Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, so perhaps there is something that fills it. These gaps might be where further dimensions are born. They do say that every action has a positive and negative reaction; similarly, that our decisions spawn other possibilities (a viewpoint taken by The Rings of Akhaten, which, by the way, I adore). I’m not sure I can believe that – as far as I can see, that’s a very narcissistic notion to take: humans as the centre of every important thing.

To riff off the Twelfth Doctor in the Series 10 opener, I decide I can leave cutting my toenails until tomorrow. Because of this, a parallel world is created in which I cut my toenails today; and another in which I leave it two days.

How does the Great God of Physics decide which are the most important decisions? And which are the most important things that create other dimensions? Because if we take the egotistic perspective that only humans have the necessary impact on causality to matter, that’s completely ignoring… well, everything. In contrast to this, why should a parallel world be spawned because a snail lost its shell, or went right instead of left?

By the same measurement, the butterfly effect theory posits that these things do matter.

Frankly, it’s far too complicated, and the definitive conclusions will never reveal themselves. That doesn’t stop us mulling it all over, thinking about the consequences.

That’s why I picked up The Long Earth, a book by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, beginning a “sequence” (ie. novel series) that finished last year.

Believe it or not, I’ve never been a massive fan of science fiction. I don’t really know why; I like the general concepts, but can never immerse myself in those other worlds. I find they often lack some humanity, something to sympathise and relate to. I’d never really read a Pratchett or Baxter before either (aside from, on and off, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents). But the idea of The Long Earth suitably grabbed me.

It’s simply that, one day, someone invents the “stepper”, which can take you to parallel worlds. Once that becomes widely available, what does that mean for everyone and everything. Take society’s problems and multiply them – infinitely. What does it do for terrorism? For policing? For politics? For economics? For land-ownership? For nature? For space exploration? For loners and for socialites?

What is personal space and personal freedom, what is home security, when someone can stand in your garden, use a stepper to disappear into another world, walk 20 paces, use the stepper to return to the original dimension, and suddenly be inside your living room?

It’s scary, to say the least.

The book also raises the question of what happens when you’re so far removed from your original home. How would you physically cope? How would it affect your mental health? What if you could never get back? Essentially, it takes those old frontier stories and twists them into something surprisingly sinister.

The Long Earth asks whether the multiverse is infinite. If we take the opinion that all decisions force another world into being, the multiverse would have to be limitless.

Could that mean there’s the possibility of life beyond the universe? If our universe is one that ends, is there another iteration in which it doesn’t, ever? Or is the multiverse still defined by the laws of physics, or at least our theories about either a ripping or contraction of matter?

Again, these are things we’ll never know. Then again, would travel between dimensions be possible? Let’s say other dimensions run as parallel lines on a piece of paper, fated never to touch – except… As we know, black holes bend space-time; if that could affect the equidistant lines, there may be a way of finding ourselves in another place.

You know, if black holes didn’t smush everything in never-ending torture.

Coming back to Doctor Who, what’s the Doctor’s place in the multiverse? Are there universes where he does exist? Or where he doesn’t, and how does that affect things? Turn Left gave us a glimpse of a world without the Time Lord; how would things change without the Time Lords at all? Of course, some of this is “personal canon” – how do the other continuities sit with you? Is Big Finish in-canon? What about the Virgin New Adventures? Or do they happen in parallel with the actual show?

Again, definitive answers, though less affecting to humanity as a whole than more scientific questions, will forever elude us.

Maybe it’s right that Doctor Who‘s brief forays into parallel dimensions are few and far between, considering the expanse of questions those journeys can offer; nonetheless, I can’t help but think these are the questions its original remit – “to educate and entertain” – applies to, more so than concerning itself with gender politics, or people who find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Doctor Who‘s hope of educating, I feel, should be in encouraging audiences to open their minds, to ask the uncomfortable: not what to think, but how to think – and the multiverse certainly gives us lots to think about.

  • bar

    SF taught me to think. That wonderful mixture of physics and fantasy, imagination, archeology, politics and hope. Wyndham, Azimov, Dick, Heinlein, Pohl. To think ‘what if?’ ‘How else might we live?’ ‘What might be underneath/beyond this?’ SF is possibly why I became a priest. Pratchett might find that ironic!
    Maybe that’s why I’m unhappy that all the big movies are marvel comic stuff; genetically altered individual ‘heroes’ v the ‘bad guys.’ It’s just boring and infantalising and abdicating the need for thought and change to some superhero, usually with a weapon.
    The Doctor has a teaspoon and an open mind, and curiosity and kindness. That’s enough for me. Ok, maybe the odd revolution too 😉

  • Ranger

    Being a bit of a fan of string theory, I do think that there are infinite universes, but I don’t think that these are caused by different choices by individuals leading to an infinite number of personal universes (if you see what I mean in a very muddled manner). To perpetuate the personal universe action and reaction must be sustained, the initial action (ie cutting toe-nails) only has a reaction in one universe, another fledgling universe caused by a different decision would not have sustainable energy to persist. Or put another way, energy changes where it impacts, but the further away the ripples move, the less changes. But what do I know, I occasionally have problems remembering the world is not flat.

    • bar

      that’s the most coherent explanation of string theory I’ve ever read Ranger 🙂

      • The Lazy Womble

        Novel approach for this community: a coherent explanation. Do you think it will catch on?

        • Philip

          What is the meaning of this comment? Explain yourself.

          • The Lazy Womble

            If I explain myself, it becomes a coherent explanation. I am sure you can see my problem.

          • bar

            The coherence limitation effect; distant cousin of Blinovitch.

          • The Lazy Womble

            Yes. What bar said.

    • Philip

      Wait wait wait… the Earth’s *not* flat?! 😉

      • Ranger

        I know, right?! It clearly is flat, but apparently, those in the “know” say it is round. Pfft.

        • The Lazy Womble

          Those in the know say Pluto isn’t a planet!

          • Philip

            He’s a dog, Womble. Geez.

          • The Lazy Womble

            a planet-sized dog

          • FrancoPabloDiablo

            Ah, the one thing you should NEVER call your wife – even for a joke!

          • The Lazy Womble

            Please tell me you discovered that by intuition and not by experience, FPD.

          • FrancoPabloDiablo

            I wouldn’t risk it in a million years. A little light-hearted joke isn’t worth losing your life over 🙂

  • The Lazy Womble

    This multiverse thing. Does it mean there’s a universe where Ringo’s a really good drummer?

  • Robert Carnegie

    You could suppose that the total universe contains the choices you take and the choices you don’t take but most of them fizzle out almost instantly, maybe being eaten by those pterodactyl things – an unpleasant idea but it would be happening all the time and not something we could actually stop, so just concentrate on living in a proper way in the surviving version of the universe that you started with. Write your life story by acting like a hero.

    The parallel dimension where the Roman Empire continued to the present day is a separate problem. Maybe large branches in time survive, as they do on trees, but the little leaves drop off – or, if coniferous, the needles. Maybe you should get a plastic tree this Christmas, less bother. Unless it’s like (several Doctor Who episodes with unfriendly trees e.g. “The Petrifying Forest” 🙂

    • bar

      Robert, you add a welcome touch of surreality to the physics. Glad you’re here 🙂