The Worlds Next Door

Who’s watching you? And who’s watching them? Published by Sphere Books 1969. Cover illustration based on repetitions of William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ (a recurring image in the novel) in the Manchester Art Gallery

Parallel worlds could be right next to us.  They might be similar to our world but not quite the same, or perhaps so different that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend them.  It’s one of the possible consequences of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics that results in current theory about the multiverse – we look into this in the latest edition of Odyssey, which has just been issued.

But as long as those other worlds remain forever inaccessible to us, they are nothing more than an interesting possibility.  It would only be if, and when, they start to interact with our existence that things could become really complicated, which has inspired science fiction writers for decades.

In Michael Moorcock’s 1962 novel The Blood Red Game, a parallel universe materializing within our own most definitely poses a threat to our continued well-being.  And Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves from 1972 describes a situation where the manipulation of energy flows between our cosmos and a parallel universe with different physical laws has potentially disastrous results.

On the other hand, we may see the potential for a (more or less) peaceful existence between such worlds.  Clifford Simak envisaged some of the hazards of trading between parallel worlds in his humorous 1954 short story Dusty Zebra – things may be just fine until trade relationships break down.  Or possibly a seemingly never-ending sequence of worlds might be available for colonisation and exploitation, as in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth series.

However, there would be inevitable consequences of having first-hand and undeniable evidence of parallel worlds all around us.  If they represent alternative histories of everything that might have happened, as different realities continually branch off from what we might like to call our own history, where does that leave our so-called freedom of choice?  Does it make any difference overall if, somewhere in another universe, we have done exactly the opposite to what we do “here”?  In his 1969 short story All the Myriad Ways, Larry Niven takes this to a rather sad conclusion.

Brian Aldiss took the whole concept a step further in his extraordinary, and distinctly strange, 1968 novel Report on Probability A, with the additional complication introduced by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that the very fact of observing an event changes the nature of what is being observed.  We all know the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat – the poor feline is only either alive or dead once it is observed.  It calls into question the very nature of what is real.

In this novel, we find a series of parallel worlds with the inhabitants of one being observed by those in another, who are in turn observed by others, and so on.  We suspect that everything was quite placid until one probable existence actually appeared within the certainty of another – “A week ago, he and all his millions of fellow men were living in a world of apparent uni-probability.  Then this other continuum manifested itself.”  And what does one make of ‘Probability A’ – a probable form of existence which is different from our own – when one’s own life had previously seemed so certain? For that matter, we wonder whether it indeed contains ordinary life as we would understand it.

One cannot decide on what is real and what isn’t.  As one member of the chain of observers comments, “All we are after is facts.  We don’t have to decide what reality is, thank God!”  And if observation between parallel worlds is possible, Aldiss’ story makes the disturbing suggestion that there’s nothing to say that it necessarily has to be a two-way interaction.  It might be one-way only.

So who might be watching you now?

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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