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Stories About the Multiverse

I have a theory that stories about the multiverse never work as stories. That’s because a story is always about a protagonist trying to do something and succeeding or failing, and if you take either the multiverse or effective time travel seriously, you can’t tell such a story.

Take 1984. Winston Smith tries to find love in a totalitarian world. He and his girlfriend are captured and forced to betray each other. At then end, he loves Big Brother.

Imagine it is a multiverse story. If you tell it seriously, it is also the case that he and his lover never meet. That he is not in a totalitarian universe. That his name is not Winston Smith. That he tried to find love and succeeded. That he overthrew Big Brother. That he and Big Brother became lovers. That life never evolved on Earth. There are infinite numbers of possibilities. And therefore, no story.

There are two options. You could believe in the Multiverse and just tell one story. That supports my claim because it is just 1984, but written by somebody who believes in the multiverse.

The other option is you make your story Winston Smith coming to learn that the Multiverse theory is true. Perhaps he has a special screen, as in the show Devs. Or a special machine for jumping from universe to universe as in the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once”.

There are two problems with this.

The first is: that’s not the multiverse theory. That’s a speculative story about a single universe which is divided into islands, and where you can see some of the other islands and even travel among them. If there’s causal interaction, it’s not a different universe. (I’m not sure what’s going to happen in Devs — it might be the actual multiverse theory, in which case — second problem).

Second problem: The story of somebody discovering that the multiverse theory is true is just an essay masquerading as a story.

Again, consider 1984. Winston comes across a screen that lets him know in another universe Big Brother never won. (This is sort of the plot of “Man in the High Castle” but Dick is not a multiverse guy, he’s a hippie neo-Platonist.).

That seems like a story set in the multiverse? But it isn’t. Because to tell the story multiversely, you need to spend time on the Winston who comes across a screen that doesn’t teach him the multiverse theory. He must come across infinite screens in all the infinite universes that teach him all sorts of false theories that are similar and dissimilar to the multiverse theory in countless ways.

“Guy discovers he lives in the multiverse” and “guy who unsuccessfully fights totalitarianism in the name of love” are both not multiverse stories, unless you include all the other possibilities. And if you include all the other possibilities you have no story.

I suspect that this is true about stories where the protagonist goes back in time and changes the past as well.

Is there a philosophical consequence to this? That the multiverse theory (and David Lewis’s modal realism) are false?

I think: yes. But at the very least multiverse belief causes us to give up a lot of our everyday assumptions about what it is to act, and what a meaningful decision is and a meaningful story. Stories that blur or hide this fact are misleading. Not on purpose. I think people get swept along by the intellectual excitement and they like telling stories, and lose their footing.

But if you find stories like that dissatisfying or vaguely like a cheat, don’t feel bad. You’re right.

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