Many Worlds is more than this book—which itself may be a mosaic novel, or a collection of short stories, and which purports to be published by the “Authority of the College of Multiple Epistemologies and The Journal of Theoretical Epistemics.” There is also website for the “concept” (https://www.manyworldsforum.com/) which has links to previously published stories, and is well worth exploring. But for this review I am largely confining myself to the actual book, containing stories which “have been gathered from across the Simulacra and, taken together, they illustrate a burgeoning, if inchoate, awareness of the Simulacrum, emerging without coordination or communication across universes, across writers, across minds.” Now, those terms.
The book begins with what may be a short story in itself, or an introduction to the conceit or concept behind it: “the world has been copied many times by an entity of unknown origin for an unknown purpose,” a being which author and collection co-editor Cadwell Turnbull calls the Simulacrum. (The collection of worlds thus copied and edited—with things [and people] added or deleted at seeming random—is called the Simulacra.) Turnbull’s story, “Notes on the Form of the Simulacrum,” simply presents a collection of internet posts sharing people’s experiences of this editing: “I have a sister now. Just walked out of a room that wasn’t there before”; “Hawaiʻi is its own country now.” There is a reference to the Mandela Effect, that curious phenomenon of shared false memory which affects many, named after the conviction of many that they read in 1980 of the death in prison of Nelson Mandela, who in fact went on to become President of South Africa and die in 2013. But this is more than false memory, or even a fear that the world has changed: the Simulacrum is actively changing, rewriting, or editing reality. There are a few—we meet some in further stories—who actively move through these worlds and realities. For others, the change is a terrifying shock.
These stories are a sometimes baffling, occasionally frustrating, and very often eerie set of variations on a theme which is actually quite common in SF (that we are not living in the “real” world), but which, when it occurs, does tend to resolve itself in a number of endings that identify who or what is behind all this. Many Worlds, though, is not particularly interested in “explanations.” Theodore McCombs’s “The Phantom of the Marley Valley High Auditorium for the Performing Arts,” for example, simply gives us a high school where, over the past eight years, fifty students have disappeared on or around the school’s annual spring show. Apart from the fact that the show is based around a series of dance movements developed by the philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, and some people detect the presence of a “Heap” of props and other equipment in various places, there are no common factors to link the disappearances. It’s a chilly beginning, and works the better for the lack of explanation, although the title tends towards bathos rather than eeriness. Similarly, although the final story, Josh Eure’s “Arrivals and Departures,” circles around the idea of an agency tracking “anomalies”—people who can travel between realities in a number of possible ways not necessarily under their control, and who might even possess a possible recognition of “the thing in charge”—it moves away from a full resolution.
The most overtly science fictional of these stories, in the sense that their uses of fairly standard SF tropes are to the fore, are “To the Bottom” and “Life at Sea”; perhaps also “On the Spectrum” and “Battlesuit.” The first begins with the exploration of a recently discovered “hidden trench in the Pacific that was recorded to have a depth of 50,027 feet” (this is the year 2031). When the expedition to reach the bottom of the trench goes wrong, the character of Mai discovers a godlike creature whose perceptions extend beyond time and which reveals that humans are destroying the Earth—although it also sees that the “End” is not a simple, fixed point on a continuum of “pins” or possibilities (which may in turn be manipulated by a higher power: “call it God or some simulacrum”). We learn that Mai is suffering because of the death of a daughter—and, if the creature can see forever, it might be able to answer the question, “Why was your daughter taken from you?” It does not, although Mai doesn’t remain in the depths—because she commits suicide, since to “let the torment of a life without child” plague her is simply “not what she does.” That last is a phrase which implies either agency on her part or reveals her as part of a deterministic continuum —we are left to choose which.
“Life at Sea,” set during a period of ever-increasing climate and social catastrophe, has its narrator choosing to end his human form and join the numbers transformed into algae blooms, following his wife, who qualified for this a year previously. The chaos and misery of that year is a carefully sketched background, but the ingenious transformation is no solution, for the new environment has its own issues, its own equivalent of the environmental issues we have with the world. Elsewhere, Justin C. Kay’s “On the Spectrum” takes on the issue of neurodivergence, reversing the status quo similarly to the way in which Wyman Guin did with schizophrenia (and rather misleadingly) in “Beyond Bedlam” (1951). Here, the “neurodisadvantaged” are those who are not the “Typicals”—those not who might (in our own contemporary terms) be called “extraordinary,” “savants,” or as living with high-functioning ASD, although a further distinguishing trait here seems to be telepathy.
Kay’s narrator, August, and his friend April fantasise about “Koinos Island,” a place where “everyone talks like us, creates like us.” “Society” is threatened by the coming of a wandering Black Hole, and here we have an interesting twist on the value to “conventional” thought of the so-called neurodivergent. It’s one of the most clearly visualised stories in the book, but, for what it’s worth, also one which has less focus upon the “Simulacrum”—in the sense that it could well appear outside the context of this project as a typical “what if” science fiction story, reversing and exploring aspects of our own world. Similarly, “Battlesuit” by Cliff Winnig gives us an absolutely standard SF device, a Heinlein-esque battle suit (such as found in Starship Troopers ) but with a twist: once you’re in it, you’re in it for life, a cyborg. Jon, a young soldier, is standing before his suit; like many in his position wondering if he is doing the right thing. Like a medieval knight, he is alone with his thoughts before stepping into his future, but then his sister arrives on the scene to confront him with his motives for fusing his individuality with the weapon-machine. It’s a powerful vignette, but the complex of images for the “suit” seem rather forced: it is, for instance a “Georgia O’Keefe flower,” a reference to twenty-first-century American art (Jon, we learn, is/was himself a painter, so the reference is not entirely out of the blue); and also an “iron maiden,” which is meant to be an image invoking medieval torture but which to Jon recalls the band (“Growing up, I spent hours with Dad’s metal collection”). This all implies a close near-future setting which is contradicted by the technology. Rather than coming from the experience and thoughts of the protagonist, these references are the author nudging the experience of the reader now, retrofitting imagery into what the protagonist is thinking to rather clumsily bestow on us some understanding
If those are the “core” SF stories in this collection, where else do the others take us? K. W. Onley’s “And So, What Do You Know?” shows us an African-American woman reproving her daughters’ behaviour in public while on the way to a “Taste of DC” event organised by the TV stations at which she is one of the bosses: “Ladies, we know how to wait … Ladies, we know how to ride the train!” In one reading of this lecture, it is a version of the “talk” which, sadly, African-American teenagers must often listen to. But we soon find out that what the girls “know” is something more. At the event, Anita and Sheena are interviewed by Nikki from the “Department of Continuity,” which seems to monitor the changes in the world by recording the responses of those with the ability to remember those changes, those who “know”:
“Your knowing anchors our knowing. There are all sorts of people who know. Y’all are among them! … [W]e keep a catalog of what has been and what has been changed. We accept some changes. We resist or deny others. Sometimes, we get to redefine the changes as best we can, based on our catalog of knowing.”
Questioned about what should continue, what must change, they reveal some of the petty but fundamental injustices of classroom life that foreshadow the greater problems ahead: “Maybe who should have to wait and who shouldn’t should change.” Surrounding them, on their way to and from the event, are homeless people hustling for change.
It might be argued that the message in “And So, What Do You Know?” (what ought to be changed in this world?) is too obviously pressed home, although the answer given by Anita’s mother to her daughter’s tentative question on the way home (how do you decide upon the “one thing” that needs changing?) seems to fuse both the moral and speculative levels and help Anita decide upon her focus. The presentation of a world which exists on a number of levels is powerful (the girls’ mother doesn’t seem to know that the girls are being interviewed; Nikki claims to be a college friend of hers and is suddenly absent when the mother returns), but the existential unease of a “Simulacrum” which changes reality at random is overshadowed by the actuality of “This right here, our mutual reality, is just another construct”—a construct which, the children’s mother is at pains to tell them, needs putting right. It is perhaps the mother’s words and actions (for example, giving a street woman some leftover tickets which entitle her to food at the “Taste” event) which emphasise, without any sense of the Simulacrum’s activities, the message that, Simulacrum or not, we must cope with (and often actively work to effect) change.
This trend persists. Both Cadwell Turnbull’s “Shock of Birth” and “Blink” by Darkly Lem return to one of the scenarios mentioned in “Notes on the Form of the Simulacrum,” and the website in that story is actually perused at one point in “Blink”: “The house I grew up in now belongs to a very polite old couple. They said they’ve been living there for 37 years. I’m only 21, returning for summer break.” Turnbull’s story has a similar moment: its timeshifts reach us from the “institute” in which the narrator tells a doctor that “when I woke up, I was in the wrong place. It was the wrong year, the wrong city, the wrong house, the wrong bedroom. I came back to the wrong body.” The narrator continues to shift, to his meeting with a woman named Sarah twenty-five years later, to a confrontation with the “Michael” into whose life he was “stitched” (and who was later born as the body “Daniel” should have inhabited), and the cumulative change evokes a genuine sense of eeriness. There are, too, other chilling presentations of identity which are really unsettling and thought-provoking. In “Arrivals and Departures”:
Chris was five when he first realized what was happening to him. He awoke on his fifth birthday expecting to see his mother, but instead he found himself in a strange room surrounded by siblings he’d never met. They laughed at his confusion, an older brother slapped his head, told him to quit playing. Chris spent that year trying to figure out what was wrong.
More scenarios from “Notes” are visited in the “institute,” too, from the memory that there was once a state called “Alaska” to our being told that there were always ten months in the year. The narrator’s later meeting with Sarah shows people coming to terms with a frighteningly unstable reality. The narrator of “Blink” experiences other realities (including that of “To the Bottom”), culminating in a poignant, even heartbreaking change. In these moments, Many Worlds is an ingenious variation of the “shared world” concept, or, as its acknowledgements tell us, a “speculative multiverse.”
But there are flaws here, and they are serious ones. As in many “shared world” scenarios, we begin to see that the central conceit can only be taken so far. Some of the stories are brief vignettes rather than full plotted stories. This isn’t necessarily a question of failure, but of editorial balance. “A Skilful Imposter” by Rebekah Bergman shows us a woman recalling a case in which someone becomes convinced that her husband is in fact not her husband but an imposter—even though he is identical in every way. Apparently, such convictions are known in our world, but the treatment here is very brief. Bergman also contributes the similarly concise “The Other Me,” about seeing oneself on a large screen. These separate pieces might have been better together, emphasising their role as personal meditations upon identity—or, conversely, more very short stories might have been included by the editor to add to the sense of a multiplicity of voices.
As it is, the vignettes feel isolated and this wider sense of multivocality is surprisingly lacking. Although there are a number of names credited (some of which, from their lack of appearance in the list of contributors, may be pseudonyms), there’s a certain stylistic sameness about these stories. It’s not that they are badly written—they are not—but they are written within a rather confined format of what might be considered “good” writing. It’s partly the present tense of the prose in which many of them are written, partly the lack of focus as regards place and subject. This might be something to do with the collection’s central idea that place and identity are provisional, but considering that these stories are written from across a massive register, from the present day to the end of the universe, where human form involves permanently connecting with battle-machines or becoming algae blooms, there’s a similarity of tone between many of the stories that suggests otherwise.
There are affecting moments: in “I Not I” by M. Darusha Wehm, an actor waitressing in a café and one of her regulars, a successful corporate executive director, dream of being each other, reflecting each other’s ambitions and anxieties and desires. But, ultimately, and despite the range of time we read about, what we get in our reading is a remarkably limited cultural range. Is the Simulacrum only really interested in playing with the United States of America? For example: if there is no Alaska in one of the realities we are told about, does this mean that what is now Alaska was never sold by Russia in 1867? If so, how does Russian presence in the North American continent affect life? Similarly, if as we are at one point briefly told, there is no Australia, much of British history over the past three hundred years would be significantly different. If the Simulacrum can edit months out of the year (by making months in the calendar year longer?), what other changes in how we construct the world might it make? Could it experiment with eliminating racism or overpopulation? We never learn. In contrast to one of the novels which came to mind when I was reading this—Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which answers exactly these kinds of question—there’s a narrowness of focus in Many Worlds. When the stories present an individual mind trying to make sense of a world which is not as it should be—quite frankly the state of mind most of us are in much of the time—they work very well, and I’d certainly highlight “I Not I,” “Shock of Birth,” “Arrivals and Departures,” “The Phantom of the Marley Valley High Auditorium for the Performing Arts,” and “Blink” as stories which are almost Lovecraftian in presenting a sense of paranoia. But one wonders where, exactly, persisting with exploring the Simulacrum is going to take us.