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The Multiple Lives of Multiverses

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His Dark Materials, Season 1, “Betrayal,” Bad Wolf Productions, HBO

Stephanie Burt has an interesting piece in The New Yorker about the multiverses, fiction, and popular culture.

If Borges were alive today, he could call his garden a multiverse and be done with it. An idea that seemed fantastical in the forties—that our universe is one of many, and that these parallel worlds might share the same past or the same characters—now seems to be everywhere. The multiverse has spawned countless comics, empowered science-fiction writers like Charles Stross and N. K. Jemisin, and inspired television shows as divergent as “Adventure Time,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Star Trek: Discovery.” It has started to shape our language: instead of saying that the rise of the multiverse was never inevitable, I can tell you that there’s a world in which it never became popular. In our world, it’s very popular: the concept has given rise to billion-dollar movies associated with Marvel Studios, from “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021).

All these multiverses might add up to nothing good. If all potential endings come to pass, what are the consequences of anything? What matters? Joe Russo, the co-director of “Endgame,” has warned that multiverse movies amount to “a money printer” that studios will never turn off; the latest one from Marvel, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a sloppily plotted heap of special effects notable for its horror tropes, cameos, and self-aware dialogue, has earned nearly a billion dollars at the box office. This year, Marvel Studios announced the launch of “The Multiverse Saga,” a tranche of movies and TV shows that features sequels and trequels, along with the fifth and sixth installments of the “Avengers” series. (“Endgame,” it turns out, was not the end of the game.) Warner Bros. has released MultiVersus, a video game in which Batman can fight Bugs Bunny, and Velma, from “Scooby-Doo,” can fight Arya Stark, from “Game of Thrones.” Even A24, a critically admired independent film studio, now counts a multiverse movie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022), as its most profitable film.

The piece covers too much ground to easily summarize, and I suspect that readers will agree with some of its argument but disagree with others.

For my part, I’m not sure I find its efforts to connect “multiverses” to other aspects of the Zeitgeist terribly convincing. But I like the way that Burt explores how multiverses provide an affordance for many different kinds of “recycling,” some of which are pretty fundamental to successful fiction (and, more broadly, how we make meaning out of the flotsam and jetsam of our lives).

Give it a read.

ETA: in comments, Adam Roberts links to his own reflections on the “multiverse” in science fiction, which you should also read.

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