David Tallerman is the author of the novel Giant Thief – described by Fantasy Faction as “one of the finest débuts of 2012” – and its sequels Crown Thief and Prince Thief, all published through Angry Robot. He has also written the Markosia graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science and around a hundred short stories, comic and film scripts, poems, and countless reviews and articles. Many of these have been released in one form or another, and others are forthcoming over the next few months. Other pending releases include a graphic novel, C21st Gods, from Rosarium and novella Patchwerk from Tor.com.
Reality isn’t everything it used to be. According to science, it increasingly looks like nothing much exists at all, or just maybe everything exists everywhere – but either way fiction has been exploring those sorts of ideas for the better part of a century now, so at least no one can pretend they weren’t warned when they discover they’ve just been living in someone else’s dream all along.
My own small contribution to the subgenre of fiction that teases at the seams and junctions of reality is the novella Patchwerk, from Tor.com – the story of a machine designed to mend one world by emulating others and of the man who realises he’s inadvertently invented the multiverse’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
To celebrate its release, I decided I’d compile a brief list of some of my favourite narratives across various media that explore the notion of plastic and alternate universes…
I have vague memories from the time of director David Cronenberg’s last trip into the sci-fi body-horror subgenre he’d effectively invented being dismissed as a watered down rehash of his earlier cult masterpiece Videodrome. Perhaps it also suffered from arriving in the year of The Matrix – which, with Dark City only a few months before, seems to have been a remarkably fertile period for reality-deconstructing SF! At any rate, rewatching it for this article I was reminded of how the one element that drew most criticism, the predictable “twist” ending, is the most misrepresented: from its opening scene Existenz is headed clearly in one direction, to which any number of clues are given, and the only way to miss where all of this is leading is to deliberately ignore every last one of them.
In that sense, Existenz plays an altogether different game with the viewer than anything as straightforward as twist endings, and one that happens to be precisely the same as its theme: it’s only our perception of reality that makes it real, it suggests, and it takes a great deal of self-delusion in every moment of every day to paper over all the cracks in our understanding. Which is to say, Existenz is not about reality as individual illusion but as mass delusion – or, put another way, whereas The Matrix contented itself with suggesting that our reality might not be as real as we think it is, Existenz’s question is more along the lines of, “what if reality is so hopelessly arbitrary and artificial and basically indecipherable that it ultimately doesn’t matter what’s real or what isn’t?” Which to me is a much more fun question, and one that leaves Existenz still feeling prophetic in a way that no seventeen year old cyberpunk movie has any right to.
It puzzles me how many Neil Gaiman fans seem uninterested in visiting his early comics work, and particularly in the series that by any definition was his magnum opus, the ten volumes that constitute the original run of The Sandman. It’s one of the boldest, most lavish works of modern fantasy, and for my money goes far deeper and accomplishes more than anything Gaiman has attempted since.
Looking back at The Sandman, it’s easy to see that Gaiman was eager to create a universe that could withstand just about anything: over its course we get elves and fairies, myths and legends culled from every corner of humanity’s history, gods and superheroes, horror and fantasy and moments of brutal reality all existing in the same impossible spaces. More than that, though, it’s a universe where realities can easily shift and meld, one built from the ground up on dream logic and those “soft places” where worlds overlap or collide.
Something like that could easily end up feeling more like a framework than a narrative, and ultimately it’s perhaps only the verve, commitment and unflagging ingenuity with which Gaiman writes that gives his dizzying epic a coherent voice. The Sandman was a colossal early influence on me, but perhaps what most stuck with me was that idea that you don’t have to pick and choose when it came to genre; with a versatile enough idea you can go where you liked and do whatever you want.
The Lathe of Heaven
Surely one of the definitive texts on the subject of alternate and plastic realities, from one of the very greatest writers of the age, Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven follows George Orr, a man who has turned to drug addiction to scramble his own extraordinary ability: that what he dreams becomes real. There’s a further twist, as well, in the fact that Orr is the only one who ever remembers what reality was like before he himself changed it, making his power both isolating and impossible to prove objectively.
All is about as well as such a scenario could be until Orr falls into the hands of psychiatrist and sleep researcher William Haber, who seeks to understand and then to exploit what his unique patient can do. But though Orr’s changes benefit Haber they do little for Orr himself, and even less for the world as a whole, as each act of seeming altruism has yet wider-reaching consequences that neither man predicts, until reality itself begins to fray.
On one level, The Lathe of Heaven is as mythic and fabulous as its title implies, a story of men behaving like gods and getting their fingers burned accordingly, and of the inevitable price of having more power than you can possibly know what to do with. On another, its moral is desperately straightforward: we have little control over our own reality, however much we might delude ourselves otherwise, and even less over the consequences of our actions. And like much seventies SF, The Lathe of Heaven does a great job of combining those two levels, the epic and the intimate, into something at once real-feeling and fantastical.
Almost any work by director Satoshi Kon would have been a perfect fit for this list; his extraordinary debut Perfect Blue, his series Paranoia Agent or what’s perhaps his best-known work in the West, the delirious, hallucinatory Paprika. Millennium Actress makes the list partly because it’s a personal favourite and partly because, of everything here, it had the most direct influence on Patchwerk.
As a film actress is interviewed about her decades-long career, so the world of her movies, her past life and the present all coalesce, drawing the hapless interviewer and his cameraman in as both witnesses and participants. Like all of Kon’s extraordinary output, Millennium Actress is demanding work, expecting the viewer to keep up with a cipher of a plot, characters doubling (or tripling, or quadrupling!) as other characters, shifts in time and space and between the real and the fictive, often within scenes, and a plot that simultaneously spans one lifetime and a thousand years of Japanese history. But it’s also utterly exhilarating and never purposefully confusing; some of the most complex sequences, in fact, do all of the above with only Susumu Hirasawa’s extraordinary score to give them context, and still manage to keep all of the vital details clear. Frankly, nothing this smart has any right to also be so much fun, but then Millennium Actress doesn’t follow the same rules that other films do.
The Chronicles of Amber
In the Chronicles of Amber, there are only two true worlds – the orderly ideal of Amber and its ultimate negation, the Courts of Chaos. All others, including our own Earth, are mere shadows, though no less real-seeming to their inhabitants. Only things are a little more complicated even than that, with alternate realities nestled within alternate realities and a cast who can manipulate the very fabric of creation, and the result feels as though Zelazny had all the imagination in the world at his disposal and didn’t care about spending every last drop of it.
All of this comes to a head in the extraordinary sequences where protagonist Corwin journeys through the Shadows, skimming through alternate universes that Zelazny details just enough to sell us on the idea that these are, in fact, entire realities that we’re glimpsing just for an instant. And, looking back, that idea of conveying entire worlds by sketching in just a few crucial details is something that definitely stayed with me, and which fed heavily into Patchwerk.
Perhaps my favourite fantasy novel series ever, Roger Zelazny’s Amber books are another example of a series that wants to have its cake and eat it – and so does. Apparently no one told Zelazny that you can’t have high fantasy with gun fights, or throw a Moorcockian multiverse into a blender with Celtic mythology, or riff on hardboiled detective fiction and Arthurian legend at the same time. Which is probably for the best since it would be a hell of a shame if the Chronicles of Amber didn’t exist.
Noein: To Your Other Self
Another of the most direct influences on Patchwerk – though I only realised it on a rewatch! – Noein is an anime series that deserves to be far better known than it is: deep and rewardingly smart, with a broad cast of well-conceived characters and a plot that expands in more and more interesting directions as it goes on.
It’s also the perfect fit for this list. Not only does it deal in multiverse theory but it also offers up alternate time frames, and even the possibility of entire simulated realities, to appealingly convoluted effect: our protagonist is teenage girl Haruka, who finds her world being invaded by superpowered beings who may possibly be future versions of her friends but believe that they’re accessing a computer-generated illusion, all to avert their own reality being absorbed by the superreality of Shangri-La and its mysterious master Noein.
Sounds complicated? It is, a bit, but the show does sterling work of navigating its own complexity in an accessible fashion, teasing out idea after idea with steady patience. Plus it’s reliably fun and laden with ideas, not to mention some extraordinary action sequences. It’s one of those works, in fact, where you only fully appreciate just how convoluted it all was when you get to the end and look back.
In conclusion, it’s worth pointing out that this list could have easily have been ten times as long; this is a subject that seems to attract great work and has inspired a disproportionately large number of my personal favourites. Likewise, I could have written a dozen times as many words and hardly begun to scratch why these have been such recurrent themes in recent decades. But then, like I said up there at the beginning, I guess it all basically comes down to one thing: reality just isn’t what it used to be, and these days it’s up to each of us to figure it out for ourselves…