A way with worlds: 38 – Parallel Earths by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

Parallel Earths are a classic element of writing, almost as commonly accepted as aliens, faster-than-light-travel, magic, and cyberspace. Indeed, my entire Xai project is based on the idea of parallel worlds – so it’s a subject close to my heart and a few other vital internal organs

Writing parallel Earths however is more difficult than it seems. It’s easy to slap a few changes on our world or on a particular time period – but this doesn’t mean it produces a consistent, coherent, or believable setting. Too many parallel Earth stories are based on the following:

The Big Critical Event That Affects Everything – One thing changes all of the world.
The Big Technological Change That Affects Everything – Some singular invention made the world different from ours.
The Dominant Culture is a Different One – Nothing is different except some other culture is the dominant culture of the world – and everything else is the same.
The Big Thing That is Different – One thing differs from our world, yet there are no other changes except the Big Thing.
You notice a pattern – one thing either changes the world totally, or somehow changes the world only in a limited way.

Now I’d like to say as a writer that these “produce a flawed and inconsistent world” (as some bad episodes of Sliders can show). However, I think the problem – and a way to write good parallel Earths – is best illustrated by an example I call “Dominoes and the Net”

DOMINOES AND THE NET
Some time ago, there was the so-called Y2K crisis. The world was going to end because some computers and related technology couldn’t process information about the year 2000. Elevators would lock up, power stations would go down, banks would be in crisis, the world would end and only people who’d blown huge wads of cash on survival gear would live.

Only it didn’t happen. The only world that ended was the world of the people awaiting Armageddon after spending said wads of cash on said survival gear. As a computer programmer I faced one Y2K crisis – a website with malfunctioning adds due to an obscure bug in a programming language that only manifested under certain conditions.

Those awaiting the end of the world made the same mistake that many writers of parallel Earths make – they assumed the world was like a bunch of dominoes. If anything went wrong, the world would change forever – no matter what went wrong where. They assumed that if you changed something, even a few things, the world would alter irrevocably.

In short, they were waiting for the Big Critical Event to change everything.

Of course what happened was some people saw there were problems and fixed them, and when problems did occur, they didn’t spread like wildfire because computer systems had backup, failsafes, and so forth. The world adapted and it didn’t end.

But the world did adapt and change in many subtle ways due to the Y2K issue. New software was development, new policies put in place by companies, etc.

The world is much like a net – pulling a part here or there may distort it, but pulling another part cancels out that distortion. Changes may spread throughout the net but not radically – and in most cases it takes a darn hard tug to rip the net. It’s over a year after Y2K as I write this, and the great Computer Armageddon never happened.

Now what’s the point of this (besides noting Y2K apocalypse stories are a waste of time)?

The “net of the world” is what you have to deal with when writing about the world – and writing about parallel worlds. To really make a radically different earth requires a hard yank on the “net” or several good pulls at the right places.
One event has multiple subtle, widespread effects. Fixing Y2K issues didn’t involve radical shifts, but many subtle alterations, people doing more work, etc.
The Y2K issue illustrates the folly of the Big Critical Event mentality as well as the idea that change is often localized in our world.

THE NET OF THE WORLD
In creating a parallel Earth a person usually picks some events that caused the Earth to be different than ours. The important thing is to make sure the impact of this change or changes is understood and written and developed.

The challenge of writing a parallel world is figuring out just how the “Net of the world” distorts and changes from the events you’ve decided differed from our earth. Too much change and it’s unbelievable. Too little change and it’s not really that different an earth. Too many events and you just may have a world face Armageddon after all.

This is not an easy or fast process – forget the tales you’ve seen of “slap-a-change-on-the-earth-and-write-it.” Don’t expect things to be perfect, don’t expect them to be planned quickly. Writing a parallel world is usually an act of subtlety and not force, of careful thinking and consideration.

(You can see why sometimes it just seems easier to go with the domino theory.)

My recommendation is to take the time to think over your ideas, to write things down, and even to do research. Think about the “Net of the world” and just how far your changes will spread. Keep the following elements in mind:

A change may not have enough significant impact to make a parallel earth truly different from ours.
A change’s impact usually is multifaceted.
Changes can cancel each other out or alter each other.
It takes a lot to get a cascading effect (a domino-like effect) but it can happen.

WRITE, WRITE, WRITE:
My final piece of advice on making parallel Earths – write things down. Take notes. Write your ideas down and then edit them. You’re juggling a lot here – but it’s worth it.

SUMMARY:
In writing parallel Earths, remember the world is an interconnected series of events – events can have wide impact, but the world adjusts and adapts.

A Way with Worlds is hosted at fanfiction.netlit.org,sffworld.com, and Woman-to-Woman.
A German translation is in the works at 
Christian Spliess’s Page
It is archived at the
 Way With Worlds archive.

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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