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Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Term originally coined outside sf as an alternative to "universe" that supposedly avoided any presupposition of a unique and ordered creation. Its best known early use was in an 1895 speech by US philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910), collected in his Will to Believe (coll 1897): "Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe." This was anticipated by the scientist and science writer William Denovan, who in a published letter contributing to debate over planetary motion in our Solar System asserted (of God) that "the Great Mechanic presides over a universe, and not merely a cohering multiverse." (22 November 1873 Scientific American). The UK physicist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) applied the term to the universe or universes of Physics (reported 11 October 1904 Daily News), and it also appears in the works of G K Chesterton and John Cowper Powys.

Michael Moorcock reinvented the word for sf in "The Blood Red Game" (May 1963 Science Fiction Adventures), where it stands for the totality of all possible alternate universes or Parallel Worlds. Placing such worlds in the common framework of the multiverse implies the possibility of contact, interaction and travel between alternate realities or Dimensions. This meaning, reinforced by very frequent restatement in Moorcock's later sf and even more in his Fantasy, is now commonly used in both sf and sf criticism.

In his Manifold sequence, Stephen Baxter borrows a term from Mathematics – specifically, topology – and refers to this infinite sheaf of possible universes as the Manifold.

Multiversal backgrounds emerged from the overall DC Comics and Marvel Comics continuities, which evolved to accommodate (and allow crossover storylines between) a great many often mutually incompatible Superhero settings; see for example DC's attempt to rationalize its accumulated overcomplications in Crisis on Infinite Earths (12 issues April 1985-March 1986; graph 1986). This approach inevitably carried over into Cinema with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe. Standalone films of multiversal scope include Time Bandits (1981) and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022); a Television example is the intensively recomplicated and Absurdist storyline of Rick & Morty (2013-current).

Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities (anth 2023) edited by Preston Grassmann assembles fiction and Poetry, mostly new, some of which tend to demonstrate a growing looseness in applications of the term. [DRL]


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