Multiverse Media and My Hypothetical Loves
It wasn’t too long ago that the concept of parallel universes showed up only in the nerdiest popular culture: Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, for example, in which the Axis and Allied powers have to join forces when aliens invade Earth in the middle of World War II, or “Mirror, Mirror,” the Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise crew meet evil versions of themselves from another world, and which introduced the idea that evil versions of existing characters are differentiated by their evil goatees.
Now, though, stories about parallel universes are everywhere. In the past decade alone, we’ve seen them in—to name just a few—Lost, The Man in the High Castle, Rick and Morty, The OA, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yesterday, X-Men, Counterpart, and much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—plus, of course, the rebooted Star Trek. If parallel universes are real, then we’re definitely living in the universe that has the most fictional parallel universes.
Some of the reasons for this rise are prosaic: the increasing popularity of science fiction and so-called “nerd culture” means there are more stories being told where parallel universes could conceivably make sense, and in long-running franchises like Star Trek or Spider-Man, the introduction of a parallel universe can be a convenient plot device that allows their corporate caretakers to effectively reboot the series while maintaining some continuity with its previous installments.
But I don’t think the multiverse’s utility as a narrative hack is the only reason it’s suddenly everywhere. Commercial concerns may drive the introductions of these kinds of plotlines, but they wouldn’t stick around if they weren’t resonating with audiences.
I have a different theory: the popularity of parallel universe stories is a natural reaction to the paradoxes of choice generated by the increasing possibilities the average person in the modern world has for their life. The idea of a parallel universe would make no sense to a medieval peasant, because what other life could they possibly imagine for themselves? But today, each of us has a million different paths our lives could have taken. And the rise of social media means we now have more visibility into others’ lives—or, to put it a different way, our own alternate lives—than ever before.
When we encounter a story about a fantastical alternate reality, we can’t help but draw connections to the more mundane alternate realities of our own lives. The movies ask us, what if Spider-Man opened a portal into another dimension and teamed up with his parallel selves to defeat evil? But we ask ourselves, what if I’d stayed in California with Zoe instead of taking that job out east?
Zoe isn’t real, but she might as well be. I picked that example because for most of us—or at least for me—the most intriguing “what if” possibilities lie in the realm of our romantic partners.
It’s increasingly common to live in multiple places throughout your life, or to have multiple careers, but the vast majority of us still expect—or at least hope—to eventually end up with a single life partner. Surgeons, rabbis, and others who make lifetime career commitments excepted, even the most obsessive serial monogamists—or the most promiscuous polyamorists—will likely have more jobs than relationships over the course of their lives.
But though our actual relationships remain few, our almost-relationships are many. In my own life there have been a handful of women where something meaningful came close to happening between us but then, for one reason or another, never did: hypothetical loves destined to live forever in the world of what might have been. As a recently-married friend of mine said to me, “We all walk around with a few love stories that never happened, even when we’re in happy relationships.”
When I was younger, it was usually just happenstance that caused my hypothetical loves to remain hypothetical. There was the girl with whom I shared a mutual crush in high school, each of us too shy and awkward to reveal our feelings to the other until a drunken party many years later, by which time the moment had long passed. Or the girl in college who took a semester off right after our first kiss, during which we both started seeing other people.
But in adulthood, my hypothetical loves usually remain hypothetical because of my, or their, practical choices: wanting different things out of life such that no matter how compatible we might seem, we know we could never actually be together. This latter reason is far more excruciating, because it’s firmly in your control. When the universe gets in your way, you can at least rail against fate. But when you’ve made your own choices, you have nothing to rail against but yourself.
Still, I’d always known these kinds of choices were coming. When I was 16, back when Netflix still mailed you DVDs, I watched the entire 326-episode run of Friends, a show about six people in their twenties who look like they’re in their thirties and have the implied income of people in their fifties. Much of the show’s second season is occupied by a plotline in which Monica (the Type A one) starts dating her ophthalmologist Richard, a much older friend of the family who’s known her since she was a kid. (This isn’t creepy because things were different in the nineties, and because Richard is played by Tom Selleck.)
In the season finale, Richard tells Monica that even though he already has grown children with his ex-wife, he’ll have another family with her because he loves her and that’s what she wants for her life. And in what was, to my teenage self, a shocking twist, Monica reacts to this by… breaking up with him. She loves him too (and he’s a damn fine ophthalmologist), but she realizes she needs to be with someone who genuinely wants the same life she does—not just someone who’ll accede to it out of their love for her.
Sitting in my bed, watching this cheesy sitcom episode on an old laptop whose DVD drive you could hear whirring and clicking during the show’s quieter moments, I realized for the first time that relationships can end—or never even begin—not just for lack of love, but for practical, even mundane, reasons. Two years after watching that episode, my high school girlfriend and I would break up for college because we both knew that neither of us was the type of person to stay with our high school sweetheart forever, and four years after that my college girlfriend and I would do the same thing for the same reason. And in the decade between then and today, I’d every now and again meet someone I’d feel almost supernaturally connected to but would know—because she didn’t want kids, or because she lived on the other side of the world, or for a million of the other possible reasons—that it could never be.
It took me a long time to stop seeing these kinds of situations as losses—not just for what could have been with my hypothetical loves, but for all the choices we inevitably make as part of life, each of which precludes another. They say when God closes a door he opens a window, but when you close a door it usually just remains closed, and soon what started as a carnival of infinite pathways is just a big room of doors you’ve shut forever.
But lately I’ve been practicing the art of appreciating these things for what they are instead of mourning what might have been. There’s a certain beauty to an almost-love that stays forever in the realm of the what-if, a gentle melancholy that’s almost pleasurable if you can lean into it the right way. It’s a melancholy you can luxuriate in, the kind you might induce intentionally by playing an Elliott Smith song. All the potency and meaning of heartbreak, now with only a fraction of the actual sadness!
Besides, when something remains imaginary, it also gets to remain perfect. Reality is where all the hard things live—boredom, disagreements with no solution, the things you’ve said that you wish you could take back. There’s a reason that when we say something “got real,” we very rarely mean it in a good way. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all these movies and books where people explore the multiverse, it’s that it almost never ends well.
So I’ll stay here, in my one life, with all the accumulated decisions I did and didn’t make—not that I have a choice, of course. And occasionally, on late nights, I’ll let myself wonder what might have been with my hypothetical loves.
But only a little.