All at Once, the Multiverse Is Everywhere

Why today's movies, TV shows, and literature love branching timelines and many worlds

David M. de León
Photo by Allyson Riggs / Courtesy A24

The infinitely cool Jobu Tupaki, hair braided in a dark ouroboros, pearls dripping from her eyes, clad in a shimmeringly ruffled and anachronistic white gown like some cosmic popess, the sum total of all the multiverse’s versions of herself—angry, gleeful, vicious, suicidal, sad, everything, everywhere, all at once—beckons us toward the dark hole in space and time, sucking all of existence into its nihilistic, multitudinous embrace: A bagel. An everything bagel.

“You see,” she says, “when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this. The truth.”

“What is the truth?” asks Evelyn.

“Nothing matters.”

We’re living in a multiverse moment. Or our corner of the multiverse is having a multiverse moment. This Sunday, the multiverse epic Everything Everywhere All at Once is up for eleven Oscars including Best Picture, and its team of writer/directors the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) are up for best director and best original screenplay. And EEAAO is just one of a host of recent movies and TV shows whose plots depend on the existence of a multiverse. We have the Marvel Comics–affiliated Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the first seasons of Loki and What If . . . ?, and, just last month, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Later this year it is expected that we’ll get Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the second seasons of Loki and What If . . . ?, and The Flash, DC’s foray into the multiverse. In genre fiction, we’ve had award-winning books like N. K. Jemisin’s Great Cities duology, Micaiah Johnson’s debut The Space Between Worlds, as well as Blue Neustifter’s viral Twitter short story “Unknown Number,” in which a trans woman gets a text from a pre-transition multiversion of herself—the first social-media thread to be nominated for a Hugo Award.

As sci-fi writer Ted Chiang has written, the rise of the multiverse represents a seismic change in narrative fiction. “For much of human history, stories reinforced the idea of fate,” Chiang argues. “They told us that events unfolded the way they did because of destiny or the will of God.” But the multiverse is not about destiny. Instead of showing how things must be, it imagines a place where all options are possible and equal, none better or more probable than the other, none more destined or fated.

The malady of our age is not despair; it’s exhaustion.

If this sounds a little scary, that’s because it is—the concept of the multiverse upends not only the idea of linear narrative but also concepts like identity, purpose, “success,” or “failure.” Why has this vision of endlessly propagating infinities captured the imagination of our time?

For that, we have to go into the bagel.

Let’s try to make a short list of the things that the prime demographic of 18- to 45-year-olds have lived through in the past two decades: a global pandemic, a global financial crisis, wars in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Ever-more-dire predictions of climate collapse, milestone after milestone for climate action missed. In the United States, a rise in mass shootings and in high-profile killings of Black people by an increasingly militarized police. The weaponization of social media. A rise in right-wing nationalism. Attempted right-wing insurrections in the United States and Brazil. You can understand why it’s easy for people to feel like they’re living in the darkest timeline.

It’s not that things are worse than they’ve ever been—by most metrics the quality of life for many has never been higher. It’s that everything is so urgent. The internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle confront us constantly, not only with dire warnings and terrible images but also with possibilities—the thought that things could be better if and only if we act. Politicians, scientists, and cultural leaders tell us that every cause demands our complete and undivided attention and that we must act with tireless urgency: vote, march, call our representative, run for office, share, like, retweet, toot. Many of these things are important (voting more than retweeting, for example). But even if we had a whole lifetime to devote to a single cause, it wouldn’t be enough.

The twenty-first century, then, puts us face to face with the everything everywhere of every crisis, every demand, every joy and hope and pain and terror, tugging at us, demanding our time and attention. Get pushed too far and one might turn into a rock, looking over a vast and arid universe devoid of life, and it will seem inviting. The malady of our age is not despair; it’s exhaustion.

How does one avoid that sort of cosmic burnout? Under the weight of all possibilities, good and bad, in the absence of certainty and the near-certainty of failure, how does one continue to persist?

Enter the multiverse.

The idea of infinite universes is thousands of years old, going back to at least the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus. But the oldest documented use of the term multiverse comes from William James. In an 1895 speech given to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association, James said, “Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe.” The multiplicities of nature were not a positive to James but a dangerous pluralism that he described in gendered terms: “To such a harlot we owe no allegiance; with her as a whole we can establish no moral communion.” James saw the everything everywhere of the multiverse as untrustworthy. He counseled his listeners to turn away from the seductions of the multiverse and to strive to create meaning in this one.

Almost half a century later, in 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the first multiverse story, which established many of the tropes still used today. In it, Doctor Yu Tsun is a spy for the German Reich in World War I Britain. Tsun needs to send a message to the Kaiser before being captured, so he resolves himself to commit a horrible act. I don’t want to spoil a story that, eighty years later, is still surprising, but suffice it to say that this act involves murdering a semi-random person in the British countryside: Doctor Stephen Albert, who, coincidentally, is an expert on Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên. Pên had resolved both to write a novel of impossible length and to construct a labyrinth impossible to escape but was killed before completing either. Dr. Albert reveals that the novel and the labyrinth are the same: “an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times.” In other words, a multiverse. Pên had attempted to write a novel in which everything that could happen does happen. That novel is also our world, with its infinite branching paths of choices and circumstances that diverge and converge. In this particular universe, Albert and Tsun are enemies; in others, they are friends. In none can they escape the labyrinth.

One common critique of the concept of the multiverse is that it leads, ultimately, to meaninglessness.

For all of the talk of choice and circumstance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is interested in the idea of inevitability. Tsun dwells on how to commit an act he knows is terrible (“una empresa atroz”). He says, “He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” For Borges, determinism and even the constraints of narrative itself are ways for individuals to allow themselves to do terrible things. But the garden of forking paths offers a glimpse of a way out. Instead of historical inevitability (and inevitable violence), it sees the interconnection of all things, all stories, as a perspective outside of the cycles of violence.

One common critique of the concept of the multiverse is that it leads, ultimately, to meaninglessness. Stephanie Burt, in The New Yorker, wonders: “If all potential endings come to pass, what are the consequences of anything? What matters?” Derek Robertson in Politico argues that the “multiverse fallacy . . . treats aspiration as outright fantasy,” promoting a complacency and cynicism that is “destroying the civic and social bonds that hold this republic together—or at least reflecting our stunted imagination and limited curiosity about the real world we actually inhabit.” But “The Garden of Forking Paths” sees in the multiverse not meaninglessness but a deeper meaning. The seemingly inescapable violences of war are the true illusions; what is real is possibility, contingency, indeterminacy, and, most importantly, the people around you.

The multiverse imagined in Borges’s fictions was soon picked up as a concept by quantum physicists. In his book The Hidden Reality, physicist Brian Greene catalogs nine distinct types of mathematically possible multiverse. But the one that would become most important to popular culture was formulated by Hugh Everett III, who in 1957 published what we now call the “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum mechanics. (Everett himself didn’t call it “Many Worlds”; in his original paper it was called the “relative state formulation.”) To Everett, the indeterminacy of the quantum world (electrons having no “real” existence until being observed and functionally existing in every possible place) is not due to a “superposition” of states that is “collapsed” by observation, as in the famous example of Schrödinger’s cat, who is both alive and dead until observed as being one or the other. Instead, Everett imagined a world where, rather than an observation producing one of many possibilities—the cat alive or dead—each possibility results in a different observer. As Everett writes, “each element of the resulting superposition describes an observer who perceived a definite and generally different result.”

This is hard to visualize, but others extended Everett’s idea to imagine each possible state existing in its own separate, branching “world”: thus the Many Worlds Interpretation. But it’s important to remember that in Everett’s original formulation each possibility does not exist in some separate space. Instead, all the possibilities exist simultaneously, all around us: everywhere everything all at once. The reason we don’t perceive every possibility simultaneously is because each “relative state” has no access to the others—we as observers are only “correlated” to a single “relative state.” The particles that make up you—and the particles that make up your memory—are only “tuned” to experience one particular state of the multitudes streaming all around you.

Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation was ignored by the scientific community for decades, but for obvious reasons it found a home in science fiction in the 1970s. In Everett’s multiverse, every possible outcome to any event, no matter how improbable, has material existence. And there are infinite versions of ourselves, experiencing every possible version of our lives. That’s an appealing concept to fabulist authors.

Multiverse narratives have often taken the form of “How can human action change the future?” stories, as in the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, a sentimental look at how a chance moment can change one white woman’s love life. These types of multiverse stories end up being about crafting some “best” life out of all your possible ones. The same is true of most alternate history stories or branching-worlds time travel stories, where characters strive to return to or craft a “proper” timeline, where the events of history unfold in some “correct” way.

The multiversal narratives we see today, though, are more complex—and much bleaker. The finale of the first season of Loki, the MCU series about the Norse trickster god (and brother of Thor), features “He Who Remains,” a character who is driven mad by a multiverse-wide war against infinite versions of himself. He reorders time and space into a rigid “Time Variance Authority” (TVA) in order to maintain dictatorial control. Every timeline that does not conform is annihilated in a brutal, universe-wide erasure. The storyline is a potent metaphor for the absurdity and solipsism of stories that privilege a “proper” timeline. By contrast, Sylvie, an alternate version of Loki slated for annihilation, wants to destroy the TVA, even if it will result in her death and the death of the whole multiverse. She would rather unmake existence than live without possibilities.

Then there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, the multiverse story that best captures where we are right now. In it, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) owns a failing laundromat, cultivates dozens of failed hobbies, is on the brink of divorce with her happy-go-lucky husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is hosting her overbearing father (James Hong), and has difficulty accepting her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) as “a gay.” Evelyn is visited by a version of her husband named Alpha Waymond, who comes from a universe that has discovered a way to access the memories and experiences of the multiverse—worlds where Evelyn is a martial arts superstar, a chef, an opera singer, a queer woman with hot dogs for fingers, etc. He reveals that Evelyn is being hunted by “an omniversal being of unimaginable power, an agent of pure chaos,” Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be (spoiler alert) a multiversion of Joy.

This version of Joy was pushed too far into the multiverse, has seen and been everything everywhere all at once, which has left her with a self-destructive drive toward total multiversal suicide (via an everything bagel). As William James warned, the licentiousness of the multiverse has left Joy not with liberation but with emptiness. In Waymond’s words, “She's seen too much, lost any sense of reality, any belief in objective truth.” Joy/Jobu pushes Evelyn into accepting more and more of her multiversal self into her consciousness, which leads Evelyn to act more like Jobu: becoming more cynical, self-destructive, and cruel and pushing away those who care about her. Evelyn agrees to the divorce, smashes the window of the laundromat, rejects her hot-dog-finger lover—because “nothing matters.”

Everything Everywhere All at Once is about choosing to persist in a crapsack world where both nothing and everything matters.

But that’s not the end. Evelyn has to pass through this cosmic nihilism to a place of compassion and acceptance. Spurred on by Waymond’s seemingly naive kindness, Evelyn goes from cynicism to a sort of cosmic generosity, finding a way to give everyone what they need—even Joy/Jobu. And it’s this that makes EEAAO the emblematic film of our multiversal moment. Evelyn and Joy/Jobu confront the overwhelming flood of possibilities of daily life—and the feelings of cynicism, burnout, and exhaustion that come from it—and come through it together, albeit without fixing or solving anything.

In that sense, Everything Everywhere uses the multiverse to confront the absurdity and urgency of being alive in difficult times, living through successes, failures, steps forward, steps backward, love, hate, utopias, hellscapes, sesame, poppy seed, salt. It’s about choosing to persist in a crapsack world where both nothing and everything matters. EEAAO—and the other multiversal narratives of our time—are stories about how to live mindfully in a world where jadedness and nihilism are very reasonable options. They are not arguments against nihilism and jadedness—they are arguments through them.

In the twenty-first century, Borges’s garden of forking paths has become a place to glimpse a world outside of the constant battle of the present, beyond the black hole everything bagel of modern life. The multiverse isn’t about all-or-nothing radical politics, and it isn’t about giving people an excuse to not fight to make things better. Like existentialism, it requires you to choose to live in the one world of many that you have access to and to love that world despite its flaws, contingencies, and imperfections and despite all the ways it could be better (and isn’t). But unlike Camus’s Sisyphus or Nietzsche’s amor fati, you are compelled to love the multiverse not because it is the only one there is. You must love the world, rather, because it could be different.

Today’s multiversal narratives suggest that we look for the places of connection, love, and kindness that can exist in spite of contingency, while its protagonists are often saved from nihilism by a simple acceptance of the responsibility they have to others. So, in Loki, witnessing countless versions of himself engaged in petty, self-defeating ambition forces the titular character to confront the pathology of his own ambition and begin instead to focus on caring for those around him, the self-destructive Sylvie included. In EEAAO, Waymond’s climactic call is simply “be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on,” and ultimately what leads Evelyn through the bagel is kindness, a compassionate acceptance even of her daughter’s wish to exit the family (and the universe). She has to let go of Joy and accept the uncertainty of letting go. She has to risk losing her daughter forever in order to open up the possibility that her daughter might chose to stay.

It's no coincidence that some of the richest multiversal narratives have been produced by minoritized creators, like Blue Neustifter (author of “Unknown Number”), Micaiah Johnson, and Daniel Kwan of the Daniels. They use the multiverse as a way to imagine new possibilities and alternatives to the seemingly impossible problems of the present. As Neustifter puts it, the multiverse isn’t about finding the best universe but “a way of almost trying on different selves, seeing if there are others we’d want to be.” In “Unknown Number,” both Gaby, who transitioned, and the nameless version of herself who did not are treated with empathy and compassion. Gaby does not judge her counterpart for being more hesitant. Gaby serves as a guide and, more importantly, a sympathetic ear—she understands, she accepts, and she encourages, embodying the adage “it’s never too late to transition.”

On screen, the multiverse also offers new avenues for representation, the ability to cast diverse new faces in familiar roles. But there’s something more than representation happening here. That there are so many Spider-Men in the MCU does mean that different people with different identities get to see themselves represented on screen. But the reason fourteen-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican Miles Morales, the protagonist of Into the Spider-Verse, is so important for young viewers of color is that he doesn’t represent another Spider-Man; rather, he is the possibility that this Spider-Man could be their Spider-Man. And this is one of the great benefits of multiversal narratives: in breaking down the “universal” and singular, they allow for smaller, personal, more contingent meanings to emerge—meanings not based on universal appeal or inevitability but created by and for communities.

In The Space Between Worlds, biracial author Micaiah Johnson uses the multiverse to think about poor brown people’s proximity to death under capitalism. Cara, a “brown girl-child of an addict,” is considered disposable in most worlds. Of the 381 parallel worlds that are close enough to visit, Cara is dead in 372 of them. In the story, it is impossible to travel to worlds that already contain a version of yourself, so the corporation that controls multiversal travel needs individuals like Cara to act as couriers: “They needed trash people. Poor black and brown people.” The improbability of her existence makes her valuable but also opens her up to exploitation. Still, Cara finds great solace in the idea that the world hasn’t yet killed her, “Not yet anyway. Not here.” This gives her the strength to enact change in her world and to redefine herself and her own sense of self-worth.

Even if every iteration ends in a failure, each one is a different failure, which keeps alive the hope that things could be different.

The idea that the multiverse contains an infinitude of individual lives and choices, separate from each other but fundamentally linked, gives queer and nonbinary Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera a metaphor for decolonization. His 2022 bilingual book of poetry antes que isla es volcán/ before island is volcano has a series titled “the independence (of puerto rico): a multiverse!” Salas Rivera describes the sequence as an engagement with Frantz Fanon’s argument that “the colonized first learns immobility, then imagines entire lives confined to colonial solitude.” These imagined lives become a multiverse, a litany of possibilities that are contained, delimited, by colonization. But, to Salas Rivera, these lives converge rather than diverge, as he said in an interview: “I began to imagine these immobilized positions as what they are, entire lives within a confined role, entire universes, each with its own future. What if each of these futures intersected in the independence of Puerto Rico?”

This is a multiverse that imagines what seems impossible to imagine: an independent Puerto Rico, achieved not through ballots and referendums but through a shared sense of possibility among the many disconnected, isolated lives of Puerto Ricans, past, present, and future, whose different individual trajectories “could all be leading to a shared future, a future where we have decolonial independence and true freedom.”

In the poems, the minor resistances of the colonized amount to nothing but heartache: “you busted your head, / they broke your heart”, “you almost died, / maybe you died.” Yet choosing differently doesn’t lead to better treatment: “if you took the cautious path, / they still exploited you, / . . . / they gave you a natural death / and you were good your whole life.” But in this abjection is a realization: “you won't lose what you don't have. / we live on stolen time.” To the colonized, what really matters—freedom, independence, identity, self-actualization, meaning—can’t be lost, because it was never had . It was stolen—and what was stolen can only be stolen back.

In the second-to-last poem in the sequence, Salas Rivera shows how freedom abides in every small action that the colonized take to endure and to care for each other, “and in all things we are independent, / even in the most colonized hole of our porous fear”:

even from afar, it has been us

who has gone to the post office

and sent cans and batteries.

This leads to an understanding of the power and beauty within these actions:

we've spent a lifetime fearing ourselves

while getting robbed by strangers.

look at us. look closely.

don't you see we are

beauty.

The care that the colonized have for each other, how they prepare for and work to remedy the continual tragedies of colonized life—hurricanes, failing infrastructure, debt, disenfranchisement, exploitation—becomes, to Salas Rivera, beauty. In this moment of acceptance, the burnout, exhaustion, and cynicism of the multiverse becomes subsumed within the work of daily attention and care.

The final poem in the sequence is a page with the words “the independence of Puerto Rico” repeated over and over in different iterations. “In the case of this series, each instance is different,” Rivera says. “But each trajectory leads to the same outcome.” This gives new meaning to the repetitions and iterations of the multiverse. Even if every iteration ends in a failure, each one is a different failure, which keeps alive the hope that things could be different. Salas Rivera will keep writing “the independence of puerto rico” in different ways and in different poems until it is true—until it will have always been true.

In an article in Aeon, philosopher Mara van der Lugt writes that “this generation” is experiencing “a wholesale collapse of meaning”—“the loss of the future itself.” She argues that what is necessary for today is not the naive optimism of the past but a “hopeful pessimism,” that we “strive for change without certainties, without expecting anything from our efforts.” This is an acceptance of both hope and failure, a bleak sense of possibility that is suitable for a long road toward an improbable but not impossible future.

The exigencies of the multiverse—urgency, exhaustion, burnout, despair, cynicism, poppy seed, sesame, salt—are also, then, gifts. There’s no reason to fear our possibilities. Possibility shows us what matters.

David M. de León is a Puerto Rican poet and critic based in Queens and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
March 9, 2023

Featured

Books

Life in the Algorithm

It has reshaped culture—but how? Two new books reckon with our digital predicament.
Anna Shechtman

The Night Watch

I first sought sanctuary during the Troubles. I'm still looking for it.
Darran Anderson

Why I Write

The legendary cultural critic on finding a life’s work
Greil Marcus

You Might Also Like

Film

Making a Home In the Multiverse

Everything Everywhere All At Once reinvents the immigrant family drama
Simon Wu

White Noise, New and Improved

How Noah Baumbach transformed a classic satire
Christine Smallwood

On Emancipation

What Hollywood has done to a much-circulated image of American slavery
Lauren Michele Jackson

Subscribe

New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.
Subscribe