Spider-Man: No Way Home — 500 Years In The Making: A Brief History of the Multiverse in Pop Culture

“But do you really mean, sir,” said Peter, “that there could be other worlds — all over the place, just round the corner?”  -C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It does seem like alternative worlds are popping up like dandelions over the neighborhood lawns in franchises like the MCU and DCU these days.

Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest in the trend, is proving a super power-inducing jolt to theater chains that have been on life-support for two years. It looks to be the runaway success of the Christmas 2021 season.

And it’s not just the comic book movies. NBC’s new rom-dram Ordinary Joe follows Joe through three parallel timelines diverging from what he chose to do on his college graduation day. And Twin Peaks: the Return (2017) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) both utilized the concept — with rare originality, even eerieness.

Here, then, is your brief history of the pop culture “multiverse.” We’re limiting the definition to  “alternative histories” to either our own or the established history of fictional universes (the MCU, etc.). We thus exclude other types such as the parallel “portal worlds” of Oz, Narnia, etc.

Writing down “what if…?” goes back at least to the ancient historian Livy, late B.C.E. Fictionally, the concept may have been used first in Tirant lo Blanch, a 1490 romance by Joanot Martorell, which flips the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans.

The multiverse emerges in the age of the novel in 1836 with Louis Geoffroy’s fictional world where Napoleon won! Nine years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne may have written the first alternate history tale in English with “P.’s Correspondance.”

However, this short story seems more like Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981), wherein Dick simultaneously inhabits both the Roman Empire in the first century C.E. and an illusion of 1970s California. Not the same thing.

Instead, Edward Everett Hale’s 1881 short story “Hands Off” is the first evolutionary rung in English letters in developing a fictional timeline diverging from history, but it is qualifed at the end by being revealed as only “a shadow.” This groundbreaking but forgotten little tale also has claim to being the first “butterfly effect” story.

The equally obscure Castello N. Holford gave the English language its first initial parallel world “for real” with his 1895 Aristopia. It is also our first novel-length development of the idea.This alternate history of America begins in colonial times and ends with Canada as part of the U.S. of A.!

Early 20th-century genre giants Robert E. Howard and H.G. Wells touch on the alternate time concept, but neither wrote a story where an alternative history is the focus. Wells, for instance, in 1905’s A Modern Utopia used the idea as an educational device for the novel’s cast.

However, it’s not without significance, I think, that multiverse fiction fully emerges in this period in which both of these authors are active: the height of the Modernist era, post-World War I.

Society, science, and the arts combine over the Jazz Age and the Great Depression to make alternative timelines more than just a speculative fiction novelty. An “unfixed” reality, one including new perspectives on time, was no mere fancy, but a relevant perceptional mode of artists, authors, and other sophisticates after the war to end all wars.

It is in the 1920s that quantum theory emerges with is coexisting, alternate futures in a flux until an act decides which one will pass from potential into reality. The new science’s influence cannot be underestimated in the relatively quick switch of what had long been a marginal literary conceit into an established science-fiction subgenre.

On the period’s literary scene, two collections of essays, 1929’s The Ifs of History and 1931’s If It Had Happened Otherwise, sandwich the launch of the first post- World War I alternate history novel, The Calvary Went Through (1930). This story by Bernard Newman (George Eliot’s great-nephew!) takes the recent war’s outcome a different way.

The online Science Fiction Encylopedia notes that parts of The Calvary Went Through read like the kind of speculative essays in the collections surrounding it. They also identify it as a “scientifc romance,” a  subgenre popularized in the nineteenth century by Verne and Wells and continued into the twentieth, most notably by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Thus, the multiverse is still evolving into its current form at this point. But bits of its atavistic anatomy in the description of The Calvary above are about to be jettisoned in an evolutionary leap, straight up into the period’s zeitgeist.

1934: the first multiverse story to establish it as a modern science fiction subgenre, Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise In Time,” is published (Leinster also has the distinction of having a starship named after him in the David Hasselhoff sci-fi movie classic Starcrash).

Five years later, L. Sprague DeCamp gave a detailed examination of how cause and effect may shift to change history in his time-travel tale Lest Darkness Fall (1939). It continues to influence writers of divergent timelines. He followed with one of his own, a modern America settled by Vikings ten centuries earlier, in 1940’s “The Wheels of If.”

Jorges Luis Borges was the perfect author to handle the mindwarping of alternate time, which he did in “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941). H. Beam Piper ‘s 1948 “Police Operation” began a series about a force traversing parallel realities forty years before the Time Variance Authority debuted in a 1980s issue of The Mighty Thor and over seventy before Disney+’s  Loki.

In the 1950s, the multiverse gained momentum. H. Beam Piper was back with his “Paratime” police in “The Last Enemy.” Sam Merwin, Jr. published the exploits of a similar trans-timeline group of agents in 1951’s “House of Many Worlds” and 1953’s “The Three Faces of Time.”

1953 also saw publication of Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee.This is the first novel to develop the now-old chestnut of the South winning the Civil War. Other writers already had speculated on this, including Winston Churchill in a fictional p.o.v. of one of the winning Confederates! But Moore created a mid-20th-century world out of the concept.

Five years later, the great Fritz Leiber wrote The Big Time, ending the ’50s as they had begun, with alternative realities battling for which timeline will become the definitive one.

A 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone  brought the multiverse concept to more people at once than any single print story would have upon publication when it aired “Mirror Image.” Serling’s script shows familiarity with what was written before, but his inspiration was having an eerie encounter with someone who appeared to be his own doppleganger!

In 1961, DC comics The Flash 123 (“Flash of Two Worlds”) introduced Earth 2 into comics as a means to harmonize their original Golden Age characters and their relaunched Silver Age versions. Arguably, this 10 cent event was also the precursor to employing divergent timelines in the superhero genre.

The upcoming 2022 Flash movie will basically be an adaptation of this 60-year-old comic book (and, no doubt, make more money for the principals involved than original author Gardner Fox saw in his lifetime).

In 1962, Philip K. Dick published The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis won W.W. II. Dick’s novel acknowledges the multiverse genre’s debt to quantum physics, not the least by its imagery related to the Tao symbol, pioneer quantum theorist Niels Bohr’s main icon in his personally designed coat-of-arms.

The same year Keith Laumer published Worlds of the Imperium in which the American revolution never hapened and Britain reigns over a parallel world…and has its hand on several others.

Then, in 1963, British SF/Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock coined the word “multiverse” as it is understood today in pop culture in “The Blood Red Games” (sometimes published in novel form as The Sundered Worlds). Psychologist William James is commonly credited with inventing the actual word, but with a different definition, in 1895.

However, Guy Lawley’s exhaustively researched (and highly recommended) online article “Secret Origins of the Multiverse” on his Legion of Andy site reveals scientist and author William Denovan previously used the word, differently than both James and Moorcock, in an 1822 letter to Scientific American.

Also predating Moorocock, and closer to the popular understanding (while also contradicting it), was Andy Nimmo’s usage of the term. As cited by Lawley in John Gribbin’s In Search of the Multiverse, Nimmo employed it in a 1961 speech to the British Interplanetary Society.

However, it was Moorcock’s independent coinage of the word that disseminated among a much larger and growing audience of fans and creatives, and to him we owe the name of the subgenre. Fittingly, there was a DC comics series dedicated to his multi-incarnate “eternal champion” series and rightfully titled Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse.

With 1966’s The Gate of Time, Philip Jose Farmer dropped a World War II pilot into a timeline where the American continents never existed, and a very different world war is raging. The next year, it was Cold War obsession shaping a timeline in which England had the bomb far ahead of schedule in Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb.

Also in 1967, Star Trek became the first live action franchise to introduce an alternate universe into its continuity with Jerome Bixby’s “Mirror, Mirror.” No one ever forgets Mr. Spock with a goatee!

In 1969, Farmer and Clark were back in the mulitverse. Clark published a variant on his Queen Victoria book, The Bomb That Failed. Farmer began his Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban series.

Although this duo’s exact idenity was left ambiguous at first, Farmer later subtly revealed them as divergent time analogs of Tarzan and Doc Savage in an excerpt from an uncompleted fourth novel. The whole story will finally be told when Meteor House publishes Win Scott Eckert’s posthumous collaboration, The Monster On Hold.

The mulitverse hit the airwaves on both sides of the pond in 1970. England’s Doctor Who went sideways in time in the last story of Jon Pertwee’s first season, “Inferno.”

Not to be left out, the States’ Dark Shadows began its first parallel time storyline. Pretty heady stuff for a soap opera then or now! Did I mention it was also a mashup of Rebecca and Interview With the Vampire – six years before the latter was published?

In 1971, the ground was broken for the latest MCU phase, 50 years later. Writer Roy Thomas took the Avengers to a parallel timeline where the Squadron Supreme, an alternative version of DC’s JLA, fought crime from their headquarters in what was supposed to be Tony Stark’s mansion.

By the way, the final three panels of this story’s concluding issue, Avengers 86 (“Brain Child to the Dark Tower Came”), still threaten to overturn all subsequent Avengers’ continuity (now a half century’s worth!) in a way that would make the infamous Spider-Man “Clone Saga” look like a case of the sniffles!

The following year, the Avengers were back in multiverse peril when Roy Thomas adapted science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison’s tale with a touch of Borges, “Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow” in Avengers 101.

The first issue of Marvel’s What If…debuted in 1977. Each issue explored a different turn of key Marvel Universe events. What If Wolverine Killed the Hulk?; What If Jane Foster Became Thor? (sounds familiar); What if Uncle Ben Had Not Died? And my personal favorite: What If all the Watchers were watching Watchers watching Watchers?

From the late ’70s on, the multiverse concept became more and more utilized in speculative fiction. In the 1990s, Harry Turtledove began multiple alternate histories with his series Worldwar, Colonization, and Southern Victory (it seems the South is always rising somewhere or other). The old paperback covers still feature some of the coolest “brand” art ever!

Along with Turtledove’s series of fictions, the Fox/Sci-Fi Channel series Sliders bridged the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Over its five year TV-run, when viewing options were limited by today’s standard, Sliders perhaps introduced more of the general public to the multiverse than ever before.

During this same period in Japan, the wildly popular anime Neon Genesis Evangelion featured an episode in which series protogonist Shinji Ikari observed a timeline where his troubled life was much different. Later, the anime extended its franchise with both manga and home gaming set in divergent universes from that of the original series.

Fringe (2008), a sort-of wannabe unofficial X-Files successor from J.J. Abrams, dealt with people crossing over from parallel reality into our own. Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle premiered in 2015, just two years after Fringe‘s cancellation. Abrams’ series overlaps with the beginning of “the Arrowverse” (WB’s Green Arrow, 2012), where DC would start up their multiverse on the small screen.

In an I.P. twist, Disney Marvel’s current first all-out theatrical foray into the genre featuring Spider-Man was scooped three years ago by Sony Marvel’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) (does Disney claim ownership of “multiverse” now?).

In 2021, Disney+ ‘s Loki set the stage for Marvel Phase Four after the studio pulled an unforgivable multiverse bait and switch with WandaVison. They followed with an animated series based on the What If… comic book, exploring timeline variations to the MCU (arguably itself an alternative universe to the comics source material).

Spider-Man: No Way Home, WandaVision,and Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness seem to be forming one long story, with the latter set for 2022 release. Also somewhere in 2022, Zach Snyder’s Flash will be meeting Tim Burton’s Batman…

And that, my reader, brings us to where we are now…

But where, exactly, are we?

Micah S. Harris has his own multiverse, bridged by a supernatural glacier, in his just completed The Witches of Winter Trilogy that initiates The Chronicles of Aarastad. Get the e-Book of Vol. One: Portrait of a Snow Queen FREE —

On Amazon Kindle HEREhttps://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08R3WW1MD

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                                           Cover Art by and c. 2018 by Aaron Lopresti

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(Article c. 2021 Micah S. Harris)









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