The Problem With Parallels

Show of hands: who here likes a good alternate reality story?

So do I (which may or may not surprise some of you). What has recently occurred to me, however, is that a fairly typical alternate reality plot–one in which the main character discovers, for good or ill, what his or her life would be like under dramatically different circumstances–has a huge stumbling block of logic working against it.

Odds are, in any given alternate reality, the main character won’t exist.

Bear with me here, and all will be explained.

For purposes of the argument, let us use a model where every choice, no matter how mundane, splits off a new alternate reality. It’s the same scenario that they use over in Marvel Comics most of the time. For a main character, to keep the math simple, we’ll be going with someone who grew up as a single child, knowing both parents. So as to keep the grammar (and pronoun issues) simple, this character will be called You.

If Your parents never met, then You were never born. Since this is an either-or proposition, there is a 50% chance that You will not exist in any given alternate reality. Maybe Your parents did meet, but circumstances in the alternate timeline caused them to separate before You were born. Now You’re limited to existing in 33% of all possibilities. If Your parents do stay together, but remain childless? 25%. And if they child they have is not your gender, we’re down to a 20% chance of You existing. If they have twins instead? Well, neither one could honestly be said to be You, even if one of them shares Your name, so we’re down to a 16% chance that You’re around.

I could demonstrate how much worse the numbers get once we start adding in the odds of Your grandparents existing, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Just something to think about the next time you watch a mirror universe Star Trek or alternate timeline Stargate episode, and all the main characters appear in recognizable form.

Issue #183, June 1962

Tales Beyond Tomorrow #183, June 1962

An excerpt from They Called Me Monarch by Montgomery Archer:

After a couple of years working in the margins at St. Williams–illustrations for text pages, lettercolumn headers, the very occasional backup story in a humor or romance book, that sort of thing–something I drew must have impressed somebody, because I was offered a regular spot as the cover artist of their top-selling title, Tales Beyond Tomorrow.

There was only one catch: I wouldn’t be drawing the book’s star, Rick Crockett.

I only found out about this later, but apparently there was a conflict between the creative teams behind the Crockett lead stories and the backups that continued Tomorrow‘s legacy as an anthology title. Marv Neumann and Oscar Brandt wanted to believe that it was still an anthology (and, therefore, it was their stories and art that people were really buying), and that having Crockett on every cover was hurting potential sales.

Good men, talented men, both of them. But they were too close to the issue and couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else. I think it might have been Normie Blackwell who suggested removing Crockett from the covers for a spell, to see what happened to sales. Me? I knew exactly what was going to happen to sales, but covers paid much higher than the adventures of Rose’s little cousin Donna, so I kept my mouth shut and started drawing.

Legend has it that some publishers were actually commissioning covers first, and then telling the writers to come up with stories to match, but that wasn’t the way it was at St. Williams. Nope, Oscar and I got Marv’s description of the monster the same day, and with the same deadline so we couldn’t make sure it looked the same. Too bad, too, because his Yog-Sognor looked scarier than what I came up with. He had the benefit of having read the Lovecraft stories that had inspired Marv on this one. They wound up giving me a couple collected editions for my birthday.

Like I said, good men. It’s a shame what happened.