Monday, November 7, 2016

How to Experience a Parallel Universe

I'll admit it -- I'm a sucker for parallel universe stories. The book that really got me hooked on science fiction around 3rd grade was Alan E. Nourse's The Universe Between. I don't think Nourse was a household name in the world of science fiction even back then. He was a medical doctor mostly known for his column in Good Housekeeping. But he wrote a lot of other science fiction that I enjoyed as a kid, including Star Surgeon, which has an astonishing revelation about halfway through the book. Sadly, I suspect his books are all out of print by now.

Among the more recent parallel universe novels, I highly recommend Paul Melko's The Walls of the Universe, based on his Hugo-nominated novella of the same name. And when it comes to parallel universes, the Star Trek episode in which Spock has a beard is sheer genius. That episode was written by Jerome Bixby, who also penned one of the most disturbing science fiction stories ever written. (As I noted in my previous post, Bixby was something of a two-hit wonder, although that's better than being a no-hit wonder).

What I like the best are stories in which the differences between the parallel universes are subtle, not striking. The latter are rather cliched by now. Kennedy assassination averted? Check. Hitler wins World War II? Yawn. And now I'm going to tell you how to experience these subtle differences yourself.

If you're an American reader of this blog (and most of you are), then just take a visit to England. I lived there for several years myself, and what really disoriented me were not the huge changes, but the subtle differences. Of course, we drive on different sides of the road, and the English have a queen, while we have... not a queen. But everyone knows these things, and I was prepared for them. But it was the everyday subtle differences that really threw me. Like the fact that our "second floor" is their "first floor". Or the light switches that turn on when you press them down instead of up. The fact that you're always served coffee after your dessert in a restaurant.  Sales tax is always included in the quoted price. Hot water heaters shut off at night (so fill up those hot water bottles in advance!) The checkout clerks in the grocery store sit rather than stand. And I could keep going...

And of course, what makes this all the more disconcerting to American eyes is that we speak the same language (more or less). Americans going to Germany or France expect things to be different -- these are foreign countries after all. But because we share a common language and cultural heritage with England (and yes, I do know the difference between England, Britain, and the UK, for any English readers out there!) we Americans tend to forget that England is a foreign country and are even more surprised by every difference we experience.

But what if you can't afford a trip to England? Well, here's a cheaper way to experience a visit to an alternate reality. Rent the never-screened pilot episode of Gilligan's Island. I watched it just a couple of weeks ago, and it was a weird experience. The familiar theme tune was replaced by an odd calypso melody with completely different words. Many of the familiar characters were present, but the Professor was played by a different actor, and Ginger and Mary Ann are totally gone -- replaced by two not-very-bright secretaries named Ginger and Bunny (!) Watching it, I secretly hoped that Gilligan was going to have a beard.
In a parallel universe, Gilligan has a beard
You might object that this isn't really a parallel universe, since the original Gilligan's Island isn't real itself. But if you watched every episode 5 or 6 times, like I did, it's as real as it gets. I never did get over the fact that they never got off that island.


Richard said...

I certainly remember Nourse, altho not those two books you mention. I don't remember his Good Housekeeeping column either. I remember reading him, tho, most likely back in the mid-50s to early 60s, which was my major SF reading pd. (I was born in '42). I just checked Amazon & there are quite a few Nourse books available there, altho I'm not sure how many are currently in print. Some are available for free on Kindle now.

I was interested in your experiences in England. I've lived abroad as well, 2 & a half yrs. in Germany & 8 yrs. in Japan & have noticed many subtle - & some not so subtle - differences. For instance, the toilets in both countries are - or at least were - different from those in the U.S.

BTW, I learned of Cosmic Yarns from Prof. Sean Carroll's blog, Preposterous Universe, sometime ago now & I've been enjoying it ever since. I check it nearly every day.

Robert Scherrer said...

Japan is a big culture shock for Westerners, as it's the most technologically sophisticated non-western country.

Kathy said...

You find something like this when learning a different language. Often the syntax is reversed, and certain rules don't apply, or not consistently.

People learning English often find the verb "to do" as used in meaningless form puzzling and vexing (I know I did). You know what question gave me trouble? "How do you do?" For years I kept thinking the only rational reply is "How do I do what?" That is, to demand the question be made complete.

Richard said...

This is true. I'm pretty fluent in Japanese - I have two graduate degrees in it & taught it at the college level for ten yrs. I also taught English as a 2nd language for quite a few yrs., both in Japan & in this country, so I'm familiar with many of the problems that non-native speakers have with it.

Kathy said...

I just recalled this movie:

I saw it once, long ago on TV. While there is a "WWII never happened" component", the parallel universe is depicted so it feels both familiar and bizarre. And the story is rather personal about two people in love, not a big picture kind of thing.

It's called "Quest For Love," with Joann Collins, Tom Bell and Denholm Elliot.