This essay explores how theoretical physics, narratology, and narrative itself deal with the idea that reality consists of a plurality of worlds. In physics, the existence of parallel universes has been postulated on the cosmic level to describe what lies on the other side of black holes and, on the level of subatomic particles, to avoid the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. In narratology, the philosophical idea of a plurality of possible worlds and the contrast between the actual and the possible provide a model of the cognitive pattern into which readers organize information in order to interpret it as a story. But the many-worlds interpretation of physics and the possible worlds (PW) model of narrative differ in their conception of the ontological status of the multiple worlds: in physics they are all actual, while narrative theory stresses the contrast between actuality and mere possibility. This does not mean that the PW model is incompatible with the many-worlds cosmology proposed by physics: faced with a narrative that presents multiple realities as existing objectively, the theory would simply claim that the actual domain is made up of a number of different worlds and that the distinction actual/nonactual repeats itself within each of these parts. The last section of the essay explores what it takes for a narrative to impose a many-worlds cosmology, distinguishing these narratives from other texts that present contradictory versions of facts and situating them with respect to three types of story common in fantasy and science fiction: the narrative of transworld exploration, the narrative of alternate history, and the time-travel narrative.
Skip Nav Destination
Research Article| December 01 2006
Marie-Laure Ryan; From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds: Ontological Pluralism in Physics, Narratology, and Narrative. Poetics Today 1 December 2006; 27 (4): 633–674. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2006-006
Download citation file: