Thursday, June 25, 2015

Neil Gaiman's Interworld Trilogy: Heroes And Cautionary Tales

I was first introduced to the writings of Neil Gaiman through Neverwhere, a dark, moving, parallel universe fantasy that takes place beneath the streets of London. As I further explored his writing, I found him to be constantly creative, often profound, and entirely capable of writing books for both adult and youth audiences (American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, respectively).

The three books I have mentioned only scratch the surface: he has multiple best-selling and critically acclaimed books and graphic novels to his credit as well. Gaiman’s recently finished InterWorld trilogy is an excellent addition to his canon. It is inventive, thought-provoking, and filled with characters who embody many of that attributes to which we all should aspire.

A brief synopsis of the plot: Joey Harker discovers he is a Walker, a person with the ability to “walk” between parallel realities. He also discovers that Joeys of all shapes and sizes from these realities are part of InterWorld, and organization that seeks to keep two opposing forces, Binary and HEX, from taking complete control of all the worlds. Binary sees everything through the lenses of science and logic; Hex sees it all through the lenses of magic. One character notes:
“New worlds are always being created. Some are worlds in which science holds sway, others are worlds in which magic is the motive power. Most worlds are mixtures of the two. We of InterWorld have no problem with either ideology. Our problem is with HEX and with the Binary, who both seek to impose their belief systems and methods of reality on other worlds —sometimes through war, sometimes more subtly. InterWorld exists to maintain the balance…. 
The Binary and HEX are locked in struggle, both overt and covert, for the ultimate control of the Altiverse. They’ve been going at it for centuries, making real slow headway because of the sheer magnitude of the task. I think the last census we intercepted indicated somewhere in the neighborhood of several million billion trillions of Earths— with more of ’em popping out of the vacuum faster than bubbles in champagne… Each of them wants only one thing— to run the whole shebang.”

If you are into philosophy, you will probably be disappointed with the depth of his multiple worlds explanations. However, if you keep in mind that he's not intending to write a textbook, the InterWorld series gives a primer on the subject that I suspect will pique the interest of many readers. Close to the beginning of the series, one of the characters gives a brief overview while in conversation with Joey:

"You understand quantum differentiation? Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? Multiple world lines? ...The thing to remember is that certain decisions— important ones, those that can create major ripples in the time stream— can cause alternate worlds to splinter off into divergent space-time continua. Remember this, or you’ll wind up paralyzed every time you have to make a choice: The Altiverse is not going to create a brave new world based on your decision to wear green socks today instead of red ones. Or if it does, that world will only last a few femtoseconds before being recycled into the reality it split off from. But if your president is trying to decide whether or not to carpet bomb some Middle East saber rattler, he gets it both ways— because two worlds are created where before there was one. Of course, the In-Between keeps them apart, so he’ll never know.”
“Wait a minute— it sounds like you’re trying to say that the creation of new alternate worlds is a conscious decision.” 
“I’m not trying to say it— I just said it. Or weren’t you paying attention?” 
“But whose consciousness? God’s?” 
 Jay shrugged, and the molten colors of the sky swam and ran on his gleaming shoulders. “It’s physics, not theology. Call it what you want —God, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Prime Mover Unmoved. The totality of everything. I don’t care. Consciousness is a factor in every aspect of the Multiverse. Quantum math needs a viewpoint, or it doesn’t work. Just try to remember not to confuse consciousness with ego. Two completely different things— and of the two, ego’s the disposable one.”

Set aside your opinion of possible worlds or the clarity in Jay’s brief introduction to it. I am more intrigued by the fact that Gaiman has created a world in which dualism is assumed: there is a material world (all the physical stuff) and an immaterial one (consciousness and free will). In addition, other conversations note there is at least room for the concept of an afterlife and supernatural beings such as the Devil.

Throughout the series, Gaiman is clear: Science and ‘magic’ are both parts of reality (and by ‘magic,’ I think he is just referencing the parts of reality that are not reducible to scientific study). If either one of them dismisses or overwhelms the other, all the worlds are in trouble. InterWorld exists to make sure that there is space for the two of them to intersect and work together. This dualistic worldview is no small thing in a culture that increasingly sees science as omniscient and consciousness as an evolutionary trick.

Gaiman also presents a story in which morality and ethics are taken seriously. Joey’s mother tells him, “I spent my life hoping I would have kids who would be able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Who, when the decisions, the big decisions, need to be made, would do the right thing. I believe you, Joey. And you’re doing the right thing.”

Throughout the story, Joey is constantly forced to make very difficult choices. Does he leave everything he has ever known to risk his life? Does he save his family even if it jeapardizes the world? Should he save himself even if he endangers the team? Does he save the girl he loves even at the expense of InterWorld? Does he keep trying to do what he can instead of what he should? Often, doing the right thing comes at tremendous personal cost. Joey is not perfect, but as he increasingly sees the ripple effect of his choices, he learns what it means to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.

As the annihilating force of FrostNight draws closer, Joey is faced with the ultimate choice: will he give his life to save the world(s)? When the architect of FrostNight explains to Joey how the architect’s very existence is apparently wrapped up in bringing about Armageddon, he then asks Joey,

“If this was your only chance at existing, what would you do?”

“I’d give it up,” I said immediately. “I would stop it.” 
“You would die.”

“You would willingly die?” 
“To save everything? Yes.”

"You’re asking me to stop existing!” The words hung in the silence, ringing true for both of us. I just looked at him, my sympathy growing with sudden certainty.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly what I’m asking you to do.”

I’d rather not tell you what happens – read the books. It’s worth it. Suffice it to say that it provides tremendous material for philosophical and theological discussion.


I was in a conversation recently about the dangers of looking for heroes in our stories. Too often they are cartoonishly good (thus setting up an impossible standard) or thoroughly compromised (thus robbing us of hope). Somewhere there is a sweet spot where characters embody the brokenness of life and the reality of redemption. Perhaps this is why I appreciated one of the final quotes from Joey:

“I wasn’t the hero who had saved everyone; I was the cautionary tale, the man who had watched his world die. It was my job now to guide the others in fighting for theirs.”

A series with imperfect, flawed characters who nonetheless carry on with bravery, integrity, and humility as they move toward maturity? A world in which reality is comprised of things both seen and unseen, and in which both are meant to be known and appreciated in their own right? That’s my kind of story. Here’s hoping Gaiman writes more of the same.

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