Or, “Exploring the impact of parallel universes on identity”.
Kim Curran, author of Shift and Control has a very structured and philosophical view on identity and how it affects the genre and its possibilities. Given the super relevant nature of both these books (and the final book, Delete) and the topic of identity in SFF, Kim’s excellent post is definitely food for thought!
What is identity?
Is it how we see ourselves? How others see us?
My degree was in Philosophy and Literature. And while doing it, the topic of identity came up again and again. In philosophy ‘identity’ and ‘sameness’ have the same meaning. And so a thing’s identity is defined by the qualities it holds in common with other things.
And yet on the literature side of my degree, we looked at identity as individuality. What made a character unique; their voice, their emotional reactions, their journey.
So identity is defined by both a thing’s sameness to something and distinction from other things. Individual identity exists in the space between sameness and individuality. Which is to say, it’s all a bit messed up.
For me, identity is actually quite simple. It’s defined and shaped by the choices we make. It’s our decisions that make us who we are.
So if our choices make us, what happens when you introduce a reoccurring idea in SF – the idea of alternative universes? What impact does the many worlds theory have on our understanding of identity? If a new universe, a new reality, can be created with each new choice, is there ever one ‘us’? And what are the consequences to identity if you can change those choices and move between these alternative realities? Do you then change your identity?
This is the very theme I explore in my books Shift, Control and Delete. In them, I give my main character, Scott Tyler, the ability to change his decisions thereby creating an alternative universe.
Playing with this idea of choice and consequences on a large scale has allowed me to explore notions of how our choices shape our identities and how one single change could lead to a whole new self.
Take the butterfly’s wing in chaos theory. The fragile flap of a gossamer wing on one side of the world can cause a tornado on the other. Apply that to identity and the possibilities are endless.
One tiny choice opens up infinite parallel possibilities. In one universe, you can decide to go to the party, meet that boy/girl, get your heart broken, and come out a different person. Bitter? Stronger? Wiser? Whatever the outcome, you’ve been changed. In another universe, you stay at home.
In my books, I apply the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics to ensure that the previous universe collapses once the new decision is made. And yet Scott is able to hold on to a memory of the previous reality. It’s a tenuous and often flawed memory. But a memory nonetheless.
And it’s these memories that help him hold on to who he is. They become anchors in the storm. Without them, he would be come like flotsam, drifting on tides, unsure of who he is.
In some ways, all fiction is about these two things: choice and memory. And the strengths and failings of both.
When you can play with both these things – whether that’s by jumping through time (such as in Ken Grimwood’s Replay) or exploring the nature of memory (like in James Smythe’s The Machine) what you are ultimately exploring is identity.
Which is why I find SF so endlessly fascinating.
Given that I’m a complete geek for the notion of identity and the (real?) existence of parallel universes, I’m thrilled about this post, so thank you so much, Kim, for contributing to the discussion!
Kim will be at Forbidden Planet in London tonight(!) launching Shift. (Also present will be Angel’s Fury and The Weight of Souls author for a double launch of Shift and The Weight of Souls. If you’re willing to brave the sticky soup of London, the event starts tonight at around 18:30 (6:30pm). I’m told there will be cakepops!