By Alex Wilgus, Contributing Writer
Every moving fantasy adventure tale elevates its audience to some sort of transcendence. Luke discovers the ways of The Force, Frodo discovers the Ring, Neo discovers the Matrix, Harry discovers the world of wizardry, Jack discovers the secret power below the Island. In each story, the adventurers onscreen, and the audience vicariously, is invited to peek behind the curtain of reality to glimpse what it’s really all about. The transcendental power usually also functions as the story’s moral universe, showing our hero his true purpose for living. The adventurer, in order to overcome, must learn to act in concert with the transcendental power or use it as it was meant to be used. Luke has to discover not only the Force, but how to use it without succumbing to the Dark Side. Frodo can’t indulge in the power the Ring without being corrupted. This double purpose of enlightenment and morality shows the essentially religious character of the modern adventure fantasy. It could even be said that these stories feed off of the natural human desire for God: a setting out into the wild unknown, the discovery of a source of benevolent strength in the midst of strife, and a peaceful home reached at journey’s end.
In the 21st Century, a new deity has risen in fantasy adventure fiction: the multiverse. The multiverse is the idea that there are infinite variations of our own world that exist beyond our reality. It may not be merely fictional, it’s actually a scientific hypothesis that some very smart people believe is true. Without getting into whether or not it satisfies scientific or philosophical standards for explaining reality, we can certainly judge its effect on fiction and whether or not it satisfies our need for adventurous drama.
It is fitting that the most complete treatment of the multiverse occurred in a video game, as a change to a user-controlled medium parallels the change in self-centered theme. “Bioshock: Infinite” was one of the most anticipated video games of last year, the sequel to 2007’s “Bioshock.” “Bioshock” was a taut psychological horror trip through a dystopian underwater city. Its philosophical depth and clever plot twists were surprisingly affecting, and after finishing it, it leaves the player with the sense that they have just watched a good film. For its follow up, director Ken Levine and Irrational Studios prepared the ultimate American nightmare. A war between extreme nationalism and violent class rebellion set on a literal city in the clouds. The game does not disappoint. It is a mind-blowing trip through impressively rendered environments that seem at once as real as they do fantastical. The political savagery is well realized. The game’s two factions, The Founders and the Vox Populi, are affecting amalgams of real-life American extremisms. In the middle of it all, you, a disgraced hero, must rescue an imprisoned princess from a tower.
By the end the source of transcendence is revealed, but it is not very comforting. The story does take you beyond the plane of present experience, but there is no secret benevolence or source of strength to be found there. Instead, it is revealed that there are an infinite number of worlds out there and therefore, an infinite number of “yous.” As it turns out, you are all over the place. The game’s villain is actually another “you” from a timeline in which you became a fanatical zealot. The hero is a “you” that became an alcoholic. The princess in the tower is your daughter and the multiple histories your choices have birthed all inevitably come around to effect her harm. It is finally revealed that the only way to save her (and indeed, the world) is to return to your life’s critical moment of decision – not insignificantly, it is a baptism – and reject both absolution for your sins and a life spent trying to forget them. The only correct selection is suicide. As you drown in the baptismal waters, all the evil your choices begot dissipates around you.
“Bioshock: Infinite” faithfully renders the hidden sadness at the heart of the multiverse. Despite a fantastical and even emotion-driven journey, it all ends with suicide. While the multiverse has some potential for psychological reflection, it ultimately spells the end of true transcendence in fantasy fiction. Instead of introducing the hero to ethical imperatives driven by hidden elemental realities, the multiverse just opens up more space and more possibile ways for you to screw things up (or do things well, but as “Bioshock: Infinite” explains, it doesn’t matter how many times you get it right, as it cannot ameliorate the amount of times you get it wrong). Instead of a secret Truth that shows you the right albeit difficult path to overcoming evil, it’s revealed that evil and good are really just the extreme ends of infinite possible choice. The only real way to cut the Gordian Knot is to eliminate the capacity for choice altogether.
Instead of an infinite God you are introduced to your infinite self. Could this be a perfected mythological realization of narcissism, like looking into a double mirror and seeing an infinite extension of reflections staring back? If so, this makes “Bioshock: Infinite’s” suicidal ending not only appropriate but archetypal for a multiverse story. Faced with an infinite inescapable self, the only way to avoid the consequences of your (inevitable) mistakes is to cease living. It all tends toward the abolition of man. Without transcendence, you’re stuck with yourself, an infinite menagerie of good and bad (mostly bad, if you’re as pessimistic as Ken Levine), and the only way to prevent your harm of others is to remove yourself from the equation. Tellingly, “Bioshock: Infinite” is not the first multiverse story to end in suicide. Richard Kelly’s DONNIE DARKO, a truly first-rate (and covertly messianic) psychodrama, ends the same way.
Here, it is important to note that Levine and Kelly should not be treated as cynics. Instead, their stories pay close attention to human emotion and the tragic nature of human fallenness. They ought to be appreciated as honest artists who are ready to take the multiverse to its only logical conclusion and even make it an emotional trip. But, the abolition of man is, after all, the end of consciousness and thus, the end of drama, and stories altogether.
The multiverse also poses challenges to the sequence of dramatic storytelling. Dramatic tension is necessarily dependent upon limits, and the promise of setting things right once and for all gives the audience hope that it all might turn out well and an accompanying fear that it might not. Choices have consequences that cannot be reversed, only forgiven or avenged, but factoring into the story other worlds where things go differently means that whatever happens to the main characters, there are always alternatives happening in parallel, so it makes it difficult to care about what happens to our immediate heroes. This makes multiverse stories much more likely to be psychological thrillers, in which drama is not found in the simple tensions of serial events, but rather in an atemporal and dreamy landscape of addled consciousness. Goodbye Errol Flynn, hello David Lynch.
Perhaps transcendence in the form of the multiverse amounts to a maturing of the genre, but if it does, then it is likely that Christians will find themselves with little stake in the future of fantasy fiction. We have swallowed whole the notion that religion amounts to immaturity as it creates a big cuddly deus ex machina in the sky (an image not so subtly inserted into “Bioshock: Infinite,” in the character of a monstrous mechanical bird that keeps the princess locked up in her tower) projecting the comforting feeling of parental love onto the unknown. If religious believers project a cosmic person, then proponents of the multiverse may be charged with imagining a cosmic dice-roll: mathematics and probability posited as metaphysical reality, and this is no great source of comfort to the adventurer, as “Bioshock: Infinite” unflinchingly proves. Both dramatically and philosophically, a Deus ex Machina is to be much preferred. At least it makes for a good story. It’s not that the multiverse breaks logic, it breaks drama and leads to an uncomfortably de-humanizing self-effacement. Maybe some sorts of stories were never meant to “mature” or at least maturity has been mistaken for a kind of spiritual isolation in which our heroes must learn to find some Pyrrhic solace in an unfriendly and random cosmos.
The multiverse is not a passing plot point, but will continue to become a more frequent fantasy staple in film and popular novels for one reason, and it’s not a surprising one given the state of the entertainment industry. “There are infinite worlds” means there are infinite ways to retell, repackage, reboot, and resell the same story. In a way, the multiverse is the perfect excuse to not write anything new. It is already a well-worn conceit in comic book fiction, the accepted canonical metaphysic of both the Marvel and DC universes. The multiverse will endure in fantasy fiction ultimately because it is profitable.
Christian themes have arguably been better represented in fantasy fiction than any other genre. THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA were prototypes for successful franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter. As in most cultural arenas, those Christian themes are being forgotten. The multiverse is the first thoroughly secular cosmology and its entrance into fantasy fiction is saddling adventure tales with the same costs that the decline of religion is costing America: a decline in the hope and the faith that no matter how dark the road, there is a redeemer beyond the “grey rain-curtain” of this world – as Tolkien had it – “and beyond. . . a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Editor’s Note: Alex Wilgus is the managing editor of thecommonvision.org and lay-catechist of Logan Square Anglican Church in Chicago. He is currently studying history at University of Illinois at Chicago and works at a local comic book shop.