“Did you see the new Star Wars movie?” I texted my friend last weekend. He’s one of the few people in my circle who shares my lifelong affection for the franchise, so I was eager to discuss it with him.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t want to see what they did to it.” For him, a devoted fan of the Star Wars extended universe (EU), Disney’s decision to create a storyline independent of the established canon “erased” the stories he loved.
“It still exists,” I told him. “It’s just an alternate universe.”
“That’s for lame Star Trek fans,” he said bitterly.
“I didn’t mean a parallel universe in the space-time sense,” I explained. What I meant was something more abstract, a theory of fiction I’ve been exploring in my head for some time: that popular stories become property of fans’ imaginations and are subject to individual re-interpretation.
The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics speculates that a universe exists for every option in an observable range of outcomes. For example, if you flip a coin, it would come up heads in one universe and tails in another (a concept illustrated to great effect in Season Five of Futurama). The same principle can apply to our minds, our own private universes. Each time a story inhabits the mind of a new fan, it establishes a new version of the narrative.
Many of these correspond to the one defined by the original author, as my friend’s does. But who can prevent one from changing the story? It’s all make-believe anyway. What makes another sci-fi writer’s spinoff more legitimate than my private adaptation—George Lucas’ blessing? Sorry, but he lost credibility with that wretched prequel trilogy (which, by the way, I’ve edited out of my mental Star Wars timeline). Intellectual property law doesn’t govern my grey matter.
If physical cosmology allows of the possibility of a “multiverse” in reality, surely such an arrangement is feasible in fiction. Consider how frequently superhero franchises are reimagined. Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, and Ultimate X-Men all present different visions of the same characters and universe. They don’t negate one another, but co-exist. They are variations on a theme. If any number of writers can re-interpret source material, surely fans carry that same privilege. After all, fiction only functions with active participation from the consumer. A story only succeeds when someone engages with it, suspending disbelief and accepting what it offers. Our experiences with the story will differ based on our private lenses, and that’s part of the fun.
We crave connection with the stories we love. One of my college friends, who adored the Harry Potter series, was convinced that two of the characters were in an implicit homosexual relationship. I didn’t get that vibe from the text, but I assessed that my friend—who identified as gay—simply sought relatability in the story. Any geek will tell you that one of fiction’s most intoxicating traits is that an imaginary world will accept you when none of the real ones seem to do so. Did I think Sirius and Lupin were a closeted couple? No. Did I contradict my friend’s interpretation of the story? Of course not. We each created an alternative universe for the story that suited our respective needs, and enjoyed sharing our love of the books.
Harry Potter offers another great example of multiverses in fiction. After Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince published in 2005, it convinced many readers that Snape was a villain. Other fans insisted Snape was a tragic, misunderstood hero. Arguably, this created two potential Potterverses, one in which Snape was good and another where he was evil. Until we opened the final novel, Snape—in the minds of readers, if not of author Rowling—simultaneously existed in two states, a sort of Schrödinger’s Potions Professor scenario. (I was on Team Snape; however, exploring the various potential outcomes provided over a year of delicious speculation.)
Not all fictional multiverses are based on fan interpretation: some actually have more than one version. With every new season, HBO’s Game of Thrones deviates more and more from the narrative established in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Which is “authentic”? Depends on whom you ask. Purists often abide by originator content; however, the HBO show has many devoted fans who have never read the books. For them, the televised interpretation is the only “real” version of the story. Still others, like myself, compartmentalize and enjoy each format on its own merits.
Maybe I’m more accustomed than most to going rogue on my favorite stories, because almost every franchise I ever loved betrayed me. When a story takes a turn I find unacceptable I default to my private version, in which the undesirable event never occurred (for example, in my head, the Serenity movie never happened and toy dinosaurs still roam the ship’s control panel). Such fluidity is one of the most thrilling aspects of fiction: it’s fluid. Like water, it takes the shape of whatever vessel—in this case, individual minds—contain it. Stories are marvelous parasites. They duplicate themselves in human hosts, evolving and adapting to each individual environment.
So unless Disney can perform Jedi mind tricks to alter the contents of our brains, the EU will continue to thrive. Rogue Squadron lives on in my friend’s cherished nerd memories. So do those shamefully angsty Young Jedi Knights novels I liked when I was 12, and the countless adventures my sister and I invented for our action figures. We don’t have to “unlearn what we have learned”, as Yoda would say. We only need to open ourselves to new possibilities. And this is all that fiction—especially science fiction—asks of us.