As a child and teenager who loved reading fantasy, I encountered one kind of book more often than others: the story in which a character left this world to have adventures in the next. I suspect these ‘portal’ fantasies are popular in children’s and young adult fiction because it allows the protagonists a way to escape the inconvenient restraining influence of their parents or guardians, even better if they return to find no time has passed.
Of course, adult versions of this trope exist, too. The most successful ones include Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever books and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. Successful, that is, because they meet the adult reader’s demand for plausible consequences to the shift from one world to another, and that having protagonists coming from this world must be or become to the plot. A realistic impact on characters is a must and their incursion ought to change one or both worlds in a fundamental way.
A less common setting, but one of my favourites, is the multiple-world scenario. Whether characters originate on this planet or not, the essential element is the existence of more than one other world – preferably several – and the character gets to visit some or many of them. Three of my favourite series using this scenario are C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine Saga, Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
I’ve always wanted to write a book set in a multiple-world setting, and in the Millennium’s Rule Trilogy I have embraced one with relish. I really am having enormous fun with it. You see, many-worlds have a few advantages and opportunities that the single-worlds don’t.
One is that characters can get about without inflicting the worst parts of travelling on the reader. Unless a story is set in one place, the characters have to travel at some point, so there’s always the potential for roaming about in fantasy, and the potential for it to become a bit of a plod.
As anyone who has been stuck in an airport or on a long-haul flight knows, travelling can be really boring. As with all ‘boring in real life’ situations that characters find themselves in – meetings, waiting rooms and queues, travelling – the solution is to ensure something exciting happens. But when journeys are so common in fantasy, especially quest fantasy, most excitement-building ploys have been used already. There are plenty of ambush/chase scenes, conveniently placed Secret Sanctuaries of Character Recovery, and dramatic geological features to navigate. And let’s not forget the bad habit some characters develop of using horses as if they are cars.
A transfer between worlds puts your character in a new place without all the demands of physical movement. It is not unlike teleportation in science fiction. It cuts out the plod in the quest and the snooze in the hibernation. It also means events happen without long delays and communication is swift, and gossip and rumour can spread rapidly.
Another advantage of the multiple-world setting is the freedom to invent worlds. I can let my imagination loose, drawing upon all I’ve learned so far about this world to create new environments and cultures. I can make them similar to a time and place in this world – like the post-industrial empire of Tyen’s world – or not based on anywhere in our world but instead a kind of place – like Rielle’s desert city. I can make the environments a paradise or hostile to humans. I can make the human occupants more or less technically advanced, civilised, warlike… the possibilities are endless, and conveying that sense of infinite scope is part of the challenge of writing this sort of setting.
Bringing these two features of the multiple-world scenario together creates a third exciting opportunity: to explore the effects of humans travelling between worlds.
As an Australian, I am well familiar with what those effects can be, whether I am in my garden, exploring our history or simply being out and about, because this is a land adopted, colonised and migrated by waves of humans. When humans move between environments and countries they bring things with them, whether deliberately or unintentionally. They introduce plants and animals – some of them pests. They bring skills, knowledge, ideas, culture and technology. They may be escaping dangers, seeking opportunities or trade, or simply being tourists. Whatever their reasons, when people travel it changes both the place they leave and the place they arrive in. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. Exploring a multiple-world setting prompts me to examine the relationship between people and places – as well as letting me stretch my imagination.
Discovering worlds that do not exist and exploring them through characters is part of what I love about fantasy genre, as a reader as well as a writer. In Millennium’s Rule I get to invent and explore a universe. If you join me, I hope you enjoy the ride.