The ability to travel between different universes or between different dimensions of the same universe is a common plot element in speculative fiction. Multiple worlds not only boost the variety of settings that an author can depict, they also set up plot-enriching paradoxes, conflicts, and choices.
Most of the multiple-world works that I've read or watched present the worlds as an intrinsic and unexplained feature of the work's fictional universe. The Q Continuum of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, is an extradimensional plane of existence whose powerful, intelligent, and immortal inhabitants, the Q, can jump into our mundane plane to cause mischief. I've tried in vain to find a physical description of the Q Continuum.
But there are exceptions to the take-it-or-leave-it approach. In Ian McDonald's 2007 novel Brasyl, Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not just an imaginative theory to account for the physically awkward notion of collapsing wave functions; it's also a description of how the world works.
Jeff Smith's comic-book series RASL goes further in exploring the physical basis of multiple worlds. Originally published in 15 black-and-white issues from February 2008 through August 2012, RASL was reissued this month in a single hardbound full-color volume. I read it in one sitting over Labor Day with much pleasure.
Like McDonald, Smith makes use of a speculative theory, in his case a unified field theory that the elderly Nikola Tesla claimed in 1937 to have completed. RASL`s main character, a researcher named Robert Johnson who later assumes the name RASL, gains access to Tesla's lost notebooks. In one of them, he finds the unpublished theory expounded in full.
In flashbacks, the reader learns that Johnson and his childhood friend and fellow researcher Miles Riley worked together for the US government on two military projects that exploit another of Tesla's theories: That electrical energy pervades the space between atoms. One project, called the St. George Array, is designed to extract the energy and use it as an antiballistic missile shield. The other, the T-suit, is a teleportation device for individual soldiers.
Johnson doesn't need Tesla's unified field theory to see that testing the St. George Array could result in a deadly, destructive disaster. And he perfects the T-suit by incorporating ideas that Albert Einstein described in the 1928 paper "New possibility for a unified field theory of gravitation and electricity." But Tesla's unified theory helps Johnson understand what the T-suit does: Transport its operator between parallel universes.
Johnson (as RASL) outlines Tesla's theory to a mysterious young girl and her companion after she draws a Venn-like diagram that also appears in Tesla's notebook:
"The 3-D world is created and powered by the interactions of the higher-dimensional clouds. [Tesla] wrote beneath it. 'All energy comes from outer dimensions and is pervasive throughout.'
"That overlaps with current string theory. Anywhere these clouds--or membranes--collide will create a new universe. Tesla discovered parallel universes.
"Ironically, he rejected them. He preferred to believe the higher dimensions were actually energy fields within the confines of our own universe."
RASL encompasses more than speculative theories and experimental devices. Smith weaves in the history of Tesla and his rivals, the Tunguska event, and the Philadelphia Experiment, in which the US Navy is alleged to have rendered one of its destroyers entirely invisible in 1943. The Pentagon's non-imaginary High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program also gets a mention.
The novel's plot is far richer than I've hinted at here. It unfolds like a film noir and contains such noirish staples as flashbacks, love affairs, betrayals, and bar-room fights. Jonhson's principal antagonist is a sinister agent from the Department of Homeland Security.
I won't disclose any more of the story lest you want to read the book yourself. But it's not giving too much away to say that in RASL the physical nature of the parallel universes is in dispute. Indeed, the dispute and its ramifications constitute a major source of dramatic tension.
Although RASL is a science-fiction thriller, it's not devoid of comedy--at least for physicists. Whether he meant to or not, Smith captures the disdain of physicists and engineers for the social sciences in this exchange between Johnson (as RASL) and Uma Giles, a museum curator whom he meets in a parallel universe:
RASL: Have you ever been interested in science?
UMA: Of course. I'm an anthropologist!
RASL: No, I mean physics. Or electricity.
This review first appeared on my blog, the Dayside [...]