by Deborah J. Ross
All fiction depends on the creation of the parallel world. Even the most “realistic” mainstream fiction is just that, fiction. Not matter how rigorously the author attempts to duplicate reality, the very act of shaping a story by selecting some details rather than others and then arranging them in a way that makes sense creates an alternate world. Even memoirs are fictional in this sense, because although the events and people may be real, the way they are depicted is individual; no two memoirs of the same events will be identical. Hence, each represents a parallel but distinct universe.
Science fiction and fantasy present a wealth of possibilities for deliberately constructed parallel worlds. The underlying presumption is that the environment within the story differs from conventional reality in some way, whether the action occurs at some future time or on some yet-unknown planet, or the ordinary laws of physics are in some fundamental way altered. But parallel stories aren’t limited to the fantastical or the idiosyncratic. Within each overall work co-exist a number of stories. In simple tales, they can be so slight as to hardly matter, but thoughtful, well-written novels provide scope for not just parallel but interwoven elements that reflect, enhance, and deepen each other.
I first became aware of this — in the way writers become aware of the craft of other writers — when I read Kathy Hogan Trocheck’s Every Crooked Nanny. It’s a murder mystery, so that’s one level on which order is restored, as all is made clear and the villain is brought to justice; the detective runs a house-cleaning business (more restoring order to chaos) and she is also living with cancer (talk about struggling with chaos!) I was bowled over by how each struggle reflected and highlighted the other two. It’s simplistic to suggest that characters must battle their inner demons as well as outer adversaries, but adding these thematically-related levels does much to create depth and texture.
This is one reason I’m loving Katharine Kerr’s “Nola O’Grady” series. The second book, Water To Burn, is just out. In this urban fantasy, the heroine works for a supernatural Agency “so secret, the CIA doesn’t know it exists”. This takes place in an alternate San Francisco, one in which magic and the clandestine agencies to regulate it are real. This world is not the only one; there are alternate, weirdly dystopic worlds (and a gateway in the attic of Nola’s aunt’s house). Not only do the Agency and its people hide in plain sight, Nola’s family, Irish illegal immigrants with past ties to the IRA, live with secrets, low on the radar. Nola herself may or may not have an eating disorder. And Nola’s lover, Israeli agent Ari Nathan, does not always see the world the way she does, and I don’t mean just his inability to sense supernatural elements. At one point, he says, “That’s what we’ve got on our hands, a war…” Nola asks, “We? You mean Israel, right?” His response, “Of course. I always mean Israel,” perfectly demonstrates that although he may cherish Nola, although their goals may be complementary at times, and although they make excellent team mates, he is the hero of his own parallel story. (I love the implication that there might come a time when he has to choose, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how Kerr develops this potential conflict.) Everything in the book does not revolve around Nola’s Agency assignments, or her family’s immigration worries, or her brother trying to rescue his girlfriend from radioactive-wasteland San Francisco; the book is more like an orrery, plotting the orbits of many planetary systems. That complexity is one of the things I love in a good yarn, and nobody does it better than Kerr.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.