Warning! This post contains many spoilers for both Starslip and Bioshock Infinite. Proceed at your own peril.
I finished Bioshock Infinite a week ago. I’ve spent a long chunk of my life — perhaps by now most of it — thinking about many of the story ideas contained in the game. It’s structured like Bioshock: what looks like an odd alternate history shooter ends up being a treatise on the failure of some blind devotion to a radical ideology.
I’ve thought a lot about parallel universes and the many-worlds interpretation. It went hand-in-hand with my interest in time travel, which I’ve had since I was a child. In fact, I would say the idea of parallel universes has been so inextricable from my development, that I have often looked at events in my life through this lens — I narrowly avoid some accident or situation, only to find myself dwelling on all the permutations of reality where other selves were not so lucky. Infinite universes where Kris does not apply his brakes in time bloom outward from a single point as blood soaks into gauze from a wound!!
That’s the central, hidden conceit of Infinite: parallel universes (and eras) are ripe to be mined for culture and technology, if one only has the tools.
Let’s look at the parallels (ha ha) between Starslip and Infinite.
Communication with parallel universes
In Starslip, before the technology is even considered for propulsion purposes, Cenobyss scientists find they are able to communicate with parallel versions of their laboratories. This is kept a secret, and a research group forms to study the vastly complex dynamics among parallel universes. Everything becomes a test case: by studying other events in other universes, you have a model for what succeeds and what fails. This eventually becomes an all-controlling cabal which stacks the deck where it can to benefit itself.
Infinite really only has two characters able to — or willing to — communicate between their universes for mutual benefit: the Luteces. It seems like everyone else in possession of the Lutece technology uses it to find universes where the technology doesn’t exist, to exploit them. This differs from the Starslip concept of the multiverse in that it seems to counter the causal idea of many-worlds theory: in Starslip you can’t get from one subset of universes to another unless you have access to the branch point where you split off.
In Infinite, these universes all seem to hover in and around and near one another, overlapping in places where, if only the thin skin can be ripped, one universe will readily bleed into another.
Exploitation of parallel universes.
I really enjoyed how Infinite handled this over how Starslip did. My logic for my strip was, if you had access to this technology, you were one of its creators, and you were already past the branch point where you could raid unaware universes. Any possible cross-universe access you had, you’d end up in a universe where this technology and its awareness existed. And time moves linearly across all of them, so reaching into 1983 is right out. So there was no opportunity to exploit ignorant eras or universes.
In fact, in Starslip the only time a universe got the shaft from the Cabal was when, by chance, something didn’t work out, or if the Deep Time Agency arrived to clean house. Once the corner gets turned, the Cabal closes its doors to your operation, and your universe basically becomes a data point.
I loved Columbia and how loaded with metaphor its construction is. Here is an idyllic city that, for all its idealism, was built on the theft of ideas from other times. Without quantum locking discoveries from the future, the buildings could not float. The concept of “vigors” was lifted by inventor Fink from the plasmids of Rapture (the prior Bioshock games). The only music you come across has been thieved from the future by Fink’s aspiring composer brother. Columbia is soulless, baseless: it has no foundation. It is literally a city without a foundation!! That turns my crank.
Scott points this out in a phone conversation we had about it, saying at first we’re meant to feel a little sickened at the people of Columbia praying and bowing to their new gods Washington, Jefferson and Franklin: “And then later it’s like, sure. [Comstock] is repenting. It’s a society built on his fucking guilt.”
The protagonist is the antagonist.
I pull the punch in the end, but we are meant to be concerned that Vanderbeam turns out to become Katarakis in the far future, after miserable decades searching for his lost love and trying to set the continuum right. Katarakis employs a very spongy narrative device where he can imbue certain desirable figures with his “engram,” meaning that he can store himself in other places and times inside the essential pattern or imprint of a person, to be restored when needed. This is super soft, since it let me say “it doesn’t matter if Hitler looked nothing like Katarakis — he carried his engram, so he was guided by the same goals. In a way, it was also him.”
Infinite doesn’t pull the punch: it turns out Booker is a parallel universe version of Comstock, a Booker who accepted the baptism and went on the journey to becoming prophet of Columbia. But Infinite uses a similarly soft narrative device: Comstock appears much older than — and facially different from! — Booker because of his constant exposure to Lutece fields and tears, which change your DNA and age you artificially. In both cases, this prevents the audience from going “oh no, the hero turns into the bad guy and goes back in time to fight himself.”
There are constants and there are variables.
At the time I thought it was a little overromantic to say that Vanderbeam failing to be with Jovia was a universal constant that even Deep Time was able to set its watch to. It makes the ending too… simple, to say that in order to break a major threat to the continuum, the protagonist has to get the girl he’s been dreaming about for seven years. Innately so — it’s not that together they achieve anything particularly special! But the mere state of having them be apart was a dependable milestone in all of the troubled universes.
It’s the same in Infinite. “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.” They’re using this meta-construct to explain in-universe why these worlds are tethered together, which is a very Bioshock conceit — they do something similar with determinism and the act of being propelled forward by a game narrative in the first game. We like to imagine we have agency to choose and act, and a video game tries to simulate this, but when you kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock it’s underscored how much you are on a rail. You can’t decide not to kill the antagonist unless that’s a choice built into the narrative. Here, it wasn’t.
Changing the outcome by changing the beginning.
Both Starslip and Infinite end on the same plot hook, despite having very different mechanics for their parallel universes: it is impossible to stop the antagonist by stopping him in just one universe, because there will always be parallel versions of him to attempt the same thing. To end the cycle once and for all, one has to go all the way back to the first point where the antagonist could have begun, and change the branch point completely.
Because Booker leads to Comstock in half the outcomes (and therefore, ultimately, all possible outcomes), you can only stop Comstock by stopping Booker. Instead of escaping baptism or accepting it, Booker drowns and dies. The cycle ends: no Comstocks are possible if no Booker lives.
Starslip is a little more thorough. The elder Vanderbeam rigs his timesuit to take Katarakis back to the Big Bang and fundamentally alter the physics of the continuum to make the reason for Deep Time (and its rogue agent Katarakis)’s existence impossible. There is no earlier branch point than the Big Bang!
The difficulty in telling a story with the many-worlds interpretation as a mainstay is that you’re not dealing with “a lot” of parallel universes. You’re dealing with infinite ones. This was one of the things I noted in The Starslip Companion as a struggle — if there’s infinite universes where things are happening, then who cares about what happens in this one? The only way you can try to get that door ajar is to include all the universes in the problem. Something threatens the continuum itself — in Starslip, Deep Time and Katarakis were trying to remake the universes in their own images. In Infinite, once certain constants are guaranteed, a Columbia would have always risen, like a quine.
Applying an actual many-worlds view to Infinite, it’s not hard to create a case where Booker survives his drowning. It’s too complex a system to be fully predictable. Hell, in some universes, the attempt to drown Booker is stopped by a dinosaur. Even a 0.00000001% chance that Booker survives has to be multiplied against infinity, thanks to many-worlds. You know how many universes you end up with where he does? Infinity. There’s no math that lets you account for partial infinities.
Infinity is a really, really difficult concept to build a human story around.