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Quite often a character in stories (comics, movies, books, etc) that discuss parallel worlds and the multiverse is overwhelmed mentally and philosophically. The concept that pops their mental fuse is that the multiverse means everything that has had happened or will happen means nothing is unique and existence is pretty meaningless. In many instances, this character then proceeds on a quest to wipe out all existence. Not always, though.

Two quick examples off the top of my head: Everything Everywhere All at Once and Justice League-Crisis On Two Earths.

I'm wondering what story, in any medium, first touched on this nihilistic breakdown in a main or significant character.

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  • Not going to win, but I'm going to mention Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex, where this effect is used as a method of execution.
    – OrangeDog
    Oct 23, 2022 at 16:34

4 Answers 4

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1968: "All the Myriad Ways", a short story by Larry Niven, first published in Galaxy Magazine, October 1968, available at the Internet Archive.

Parallel universes have been discovered, and a wave of crime and suicide ensues:

There were timelines branching and branching, a megauniverse of universes, millions more every minute. Billions? Trillions? Trimble didn't understand the theory, though God knows he'd tried. The universe split every time someone made a decision. Split, so that every decision ever made could go both ways, every choice made by every man, woman and child on Earth was reversed in the universe next door. It was enough to confuse any citizen, let alone Detective-Lieutenant Gene Trimble, who had other problems to worry about.

Senseless suicide, senseless crime. A city-wide epidemic. It had hit other cities too. Trimble suspected that it was world wide, that other nations were simply keeping it quiet.

Detective Trimble figures out the connection:

Casual murder, casual suicide, casual crime. Why not? If alternate universes are a reality, then cause and effect are an illusion. The law of averages is a fraud. You can do anything, and one of you will, or did.

Gene Trimble looked at the clean and loaded gun on his desk. Well, why not?

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    That's interesting, the premise implies there's an alternate universe where everyone reacts calmly to the discovery of parallel, and conversely, universes where everyone went nuts at the discovery of radio, electricity, new types of corn etc. At any moment the viewpoint character COULD have veered off into these mad universes where everyone is killing themselves etc. but it only happened when he became aware of the possibility.
    – timeskull
    Oct 20, 2022 at 18:50
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Paul Nahin did a lot of research on the history of time travel in fiction for his books Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction and Time Machine Tales: The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel, and in both books he identifies David R. Daniels' 1935 story "The Branches of Time" as the first story to deal with time travel paradoxes by imagining that each change the traveler made took them to a new parallel history which coexisted with the history they came from (Nahin cites Daniels on p. 299 of Time Machines and p. 234 of Time Machine Tales, where he refers to 'the many-worlds idea and its connection with time travel' and calls Daniels' story 'the first such tale').

The story can be read in a scanned copy of the August 1935 issue of Wonder Stories here. The main character in Daniels' story is not overwhelmed to the point of becoming a nihilist or wanting to kill himself or others, but in his discussion on p. 302-303 he does seem at least somewhat overwhelmed, saying this on p. 302 of the future-man who taught him the truth about the multiverse:

"though my companion seemed god-like, his brain was only greater than mine by degrees. He understood time and such things in a way I never could, yet there were lots of thing in his scheme of the absolute as far beyond him as death is beyond me. There were all sorts of theories around him whose meaning he couldn't grasp.

And then on p. 303 he says he needs to ponder it more, and grapples with the futility of trying to make any positive changes with his time machine:

"I returned here because I wanted a space in which to think it all out before I go gazing into infinity again. When I do go back, I believe I shall penetrate into the future until I meet beings who are capable of teaching me the real reasons behind some of my questions. There must be such entities somewhere, if they will let me find them.

"I did have an idea to get together a band of future-men and go back to make past ages more liveable. Terrible things have happened in history, you know.

"But it isn't any use. Think, for instance, of the martyrs and the things they suffered. I could go back and save them those wrongs. And yet all the time, somewhere in absoluteness, they would still have known their unhappiness and their agony, because, in this world-line, those things have happened.

"At the end, it's all unchangeable; it merely unrolls before us."

The friend who he tells his story to also seems afraid of verifying it, saying "If you showed me such a machine, then I would know that part of your story, at least, was fact; and that would be the end of my peace. ... Maybe it would be better if you didn't come back to me, for I have a wife and a family and a life here which should be lived. I couldn't ever attend to such mundane things again if I saw happenings such as you relate."

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    I interpreted "philosophically overwhelmed by the multiverse" as something different from (as in your example) regretting one's inability to change the past, which is older that science fiction. "The moving finger writes . . ." Maybe I misunderstood the question.
    – user14111
    Oct 21, 2022 at 1:20
  • @user14111 I don't think the statement was just regretting not being able to change the past, it seemed to be a specific sense of futility of trying to improve anything in this cosmology where everything that can occur, does occur--that's underscored by the response of his friend, who presumably already believed you couldn't change the past before the conversation, but feared all "mundane" activities like taking care of his family would seem meaningless if he became convinced the story was true.
    – Hypnosifl
    Oct 21, 2022 at 13:21
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"Infinite Resources" by Randall Garret, from 1955, dealt with an individual who created a machine that would carry him from one parallel universe to another, the problem with it was that it would take all the energy from the universe that he was in to accomplish this. He didn't really care, he just wanted to find a universe that he was happier in.

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    What does that have to do with "being philosophically overwhelmed by the multiverse"?
    – user14111
    Oct 21, 2022 at 1:21
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    By the way, the author's name is Garrett with two t's, and the story was first published in 1954: archive.org/details/…
    – user14111
    Oct 21, 2022 at 1:27
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    The OP talked about "wiping out all existence" and the character in the story wiped out each universe as he left it, an act pretty consistent with having gone mad. Oct 21, 2022 at 15:11
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Nietzsche's concept of Eternal Recurrence is precisely this. He expresses this in more traditional philosophical language in The Gay Science (1882), and then his "novel" Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) presents a character who grapples with this. Here is the language from The Gay Science that presents the challenging concept that nothing in existence can be unique.

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!'

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, 'Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?' would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?

And then, I refer you to Zarathustra as a character who has experienced being "crushed" by the thought that nothing is unique. But, of course, those who read N. as nihilistic are incorrect. As you can see in the quote above, N. believes that the crushing impact of this realization can be overcome and one should seek to overcome it. N. is, of course, challenging to read, but he was obsessed with this concept and seemed to believe that embracing the eternal recurrence was life affirmative.

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    Welcome chad. It's ever-so philosophical and poetic, but is it in the genre of science fiction? There's existential dread, and a repeating cycle, sure - but is there a mention of a multiverse? Please take our tour and refer to the help center for our guidelines paying particular attention to the section regarding how to answer. Oct 20, 2022 at 20:53
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    The books is a bit hard to categorize, but fantasy might be the best fit.
    – chad
    Oct 20, 2022 at 21:09
  • I remember reading this a long time ago, I'm not entirely sure what I would class it as but definitely not science fiction.
    – Tom
    Oct 21, 2022 at 13:10
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    IMHO, with the "eternal recurrence", Nietzsche wants to illustrate how overwhelming the thought is that everything you will do you have already done, and there is no change and no choices whatsoever, and your life will just repeat again and again exactly as it is and always has been. That is rather the opposite of how the "multiverse" concept is usually presented. Oct 21, 2022 at 16:06
  • @TorstenSchoeneberg In an infinite multiverse there will exist an infinite set of universes in which your life progresses identically every time. Now, the 'overwhelming' point of eternal recurrence is somewhat undone if there are more universes where things change than ones where it stays the same, but the demon has only told Zarathustra a small part of what may be, and it overwhelms him. Whether or not this counts towards the OP's question is up to the OP. Personally I agree with you, we have to assume a lot that isn't in the text for this to work, but it can be twisted into the right shape
    – Joe Bloggs
    Oct 24, 2022 at 10:08

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