18

My favorite Simpsons episode is the 1994 Halloween episode in which Homer Simpson repeatedly travels back in time and makes changes in the past, resulting in bizarre alterations to the present. Finally he returns to a present in which everything seems back to normal, and he sits down to have a meal with his family, only to see that they all eat using long lizard-like tongues. After a beat, he shrugs and says "Ehh, close enough."

Is there any earlier example of a character with the power to visit alternate versions of his native world, as by changing it like Homer, or by traveling to parallel dimensions, who wants to return to his native reality, but finally settles down in one that's close enough?

Some similar but non-qualifying examples:

  • The Old Man's War series by John Scalzi. The interstellar "skip drive" of the novels works by transferring travelers to their desired location in a parallel universe that's essentially identical to the original one. Unless it happens later than the first book (the only one I've read), no traveler is trying to return to their original universe, so this answer doesn't work--and in any case it postdates the Simpsons episode described above.
  • Travelers who flee an inhospitable world to settle in one that's similar to the original one, as has happened in Rick and Morty--multiple times, if I remember correctly.
  • Various characters in Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber series can casually travel to parallel worlds that have properties that are close enough to something they need, but they're also capable of going to specific universes too, as to recover an item previously secreted there, so this doesn't count.
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  • At first, I felt like the title of the question wasn't so clear. But as I started reading the body, I instantly remembered which episode you are talking about. I think that was the second story of that Halloween episode (and all three stories had Willy dying to an axe in the back).
    – Clockwork
    Nov 19, 2023 at 20:57
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    I recall than Heinlein's The Number of the Beast (1980) had it's protagonists settle in a universe with no letter "J" for while.
    – Paulie_D
    Nov 19, 2023 at 21:14
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    TV series "sliders" comes to mind
    – Stef
    Nov 20, 2023 at 11:08
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    There was another Sheckley with a lot of bodyswapping -Mindswap (1966.) At the end, the protagonist (or some consciousness which thought it was the protagonist) ended up on somwhere it thought was not only "close enough", but identical to the Earth it came from. The reader might have suspected that Marvin's memory of green skies and a mother laying eggs weren't strictly accurate...
    – AJM
    Nov 20, 2023 at 13:14
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    Arguably this is implicit in the story of The Branches of Time (1935)--main character invents a time machine, learns from a future human that each trip back creates a new altered timeline different from the one he just left, future human demonstrates by having him kill a prehistoric proto-mammal, see reptile dominated future, then go back and stop himself from killing it, returning to a human timeline like one he remembered. No character comments on fact that this must be a minutely different timeline though.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 20, 2023 at 23:52

4 Answers 4

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Preceding Kube-McDowell's Alternities (1988) and Back to the Future (1985) is "Mandalay" (October 1979) by John M. Ford.

A company named "Alternities Inc." had sold vacations in alternate timelines (e.g. a dinosaur-hunting safari in a timeline where the dinosaurs had not gone extinct) up until the Fracture, when everything got scrambled. "Mandalay" follows a group of survivors stranded outside the Homeline as they trek from timeline to timeline (through a kind of a tunnel) looking for Home. From time to time people will get tired trekking, decide that they've ended up somewhere close enough to what they're looking for, and stay while the rest move on.

Not quite too much to bear. Just like the dozens, scores, hundreds of hatches that opened not quite onto Earth, the Homeline, but were close enough that one made excuses to the subconscious... until Charlie Brunner turned his Key and went on up the tube. Even then some would usually stay behind, announcing their choice in loud and uncertain voices. Just as some new people would go on, joining the long march out of the knotting of worldlines they called the Fracture, looking up the tube toward Homeline.

In this story one person decides a line is near enough for him:

Jones stood, trembling. "No," he said, having difficulty forming the words. "No more. It's only—only a hole in the moon, that's all; only a little hole up in the moon!" He moved to put Lermontov between himself and Niemoller. "I can live with it, whether you can or not! I can live with it!" His whole body quivered as he pointed at the wounded Moon.

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  • Note that I've discounted stories where the protagonist has no choice but to stay (Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen), they find their way to their true home (de Camp/Pratt "The Roaring Trumpet" and ff.), or they choose to remain in a dimension that's radically different (Laumer The Time Bender).
    – DavidW
    Nov 20, 2023 at 16:21
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    nice find, I see "Mandalay" is online at archive.org/details/Asimovs_v03n10_1979-10/page/n17/mode/2up
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 20, 2023 at 17:41
  • Nice. I remember reading Mandalay in Asimov's in '79, and thinking that I'd really like to read more/longer stories in that universe. Nov 22, 2023 at 14:45
  • Nine Princes in Amber, mentioned in the question, is 1970.
    – fectin
    Nov 23, 2023 at 1:00
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DavidW has me beat by a year, but the earliest one I know of is Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein from 1980.

One of the protagonists invents a dimension-shifting device that allows them to travel the multiverse and quickly discover some clandestine organization of interdimensional travelers is killing anyone who discovers (or is even on a path to discovering) the technology.

As a precaution to being forced to flee their home universe to avoid their attackers they find a universe that is almost identical to their native one but there is no letter 'J' which they consider good enough as a "Plan B".

2
  • Nine Princes in Amber, mentioned in the question, is 1970.
    – fectin
    Nov 23, 2023 at 1:00
  • @fectin OP also says in the question that doesn't count Nov 23, 2023 at 2:20
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In Bertil Mårtensson's "Detta är verkligheten" (This Is Reality / Worlds Without Borders), from 1968, the protagonist returns forever into a fictional medieval fantasy world only to find out that it's slightly different from what he remembers.

Admittedly, this is not a real time travel as it's a technology-induced dream world and moreover, he realizes the difference only in the last paragraph of the book (iirc), but given his attitude to the other person, it's at least plausible that he would stay voluntarily :).

Hopefully this answer is well enough within the spirit of OP's question.

5

Perhaps Philip K Dick's 1953 short story "The Commuter."

https://philipkdickreview.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/the-commuter/

A “little fellow” (his name is later determined to be Critchet) looking exhausted and defeated by a day at work goes to the train station to purchase a commute book of tickets to Macon Heights. The ticket seller, Ed Jacobson tells him that there has never been such a town on the train routes. The commuter begins to protest but in an instant disappears.

Jacobson reports the strange incident to his supervisor Bob Paine the next day. Around the same time as the previous day, the little man comes again. This time Jacobson escorts him to Bob Paine’s office. Paine collects as much information as he can from the commuter and concludes that Macon Heights must be thirty miles from the station, but the map confirms that there is no community by that name. One again he vanishes. Paine visits the apartment of his girlfriend, Laura Nichols. He asks her to go to the library and look up Macon Heights in the local records and newspapers. Paine explains that he will be attempting to visit Macon Heights directly.

The next day, Paine rides the train out to Jacksonville, slightly past the thirty mile radius. The conductor on the train has no knowledge of Macon Heights. He transfers to the B Train (which Critchet insists he takes from Macon Heights to the city). On the way back, the train stops at Macon Heights. The schedule Paine consults now shows Macon Heights as a stop midway between the towns of Jacksonville and Lewisburg. Back in the city, Paine receives Laura’s report. Macon Heights was a planned development of suburban housing. It was planned alongside two other communities that were developed, but Macon Heights was defeated by a single vote on the city council. He leaves his house by cab and sees the insurance company that Critchet worked for.

Paine visits Macon Heights and interviews some of the people living there. It seems to be a typical town. He realizes that the materialization of Critchet’s insurance company in the city suggests that the alternative reality where Macon Heights was approved was spreading into the city. He had a sudden fear for alterations in his own life. Would his and Laura’s life be safe? He hurries home and on the way notices many changes. Inside the apartment he finds Laura, who is not his wife, and their son. Paine’s awareness that things are different fades away as he becomes accustomed to the new reality.

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  • While this has alternate worlds elements it seems to lack the essential element that the character chooses to remain on a particular world, out of a number of choices, because it's "close enough" to what they recall. (In my examples listed, I would consider this a story more like Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen than what the question is asking for.)
    – DavidW
    Nov 21, 2023 at 17:26

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