The physics of responsibility : alternate worlds and adolescent choices

19 Sep 2012

According to what physicists call the “string theory landscape”, the number of possible universes may be infi nite. This theoretical conception of space-time stresses multiplicity by suggesting that “whenever the universe … is confronted by a choice of paths at the quantum level, it actually follows both possibilities, splitting into two universes” (Gribbin 1992:202). Such a perspective is naturally appealing to writers of postmodernist fantasy, several of whom have explored the literary opportunities inherent in such a premise. However, one might assume that the shifting potentialities inherent in the replacement of a universe with a multiverse would be inimical to the essential qualities of youth literature which, as Nikolajeva has argued, is generally based on “simplicity, stability and optimism” (2002:25). Yet this article hopes to demonstrate that the idea of alternate universes has, in fact, been particularly suggestively manipulated in contemporary young adult fi ction. Thus it will be argued that writers like Diana Wynne Jones, in works like the Chrestomanci series and The homeward bounders, and Philip Pullman, in the controversial His dark materials trilogy, have actively used the concept of heterotopia to explore the ramifi cations of choice in ways that encourage adolescents, who may be confused or daunted by the decisions lying ahead of them, to confront the possibility of their own agency and thus, ultimately, to make and accept responsibility for their own choices.