Revisiting Universe R
Many moons ago, back when I blogged as BG_Editor (that’s Black Gate editor), I took a little trip to Universe R. I talked about that trip in an article I wrote for Steven Silver, but I’ve never mentioned it on this blog, and I thought it time.
When it comes to the parallel universes we visit in speculative fiction, some of my personal favorites are the ones where Rome never fell, the one where Spock has a goatee, and Universe R.
I imagine a lot of you have thought about it. It’s that place where great artistic works were never lost. It’s the land where overlooked, forgotten, or under appreciated poets, playwrights, authors, and artists were encouraged and celebrated and lived on to craft more work. I don’t mean the egoverse where you’re the top of the charts or have written a chain of bestsellers – this universe is for the artists you wish had gotten a better deal. Universe R can’t be completely logical, of course. For instance, I’ve been lamenting the destruction of the Library of Alexandria since I first learned of it – and especially after I saw Carl Sagan walking through it in Cosmos – but if the Library of Alexandria had survived, we’d probably be further along with a lot of developments and some of the later artists who prospered in Universe R might not ever have been born. You can’t worry about Universe R making that kind of logical sense or the whole thing falls apart.
I dropped by my counterpart’s home in Universe R to look around his shelves: The work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides came to us complete in Universe R, rather than just a few plays from each, and the works of Menander and Sappho reached us whole, rather than as just a few tantalizing fragments. Jumping ahead a bit, Chaucer finished The Canterbury Tales, though he had to live to 90 to pull it off, and it takes up a huge chunk of a shelf. There’s no confusion over Shakespeare folios and I see one fine copy of his Cardenio and other tantalizing things lost to history. On the music rack, Bach’s work was better preserved so that some of his music wasn’t lost because it was sold as fish wrappers. Mozart lived to a ripe old age, cranking out more and more astonishing and varied works.
On my fiction shelf in Parallel Universe R I can find all the great historical swashbuckling novels Harold Lamb wrote when he almost gave up fiction in the 1930s, just as his prose was at its peak. Near it is a complete run of all of Robert E. Howard’s fiction. He went back to writing fantasy a few times after the 1930s, but he turned to big bold historicals when they hit big in the 50s, and wrote many westerns, teaming up with Hollywood producers to create some western film masterpieces. His Blu-rays are over there on the other shelf, next to the run of the original Star Trek.
Here in Universe R the dogs of Star Trek’s second season never got made and the show didn’t get thrown to the wolves in the third season – thanks to the diligent work of the story editors and producers, the final three years of the show built upon the promise of early episodes. When a sequel series finally came out, Captain Sulu was also a resounding success. And as long as we’re on the subject of science fiction, my complete run of the stories from the incomparable Leigh Brackett is much longer in Universe R. Five stories of Eric John Stark, and three short books? There was an entire set of them, not to mention the TV show.
In Universe R The Beatles realized that they were greater together than the sum of their individual parts, and regrouped every few years to make amazing music, even while experimenting with their side projects. And Badfinger… poor Badfinger simply picked a manager who didn’t steal all of their money so that they went on to record far more music.
At least two biographies were drafted by people who worked with and knew Hannibal of Carthage. One of them was his campaign physician. You can see evidence of them being used as source material in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans when his Romans meet Hannibal. The moment when Hannibal comes upon the body of Marcellus sounds very much like something witnessed in person rather than a vague retelling, and is oddly moving. In Universe R, I can pull both books by those biographers down from my shelf any time I want.
This is an easy game to play, probably because any of us who love music, art, or literature have favorite creators we wish the world had heard a little more from. And let it be said that Universe R doesn’t have to hold the works solely of these familiar sorts of creators; when I posted on this subject years ago, it proved to be one of the most popular topics the Black Gate blog had generated, and was even taken up by other bloggers. One poster remarked that they’d wished Évariste Galois had gotten so wrapped up in his mathematical calculations that he forgot to head off for a duel and get himself killed. Never having excelled much at math, I hadn’t heard of Galois, but I promptly looked him up.
There are many fine suggestions from others who dropped by to participate in that original post, and I encourage you to go take a look at the comments section. For those of you who don’t want to make the jump, here are some ideas added by James Enge:
I’d like some of the lost Greek epics, too, like the Nostoi, about the returns of the heroes from the Trojan war. A complete volume of Sappho’s works would also be great. Likewise the lost books of Livy, Tacitus, Petronius, and Seneca. And some more old English epics along the lines of Beowulf. Other lost epics: Ariosto’s sequel to Orlando Furioso and Milton’s Epic about King Arthur.
In more recent stuff: I’d certainly have all the volumes Kuttner should-have-written about Prince Raynor, books 6-10 of Zelazny’s Amber series (Not the ones he actually wrote, though), a Hammett novel where the Continental Op crosses paths with Sam Spade (and who knows, maybe Nick & Nora Charles). William Hope Hodgson’s later work, after he escaped death in WWI, would certainly (have) be(en) worth a read; likewise the postwar novels of Saki. But I think my most prized possession would be a complete run of Unknown, 1939-present. Without it, who knows what would have happened to heroic fantasy in the mid-20th century? Would Pratt have written his sequels to Well of the Unicorn without it? Or would C.S. Lewis have tragically failed to complete Ten Years After? Hard to say.
Music-wise, I’d certainly be listening to the later symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the music Schoenberg would have written if he hadn’t become involved in that atonal junk, the albums Billie Holliday cut in old age with her voice more broken and beautiful than ever. Favorites would include the mature work of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix and many another artist who laid his life and his talent down as offerings at the brazen feet of some stupid addiction.
I’m pretty sure my Blu-rays would include the lost film of I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton, the Star Wars movies filmed from Leigh Brackett’s scripts, John Boorman’s Lord of the Rings movies, Witchblade seasons 1-6 (but not the season 2 that actually happened), more Firefly and Star Trek. I think, in my version of Universe R, Gene Roddenberry left ST to produce Genesis II and Gene Coon came back to produce the final four seasons of Star Trek.
I imagine a lot of us have played Universe R scenarios out in our own head, but when we share across genres and disciplines and explain the reasons and stories behind our choices, we start broadening our own perspectives. Not only do we find others with similar passions, we learn about sad and interesting, even fascinating works and their creators that we’re inspired to seek more information about. Lofty principals? Maybe not, but asking people what they’d like to see in Universe R certainly entertains us, if nothing else.
I want to close out with something John Chris Hocking added. He signed it “weeping uncontrollably” and while that was an exaggeration, I think all of us mourn for what might have been. Especially when it might have been THIS cool:
Willis O’Brien, fresh from his success on King Kong, dives into and completes War Eagles. The film, which climaxes with warriors from a lost world flying on giant birds of prey battling a giant Zeppelin over New York, is such a smash that O’Brien becomes a superstar.
Armed with new-found fame and fortune, O’Brien and his youthful protégé Ray Harryhausen begin work on a series of films based on the works of Robert E. Howard. The Conan films, the most elaborate and beautiful fantasy films ever made, bring Howard an unexpected windfall. This wealth grants the Texas author unanticipated freedom and allows him to hire top specialists to care for his ailing mother, and, later, his pen-pal H. P. Lovecraft. Howard introduces Lovecraft to O’Brien, and by 1940 O’Brien and Harryhausen have defied both Hollywood and convention by filming a spectacular version of HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” The movie is so overwhelming in its lushly bizarre and grotesque imagery that it is quickly banned.
Today, in Universe R, I have the completely restored Blu-ray of this film.
What about you folks? What’s on your shelves in Universe R?