It was a third-year university course in metaphysics that introduced me to the theory of possible worlds. Immediately I was absorbed by the storytelling potential of this concept. Books and films which can effectively incorporate a parallel universe into their plots seem to persistently captivate audiences. A recent Netflix show, The Society, reinvigorates the idea (at least presumably, in the first season). The message from literature and film, however, is that finding an alternate universe rarely leads to positive results.
The Need, by Helen Phillips, strategically uses a parallel universe to tell her story of Molly, a paleobotanist who is haunted by its negative consequences. The science fiction aspect of this story is the part that glues the reader to its pages and gives the novel its heart-pounding quality.
Like some of the best science fiction, however, it is the mundane, human aspects of the novel that ultimately bless the story with its resonance and beauty.
The Need spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the dull work of a mother: putting apple sauce in bowls, forgetting a diaper and cleaning poop off the floor, remembering to feed one’s child at least two prunes a day, breastfeeding when the baby is indifferent, etc. etc. Phillip’s brilliance lies in her ability to make these moments of drudgery feel precious. These are the moments that build a life. We have historically tried to avoid them through childcare and technology, but they are still there.
The terror of this book comes from the persistent question that remains long after Phillips’s story is finished: is there a world where my children are no longer my children? Is there a world where I am no longer a mother?
The Need by Helen Phillips
Fiction – Simon and Schuster – 2019