And so it’s time to revisit the transcendent calculus of the Ambitious Snowflake: that literary application of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that aficionados call “The Multiverse”. An infinite number of worlds, an infinite number of possibilities, one for each thing that never happened!
It’s an exciting prospect.
Of course in our (presumably real) world, even an infinite series can be bounded from some end or other, and therefore we can safely assume that our “multiverse”, if indeed we have one, is essentially rational. In other words, what is possible on our home turf must spell out the character of the “never-happeneds” that are capable of forming the other universes next door to us, rather than the reverse being true…or to put it yet another way: as above, so below. Which would make our multiverse a little like the set of natural numbers: no e‘s or i‘s need apply, thank you, we’ll just stick with boring old ones twos and threes…
So as far as agglomerations of infinite universes go, you might say we’re of the Aleph-Naught variety.
But in fiction it’s different: you can have irrational multiverses as easily as rational ones. Universes where I am a talking cow, and you are a telepathic water-sprite, and he is a hyperemotional gas cloud with magic powers. Whatever. All the never-happeneds can exist, even the impossible ones. And of course there’s one more impossible thing that happens in fictional multiverses, too, which is that they don’t just connect, but they communicate. In our multiverse (if indeed we have one) this doesn’t really exactly happen. In theory you can just about manage to exploit the bare fact that it is a multiverse for your computational purposes, but as far as interdimensional viewscreens and teleporters go…no, not really. That’s a whole other level of interference pattern, really just like time-travel: any theory that would make it possible would also make it uninteresting.
Not to mention ubiquitous.
Which is exactly the principle that could enable quantum computation: that it’s ubiquitous, and not quite that interesting. But, maybe more on that another time…
Anyway, but in fiction you can have this kind of interference too, if you want. There are no thought-crimes, after all; hell kid, go where ya like.
Maybe a fictional multiverse can be Aleph-One instead of Aleph-Naught, and maybe it can even allow forbidden communications between its constituent universes (would that contribute to making it Aleph-Two??), but even a fictional infinity needs some kind of bounding, or it simply becomes everything everywhere, and frankly that shit’s kind of hard to write. Sure, as comic fans we love what Grant Morrison gets up to, and that’s great, but the fact remains that Hypertime — even in a fictional multiverse — causes more problems than it solves.
Tom gets to the point:
“Because it was so comprehensive, Hypertime came with strict rules, as enigmatic as double-secret probation. Traveling to Earth-Whatever was no longer a matter of vibrating at a certain frequency. While the Flashes could do it through the Speed Force, Superboy required Apokoliptian technology and an exploding bomb. Hypertime’s effects might be all too common (*cough*Hawkman*cough*), but working within it was deliberately obtuse.
See, because Hypertime encompassed any kind of setting, it could in effect duplicate characters who had been cosmologically unique. For example, the Fourth World was unique because it wasn’t tied to any particular universe. Similarly, the Guardians of the Universe (and, by extension, the Green Lantern Corps) were specific to the pre-Crisis universe of Earth-1 – probably because their colleague Krona caused the Multiverse’s creation in the first place. The Rock of Eternity was “outside space and time,” if I remember right, but it was pegged to Earth-S.
Looking across the scope of Hypertime, though, one finds a few different Fourth Worlds: the Gerry Conway/Don Newton “Return Of The New Gods” stories, later disowned by DC and at one point assigned to “Earth-17″; Superman: The Dark Side; and elements of Kingdom Come and JLA: Another Nail. In theory, that’s at least four sets of Darkseids, Orions, et al., who could conceivably interact within this framework. The double-secret rules of Hypertime make such interactions extremely unlikely, but not impossible. Good thing, too — would one Darkseid, upon learning of the existence of one or more “original copies” of himself, rest until said duplicates were eliminated? How would Metron react? I imagine Buzz Lightyear’s existential crises, blown up Kirby-size.”
Beyond doubt, it’s a two-edged sword. Of course on at least the level of story this kind of set-up comes with some intriguing possibilities, or should I say potentialities: envisioning some sort of brilliant compromise between an unbounded Hypertime and an enumerable multiverse, we might see a way to make that hoary old SF chestnut Alternity a matter of building up “ultimate reality”, instead of excavating it. Sure, the shiver of literary fear that ordinarily accompanies Alternity’s transgressiveness would be gone, but then again that’s rather old hat now, and not really suitable for use in a multi-author multiverse anyway. Whereas a constructive Alternity, a combination-lock multiverse full of falling tumblers…that might well open up new vistas for the lover of mirror-universe metacommentary in the superhero genre. Well, and once again we would borrow from Ditko, but no matter…what would matter is that we could break free of the ever-more constrictive Scientific American-based models of temporal and quantum possibility, the somewhat unimaginative Aleph-Naught multiversal dogma, that in recent years has been so artlessly slapped on top of our mad four-colour Aleph-One mirror-superhero dreams.
Unfortunately, though…that’s only on one of the sword’s edges.
On the other there is, just as Tom points out, the possibility that in embracing the multiversal mode too uncritically we may simply castrate Alternity’s transgressive genius, making it no more than another ox charged with pulling the same old plough, through the same old dirt. Because Hypertime is only a stand-in for the real-life editorial decisions that govern what any given writer’s permitted to do with his run on any given title, we might regard Hypertime as a pseudophysics that exists primarily to rehabilitate editorial failures, and excuse authorial excesses. In the world of everything everywhere there can be no continuity mistakes, but also there can be no continuity solutions: there can be no revelations, and no explanations, because everything simply lies as it’s found. Alternity is neither fascinatingly structured, nor terrifyingly random, and so the literary uses of multiversality become inaccessible to both author and reader. It might as well all be one big unstable world, whose flickering meanings sum to nothing.
Kind of like the Golden Age, only in reverse.
Except the sword has a third edge, too.
Transfinites always do, you see: because as soon as you begin with infinities, you can never come to the end of them, and after all why would you ever think you could? The human brain is a bad telescope, when it comes to the Aleph numbers; this has always been brain-breaking stuff, and it always will be, and there’s no getting out of it. The world of the transfinites demands structure; the world of the transfinites rejects structure; the world of the transfinites is aggravatingly transfinite.
Logic becomes a glutton out there, and wastes away to nothing on its massive, debilitating diet.
Here’s the problem:
As soon as universes can communicate with each other — and literarily speaking there is absolutely no reason to have them if they don’t — they immediately become causal factors in one another’s development. This can’t be helped; even the trickiest series of inter-universal locks must only draw our attention to the ineliminability of cross-universe contamination. And where the transfinites are involved, the odds go out the window: possibility + infinity = necessity, and there’s no getting around it. Even shortening the stack to a mere 52 universes won’t solve this equation any other way, unless it’s handled just so, and maybe not even then: the transfinites have been here, for God’s sake. Which means they are still here. The transfinites are what creates the ghostly engine that’s driving this whole vehicle.
Tom encapsulates — as above, so below! — the nature of the difficulty, when he describes the many Darkseids, the many Metrons (at Marvel this would be the absurdity of having many Galactuses — I refuse to say “Galacti” — or many Eternities, which would obviously be silly). But having these in the 52 is really much the same as not having them, anyway, because the problem of many Metrons surely exists, even if there is never actually more than one Metron in sight. Which perhaps is enough evidence to show that our stack-shortening has unfortunately not served to cut out Hypertemporal ambition at all: indeed, representatives of everything everywhere have been allowed (worse: invited!) into the congress of realities that lie cradled in the literary conceit of multiverse, as universes from a far, far outpost of never-happened have been reestablished on a firmer footing than they’ve ever known before. Without the softening effect of infinite distance, they can never be put safely “out there”, out of sight, out of mind…inside the knowable grouping of the 52 they positively loom instead of negatively lurk, and their implications become impossible to defer. Why Vampire Batman instead of Man-Cub Superman? The question nags, because the answer is so appallingly present, standing in the middle of the room waving its arms at us as we studiously contemplate our shoelaces, and whistle at the top of our lungs, and pretend to be alone: there is no reason at all for it. The computation of infinite impossibilities has simply produced it, and so there it is.
So what kind of structure is that?
Oh, this is Hypertime all right, my dear superhero fan, nor are we out of it…because our problems haven’t been removed, but embedded. You can’t see them, but they’re there nonetheless, hiding in plain sight as alternate Batmen and Supermen, symbols of a pan-universal tendency for Batmen to be created, and who cares how. And now that cries out for some hoop-jumping pseudophysics, damn it: because Batman is not now a young orphan in this scheme, but an attribute of cosmological structure instead, but what in the hell explains it? In the old days things were simpler, when writers wrote stories, and they were just stories, and sometimes they were even imaginary stories. This was a unique feature of the DC universe, once upon a time: that of necessity it acknowledged, and even sometimes was forced to actively embrace, its own essential fictionality. That Marvel never did this is at once the explanation for its meteoric rise to the top of the charts, as suddenly everything that happened inside it mattered…as well as the cause of its recent catastrophic fall from reputation in the hearts of older comics fans like me, who became steadily more disillusioned with its conceit of “realism” as more and more stupid things were made to “matter”, and in the wrong way. In the end even the letters pages began to suffer, as Marvel found they could not manufacture No-Prizes in great enough numbers to explain away the inevitable inconsistencies of their multiversal design. Logic became a glutton, without the throw-your-hands-in-the-air admission of fictionality to stop it from raiding the multiversal fridge, and “realism” problematized itself in the very evenhandedness of the Marvel Alternity, in the image of Watchers watching Watchers watching Watchers, who were watching Watchers watching Watchers, world without end. Editorial failures and authorial excesses now mattered too, perhaps mattered even more than the stuff that worked properly, as the rules of Alternity ultimately proved themselves false by being true.
As things trapped out in the transfinite wastes often do: because when Possibility + Infinity = Necessity, no one can put a limit on what consequences may follow from it.
And this is actually where Hypertime needed to go, now that I think of it. Because this is the only thing it could ever have fixed: that once upon a time Ben Grimm became the pirate Blackbeard, and that the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and the West Coast Avengers all crossed paths in the Ancient Egypt of Rama-Tut, in their own real past…a fact simply inexplicable by the theory of Watchers watching Watchers, and so desperately in need of something like Hypertime to come out and say “well, you see…both of these things are true, depending on which hyperdimensional axis you choose to look along, to impose order on the events.” It really is a structural tweak that the Marvel multiverse needs in order to keep “realism” from turning on itself. But unfortunately there’s just too many copies of Scientific American out there, now. Roy Thomas tried to fix it once, in an old MTIO Annual, but nobody noticed…and now it’s probably too late.
But we weren’t talking about Marvel.
We were talking about DC.
Which doesn’t need Hypertime, because it’s already sort of already had it, ever since Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman. But again: oh well. “Official” Hypertime would have been destructive for DC for the same reason that it would’ve been effective for Marvel (as the transfinites’ implications twist and turn in the multiversal breeze), but the Far Shoals Of Dream still exist, 52 universes or not, and at least there’s that. Because it isn’t about universes, after all…it’s much bigger than that, thank goodness.
Still, it is universes we’re talking about here, isn’t it?
So, back to the 52, a multiverse not big enough to infinitely eat its cake and infinitely have it too, but not small enough to escape the Snowflake’s calculating ambitions, either. Because even if (as I contend) the uniqueness of New Earth is now justified by it being the only universe that has a real future, that future is only being stuffed full of Hypertemporal “future universes” that are themselves dependent on infinite quantum calculations, and so it amounts to very much the same thing anyway. And over on the other hand, the 52 aren’t nearly as “safe” as they appear, either: the Wildstorm universe, for example, by virtue of containing the literary conceit called “The Bleed”, can easily generate Watcher-watching-Watcher universes ’til the talking cows come home, and Possibility + Infinity = Necessity, which is why the walls between universes are up anyway, because they need to be. That’s what Doc Brass is doing there in his mountain fastness: keeping an eye on the Snowflake, because it’s dangerous. Meanwhile that Hypertemporal Batmen and Quantum-Possibility Green Lanterns exist shows us that that the new structure of the 52 is based on caprice as much as control — what can be the purpose of preserving the universe of Lord Havok and the Extremists? That’s a far more unfathomable matter than the preservation of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, because the Extremists’ universe is about as non-viable as you can get, plainly only existing for the purposes of crossover with New Earth. But, that only highlights the fact that it didn’t have to be the Extremists’ universe that was preserved in that slot at all, but could just as well have been something else, instead.
So what’s the multiverse-internal rationale for the 52’s selection process, anyway?
That we can’t answer that question strongly implies that something, somewhere, is definitely up…unless nothing is, of course, in which case we’re just seeing some shoddy design. But suppose the 52 universes are designed to take a sorta-kinda Aleph-One multiverse, and return it to something approximating an Aleph-Naught multiverse: that is, not a multiverse that’s actually infinite, but still one where it’s possible to have criteria for distinguishing what can happen from what can’t. Of course you’ve got super-powered rabbits in there, but that can’t be helped: as I suggested before, it’s got to be a compromise anyway. So Aleph-One multiversal features (and I hope anyone reading this gets that I know I’m hijacking these mathematical terms for seriously illegitimate purposes) are plugged into an Aleph-Naught setting of multiversal relationships, just to keep them from becoming too toxic…
Except, it doesn’t quite all work…
Which brings us, finally, to what’s on the other other hand.
Yes, we can get rid of our ambitious Snowflakes. It is possible.
All we need is a new model of multiversal structure, that’s vigourous enough to effectively replace them.
Let’s look at it again. Clearly, given this new structure of relationship, we have also in hand a whole new set of implications about how Alternity can be arranged. It doesn’t have to be a fractal Snowflake at all, with universes all a mess of forking paths — that is a very attractive multiversal model, naturally, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it isn’t the only kind of natural pattern that exists — and in fact if we just think about it for a second we’ll see that it can’t be what we have here any longer. Because there are only 52 universes! There are only 52.
There are only 52.
So it can’t be the Mandlebrot set any longer, but must be something else instead.
And this could be a very very interesting opportunity, but unfortunately it’s also a very very limited-time offer: the promise of the new structure could so easily be buggered-up, and once it’s gone it’s gone. The placement of universes is obviously crucial to the establishment of this new scheme: locate them just so and so, and the four rings of reality that link through New Earth gather suggestions of meaning to themselves. Earth-Prime perhaps becomes antipodal, “realistic” impossible universes that imply divergence become set off from more “fantastic” impossible universes (such as universes in which everything is the same, only evil) which imply parallelism, or really whatever: I don’t have all the answers. But any structure will do, so long as it is structure. A really clever structure would perhaps be reminiscent of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram or the Periodic Table, coded with multiple meanings on multiple interpretive axes…but really anything would do, so long as it offered a context for all the trans-universal content. The duplication of Green Lanterns and Batmen could be explained away (maybe)…the mysterious inaccessibilty of some universes relative to others could be understood graphically…the cosmological uniqueness of certain characters could be not merely upheld, but accounted for.
Badges could be made.
It would not be Hypertime. It would be better than Hypertime.
But will we get to see it? I hear talk of Monitors and Anti-Monitors, dead universes and dark dystopian futures, and to me it comes across as flailing. And there’s only one Crisis left, which means only one more chance, this iteration (this World Age?), to get it right. Only one more chance to rescue Hawkman, if you like. But will it happen? Or will someone at DC stumble upon Scipio’s post one day years from now, and involuntarily let out a shriek, as they suddenly realize that they had it all in their hands for an instant, but didn’t know it at the time, and now it’s too late.
Because the problem is, all the infinite impossibilities have been done away with, but their effects are still being felt. So we need to get rid of them. We need to genuinely get rid of them, for once and for all.
What we need, my friends, is a retcon.
But do you think we’ll get one?
I mean do you think we’ll really get one, or will it just all go back to silly-ass Hypertime again.
Because if that’s the case, I would just as soon have the Imaginary Story back.