Trouble In The Henhouse

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.

You might.

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.

Oh, well.

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.


9 responses to “Trouble In The Henhouse

  1. 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

    Really? Marvel never did this? It must have. Howard the Duck. What If?. The Impossible Man. Deadpool. Somewhere in there Marvel must have broken the fourth wall good and hard. I would have thought it’d be exactly the kind of thing Marvel would do.

    The 52 universes… I swear I wanted them to turn out to be a deck of cards. And Qward and the Fourth World could have been the two jokers. And it would have led to an all-new and totally kick-ass version of the Royal Flush Gang. Come on: is there any better way to make the Monitors interesting than by combining them with the Royal Flush Gang? If the Monitor Lizard of the Zoo Crew’s world also happened to be the three of clubs?

    But really I think DC’s best bet would be to just start pretending that there’s no such thing as overarching continuity. Causes more trouble than it’s worth.

  2. Marvel occasionally broke the fourth wall, but it was only a little, and it was never anything that could make a story “out of continuity”. She-Hulk acknowledged Byrne’s presence, but that’s not an Imaginary Story, just a kind of amplified Superman-wink — a purely stylistic flourish. Plus Marvel always had that company-within-a-company thing to fall back on: in the Marvel Universe, Marvel Comics publishes the authorized stories of New York’s superheroes, and writers and artists of books can meet the heroes face-to-face anytime they want. Nowadays every FF writer’s stint ends with his own appearance in the book, it seems…

    Essentially, the Marvel Universe includes fourth-wall-breaking as a feature, not a bug. Kind of.

    What If? did break the fourth wall in terms of the Watcher addressing the “reader”, but this was little more than a Roy Thomas-style narrative voiceover, and he never actually said “Hello, Marvel Comics reader” — essentially, he stayed in character. And NONE of the What If? stories were “out of continuity”, they ALL counted, even (sadly) the dumb ones. Roy even used a What If? to explain the mechanism by which the FF got the powers they did, instead of different ones, and though it took place in a What If? it became the real reason. Deadpool joked, but was thoroughly nuts anyway…Steve Gerber and Howard had a conversation in the Grand Canyon, but nothing happened in it, and anyway it wasn’t really imaginary…even Assistant Editor’s Month was “revealed” to be in continuity.

    Ahhh…Assistant Editor’s Month…

    There’s just one exception I can think of, and that’s the MTIO that teamed the Thing with Doc Savage. Strangely this was not written by Roy, but boy it sure sounds like Roy’s handiwork, doesn’t it? It’s a weird time-travel story with vague overtones of “this must be some kind of alternate universe” that situates Doc and the boys in the past of the MU, and then they’re never heard from again. Not ROM, but something slippier, I think…

    Bendis tried it on with the Purple Man, but in my opinion that attempt at metatextualism pretty much fizzled. Not really a Marvel-appropriate device, Purps (that’s what I’m going to call him from now on — wonder if it’ll piss off Byrne?) just sounded like a weak-tea version of Deadpool.

    As far as the 52 goes: I’m so with you on a Royal Flush Gang made up of members from different universes, that’d be cool.

  3. For awhile it seemed Marvel was aggregating outside elements into the Marvel Universe. Many Marvel adaptations either began or wound up in the same world as Spider-Man, etc. or a “dimension” nearby. Rom Spaceknight, the Micronauts, Crystar, Godzilla, Doctor Who, even the Transformers IIRC. Hell, before the Marvel vs. DC series or the Buseik/Perez JLA-Avengers, even the DC Universe just simply was a part of the Marvel Universe (or vice versa) when the characters crossed over. Cyborg muses “I wonder why the Titans never took on the X-Men before?”. I know no one took them as “canonical”, but we don’t have to drink that Kool-Aid.

    I think I’d like to read the story of multiple Metrons and Darkseid vs Darkseid vs Darkseid vs Darkseid, that actually could be kind of cool. Maybe the Earth-2 Legion could make an appearance.

    Great stuff. I haven’t read any of 52 but I somehow suspect it is less thought provoking than this article was.

  4. Thanks, Adam…personally one of my favourite stories ever is the original Superman vs. Spider-Man Treasury, so I think any scheme of canonicity (is that a word?) that excludes the beloved old thing just has to have something wrong with it. Who couldn’t love Superman vs. Spider-Man? Whose heart is as cold as that? As a Spider-Man story of that time it fits right in with what’s going on in Amazing, it is totally useful.

    But I don’t really want to hear that it’s Hypertime, you know?

    I miss all the licensed properties Marvel used to have, they seem so simple and fun in retrospect. And they refreshed so many odd little corners of that universe…I’d love to read another ROM book, or a Micronauts book. Though I thought these toy-things a bit cheap at the time, I’ve got to admit those characters turned readable reasonably fast…a lot more readable than many of the “new” characters in the MU today. Penance? The Sentry? I’ll take Crystar and Godzilla any day.

  5. By the way, I’m reading your blog through from earliest post to latest — figured it was all probably additive! You are in fact making me reconsider Heroes, although I still can’t actually sit through an episode.

  6. I think the larger problem, which DC has almost calcified with its “52 universes screwed-up by Mr. Mind” model, is that the current Earth is now seen as the ultimate Earth. There aren’t so much “characters” anymore as there are “offices,” or “seats.” There must be a Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, etc., on down the line through Blue Beetle and Speedy and who knows who else. Morrison played with this idea in DC One Million when he had all those generations of characters, and of course Waid and Ross played it up in Kingdom Come.

    But see, that itself is limiting. Never mind the utility of 52 universes where one has Vampire Batman and the other has Nazi Superman. Now they all must have some version of the recognizable names. It all seems very … imperialistic, if that’s the right word. The Elseworlds (or their facsimiles) which have been conscripted into the 52 were created to stand on their own, but now they’ve been reduced to imperfect duplicates.

    It certainly is a lot to consider, but for now I leave you with this: there is a Green Lantern on the new Marvel Family Earth, and it’s not Mr. Tawky Tawny. I can’t decide whether that’s good or not.

  7. Okay, so now I also want to read the Green Tawky Tawny Lantern. it must have been in Sandman that Gaiman had that library of stories that were never written. That’s my kind of library.

  8. The connecting factor is that all of the realities share the same “collective unconscious”. The archetypes are on Earth-1 or whatever the hell they call it now.

    The fact that aliens can only travel to alternates based on our urtext acknowledges that Earth-1 humanity is the center of the Earth-1 universe.

    Trying to understand it from a physics perspective creates bad models. It is the anthropic principle and geocentric model writ large, and a big middle finger to the cosmological principle.

  9. Wow, Gene Ha!

    But Gene…why can’t we have both? I guess that’s what I’m saying, that if we go with Scipio’s model we’re not thinking in terms of quantum possibility any more. Not taking divergence as the explanation for a multiverse any longer, but embracing parallelism instead, a multiverse organized along psychological lines instead of permutative ones, in which certain universes are “naturally” more privileged/original, but only one universe is really “real”. Hey, works for me! I think the physics perspective isn’t really the problem, it’s just the adherence to our modern-day quantum prejudices and inherited SF multiversal expectations that gets in the way. Why not a wackier physical model, that spells out why hot Metron-on-Metron action isn’t the problem it would otherwise appear to be? Instead of, as Tom might put it, the Could-based cosmology that wonders how all this inter-universal logjamming could be folded into our own world’s physics, we could easily be going along with the Does-based cosmology that establishes the reverse…but I think we would have to really go along with it, explicitly, if we were to have any chance of dispelling the quantum bias.

    And I guess that’s what I find so frustrating about having so many “alternate” futures stemming from New Earth, because it reinforces the quantum-possibility thing. The most horrible outcome for me would be to have, over the next few years, a number of New Earth stories that let you say “look, that’s where Earth-22 splits off from New Earth, that’s where Earth-8 splits off”…it would just fizz away all the parallelism. We don’t need a New Earth Great Disaster, in my opinion. It would just raise way too many questions about Captain Carrot, that don’t need asking.

    And probably forestall forever the confrontation between him and whatever funny animal name his universe’s Darkseid would have…

    And besides, I don’t even believe in the many-worlds interpretation in this universe.

    Oh God, that was all totally incoherent, wasn’t it? I will invoke the Coffee Excuse again.

    Also, Tom: you just BLEW MY MIND, man.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am TOTALLY going out to buy another Top Ten TPB, like right now!

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