What gruesome fate awaits our universe? Some physicists have argued that it is doomed to be ripped apart by runaway dark energy, while others think it is bouncing through an endless series of big bangs and big crunches. Now these two ideas are being combined to create another option, in which our universe ultimately shatters into billions of pieces, with each shard growing into a whole new universe.
Maybe this has happened already, and our universe is just one among of billions. Why should our universe occupy any privileged position of being the first and only, simply because we happen to be in this one? I'm just saying...
Parallel universes and alternate Earths have always been my favorite science fictional concept...all the more so since I started learning they had some scientific plausibility, or at least theoretical respectability: parallel universes have been well established in the fields of quantum physics and cosmology for the past century.
I first encountered the concept in The Flash #179, cover dated May 1968. Knocked into an alternate Earth where he exists only as a comic book character, the Flash visits Julie Schwartz at the offices of DC Comics, seeking his help to build a Cosmic Treadmill that will bring him back to his own Earth...itself a world where a man named Gardner Fox wrote comic books about a Flash named Jay Garrick, not Barry Allen. Then came Justice League of America #64, set entirely on Earth-2 and introduced the new Red Tornado to the Justice Society of America -- my first introduction to any of those characters. I was fascinated not because I found these new characters inherently more interesting than the JLA I'd already been reading about, but because these were counterparts to them. Not quite duplicates, but conceptual analogues. And then, just a month later, was Avengers Annual #2 in which the Avengers meet themselves from a parallel universe altered by the time machinations of the Scarlet Centurion.
These three comics came out within a span of five months, so I was getting a concentrated heavy dose of...um, "parallelism" there. And I developed a heavy bias for the kind of story that didn't just focus on the alternate history -- What if...Spartacus had flown a Piper Cub? What if...Joe McCarthy had become vice president? -- but that brought counterparts or alternates together, in which we see how the Northerner reacts to a world where the South never fell or you get to meet your own double from an alternate Earth. How do people react to learning that things aren't the way they are because that's the way they are and there's no alternative, and in fact things could have been very different?
Because I was so keen on this kind of story, I did a bit of reading on quantum physics, and discovered Schrodinger's mocking dismissal of parallel universes by putting an imaginary cat in an imaginary box and thereby making the cat even more imaginary, and thought that when Heidegger asked "Why is there something rather than nothing?" he might also have phrased it as "Why does one thing happen rather than another thing?"
So I always wondered why Marv Wolfman resorted to such extraordinary means to eliminate all those wonderful parallel Earths from DC Comics. The original concept had real science (well, scientific theory) behind it, but this new single DC Universe was a manifestly illogical and internally inconsistent construct. (For that matter, I'm still always a little bit thrown by the anal-retentive impulse in comics writing that says "I don't like this story element, so I'll devote huge amounts of time and energy to explaining it away and eliminating it so that no one else can use it" instead of, you know, just simply not using it in stories.) And now I wonder why the last issue of 52 had to employ such convoluted and baroque means to bring back those same universes, shoehorning it into the last issue...especially when Infinite Crisis teased us with the same reveal and then chickened out. I'd have been just as happy if Rip Hunter or someone turned up and said "No parallel universes? Are you nuts? They've been here all along! Oh, except for this weird vibrational anomaly that kept us from visiting them for the past few years. Fixed now!"
But whether by chance or by reading that same New Scientist article, the writers of 52 found the correct image of universes shattering into new ones, and that counts for something. The notion that there are only 52 of them is still unnecessarily constricting...but it can easily be ignored by subsequent writers, who can say very simply that the process doesn't end, that new variant universes must always be splitting off and forming all the time. The question comes down to "can we tell interesting stories?" rather than "how tidy does this look on somebody's wall chart?" and anything that increases the number of possibilities and options rather than decreasing them is a good thing.
Some readers may be welcoming back the multiple Earths because that's how things were when they started reading comics -- as I've said, there's a fair bit of that in me -- just as some folks may now be a bit peeved because they started reading DC comics since 1985 and this isn't the setup from their childhood. But I'm gonna say there's another reason to welcome this change, beyond mere nostalgia. It's the same reason I fell in love with the concept way back when, the same reason parallel universes and alternate histories fascinate me in real life: letting the tyranny of "this is how things are" be replaced by the possibility of "...and things are every other way too."