Tuesday, May 08, 2007

New universes will be born from ours

Not a quote from the last issue of 52, but a headline from the New Scientist a few weeks ago:

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."


  1. Your well-written essay has hit so many of the points I have thought about regarding the whole multiple-earths business. I can remember, way back when, Heinlein complaining about how strict adherence to his then-novel "future history" was getting in the way of his writing good stories. Let's just focus on the stories, and not obsess over the chart.

    I am a great big fanboy for alternate histories myself, even more so than parallel world stories, which I why I loved the Elseworlds stuff before it was cheapened by overuse and lack of standards into something akin to most of Marvel's "What If" junk.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! And you mentioning Heinlein reminds me that I failed to mention any of the prose SF that used encounters between parallel Earths in interesting ways, my favorite being The Coming of the Quantum Cats by Frederik Pohl.

    But Heinlein worked that area too, in that very strange trio of novels he wrote at the end of his career -- starting with The Number of the Beast -- in which characters from alternate histories from several of his previous novels met and cavorted with one another. In a way, having folks from Stranger in a Strange Land meeting folks from the Future History wasn't a million miles removed from the idea of having the JLA meet the JSA for the first time, just in the sense of preexisting characters and realities being brought together in a subsequent work.

    (And by the gods of the internet, let's see if just this once we can mention Heinlein without anyone using the words "incest" or "fascist," okay?)

  3. I've always liked alternate universes, too -- but I've always mistrusted the many-worlds intepretation of QM, and found it oddly inelegant. Or, should that be "and oddly, found it inelegant"?

    And never more so than in the fantasy setting of comic books. Like time-travel, alternate universes began as a literary conceit, and not a physical theory...in my opinion, obviously, but anyway I think that's what makes the meeting-with-analogues thing so great, not that they're "usses" that might have been, but that they're mirrors for our qualities.

    Not that I don't think those two things go well together, because they do...

    But in any case, that's something I like about DC's multiverse that I don't like about Marvel's: it's not simply built on "for every action, a different universe."

    Well, of course Marvel's multiverse isn't always that way, either...you've got your Arkon, you've got your Dragon Lords...and they aren't just the quantum permutations resulting from Sue Storm calling Ben Grimm a coward...

    Nice post, RAB! Makes me want to go write one of my own...

  4. i know Crisis was meant to make things simpler, but as a wee lad i had NO problem following the whole Earth 1, Earth 2 thing, and i dont think i was that bright a kid.

    whatever good intentions Crisis was done under was completely upended when DC started letting every creative team reboot a character to suit their whims. Hawkworld? Aquaman is the son of Neptune?? WTF?

  5. plok: yeah, Marvel and DC traditionally approached the concept of parallel universes in slightly different ways. And as a result, just listing Marvel's alternate histories took up an entire issue of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe...many years after Alan Moore was prompted to designate the official Marvel setting as Earth-616. In fairness, What If? was simply Roy Thomas doing what DC had been calling "imaginary stories" for many years, and things at DC would have gotten unwieldy if Mort Weisinger had suddenly decreed "the world in which Superman married Lori Lemaris is Earth-176, and the world in which Clark Kent married Louise Lasser because he was confused by her initials is Earth-981..."

    But generally, maybe it would be fair to say that Marvel's focus in its parallel Earths was "the same people in different circumstances after a clearly defined historical divergence" while DC went for "different people who have the same conceptual qualities" and/or "a way to use other companies' characters without them cluttering up our rack space."

    (Hmm, would that make the Ultimate Marvel line a sort of Earth-1/Earth-2 bifurcation? I can't be the first person to draw that parallel...)

    rob!: Modesty's all well and good, but the evidence says you were a bright kid. (I am admittedly biased in my estimation by my fanboy love for your artwork.) Still, I figure if I wasn't confused by that Flash comic when I was six, how confusing can the idea be?

    What I did find confusing was how the Crisis was followed immediately by the Byrne revamp of Superman with no attempt to reconcile the two -- even though we'd been expressly told greater coherence was the whole point of the universe-shattering. (I knew people who were in DC editorial at the time, and they were confused too...) If it hadn't been for that, the Hawkman and Aquaman stuff wouldn't have happened that way either.

  6. Ah, see, I loved the immediate post-Crisis universe just because of that very thing...the haphazard re-emergence of old DC elements, characters, storylines, etc., that were sometimes mostly in their old familiar form, but sometimes totally different. To take a half-QM, half-yellow-alien point of view on it, it was as if the change wrought by the multiverse being condensed into one world didn't take place until it took place detail-by-detail...didn't take place, in other words, until it was observed working itself out in the comics themselves. A similar thing can be found in U.S. law, weirdly enough: there's just one Amendment to the Constitution (the Sixteenth? I really can't remember) that permits the National law to displace State laws that are at variance with it, so constitutionality poured out only fairly slowly through that "aperture" from the national government, and into general legality. Case by case. It's very interesting, the American Constitution is a really amazing little program! In Canada we've gotten to see our (relatively new) Charter of Rights and Freedoms pour out in a similar way, although for some reason in our case I always think of it worming its way through the body of the law...since you've got such a head start on us, there's very little in your law which hasn't already been flavoured with constitutionality, but up here there are still lots of old systems which haven't yet been introduced to the concept at all, that putter along happily thinking it's still 1981, that don't know one day a litmus test will be applied to them. But, what'll happen to each of them when it is applied, nobody yet knows. And, sorry for the digression, but that's a bit like how I saw the post-Crisis time, too: Crisis as a worm that moved through the corpus of DC continuities, changing all the details, but only on a case-by-case basis as it encountered them. And: God bless Chaos! At least that's what I thought at the time. I was sure that a very weird and kind of exciting order could've silted out of it all eventually, right before my eyes, as larger and larger connections were made, and different ways the new DCU worked proved incommensurate with each other, and had to be cleverly fixed-up...again, case by case.

    But then, of course, that didn't happen.

    Weird, huh? I thought all that long before Mr. Mind came on the scene...

    But one thing I never thought of is Clark Kent and Louise Lasser! Those would have been wild Superman movies...


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