…Avengers Forever? (part three of three)

Aaaand here it is, Fan-Fixers, the epic conclusion! This is where I sign off, and turn control of your television back over to you! I’d like to thank Nate for letting me post this gargantuan folly on his blog, and thank him and Richard Bensam both for being faithful beta-readers…both highly inventive fellows! There really is some nice stuff floating around here, isn’t there? Barring a massive public outcry, I think I’ll have to return soon, and dash some more absurd paint on these still-partly-blank walls…

Thanks for reading! Your pal, Plok.

Like Johnny Storm, Reader, you are passing through the celestial barriers known as Un-Life! To touch them is to perish! But this is why I have selected you! Only you possess the necessary skill to make this journey!

Reed, Sue, and Ben can’t hear you yet! You’re still on some different plane! But you’re getting closer…CLOSER…!

THE MISTS ARE CLEARING…!

“It’s the kid! He’s okay!”

Indeed he is, and look what he’s brought with him.

It’s gonna go fast, now. The moment of truth is at hand.

Fair warning, for those of you who haven’t done the assigned homework.

SO!!

The important thing to bear in mind, is that within the confines of the MU’s fictional reality the divergent timelines do not share an equal ontological status with the main timeline. In our own reality, things that didn’t happen can be mapped, and that map can be used to explain why the world’s actual events took the actual course they did…and the MU is no different, notwithstanding the fact that you can go visit the places where things happened differently and fall in love with Kitty Pryde there or whatever. In the limitless branches and sub-branches of the tree of never-happened that supports the world, these encounters are accounted for too, you see…and they’re not nothing, not by any means, but they do remain merely a part of the overall “calculation”. Well, if they could be any more than that, the MU would have imploded as soon as Professor Horton let that first little bit of oxygen into the Torch’s glass tank!

Every moment in time would have attained an infinite energy density, and closed just like the mouth of a wormhole before a single photon could penetrate to its centre!

Because in a fictional universe one can arrange for many things to happen that ordinarily cannot happen, but one cannot arrange for EVERYTHING to happen that ordinarily cannot. Or at least: one cannot arrange for all these to happen at once.

So by the immutable law of the real-world physics that have crept into the MU just by accident, even though such creeping-in was never actively intended by anyone, it is nevertheless true that the main line is “real”, and the divergents are not. Even a divergent that also diverges further by having a visitor from the main line “enter” it…well, that does add to the mix, but it only adds to the mix, and it doesn’t change the fact — the fact! — that the divergents are constituents of the main line in the same way that the main line is not a mere constituent of the divergents. Oh, to be sure, the main line wouldn’t be what it is without the divergents! Ever wonder why the heroes always win, and the universe never dies? Well, it’s because there’s a universe out there where that does happen (even though everybody does the exact right thing), but there’s also a universe out there where it doesn’t happen (even though everyone screws up!), and when you count up all these different kinds of universes what you find is that they basically sum to “Peter Parker eventually became Spider-Man anyway”. Johnny brought back the Ultimate Nullifier. Dr. Strange beat Dormammu. Thor still made his father proud, even though his father was so pissed at him, and Jean still died because she loved Scott.

Or to put it another, slightly-weirder way: we know there’s only one main line, because seeing the divergent timelines is actually proof that there’s only one main line. The robustness of the main line is accounted for by a (relatively) simple tally of other possible universes: the universes where things break down utterly are outliers, and the universes where they don’t are amplifiers. And it isn’t that it couldn’t be otherwise — because anything may occur in a fictional reality — but it’s that it isn’t otherwise, because the necessities of the publishing business in the real world have made Marvel’s fictional universe stable over time in its world. Interstitial space clutches at vanished forms, and preserves them against some future day of resurrection: however things fall out or fall apart, the MU “remembers” them as they were before things went pear-shaped.

However.

There is also Avengers Forever.

The fractal net of Limbo extends to everyplace there’s a phase transition, to everywhere there’s a boundary…and there is a BIG one between the main line and its constituents in the counting universe of Hilbert Space. Going into Tme is dangerous as hell for Immortus, because (in complementary fashion) it is only from Time that you can actually change things pretty fast and pretty directly. There may be a What If? in which Reed Richards is kept from stealing the Pocket Rocket, and in that alternate universe it may develop that he steals it anyway, or that somebody else steals it, or anything else that makes it so there’s a Fantastic Four in any event…or the universe may end because there isn’t a Fantastic Four, or anything at all may happen but it’s still subject to “calculation”, still just a matter of where that branch is located on the ol’ Tree of Life…but if you get into Dr. Doom’s time machine and go back in the main line to that fateful day, you will be able to definitely stop that rocket from taking off, and there is no “calculation” about it.

Oh…except that the main line is robust, right? So you may stop the rocket from taking off, but you will not be able to be sure that the FF won’t still come into existence somehow. Somewhere there are a bunch of possibilities surrounding the FF that most definitely include you stopping them from taking off in the rocket, and if in a lot of those they become the FF anyway, well you may not be able to stop that from happening. Possibilities boil and bubble beneath the skin of eventuality, and all of them count…so cut one away, and that doesn’t mean you have cut all away. Before your intervention, the sum of divergents ensured a Fantastic Four…

And after your intervention, they may still ensure it, but the real point here is: a time machine does allow you to cut into the flesh of “what happened”, very directly and to immense immediate effect. And hey, it’s possible that you may succeed anyway, right? After all you don’t know that your own robustness might not triumph over that of the Fantastic Four…!

Maybe they’re not so special as you are, right?

But there’s another way to change the main line, and that’s by pruning the divergents. An unimaginably monumental task! To create a “diffraction grating” of that scope, that’s as contingent on other divergents not changing around it, that involves messing about with such frighteningly infinite numbers of universes…to be honest you would be better off taking your chances with the time machine, but for Immortus it’s a better option, because going into Hilbert Space doesn’t threaten him at all. It’s far more difficult a matter than just sending the Space Phantom to alter real and actual Time, but it has the twin advantages of safety and precision…because there is probably some serious question about whether or not it can even be done, but at least all your mistakes will be confined to the laboratory, right? God, how long would it take to alter the weave of the divergents enough to cause a real change in the main line, could you even be sure that it would work at all much less the way you want it to…but again, there’s complementarity there: the more time it takes, the more you can take your time. And since in Limbo there is no time anyway, you have to think that Immortus could eventually do just exactly as he pleased…

If he had a reason to, which of course by himself he does not. What can change his own life? Nothing, anymore. What does he care about what happens in Time?

There’s no reason for him to care about any of it.

Except maybe Kang. At some point Kang “wearies”, and becomes the second Rama-Tut…and it does appear as though once he does so his transformation into Immortus may not be capable of being halted. Immortus certainly doesn’t appear to care much about interfering with Rama-Tut II! But he does care about Kang, thus we might assume that Kang’s retirement is the key. A sophisticated Limboite like Immortus can probably feel when the boundaries that make up his environment change because something has disappeared or something has emerged — or re-emerged — in much the same way that the Space Phantom can probably feel when the number of his fractured selves is going up or down. So perhaps Immortus knows that the MU has a tendency he can’t hope to entrain very much, of sending forms away and then bringing them back. After the meeting of all three of his selves in the affair of the Celestial Madonna, he didn’t give a damn if Kang died — although Rama-Tut II did! — and in fact we could even go so far as to suggest he wanted Kang to die, that once he and his earlier selves had met in the same place and gotten their timelines irretrievably tangled it was his plan that Kang must die…but whether he wanted it or he didn’t, whether he planned it or not, in the end it didn’t matter because the MU brought Kang back.

Complementarity: Kang wasn’t necessary to Immortus anymore, but because of that Immortus also had no say in whether he had to exist or not. Once the threat of paradox no longer bound their fates, then…well, their fates weren’t bound, were they?

And Kang’s Decision once again was a threat. BUT!! Complemetarity one more time: Immortus probably concluded that the MU didn’t need Kang to turn into Immortus, in fact might be inclined to continue “remembering” his form even after he turned into Immortus…so was this not, perhaps, the very source of the danger to him? Multiple reappearing Kangs, all headed toward the unfixed point in the interstitial fluid that was blowing little Immortus-bubbles into Limbo. As long as Kang could become Immortus, then Immortus was in danger of becoming Phantomized…but if the universe didn’t need Kang to become Immortus, then all Immortus had to do was…

…Just make sure that what his fictional reality wanted, it got?

But then enter the Time-Keepers. Immortus lied about this too, it seems, because the Time-Keepers are not exactly figures shrouded in mystery. In fact, it’s painfully obvious that most of what’s ever been said about them can’t be straightforwardly true. And should Immortus not know about it? At the end of Time, in its last moments, the “One Who Remains” creates the Time-Twisters, beings charged with immense temporal powers…then thinks better of letting them loose, creating the Time-Keepers instead. And we are told this resulted in two separate flip-flopping states of possible reality, a final divergence between two timelines: one which was dominated by the “evil” Time-Twisters, and one which was dominated by their “good” twins the Time-Keepers.

And what we are told here is obviously not true, to the point where if we accept it we pretty much must also accept Gerry Conway’s mistake about how rocket propulsion works. A rocket doesn’t need anything to push against, obviously, no matter what it says in a little yellow caption box. For that matter, and just to show that even the original talent must not be limitlessly respected in this way, the Hulk cannot be just so strong that he can change course on a massive jump through the air, because there isn’t any strength like that outside of Flex Mentallo. The Hulk also (unlike Flex) can’t be just so strong that he can read minds or turn invisible, either! And in a like manner…

The episode of He Who Remains cannot have created two divergents at the end of time, because it actually created four. One in which there is only the Time-Twisters. One in which there is only the Time-Keepers. One in which both exist. One in which neither of them exist. And also we could even imagine a “hidden fifth”, an implied negative — oh, how I love these implied negatives, a staple of Western literature since The Brothers Karamazov! The obscured ground, upon which the forms float! — in which He Who Remains doesn’t even make it to the end of time, never thinks of making any powerful Time-Beings at all, where it all just sort of…never happened even a little.

And in the calculation of all that, it is apparent that the mainline MU is one in which there are Time-Keepers but no Time-Twisters, which would ordinarily be the end of it…except that there are a couple of extenuating circumstances, because the Time-Twisters, like the Time-Keepers and the Time Variance Authority they (presumably) founded, have too much power — and too little sense of responsibility! — to be trusted anywhere near anything that’s even like time. On the Tree of Never-Happened there are millions of Peter Parker branches and millions of Fantastic Four branches, and they’re all different…but every last twig terminates in one of only five conditions as regards the Twisters/Keepers, and none of those twig-ends has any other idea in their tiny minds except “survive” and “beat the other guy”. So that ubiquity actually represents a tremendous power to trim divergent universes — well, that’s what you get when you advance a pawn all the way to the end of the board! — but there are a couple of things standing in the way of this power being fully employed.

One is theoretical: inside Hilbert Space the Keepers and Twisters doubtless act to create a terrible centipetal power that could collapse all the divergents together, but the manner by which they might accomplish this is not necessarily clear. How does it work, exactly, when inside a divergent universe there lies an amplitude for said universe to alter another? Would a dimension-hopper from inside Hilbert Space actually be able to make it to another branch of the Tree? Or would it simply create another sub-branch? The question is open, but if it so happens that the second possibility is the one that obtains, then it would seem that Twisters and Keepers across the Tree would have to be content with competing on the basis of who could create the greatest number of sub-domains: in a manner slightly analogous, then, to how altering the mainline by screwing with divergents is less direct than simply entering Time. So if that were the case, Immortus’ power to operate from Limbo as a Limbo-seated being (something which neither Twisters nor Keepers, Universe-dwellers by law of what’s printed in a Thor comic somewhere, can do), would be a powerful weapon for doppelganger to employ against doppelganger…

…If only they could compel Immortus to do their bidding somehow!

Another thing that stands in the way of the Keepers/Twisters War destroying the Tree is mathematical: they just cannot comprehend that numbering divergent universes doesn’t do any good unless the universes are enumerable…which they’re not, or at least not without using the invention known as “fractions” that both Keepers and Twisters seem so senselessly to abhor. But I guess this is just a way of thinking inherited from the unimaginative hordes of the TVA whose ultimate product was He Who Remains…patrollers of time who do little more than walk up and down the same sidewalk on the same side of the same block all day, and call it a city. To explain how the TVA can even continue to function in the MU without so much as the ability to count properly (I mean really, there are four divergents there at the end of Time, for heaven’s sake! How do they stubbornly see only two?) would probably take an essay even longer than this one (!), but I can only assume what they’re doing is analogous to what the Twisters/Keepers would be doing in Alternity if they were actually unable to jump from branch to branch of the Tree…just constantly expanding a sub-domain that they perceive as the All. Powerful? Tyrannical? Absurd? Yes, yes, and yes…but fortunately also small. Did they really threaten to take the Watcher’s dimensional viewer away? It’s hard to imagine anything more rewritable at some future date than the adventures of the TVA, in fact at this very moment I am holding myself back from proposing that they’re all just Space Phantoms, and that Immortus cooked the whole batch of them up as part of a plan to make a better diffraction grating! And, consequently, that it isn’t by accident the Keepers and Twisters find themselves needing his help…deluded about the nature of Time…

Finally, the third thing that stands in the way of the ultimate domination of the Keepers and Twisters, is that they have an Enemy. And that’s Rick Jones, wielder of the Destiny Force…although regular readers of this blog might know him better as the descendent of Moon-Boy: unintended “brother” to Michael Korvac.

What?

You think the Time-Keepers care about the brutal Human Empire of the future?

What did they ever do about the brutal Empires of the past?

And meanwhile…back in Limbo…

Immortus finds that Kang is back. It doesn’t even matter how…in fact, it barely matters who, because Kang the individual isn’t the problem: his timeline is.

How to make it take another direction?

What matters to the Space Phantom is what happens in Time; divergent universes, which he can pretty much spawn at will, can’t hurt him…but his own presence in Time can. What matters to Immortus is breaking the time-loop that connects him to Kang; once he doesn’t have that to worry about, he’ll be completely immune to consequences arising from Time. What matters to the Time-Keepers is divergent universes; in Alternity, they are racing their dark reflections to see who can produce more divergents that are under their control, in order to replace the other in the mainline MU…although they are unaware that such an attempt is doomed by their stubbornly number-line thinking, no matter how Aleph-1 ubiquitous they may be on the tips of the branches…

And somewhere in the middle is Rick Jones…since evidently the Destiny Force can affect what goes on in every sphere of existence that we’ve detailed so far. And perhaps its reach may even extend to the interstitial fluid, wherein all forms are remembered? Rick’s power of imagination seems functionally identical to Roy Thomas’ power of memory — that is: it is a reader’s memory — though it seems quite certain Rick can’t possibly know this — which implies that his Destiny Force is an active factor in all three of the realities we have examined: Universe, Limbo, and Alternity. Which is no particular problem for any “metaversal” figure who’s trying to escape overdetermination…as (in this construction) Immortus and the Space Phantom surely are…but it’s absolute FROZEN HELL on any such figure who is seeking a defence in overdetermination, as the Time-Keepers are. Rick Jones, after all, can summon forth from his subconscious characters that are NOT currently in MU continuity…not to yank you out of the fictional context for no reason, Reader, but Rick Jones is one of those characters that provides writers and artists with the opportunity to drawn in le vrai Alan Moore-style “Alternity” …over there in the corner, that’s Mr. Magic…the Phantom is punching him…Neil The Horse looks on…Linus cowers under his blanket while the original Daredevil bloodily subdues Fin Fang Foom…Doc Savage looks on in concern, while The Shadow stands invisibly behind him and laughs…

So there’s no “control”, in a situation where that’s possible. The TVA seizes the tremendous power of the very last instant of Time, to create a method of exerting control over continuity that couldn’t possibly exist otherwise…but Rick Jones, though initially just an Atom Age Jimmy Olsen for an Atom Age Superman, became something else when Roy Thomas wrote him as an identification figure: became connected to the desires of a real person in the real world to have an effect on the fictional world, and so he is in possession of an ability that dwarfs anything else to be found there.

In effect: he’s become a Cosmic Personification.

But, of what?

The answer is right there at hand: “fictitiousness”. Or maybe: ‘”fictionality”? But this isn’t as straightforward as perhaps it may seem to us: within the MU the key concept in play here is IMAGINATION, but from our lofty real-world perspective it’s quite clear that “imagination” in the MU is not a very “imaginative” thing at all…since Imagination, as a cosmic force in the MU, is just a grandiose helmet that Memory wears. Rick’s imagination is massively dull by our standards…oooh, look, call out Plastic Man, or Buck Rogers! Or Prospero or Mary Poppins! Or Mandrake or McMillan & Wife. Alternity begins here, in terrible boredom…the sudden influx of imagination into the MU is only stuff that we’ve seen before, and never stuff that we haven’t…the breaking of the fourth wall is only the cracking of the cache of memory in there, that’s never not-uncracked here. And Rick isn’t the only Marvel character whose writer has meant for him to break the fourth wall by remembering things the other characters around him can’t, but most of these other attempts at the same thing have tended to fail rather dismally: metatextual awareness in a world constantly being rewritten just isn’t a very useful attribute, right! Because the world of Cosmic Atoms is all about forces and actions, not manifestations of the secret knowledge of the reader…since 1986, the DC Universe has had a “top layer” of reality, and therefore a universe in which if a character receives some vague intimation of his or her fictitiousness then that is meaningful…since you will probably never see a story at DC which reveals that the Crisis actually never happened at all. But the culture of Marvel has never permitted such finality, to the extent that Avengers Forever is probably as close as we will ever get, to a “Marvel Crisis”!

Or at least, to a constructive one…

But things are moving too fast, now, to stop and wonder about what a “Marvel Crisis” would look like! I’m running out of pages! And so we’re running out of time to get to Immortus’ real plan.

Now, bear in mind I am not definitely saying that he created the TVA, just so they could produce the Time-Keepers and the Time-Twisters and thus place a perfect infinite diffraction grating in his hands…although it might explain why they’ve always had the wrong information…but whether he did or didn’t, it still doesn’t change the fact that for all the Keepers’ power they can never do what he does. And can he ever screw them up, if he wants to! From inside the main line, in the very trunk of the tree of Time, the Space Phantom can generate an arbitrary number of divergent possibilities…has, in fact, already done so just by the fact of his existence…as the fact of a “main line” is itself necessary to the creation of divergents OH YES OF COURSE IT’S TRUE…!

…But not only that, but he can keep doing it, too, and Immortus knows that the integer-bound Keepers will never detect this counterforce to their attempt to own all and claim all, and resolve all. They can blast him dead where he stands, even in Limbo…but he holds their lives in his hands too. What they most desire is security: therefore they send him into every divergent that promises to support any other of the four He Who Remains divergents than their own, and they also send him everywhere they can to try and eliminate Rick Jones…

But Rick Jones proves very hard to eliminate by messing around with time, again for reasons this blog’s readers know very well…and this naturally implies he’ll be awfully hard to kill by killing him, as well, but of course the Time-Keepers don’t see this, and Immortus chooses not to tell them. Because he needs Rick Jones: things can happen, around Rick Jones, that can’t happen anywhere else. Kang and Immortus could be completely split, one from the other, if Rick Jones only wants it…

…So Rick Jones will make excellent cover, for Immortus’ scheming. It’s apparent that he can’t kill Kang, so what else can he do with him? Well, he can educate him in a false theory of time, that will leave Kang unable to figure out how to re-seat himself in Limbo in the first place! Without a shared ontological status between the main line and the divergents, there can be no possibility of a Council of Cross-Time Kangs, but somehow it seems as though there is…”somehow”, because Immortus tricks Kang into believing it. Rama-Tut II is already gone, thousands of years ago, into Limbo…and what do you suppose was the thing that made him go? Way back in the Celestial Madonna Affair, Rama-Tut II stays the Swordsman’s hand when he’s about to kill Kang, wondering if the act would wipe out his own existence too…and the next time we see him, he’s Immortus. And it’s just a coincidence, sure, but this is still both the first and last time that the man we now call “Nathaniel Richards” will be seen to worry much about paradox…and very shortly afterwards, he stops worrying about it once and for all.

After, possibly, he realizes the true nature of Time and Limbo?

But Kang will now never get there, because Kang now believes in the same sort of abhorrent state of “paradox” that the TVA does. And, in the same stroke, Kang no longer believes that he is fated to become Immortus at all, now that he’s successfully removed various other sorts of “impostors”. Oh, he still fears it…!

But deep down, his victory over the “other Kangs” has convinced him that his destiny can be changed. Meanwhile Immortus merrily removes, at the Time-Keepers’ urging of course, a vast number of divergents that make a Kang-who-becomes-Immortus a robust form. Now, the last thing to arrange is the showdown with the Keepers!

In which he is destroyed by them!

But he knows something they don’t, which is that the MU wants him around…and wants Kang around…and Rick Jones is right there, so it’s a calculated risk but as it turns out he’s calculated it right. The Time-Keepers, possibly his own devious creations, are destroyed…just by weaponry, or also by the Destiny Force reaching out and snipping all the little twigs off all the ends of all the branches, on the Tree of Never-Happened?…and Kang is set free, in that very same gesture which reconstitutes Immortus himself, just as it was all planned.

So…

What was he hiding, from Genis-Vell’s cosmic awareness? Naturally it was never that the Space Phantoms were playing dress-up, as no one has ever needed cosmic awareness to find that out! But it was the fact that they were all the same guy, that Immortus didn’t want discovered. Because in the final confrontation with the Time-Keepers, the Avengers must believe absolutely in all the lies Immortus has told them, all the way from there being such a thing as “42%” of an infinite number of universes, to his final Marvel-style last-minute conversion and self-sacrifice…and if they were to see how powerful the Space Phantom really is, it would all be an awfully tough sell. It needs to be sold to the sort of people that can be believed, but that’s what makes it such a dangerous game, you see? Because the only reason to believe them, is that they might have found out it was all just another big Immortus lie-fest!

But fortunately for him…they didn’t find that out!

And they will never all be together in the same room ever again, so they won’t find it out later either. And…

Oh my goodness…is that the end?

Did I actually finish this thing?

Can’t help thinking that I’ve left something out

Advertisements

…Avengers Forever? (part two of three)

Once again, faithful Fan-Fix Followers and Front-Facers, it’s Plok reporting in while Nate’s off watering his orchids, with yet another turgid mess of continuity contortions calculated to glaze the ol’ eyes! And that voice in your head? The one that’s whispering there are better cures for boredom than reading this? You should probably listen to it…

But if you’ll stick with me, then I’ll stick with you!

*

Immortus is a liar.

That’s the one thing we know for sure about him, the one thing that Avengers Forever established beyond a shadow of a doubt. The guy just can’t tell the truth.

But, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Because if the only reality in the MU is what’s in the publishing record, and if the only immutable physical laws are mere grandiose reflections of the necessities of the publishing business, then we don’t need Immortus to tell the truth, and maybe we can even get a better read on what the truth is when we have his lies to help define their shape negatively. Kurt Busiek is not to blame; this was a monumental effort, a towering achievement of reconciliation! But Kurt had to contend with Immortus’ lies too, and so perhaps it was inevitable that he’d write a few of them as well. It’s isn’t really his fault.

But it’s the cosmology that’s to blame. Way back in Avengers #2, the Space Phantom shows up, and reveals himself to have the power to swap places with any Time-dwelling individual…sending them to Limbo by taking their place in the world in a way that cannot be discerned by all but the most extraordinary means because it is not an illusion: he really does “take their place”. But there are a couple of limitations on this power. One limitation is that the Space Phantom can only take the place of the living.

And another limitation is that he can’t take Thor’s place.

You have to wonder why. For myself, though I can understand the appeal of the “speciation of Gods” that’s ultimately accounted for in modern Marvel dogma by the “Elder God” clique of Gaea, Set, and Chthon — and it’s not un-Norse, actually, this speciation idea! — hell, it’s not un-Greek, either! — I still feel like it’s a bit less impressive in practice than it is in theory: somehow missing the boat of Kirbyishness on the mythological side, in the same way it misses it on the “Gods are really super-scientific aliens” side. Perhaps just because it fails to really conflate the two, for real? But instead just sifts them together in a materialistic way. “Magic is really just science we don’t know”, well that’s fine as far as it goes, but talk about burying the lead! Magic is “just” science we don’t know?

Maybe we’d be better off saying that our science starts looking like not such an impressive thing, when we consider all the stuff its current perspective excludes…and although in the real world we haven’t found anything that must lie outside that perspective, in the Marvel Universe such evidence is, if not a dime a dozen, then at least three for a buck. Asgard, for example, has plenty of high technology…but it also has the Odinsword and the Norn Stones, it has a Land of the Dead you can visit on foot, too, and though it’s no particular trick to think of technology sort of like our own that would explain it all…something something COMPUTERS something something ENTANGLEMENT…still that is all “just” science we don’t know yet, and to turn a Jack Kirby comic book into a Charles Stross short story seems a bit like…I don’t know, maybe to kill a mockingbird? Because there’s nothing wrong with a nice Charlie Stross story, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a nice Jack Kirby comic either, and we really should be able to have both…

…Rather than just creating a lot of new problems for the materialistic perspective to solve, and all hail the materialistic perspective but it’d definitely have its work cut out for it. On a good day Dr. Strange can trade spells with Dormammu for at least a time — and Dormammu can trade spells with Eternity for at least a time! — but “Asgardian magic” has always been beyond him. Dormammu may be the Ditkovian Devil, but Loki is a God, so Strange knows it takes another God to beat him. But, can’t he call upon the power of Oshtur, sister to Gaea from whom every God is descended? And, hasn’t he fought people from “pocket dimensions” before? Hasn’t he, in fact, gotten away with his skin intact from the Old Serpent himself?

So why is he so powerless against Loki?

“Technology” could give us the answer: Asgard is a program running on a massive computer (a bit like a video game!), and when Thor crosses the Rainbow Bridge it’s merely a photonic projection of him that arrives in Midgard, while the “real” Thor hangs suspended in potential. No one can tell! Except that when the Space Phantom tries to steal his form he can’t do it, because (perhaps like him) Thor isn’t really there. Likewise, Strange might be powerless against Loki because “Loki” is merely a projection, and all his spells projections too…the real Loki being no more than a very long string of numbers circulating in a superconducting lattice somewhere, and his magic just a bunch of cheat codes, a remote superuser mode for Midgard…which after all is also just a fictional construct anyway…and so once again there’s no “they” there, which consequently causes a great power to be vested in a version of Truth that’s (uniquely) born of recursion: Midgard is fictional, but Asgard is even more fictional, thus Asgard as a deliberate fiction within the fiction is paradoxically in a position to control it more aggressively. Inside the giant robot, a smaller robot who nonetheless lives in a wider context through seeing his own nature mirrored back to him…

…Is the one who pulls all the levers and pushes all the buttons, that makes the bigger robot go. And I wouldn’t necessarily propose anything too different as a non-technological answer for these questions, except that I would just leave out the “technology” part. Because it isn’t necessary! For since the fictional universe is fictional already, it doesn’t need to be digital as well…and anyway we know for a fact that its fictional status is NOT based on ones and zeroes, but on pens and inks instead. So why feel the need to insert a tissue of digital automation there? Snow Crash, after all, only proposed that its digital platform could be used to host fictional seemings otherwise impossible in a “real world” context…but where the non-real-worldness of the fictional environment need not be excused or explained away, “platforms” like this are just ideological frills…

…Aren’t they?

So, here’s how it works in the absence of secret digital automation, which is actually pretty much the same way as it works in that digital automation’s presence…the Space Phantom can’t take Thor over, because there’s something special about him. Thor can’t be sent to Limbo against his will in the same way Iron Man and the Hulk can. But, why is this? What makes Thor different from all the other dwellers in Time?

Perhaps it’s because he isn’t a dweller in Time. Or at least: not a dweller in the ordinary parts of Time. If “Limbo” exists wherever there are phase transitions to be had, it doesn’t seem very much like there must be a lot of phase transitions in Asgard, does it? Odin never goes back in time to give himself advice…Hel can be visited on foot or on horseback, if you just follow the roadsigns…in fact now that I think about it, everything in Asgard seems to be part of a continuum, everything seems “horizonal”…there seem to be very few possible paths in or out, and what paths there are seem largely “physical”. The secret tunnel to Olympus, for example!

The Rainbow Bridge itself!

And there are more powers in those precincts than just science or magic. The Queen of the Norns practises “magic”, as Loki and the Enchantress also do, and a most powerful magic it is! But Odin simply has the “Odin-Power”, and Sif travels to Midgard by “a Goddess’ right!”, or somesuch…while their machinery lies all about, evidently applied to other things. And!

You never see Immortus there, do you?

(awkwardly adjusts Roy Thomas mask over face)

HAWKEYE: “I don’t get it, Morty — you make such a big deal about being master of time, and master of space, and I bet you’re master of kung fu for all we know…so if you’re so hot to visit Thor’s stomping-grounds, why do you need the Avengers?”

IMMORTUS: “Prattling fool of an archer! If you were as perceptive as your name suggests, you would see that even a Master of Time must have his limitations…!”

Roy was great, wasn’t he? That incredibly overexplanatory style. Also I like Hawkeye, don’t you? In Avengers Forever (“you remember Alberich?”) Kurt Busiek reveals why Rick Jones’ mind selected just these Avengers and no others for the Destiny War…but, you know, I always regretted that AF didn’t come out in the Seventies, because then there would’ve been a big illustrated text page going into those choices in more detail. Consider, if you will, how this particular selection of cross-time Avengers might’ve presented challenges for Immortus that another selection wouldn’t have: it’s conceivable that Genis-Vell’s cosmic awareness might be the one power in the universe (barring the superpowers known as Reason and Intuition, of course) that could detect a Space Phantom’s substitution, if given a minute or two to get around to it…and the version of Henry Pym known as Yellowjacket being in a fugue state might be pretty darn unreadable by mind-scanning, because most of his mind is so locked off that he doesn’t even know what he knows. YJ in his first appearance is practically Hank Pym’s genius unleashed, set free from all other considerations besides “making stuff” and “doing stuff”…he doesn’t even know where his education came from, or why he thinks the thoughts he does, and if you think about that old psionic saw that says “psychics can only penetrate surface thoughts with difficulty so TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR, FOUR PLUS FOUR IS EIGHT”…well, the original YJ is all “surface thought”, isn’t he? So he’d be pretty unpredictable…

As regular old post-YJ Hank Pym would be predictable, except…except, would you be predictable, if your past crazy self was there, competing with you for your wife’s attentions and trying to show you up every five seconds, and insisting he’s not you, and always not saying that he’s in a state of constant horrible mental anguish that you yourself remember all too well? And the damnedest thing about it is that he is more “intuitive”, too, you know? He’s a shittier scientist, and a more incomplete person, but he’s sure as hell a better genius

Then Jan is in the middle, and so it’s unbalanced stress all around. She can manage it — no one else could! — but it doesn’t leave much time to manage anything else. And then there’s the Hawkeye of this time, who is distinctly un-manageable by anyone he ever knew, even if they’re a future-Jan who turned out to be one of the all-time great Avengers Chairmen…this is Clint at his most irreverent, the Hawkeye who could give a damn about proving anything to anybody, and I really love this guy. He’s over his Cap-worship, he doesn’t feel like he has to hold up the name Goliath on Hank’s behalf, he doesn’t even feel like he has to rehabilitate his old criminal costume…as Kurt notes, any Hawkeye is a supreme natural irritant, but due to word-count pressures he can’t find the space to say that this Hawkeye may just be the best at that business…and you could even argue that in this Hawkeye is found the very beginning of the Clint Barton who’ll go on to be right up there with Steve Rogers and Janet Van Dyne in the All-Timer’s Club? Of which there’s only one other member, and at last that’s Songbird, who’s the only person in the universe who can manage any Clint Barton she sees, because who knows fathers better than their daughters do? And also she’s the one person who can keep things from really going to shit in this little group, because coming from the future and having been an Avengers’ Chair she knows everybody’s story…

…Except just one person’s story, and that’s the Englehart Cap’s story, because I doubt all that guy’s thoughts and feelings are set down in the official record. Kurt, for brevity’s sake, describes this Cap as “diffident”, but he’s really not diffident, you know…he’s only less prone to instinctual action because he’s working hard at trying not to be paranoid, though everything in his life seems to be trying to make him so. Wrestling with the problem of the limits of knowledge, questioning every appearance, and trying to drill down to his own personal heroic cogito. It’ll come, in time, with the words “every bit as bad as the Red Skull”, and then he’ll be sure of his compass again, but until then, while all the regular step-back-and-reflect people are in a mad whirl that keeps them mentally on the hop…he’ll be the guy trying to make sense of it all so he can find his way through it, and he’s a pretty smart cookie but we don’t often see him in this role, and so how d’you like that for misdirection, eh? The ordinary understanding of “how the Avengers typically function” is completely blown-up by this sortation, but unless you are intimately familiar with each of the Avengers in question you wouldn’t know it…you’d expect New Sober Reflective Hank to dominate Old Crazy Intuitive Temper-Tantrum Hank through being a thoughtful guy, you’d expect shit-disturber Hawkeye to snap to unreflective Cap in support of Decisive Action above all, you’d expect Songbird to defer to Jan’s superior mediation techniques, and pair off as a scouting unit with a Genis-Vell who’s respectful enough of the old legendary warhorses to submit to being used as a Special Tool…sure, you’d expect all that, if you only knew the Avengers by their considerable reputations…

But we were discussing Asgard, where time-travel isn’t used, because as we know “all time-travellers must pass through Limbo to get where they’re going”…however Asgard’s relative paucity of phase transitions means there are few places where Limbo can be called in, so interdimensional travel is hard, there. Why it’s almost as though Asgard is at the bottom of an energy well, almost like Eternal Asgard exemplifies an entropic principle in the MU, indeed almost like…

…Asgard is at the centre of the bubble. Or in its central precincts, anyway! In Olympus there is technology too, and also some magic, and then there’s the stuff Zeus exercises which I believe is simply called “Olympian Power”…hmm, sounds kind of like “the Odin-Power”? Deep in toward the centre of things, the fluid of Limbo is gradually excluded, squeezed-out until it isn’t there at all — just as in the “computer Asgard” there isn’t any time-travel because reversing an equation doesn’t change the equation because it’s an equation — and so making a “bubble” to instantly transit locations is more than just a matter of putting together some diodes and running some current, not any old Tom Dick or Harry can do it, because the whole business of quantum tunnelling is extremely vexed down here on the abyssal plain of Universe where everything is pinned down by pressure and density until you don’t swim you just walk. Up a couple miles, in the pelagic zone, swimming is cool…why you can even swim up to the surface if you want to, maybe even jump like the flying fish or vault like the dolphin, and when you go up into the air all the other fish say “shit, where’d he go, it’s like he’s OUTSIDE THE OCEAN”, and then when you come back down again they’re all like “HOLY HANNAH, how in the heck did he get there?!“…

And it’s a common cosmogony in pre-industrial cultures: the dense black chthonic realm of total fact is the circle in the middle, the large and changeable blue pelagic ring outside it is the world of human life, and the clear ring of the atmosphere above is the abode of mobile concepts, pure concepts, concepts with feet

Concepts that are on the move, beyond our imagining. The alert reader of this long, long chain of pointless reasoning may have already recognized a bit of Vernor Vinge in it; so for that person, this is the place where I reconnect Vernor Vinge’s Milky Way with old Welsh mythological patterns. Annwyn and the Pig-Run and the Bright World…

They’re in the MU as well!

And that’s why when the Space Phantom tries to steal Thor’s form in Avengers #2, he’s instantly cast back into Limbo. Why? Because the Space Phantom stands in Limbo, and the Hulk stands in Time, but Thor stands in the Godly Realms…and Limbo connects with Time, and the Godly Realms connect with Time, but only Time connects with both. Different grounds mean different soils, and different roots: Thor and the Space Phantom are both just visitors here. Just extensions, perhaps, or projections…but anyway the thing about Thor’s reality is that it doesn’t border on any bubbles. Inside the body of every person living in Time are phase transitions at every possible level…even at a cellular level there are such transitions, or how else would Henry McCoy have cured Henry Pym?…but inside Thor’s body there are no transitions of this type, because his body was formed in a place where there are no such transitions anywhere, or at least very few, and maybe this is even the source of the typical Asgardian density, durability, and strength? That one’s body is not shot through, on even a sub-atomic level, with rivers of nothingness that suck away mass and energy…

…Along mysterious dimensional paths, and for heaven’s sake let’s get back to those paths, or I promise you we’ll be here past the time when Odin fights the Fenris-wolf. Paths, we should conventionally expect, always begin in their home soil and then parabolically arc back to it, but Thor once again gives the counterexample, as his father was nonetheless able to re-seat him in Midgard as Don Blake in order to punish him…and then Thor didn’t want to give up having, as it were, a foot in both worlds. So let it be a lesson to you fathers out there! Tough love will indeed make your children independent. It’ll totally work.

You should know that going in. But ANYWAY, what was I saying about the paths? Oh yes: that from the quantum-mechanical perspective you could say that the paths define the place…because the “place” really only exists as the product of the paths. In Limbo, paths can link to paths can link to other paths…Limbo, being all edge, is all path and no place: Limbo has too much definition by possible paths, for any part of it to be stable in a place-like way. But down in Universe, it’s different: here, paths are mostly between places, because there are fewer of them. But…

There is also that potential for Universe (at least, the Time parts of it) to make paths leading into Limbo. And no one in Universe can be grounded in anything but Universe, so they can’t be like the Limbo-dwellers and link through from bubble to bubble to other bubble ad infinitum…but what would happen if a single piece of Universe spawned many parabolic paths into Limbo, that all came back to the same place? The ordinary inter-Universe paths might then get lost in that jungle of time-loops…you’d be hard-pressed to locate among all the incredibly open doorways the ones that led to just a regular, conventional other place…a regular place that’s probably within conventional walking-distance…and so you might get stuck there, mightn’t you, and your little piece of Universe might become, let us call it, “limbo-like”.

Only after a while, it might not even be so “little”.

You have to wonder how many times this could happen, or even if it would be possible to know how many times it could happen, or has happened. Square blocks of city streets could become vast churning grids of constantly-shifting location…underground tunnels could be transmogrified into convoluted maps of Hell. There could be bubbles within bubbles, constantly casting out wind-borne spider-strands to Elsewhere…and if there are no Things, but only Interactions, then might there not be some point at which what can’t be told apart from Limbo actually becomes Limbo?

Or, at least: “Limbo”?

Hmm…

So now that we’re finally here, let’s talk about Avengers Forever.

Problem Number One: the Space Phantoms don’t work right.

Problem Number Two: Immortus is a liar.

Let’s let these two fight it out!

If a Space Phantom can’t take the place of a character that is dead at the moment he wishes to enter Time, then AF is riddled with impossible events…not only was Phineas Horton an adult in 1938, and dead by the mid-Seventies (a problem that only gets prettier as the sliding timescale’s effect goes on, since Horton is every bit as pinned to the late Thirties as the young Steve Rogers), therefore not available for a Space Phantom masquerade in the pages of John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers, but also we are explicitly told in AF that the Space Phantoms impersonated the Gunhawks after they had already met their historical end in the Old West a couple of years earlier. There are two obvious solutions to this inconsistency: either Space Phantom impostures don’t work as they’re said to in Avengers #2, or the Space Phantoms impersonating Horton and the Gunhawks were brought forward in time by technological means to a point after which they had (if you follow) already eventually relinquished the forms of those they were impersonating. For cosmological reasons I am going to suggest that the latter solution makes the most sense…and maybe it would make it that much harder for Captain Marvel’s cosmic awareness to detect a Space Phantom impersonation, if technically it had already “ended” by the time he encountered it? Of course once you have Space Phantoms being moved about the temporal chessboard from Time rather than from Limbo, you don’t really have all that much need for there to be more than one Space Phantom in existence…if the impersonations caused by a Limbo-switch are then being moved about in Time, then one Space Phantom could impersonate each of the Old West gunmen in turn, move each to a time where all those impersonations coexist simultaneously, do his thing and then move back to give the forms up. Apparent “deaths” of a number of different Space Phantoms could then be explained as one guy playing possum several times, knowing that a return to the past is imminent…and the exposure of the true Space Phantom form could be explained as what happens when an impersonation is disturbed that’s technically not even happening anymore, as other odd effects might be seen if a Limbo-switch imposture was then taken back into Limbo before the form was given up. So although AF may tell us that there are many Space Phantoms, its events remain explicable if there were really only one…which is an explanation I prefer, since it changes less of what we know.

However if that were the case, then why send the Space Phantom, in his many guises, so far through time? From Limbo, all times and all places (with just a few exceptions) are equally-reachable — standing in Limbo is itself a method of time-travel, if you can only leave it! The Space Phantom’s impostures are straight out of “Quantum Leap” — he can’t take someone’s form without having travelled someplace in Time! And so one imagines that if he so chose he could take the place of a whole bunch of characters in a manner that would seem serial to him, but simultaneous to us, if they only happened to already be in the right place at the right time all together. Why, if you wanted to you could have a whole planet of people impersonated by the Space Phantom!

A galaxy-spanning Empire, populated by no one but the Space Phantom!

And the name rather gives it away. Imagine some long-past date in the MU, when the Space Phantom terrorized other peoples of the universe as he once sought to terrorize the Avengers. If you crossed him up, there could be no escape from his vengeance…the fastest ship couldn’t outrun an enemy to whom distance is a null category; the loneliest interstellar waste couldn’t hide you from a creature whose reach into spacetime is unlimited. As well, there seems no particular reason that the Space Phantom couldn’t live an entire life in Time, so long as that life belonged to somebody else. He could live a billion lives…a trillion lives. He could rule the Universe completely.

Why hasn’t he ever done it?

Or, to be more specific: why make the confrontation with the AF crew so complicated? Why not just move the Gunhawks through Time and then have the Space Phantom do his thing? On the surface, it seems as though the best answer to this would be “because the story’s right, and there are many Space Phantoms, and they’re all just standard-issue shapeshifters”, rather than “because it’s all to fool Genis-Vell”, but I’m not so sure about that…for one thing, he’s an awfully funny-looking dude for people “lost in Limbo” to just sort of turn into just because — for that matter, why wouldn’t Immortus have turned into “him” too? — and for another thing it makes him kind of boring, just another Moloid. When really he should be a Tyrannus!

He has a really impressive power, right?

Yet we are constantly directed away from thinking it’s as impressive as it is, and given that we’re dealing with Immortus then anything that involves him lying is more likely to be true, than anything that involves him telling the truth. What if there really was just the one Space Phantom? If he was under Immortus’ thumb, things could easily be arranged so that we would think there are many…and a bunch of indistinguishable servitors who just shapeshift every now and again doesn’t really seem like too big a deal, so that would only encourage us to take the Space Phantom lightly. If there is just one Space Phantom, with time-travel powers that are better and sneakier than anyone’s, then that’s a cosmic-level threat! But if there’s just some mob of functionaries who are extra-good at putting on disguises, well we’ve seen that before. Who worries about henchmen?

They’re really only good for bringing Immortus his slippers!

But on the other hand, if Immortus had under his thumb a being who could potentially replace all the people in the universe…then that’s not “a crowd of henchmen”, that’s a secret weapon of terrifying importance, and if the Space Phantom is only one of the instruments at Immortus’ command, then that makes Immortus an awful lot more powerful than we’ve been led to believe. Kang’s just another Caesar, but Immortus is a Prospero…and that’s a BIG step up in power, for the man who was once Rama-Tut!

You can see why he went for it!

Except…no, that isn’t the story, is it? Kang wearied of a life of endless conflict, and wanted to retire. Just get a cottage in Limbo, and play benevolent gardener to Time among his books. That’s what Immortus says happened, and apparently Immortus is now to be considered an honourable man…the enormous, mind-staggering power? No, no, now why would the man previously known as Kang ever be interested in getting his hands on that? To want such a thing, well you’d have to have some kind of limitless ambition and unquenchable thirst for dominance, or something…!

And Immortus, as we know, is just a humble scholar.

And definitely not a guy who lunged at power, only to find it all turned to ashes in his hands!

So…I admit, my off-the-cuff reasoning for why the fake Horton and fake Gunhawks might have been brought forward in time, it maybe sounds a bit thin. All to fool Genis-Vell, eh? But then at times it seems as though there’s nothing easier than penetrating a Space Phantom disguise. You don’t really need cosmic awareness, for that! So it’s a bit of a crap reason…it won’t suffice…

What would suffice?

What could cosmic awareness potentially discern, about Immortus and the Space Phantom and the Destiny War, that would be worth going to these slightly-ridiculous lengths to obscure?

And if Immortus was so concerned with removing the obstacle the Avengers represent to the safety of the timestream, why didn’t he just, you know…kill them? Kang almost killed them, on his first appearance, and Immortus must have technological capability far beyond Kang’s. Why muck about with the Legion of the Unliving and the Masters of Evil? Why all the slow-pitch?

Why all the “cackling like a supervillain”, over the years?

For the answer, let’s return to Doctor Doom and the Cosmic Cube. If Doom knows the method by which a Cosmic Cube is made, then why hasn’t he ever made one?

In this little fan-fix narrative of mine, it’s because he never trusted the Theory of the True Vacuum. If the force-field that is created is eventually transformed into a thought-into-reality machine, it isn’t because the True Vacuum is trapped in there! The nameless scientist at A.I.M. who talked his way into Cosmic Cube funding — which included MODOC funding, let’s not forget, so: big megaproject — may have believed that if he could make a little “bubble” in space that zero paths entered and zero paths left, then the True Vacuum would be the only residuum…but Doom, who’s got a bit more on his resume than this guy (hello? time-machine inventor over here?), doesn’t buy that for a second. To make a force-field whose interior is inaccessible to the realm of Universe, okay…okay, theoretically you could make that. But to make a force-field whose interior is inaccessible to Universe and Limbo? That’s just wrong on so many levels, that’s not even wrong, for one thing it’s “thermodynamically” impossible, for another thing you are essentially making a Limbo-bubble to try to do it, so it really fails in a tautological way at the first effort…and even if you could do it you would still not “capture” the True Vacuum because the True Vacuum — how does one put this — DOESN’T EXIST! In purely technical terms: it doesn’t “exist”, right? Where “to exist” is a thing, it isn’t that. And where “to not exist” is a thing, it isn’t that either. Total nullity lacks even a definition — the whole thing’s just question-begging, because when you say you’re going to make a force-field whose interior is inaccessible to both Universe and Limbo, and that will prove the True Vacuum…well, that’s backwards, because what could one employ except the True Vacuum, to make such a force-field in the first place? You’d have to have the stuff already in hand! Unless, oh yeah, it was just an ordinary Limbo-bubble anyway, and you’re just pretending it’s something else because you’re a failure as an intellect. You know, Doom has put up with a lot, when it comes to other scientists crashing around in the china shop of his scientific discoveries — Reed Richards even modified his time machine so it can go into “divergent realities”, which just shows how Richards is a pathetic excuse for a scientist, because the whole trick of building a functioning time machine in the first goddamn place was figuring out how to keep it from going into divergent realities! CURSE YOU, RICHARDS…!

But this “Cosmic Cube” thing…this is really just too much. This is table-rapping, it’s just garbage. And the scary thing about it is, it works

…But no one takes two seconds to think about why it works, when it obviously can’t bloody work, so Doom wouldn’t touch the thing with a ten-foot pole as long as he doesn’t understand its principles. You have to be able to control the thing, you know? Otherwise it’s just a bomb going off in slow motion. Only a fool — or an engineer, like that imbecile Tony Stark — would just try to make something without knowing what it was he was making. Doom worked every day and night for years coming up with his time machine, he knew exactly what it was going to be before he so much as picked up his screwdriver, his knowledge of the principles of time-travel is second to none…these A.I.M. clowns and their hucksterish wannabe scientists, they’re a dangerous embarrassment. Doom never touched a Cosmic Cube until he understood why it worked the way it did, at the end of Englehart’s “Secret Wars III”…never touched one until he knew what was inside it that wasn’t the True Vacuum. Until he had proof that its interior actually wasn’t inaccessible to Limbo, but was simply in a relationship with only one part of Limbo.

Which, fair’s fair, is a pretty impressive achievement anyway…especially for a contemptible pack of morons who can’t even keep their own automation from enslaving them…

And here we leave Doom ranting in his castle, but let’s take away with us his idea of the impossibility of having a Limbo-bubble that doesn’t link to other Limbo-bubbles…the ineliminability of path-connection that he waggishly refers to as “thermodynamic”. Well, I guess it’s kinda thermodynamic, really! But let’s take this another step or two, to get to what he’s really saying. He’s really saying that when all you’re dealing with is bubbles, you never do encounter “interstitial fluid” on its own in a non-bubbly form. You never encounter anything like a “permanence” of medium. Paths make the bubbles and the bubbles support the paths…all bubbles are “made”, you know?

So the Limbo of Immortus and the Space Phantom is “made” too. But who made it?

Of course, now that we’ve actually seen a crapload of Space Phantoms, they’re all “real” — since what happens in a published Marvel comic is the only true record of events occurring in the shared universe. But interpretations of those events can change, so…given only one Space Phantom, and yet a profusion of other Space Phantoms, and given that Limbo itself is outside Time — I’d suggest that the idea of time-travel within Limbo is pretty much a non sequitur — then how come there are all these copies of ol’ Phanty running around? Well…he can’t be called “the Space Phantom” for no reason, so how about we assume that at one point he did terrorize the universe, and rule space with an iron fist? Limbo, as I’ve proposed, might be a terribly lonely place…you might think “yes, awesome, all that power, what a great time I’ll have with it!”, but power is only real big fun for a creature seated in Universe, whether it’s ordinary Time or the Godly Realms…whereas for a Limbo-dweller, you just straight-up get the monkey’s paw. And all parabolic paths only lead back to their origins, so you can’t really escape the place once you’re there…

Except the Space Phantom does seem to be able to escape, by “taking places”. How tempting this must have been, then! Live a trillion lifetimes, enjoy the fruits of limitless power and indestructibility! Nudge events into any course you please. How easy would that be? If you want something changed, you just Quantum Leap it…replace a person in a position to alter the chain of causality. Simple.

Simple for a while.

But then what the hell do you do if you replace someone at Time X (let’s say), and that turns out to be a blast, but then when you go back to replace someone at Time X-minus-1, although you also have a blast you change the timeline of the person you replaced at Time X? And then when you pop back to Limbo, there’s another one of you there, because in Limbo there’s no paradox (because where there’s no Time, there’s no paradox) so you can’t sort it out, so that guy is simply you as well, and suddenly you’re one being in two parts. Which is annoying. And gives you a headache. And your thoughts are a bit crackly from all the interference.

So maybe you try to fix it, see? By going back to Time-minus-2…but that only makes it worse, and actually things get a lot worse in a tearing hurry, because of course there is no person you can ever replace, who doesn’t have the ability to deflect causality, and you don’t really give a damn if you’re making different timelines by leapfrogging back over your previous instantiations but you’re making different Space Phantoms, because you’ve been stupid and invited Time into Limbo, and Limbo doesn’t tolerate Time, so it just kicks Time back out and makes you pay the price. The Universe breathes a sigh of relief, as it starts to see less and less of you…but you’re still not done, because now every time some asshole with a time machine in Universe goes back and does something which alters the timeline of one of your replacement-selves…POP! Another Space Phantom, and a still more fractionated consciousness. So hard to think, damn it…so hard to remember…!

And then every once in a while someone down in Universe does something with a time machine to your causality that trims a Space Phantom…or two, or three, or a hundred…and it’s like a game: sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. When there are fewer of you, you can think better, you’re more effective, you can reconsolidate. When there are more, you’re a mess. But at least there’s hope, that one day your past replacement-selves might get trimmed down far enough that you could trim the last ones on your own, return to your original, singular state?

And then Immortus arrives. How he got there you don’t know, how he became unseated from Universe and reseated in Limbo (if only you could remember!) is a mystery, but when he gets there he realizes in an instant what the deal is with all these scatterbrained Space Phantoms lying all around the joint…and he makes you an offer:

Do his bidding, and he’ll change time to trim your other selves.

So…many Space Phantoms, and it’s just a horde of Moloids who’ll follow any leader.

But one Space Phantom, and he’s an immensely powerful spirit who’s willing to make a devil’s bargain with Immortus…and Immortus had better not betray him, either…

Because Immortus needs him too. Immortus, you see, if he realized in an instant what had happened to the Space Phantom, would know darn well he could never safely go into Time if it meant crossing over his own causal footsteps…and that he probably shouldn’t go into Time at all unless he absolutely has to…and so whatever he does in Time has got to be absolutely hygienic! But the Space Phantom is another story: already contaminated with Time, he can go anywhere Immortus chooses to send him, without incurring any ill effects that, really, he isn’t already suffering from. Just so long as Immortus has his confidence, you know? So Immortus never has to “split”, as he otherwise might, and even if he does he probably is fortunate enough to have an exit strategy planned in advance…and as a result there are no “many” Immortuses, but only the one. Which is the one Kang turned into.

Oh, except that’s another lie, as long as we’re talking about lies…

Because of course it wasn’t Kang that turned into Immortus, but instead it was the second Rama-Tut. You remember, the one who was integral to the turning-out of the Celestial Madonna storyline? The one Kang became, when he “wearied of conflict”?

So, obviously this is all just a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. When Englehart wrote the death of Kang in battle with Thor, the fans howled: “Englehart, you idiot, if Kang is dead then how can he eventually become Immortus? You’ve created a TOTALLY NEEDLESS PARADOX AT THE VERY LAST SECOND…! But there are paradoxes, and then there are paradoxes. What happens in the published comics, is the only true record of events that have taken place in the fictional universe, right? So the death of Kang at the hands of the Thunder God doesn’t matter, because we have seen the second Rama-Tut, and we can’t be made to un-see him. The orthodoxy of time-loop logic jumps the track at this moment, but it doesn’t take the train with it, and so there might be any later explanation for why a second Rama-Tut who remembers a life as Kang is there to stay the hand of the Swordsman, but there is no explanation in the MU that cannot be reversed anyhow, and then re-reversed, and re-re-reversed again, world without end, all without changing the fact that Rama-Tut is there, in the Celestial Madonna storyline, and speaks the dialogue that was written for him to speak, and you know what? Cosmologically, nothing comes of it. So the paradox clearly isn’t a paradox, according to the true and actual extrauniversally-determined physical laws of the MU…because to be a true paradox, something paradoxical would have to exist on the PAGE, you know? Some real pen-and-ink depiction would somehow and at once have to contradict that same depiction that it is, in a way that frustrated narrative’s power to account for it with a new chain of logic. And this is not what happens with Kang’s death. Kang gets brought back, not because without him the paper will fall away from the staples, but because the interstitial fluid “remembers” him: which is to say, future writers want to use him. They don’t have to use him, if they don’t want to…!

But as it happens they do, and imagine Immortus’ annoyance! He is, after all, happy when Kang is killed, because the time-loop is broken…

But, why would he be happy about that?

If the world of Limbo is truly “outside Time”, then an answer suggests itself: Immortus doesn’t need his old worldline to exist, in order to keep on living. One day the second Rama-Tut just sort of…comes to an end, in Universe, and that’s the end of his story as far as chronology goes. Born in the 30th century, goes back to 3000 B.C., fights the FF…then forward to the 40th century, becomes an intertemporal conqueror, fights the Avengers…then retires to 3000 B.C. again, then one day mysteriously vanishes without a trace. Severs his causal connection to history. So, can anything that might happen to Kang really affect Immortus now? Especially since we’ve already seen the result of that experiment, and the result is “nothing happens to Immortus”?

And if anything that happens to Kang could affect Immortus, would Immortus really sport with his own survival by taunting Kang? Would he constantly torment him with the inevitability of his decline into a Humble Scholar?

Yet why does he bother with that either, if you see what I mean. If Kang might not one day become Immortus, thus wiping Immortus from existence, then Immortus wouldn’t want to taunt him…but if his transformation into Immortus is inevitable, then that also means none of Immortus’ taunts can have any effect on what is fated to occur, so then again Immortus wouldn’t have any reason to taunt him. Well, he won’t change anyway, so why bother talking at him? But consider how the picture changes if Immortus wants Kang to reject the destiny of the Humble Scholar! If Limbo is time-free, then nothing will change for Immortus if Kang rejects his destiny. But what if he doesn’t reject it? Perhaps the end of the second Rama-Tut’s timeline, fixed in Universe, is a loose point in Limbo, like a fire hose without any firemen to hold onto it…potentially spewing random copies of Immortus into the borderlands. The time-loop means Immortus and Rama-Tut and Kang are always crossing paths…so maybe every time a Rama-Tut II does whatever it was he did to become Immortus, a new Immortus is created?

Is it possible?

Well…if someone might write it into a comic, then yes: it’s possible. Heck, it’s more than possible! It’s almost necessary. And sitting right there is the Space Phantom, an object lesson in what can happen to you if you invite Time into Limbo, or indeed if you are so unwise as to choose to be a character in no particular fixed state of Time, in a storytelling milieu in which time-travel and the world at large can both exist at the same time; Immortus has been very careful not to let himself become Phantomized by his own actions, but what will happen to him if he once enters Time after the date of Kang’s conversion to the second Rama-Tut? If we reason from the extrauniversal level of the real world, we can see immediately that the fictional world of the MU is astonishingly tolerant of paradox; every instance of time-travel constitutes a paradox, after all! So consider the possibility of someone writing a story that involves Limbo starting to fill up with Immortuses, if you will, O Notional Reader…

Well, could we ever really write that eventuality permanently out, once it was written in?

Or consider if you will the Space Phantom himself: given that he might, under any given future writer’s direction, insert himself into any previously-documented moment of the publishing history…then hasn’t he himself spawned, all on his own, an infinite number of divergent universes? Just by not inserting himself everywhere, hasn’t he created a departure-point into alternity from every instant, along the paths he didn’t take?

I promise, this is the very last thing I will say “we’ll come back to that” about…because really, no foolin’, we’re coming back to that, and SOON!

We’re actually almost done with our mad whirlwind of a trip!

I promise!

Any minute now, we will re-enter reality!

But for just a moment more…we hang suspended.

…Avengers Forever? (part one of three)

Hello, fellow readers of the Fan-Fix blog! It’s Plok, here, of A Trout In The Milk, posting something for Nate while he tends to other business. Part fun, and part obligation, this three-part excursion into fixing a fix that was already fixed by a better fixer was generated by some discussions with Nate in which he informed me that it’s been THREE YEARS since my “How Would You Fix…Kryptonian Exceptionalism?” post for him…and I thought “WHAT?! Could it really have been so long?

It could, he informed me gravely, have indeed been so long.

So I thought I’d better head over to the anvil and bash out some nails. This is actually an excursion in six parts, three of them here, and three of them on my own blog…and to get the whole picture I would most definitely recommend popping over to check out “Principia Comicbookia” first, and then following the link-trail back here….which will eventually lead you back over there…which will eventually lead you God-knows-where, but then in a way isn’t that the point?

As to and fro we wander, amid Limbo’s hedgerows…

So see you soon, Nate!

And: here it is!

*

Sometimes I wonder at my own hubris, if “hubris” isn’t too grand an accusation to level at someone who spends so much of his time trying to make sense of a fictional universe whose nominal “sense” he isn’t even responsible for. And what makes me so sure there’s really any sense to be made in it, eh?

Well…

As I said here, in my enormous two-part run-up to this post, part of the appeal of the Marvel Universe is that it had a Principal Author who instilled in it just this kind of sense…that would be Jack Kirby, of course, who liked mythology and science fiction, and who also possessed a strange talent that allowed him to begin drawing a splash page in its upper left-hand corner, and make his way down to its lower left-hand corner without roughing anything in beforehand. So he didn’t plan it all out in the conventional manner, but I don’t think anyone looking at any of his pages could miss how integrated the “sense” always was. We’re all conscious of his stylistic innovations, however it wasn’t just style that he commanded, but narration too: drawing vast freewheeling murals of causation, that didn’t just tell a story but imprinted a definite philosophical character on the world in which the story was being told. All Marvel stories since then have had some truck or other with this spirit of integration, writers and artists sensing that in the universe Kirby created half the adventure was in the production of explanations…fans in the letter columns competing for No-Prizes for the same reason. This little essay isn’t one that sets out to criticize Stan Lee, I should be sure to point out; Stan’s contributions to the Marvel Universe are real, and they’re deep as well…but it wasn’t primarily Stan Lee who established the physical and cosmological character of the place.

So the well of sense that later authors kept returning to, for the longest time, was the one Kirby had dug out in the first place: Roy Thomas’ play with the historicization of the Marvel Universe was his elaboration on Kirby, as his development of second-person narration was his elaboration on Lee. And Steve Englehart made a career from setting entire storylines, as it were, in the yellow caption box…thus arguably combining both kinds of play. Oh, Steve Englehart of the Two Steves! What an influence he was on me! Always picking up on threads! Always playing fair with other peoples’ stories! Why if he hadn’t existed…

…Then Kurt Busiek would probably have had to invent him. And that’s what makes me feel as though I could filch some licence to “fix” Busiek’s Avengers Forever, because I see us both as descendents of the Englehart Approach…both interested in the same Englehartian things, and for the same Englehartian reasons. Those who followed Steve Gerber on books like The Defenders and Marvel Two-In-One may have been inspired by him, but they were not like him…but Kurt Busiek is like Steve Englehart when he writes The Avengers, and he has the same interest in dropped threads and saved phenomena. All of Avengers Forever is nothing but a giant “fix”, so admirable for the way it seeks to repair toys and timelines smashed or sundered by others! However it does not make a perfectly tied-off Gordian Knot, despite his monumental effort. Perhaps because…

There’s still something “off”, about the cosmology of it all.

Fortunately, as I also said before, it isn’t just Jack Kirby’s design that creates the sense-making capacities of the MU, but also the fact that fictional universes are extremely hard-pressed to disinclude the physical principles of the real world. These always get in there somehow, as conditions that obtain in the environment of the author are inevitably transmitted into the imaginary realm the author controls. All fiction relates to the real world in some way, and it’s just a matter of how more or less a good model of reality the fiction is…design it just so, and it’s a moral mirror only! But design it just so in another way, and it can catch more than morals in its sieve. In a moment this preamble will be over, and I’ll begin talking about Limbo, and Immortus, and Doctor Doom and the Cosmic Cube, but just before we get down into the valley we should stop at the peak, and take in the wider perspective while we have the chance. There’s a signpost up ahead, and on it is written three things:

1. The events shown to occur in comic books published by Marvel are “what happened”. There is no other record that can be set against the published comics, and no way for any current interpretation to constrain what may become part of that record in the future. DC Comics has a tradition of publishing stories billed as “imaginary”, stories that by editorial fiat not only never happened but never could happen…but Marvel has never done this, so within its publishing record every fictional occurrence is — at a minimum — equally historicized. If Superman replaces Mowgli as the hero of the events of The Jungle Book in a DC comic, the comic has no point of contact with the “real” history of the DC shared universe, no one ever assumes that it does, and the whole fact of the story’s publication never even so much as rises to the status of “non-issue”…whereas at Marvel the essential “happenedness” of each published story is sacrosanct.

2. But that isn’t to say Marvel wasn’t interested in the device of the “imaginary” story. Roy Thomas’ response to these stories at DC was “What If?”, a series in which the omniscient Watcher peers into alternate universes — presumably with the help of something like a “dimensional viewer”? — to see what would have happened, had the events of published stories been slightly different. This is your classic “divergent worlds” formulation, long beloved of SF writers, where one tiny change creates an entirely different chain of causality. And because it comes out of the toolkit of SF in this way, is one reason it isn’t scientifically-irrelevant. Not the only one, as we shall see! But a big one, and one that has far-reaching consequences: Marvel has all kinds of alternate universes in it, fanciful places where things are just plain different, but the divergent universes are not of a kind with these, and one major reason why they’re not is that when we’re presented with a story entitled “What If…The Fantastic Four All Had Different Powers?” we’re not just shown what would happen if they had different ones, but we’re also told why they have the ones they do. Thus What If? bestows a canonical factoid on us, even though its subject is “all that didn’t happen” — all that is not canon, except that by contradistinction it describes what is canon far more completely than canon itself ever does. Of all Marvel’s stories, then, the ones in What If? are the hardest to reason away, because they involve an omniscient being explaining the necessities that obtain in the “main line”, through providing annotated counter-explanations that dwell some distance off of it. And since the very nature of the “What If?” conceit makes it necessary that any event in any comic published by Marvel can be shown occurring in a different way, there is no end to the amount of material that must — at least potentially — defy reinterpretation in this way.

3. The facts of the publishing business condition the expression of physical law within the MU. No Cosmic Being’s pronouncements can ever be authoritative, no yellow caption box can ever contain the real truth about what things are or why they happened, why interstellar flight is possible or why magic spells have their effect or even why water flows downhill…because it could all be rewritten in some future comic, EXCEPT that although interpretations of events in the fictional world may not constrain future events within it, events and interpretations that lie in the real world may and do. Therefore if there is an ultimate ground of “what is possible” in the MU, in a physical and cosmological sense, it must analogize the principles obtaining in the real world that guide corporate and editorial and artistic choices. These principles, fortunately for the plan of the fictional universe, are fairly stable: highly unlikely to change in any significant way over decades, whatever the occasional minor shift in fashion may dictate. But, should they so change, the physics and cosmology of the fictional universe might well change with them. Perhaps precipitating a sort of…well, a crisis, in the fictional reality? And it’s not my intention to show that such a crisis has indeed occurred, but the interested reader might find a couple of reasons to think it has…

Down in the shadowy valley of this already too-long essay, which will shall descend into…

NOW!

There’s a thing in the real world, actually with a rather impressive pedigree, which has gotten into the MU as well. Let’s say they call it, down in that fictional reality, “The Theory Of The True Vacuum”. That would be an utterly empty space, with no qualities in it…and with no absence of qualities either, but simply a comprehension-defying blank. In our own world, we have not found any evidence that such a blank state is possible: nature seems to abhor it, you know? Pair production fills even the space between galaxies, and indeed space itself could simply be a non-natural property of matter…not really existing. Well, have you ever seen “space”?

But down in the fictional reality, from the fictional reality’s perspective, something like it may exist. Because there is a gulf between our own reality and the fictions that ride on it, and that gulf can never be crossed — no one, not even Grant Morrison or Cary Bates, can ever really enter the fictional world, and no one from the fictional world can really enter this one. This seems basic, but I think probably that’s just a good reason to keep it in mind: a fictional world doesn’t actually share an ontological status with the real world, but is a construct only. Furthermore, everything inside it is equally fictitious, and when I start going on about how things “seem” to the denizens of the MU, I’ll have to remember (and you will too) that I’m not really talking about anything at all — it’s all just a game. For example, when I say that to the denizens of the MU our own reality must remain forever unreachable and unknowable, though it controls their every move, that would only be true if they were real…which they aren’t, because (to mangle a witticism) there’s no “they” there. However…

If they were real, then the force of imagination we possess, that writes their world, would not be something they could comprehend…would not be something they could ever access. So between us and them — if they existed, which they don’t — there might well be a fundamental gap, a true cosmological emptiness, out of which all the features of their worlds appear. But, they could never get their hands or minds on this gap. Hmm, everyone is so obsessed with power in a superhero universe…imagine what power an access to the True Vacuum would bring! A nothingness with no rules, with nothing to impede the manifestation of thought as reality. A place without thought or reality!

You have to think it’d be good for something. But here’s the problem with that: you’d also have to be a bit of a nut to imagine there “really is” a True Vacuum. Doctor Doom, for example, probably doesn’t believe in such a thing…magic and time-travel are okay, but talking about True Vacuum is a bit like talking about G-D, and so you might as well not. That a thing called Limbo exists, we must imagine that he knows very well…and was the time machine just an application, as was the “netherworld probe” of his college days, of experiments with the theory of the True Vacuum? Doom might’ve learned through experience not to believe in any emptiness more rarified than Limbo’s own…not least because Limbo is represented as a real thing in the MU, whereas the gulf between the writer and the story is never represented there…cannot be represented there if the writer can’t appear as “himself”, see? Well, but maybe Doom does not conclude this after all, since he has never been shown to, but to me it seems fairly supportable that he has concluded it. For one thing, he never tries to make a Cosmic Cube, though in Englehart’s FF we’re told that he knows the principles well enough. And what could the Cosmic Cube be intended as, but a little prism of the True Vacuum through which thoughts may be focussed? The “A” in A.I.M. doesn’t stand for “Average”, so maybe there was a nut over there, a stubborn scientistic bastard, a Teilhardian charlatan Doom would no doubt despise, who really believed in the stuff, and sought a way to catch some of it in a net…and A.I.M. let him do it, funded him, gave him equipment…

We will, I promise, get back to that guy. But first we have to go through every other coordinate point in the universe. Limbo, eh?

What d’you suppose it is?

I have found that when confronted by such questions, it’s as well to seek refuge in the dictionary, which gives us the derivation from “limb” — meaning “edge”, or “border”. So: the borderland of Limbo, the edgelands of Limbo? The name seems to fit, as Limbo appears to be a kind of place chiefly identified by its delocalization: being nowhere in particular, and existing outside Time in a space “between”, it’s what every time-traveller has to pass through, and it’s the home of “lost” things — indeterminate things, forgotten things, things no longer quite real. Trackless and shifting and infinite, there is no end to it…well, there’s no end to things located in the state we shall call “Universe”, the realm of Time, either, but Limbo’s unendingness is a bit more immediate! Since without localization whether spatial or temporal, you don’t have to go far to encounter its limitless nature.

Oh yeah…and the Space Phantom lives there.

We’ll get back to him, too.

But first: how might we conceptualize a country all border, all edge, and absolutely no middle at all? It make me think of Cosmic Strings a little, if you want to know the truth…which are not really “strings” at all, but borders between phase transitions. The theory goes, that just as ice freezes with little lines in it (where the rate of freezing was different), so too the fabric of spacetime “froze” as the early universe grew and the forces separated themselves out from unity…and to the extent they separated themselves out at different rates, there appeared “little lines” to mark these phase transitions. Except, the lines aren’t “lines”, anymore than they’re “strings”! Instead being curled-up dimensionality with an intense gravitic attraction. Not mass, nor energy either! But just a tortured kind of spacetime, twisted and compacted. If we ran into one in our spaceship, we’d know it — it’s be like running over a tug’s line in a speedboat! — but for all that a cosmic string may look like a “thing” and act on us as though it were a thing, it really isn’t a thing. And, ha ha, you know there may not actually be “cosmic strings” at all? Since the theory’s far from proven. It just seemed like a good way to explain the rapidity of galaxy formation, you see: cosmic strings lying invisible across space, like strings in an oyster bed, there only to provide the gravity that allows material to coalesce in a hurry…

But, “phase transitions”…

Those are edges, aren’t they?

So imagine Limbo — for right this minute, anyway — as not a place so much as a kind of fractal web: anywhere there’s a phase transition in the MU, there Limbo stands. We must remember that the MU is different from our world in a couple of possibly-illuminating ways, one of which being that its many-worlds theory isn’t about a collection of divergent universes based on the collapse of the wave function, but a collection of divergent universes based on whether Peter Parker chose to have a chocolate shake or a vanilla shake down at the Coffee Bean Barn that time. In the real world this isn’t the case; in the real world it is only about wave-function collapse, irreversibility carried out at the quantum scale…and macroscopic events don’t tally, so between one of the real-world “other universes” and our own there might not even be many differences that we would be able to see, at our scale. But the MU is a land of SF, and in SF this state of affairs is always analogized for us as differences in people, differences in places, difference in human-sized events presented to us in order that we may more ably play with the concepts. Again, the already-tiring refrain: we will get back to this later, but for now the point is that cosmologically-significant phase transitions must be everywhere in the MU, at every scale from the cellular to the galactic, and so Limbo’s garden of forking paths — if it is indeed a garden of forking paths — must be located “everywhere” as well. And nowhere, obviously, since if “the whole place” is just a spidery network filtering through all space and time then it really is all edge, and no centre…

And can anyplace really be anywhere, without having a centre to it?

Think of the places we call Universe as — uncomplicatedly — a bunch of bubbles floating in foam. Limbo, on a massively macroscopic scale, is the interstitial space between them. The MU’s cosmological structure, as a grandiose reflection of real-world publishing practices, is full of phase transitions too: some of the bubbles are near one another, and others are far away. Sometimes, adjacent bubbles “pop together”; other times, a bubble simply pops out of existence. There’s a mathematical regularity to it, and the mathematical regularity is not an illusion! Up here in the real world, Rich Buckler’s Deathlok was a character very firmly and explicitly grounded in the 1970s, in a handmade universe completely detached from the House That Jack Built…but owned by the same publisher, so in time it not only became possible for Deathlok’s world and the world of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four to enjoy congress with one another, but eventually to also “pop together”. And this was a sadly final event for the original Buckler/Moench creation, for who has the power to “unpop together” fictional milieux that Editorial has joined? Deathlok’s history is rewritten, in an invisible retcon, as the much larger “bubble” of the main-line MU takes him over…

…And so then what happens to the interstitial space that once lay between him and the world of Pocket Rockets and spider-suits, that border he once crossed in Marvel Team-Up, that border taken away from him in Marvel Two-In-One? “Mathematical regularity”, I said, and since there is no reason I can think of why it would be inappropriate for us to model universes as bubbles, pi inevitably pops out of the model. The “fluid” of Limbo is changed, when Deathlok enters the main line…geometrically, the Very Large Multiverse is no longer quite the same. If we can think of the “fluid” as being pressurized, then we can imagine its pressure decreasing when the bubble of the main line expands to swallow other bubbles near it.

Just as, when licensing agreements expire, that pressure decreases as well. Rom: Spaceknight, not being owned outright by Marvel, could not “pop together” with the main line’s bubble, but instead popped out on its own…and what did it leave behind? Decreased pressure, a “depression” in the fluid of what we might as well call Limbo…but the reason we might as well call it that, is that there are many Rom fans still out there who would like to see the character return, and this means that there is a marked possibility that he may do so. In cosmological terms of the MU, then, the interstitial fluid “remembers” Rom: preserves his potential, though he no longer enjoys an actuality. And if his “bubble” pops back in, it will pop back in from the same medium in which it popped out…provided that “pressure conditions” are the same. We might drop down the macro scale a bit at this point, and surmise that the same sort of thing occurs when characters are killed and then return to life…Milligan and Allred’s “Deadgirl” mini shows Dr. Strange confessing that there are rules governing the return of characters to life, but that the reason behind the rules remains opaque. Well, opaque to him, but then he’s the resident of a fictional universe and hasn’t been written to know that his reality is an imaginary one…clearly if he could think for himself, at this point he might well realize that it is! But of course we can see the reason for it all quite clearly, being real ourselves: it isn’t about the love, it’s about the demand in the marketplace, and that demand in our world is inversely proportional to the pressure in the interstitial fluid in the MU. Lots of things could mitigate against the return of a beloved character, by increasing the pressure…in fact we might think that the “pressure” is increasing all the time, as new elements are added to the fictional environment. Separate original bubbles like Deathlok’s are becoming fewer, not just because they’re being swallowed but because they’re not being replenished by fresh creations…and licensed bubbles like Rom’s are becoming fewer as well, for a host of reasons that (it pains me to say it) want of space prevents me from listing here. But compensating for this is the ongoing expansion of the main line, and the increasing convolution of its own internal composition. Gwen Stacy wasn’t resurrected because Mary Jane Watson took her place as Peter Parker’s love interest: no one needed Gwen anymore. The demand went down as the pressure went up; the fictional universe was simply topped up with more stuff.

That’s one way of looking at it.

But there are other ways, too. One of them follows Einstein: Limbo is simply Elsewhere, the vast realm outside the light-cone from which all previously-forbidden places become reachable. During the Inferno crossover in Fantastic Four, Steve Englehart reminds us that all time-travellers must pass through Limbo to get where they’re going, which would be a statement quite straightforwardly true if Limbo were Elsewhere by a different name…because the only thing that keeps the past from being the present, is the fact that you can’t get there from here. So okay, so far so fine and so dandy, but the really interesting thing about this conception of Limbo is that it means it really is NOT a “place”…because the whole thing about Elsewhere is that because it’s “anywhere you can’t get to”, it’s pretty much almost all of the universe, except just this little spot where you are. And if you’re in a different spot, then what’s in Elsewhere changes for you. At this moment, the chair in which I sit is Elsewhere to anyone more than 300,000 kilometers away in any direction…but everyplace that’s more than 300,000 kilometers away from this chair at this instant is also Elsewhere to me. So that’s quite beyond “Limbo is delocalized”, you see: that’s “Limbo is compositionally different for each observer”, because each observer will see a different list of spacetime coordinates in it. And that’s an interesting principle, so we’ll return to it shortly…but remember, inside the fictional universe nothing that isn’t extra-universally controlled can ever be the top level of physical description, so we must continue to privilege descriptions like that of the sea of bubbles in the endless foam even if in our own world we’d be more comfortable letting relativity stand on its own. And this is because relativity applies within the MU only because it’s been added to the fiction both deliberately and accidentally, so it only applies to the extent that it fails to conflict with the necessitous demands of our own higher order. Real-world physics has nothing to say about parts of the universe vanishing from existence one day, but then perhaps reappearing later because they’ve been remembered by spacetime…but MU cosmology would be ludicrously incomplete if it didn’t include this sort of thing, because frankly we can see that it bloody well happens all the time.

The same is true if we leave relativity and move over to quantum mechanics — for it, too, is conditioned from “above”. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful…the QM perspective of Limbo would junk Elsewhere, sort of in the same gesture that it would dump what we might call the “stability of particles”. QM is all about the measurements, you see, rather than about the nature of the underlying objects that produce them…in fact the QM perspective holds that we might as well not even talk about “underlying objects”; since the measurements are all we ever see, we might as well respect the measurements as the only reality there is! Because to suppose otherwise is to reason on facts not in evidence. Thus QM concentrates on interactions over substances — particles aren’t objects with radii and mass, they’re bundles of quanta whose interreactivity with other quanta makes them what they are. It’s called “topological order”…as a recent example had it, if you want a picture of New York City you could draw out all the streets and photograph all the buildings, but that would give you a very static and inferior map; whereas if you regarded NYC primarily as a network of interactions, if you scooped up all the telephone traffic and the credit-card purchases you would get a much more detailed and responsive view, and as a side-effect you’d be able to see the buildings and streets represented very accurately in that data as well. It’s be like Neo’s “Matrix-sight”, right? Or Daredevil’s radar sense…eventually you’d have even a more accurate picture of the measurements of the buildings and the streets…

And the definition-by-contradistinction technique of topological order works just as well for everything, at every scale: you don’t need blueprints and photographs to see an atom, which is good because they’re very hard to photograph. Similarly, you don’t need to measure the straightness of the path of light, if you just give up the idea that it is straight…what you do instead is assume that each photon has a certain chance of taking any old path from the emitter at A to the receiver at B. Long, loopy paths. Straight, short paths. Paths that, indeed, go through every other coordinate point in all of spacetime before they finally arrive at B. This will be important in a minute! But first, speaking of Limbo…

I promise, this really will all come together at some point…

That thing about the bubbles in the fluid works pretty well, I think…but does it work well enough? Sure, the fractal web of Limbo is both everywhere and nowhere, but mere everyplaceness/noplaceness won’t cover the entirety of what its nature must be like…and what of the Theory Of The True Vacuum? As well, we’ve seen very many different representations of Limbo, and the fractal web alone won’t explain their dissimilarities. Moreover, what of Limbo’s activity? It “remembers” things that the Universe has forgotten, and it can replace lost things again by forming new “bubbles” from its substance. And that’s some pretty weird activity for a mere interstitial fluid to get up to, damnit! Because if it’s the stuff defined as being between the bubbles, then how can it also be the bubbles it’s between…?

So maybe the “bubbles” are all that there is, and the interstitial fluid’s a bit more evasive than it seems. After all, if you think a bit more about what a bunch of bubbles in foam look like, they look like unusually large bubbles surrounded by a medium made up of much smaller bubbles, on down to a practically infinitesimal size. The “fluid”, then, is not really “fluid” at all…or, to put it another way, the fractal web of fluid is MUCH more fractalized then it first appeared. Now, here’s the thing about the Theory Of The True Vacuum: as Doctor Doom knows, you just can’t get to the True Vacuum. And from all we’ve seen of Limbo, it’s like that too: people think they’re going into the “real” Limbo, but they’re really just going into the bubbles it supports. The True Vacuum and the Real Limbo and the Gulf Of Imagination, no one in the MU can ever get to these, never touch them or so much as accidentally scrape against them…and following this principle it seems as though to make a journey in a time machine, to be exiled to a “pocket universe”, to cross between dimensions or into the Negative Zone, must be merely to create a new bubble in the foam and transit it. To enter it and then leave it. Limbo and the True Vacuum is never seen, but space is carved out from it, inflated from it…perhaps left to pop back down into it, or perhaps not. “Placeness” in Limbo — all of it, even including the castle Immortus returns to from his excursions into Time — may be so mutable that nothing stands still and no foot is ever put in exactly the same river twice! Because as with QM, there are only interactions: no particles, but only paths.

Paths. Let’s think about what they look like. The time-traveller moves out of the type of place we call Universe, and into a Limbo-bubble…then, back to Universe again. And this doesn’t look very different from a parabolic arc, really. Out they go, and back they come, and if they ever get stuck it appears as though there’s some sort of a mass-energy tradeoff involved. So we might assume that the nature of paths originating in Universe is that they go from place to place in the Universe…no trick at all if you just live there all the time! But perhaps to follow a Universe-originating path in Limbo you pretty much have to be planning on a return trip; there has to be a path back out, even if you don’t take it, because even if you are in Limbo you are still of Universe…therefore Limbo is not your home soil, and you can’t put down roots there. One supposes, quickly scanning the evidence, that a person based in Limbo would be rooted in Limbo in a complementary fashion: the Space Phantom always goes back to Limbo, as does Immortus. And perhaps it’s even that they never “really” leave Limbo at all, always standing rooted in that other ground, though to us they seem like they’re “here”. You have to figure it’s a lonely life, not being part of Time, part of Universe! Everything is so rich, there. There is stability. There is consequence, and the whole glorious chain of cause and effect, as events stick to people. But in Limbo there are none of these things, only the waiting path back…if indeed you ever really left.

But possibly there are paths within Limbo as well, eh? Just as there are paths within Universe. A Limbo-dweller may be able to link from one Limbo-bubble through to another much as Universe-dwellers link through a Limbo-bubble back into Universe…and in this way all of the fractal web may be, if not already connected, then connectable. The “relative simultaneity” problem of the light-cone and Elsewhere may have a similar “other side” solution, too…to Universe people, the contents of everyone’s Elsewheres are different from their neighbours, but to Limbo people the conditioning fact of the light-cone may indeed be absent. Everywhere may be Elsewhere, and everyone may have all the same stuff in their List of Places…it’s just that you can never go to exactly the same place on that list two times.

We might want some math, for this. Boy, when am I going to get to Avengers Forever? Never mind: first, the math. Imagine if you will a rough country road, bumping up and down, and imagine yourself travelling along it in a car. And now imagine that the road is intersected by Flatland. Up and down your car goes, passing through the plane, and A. Square and his friends all see the same thing: a blob that changes shape and size and mass (and colour too, probably), going about NNE at about twenty miles an hour. The reader will forgive me for inserting a little witless observation of my own, here: that the addition of dimensionality tends to remove components of motion. So, up one level to our cozy 3D world, and the shapechanging and mass-shifting goes away — the car is a stable form, simply moving at a certain speed over variable terrain. Up one more level, if we are saying (for the sake of argument) that the fourth dimension is Time, and the speed then disappears: the car is a long metallic bundle of wires stretched out atemporally along the road. And…

Up one more dimension, to a 5D view?

Very possibly, the direction disappears. Instead of one car travelling SSW – NNE in one universe, there are many cars in many universes, of which this car is only one, and they are all taking different lines across the face of the compass. North to South. West to East. And all the points in between. So, if we wanted to count these universes, we could just count the number of straight lines we could pass through a compass, right?

I’ll do the counting for you: that number’s called Aleph-1, which represents the number of mathematical points in a continuum. Like the number of points on which a pure-mathematics dart can land, on a pure-mathematics dartboard. It’s a pretty big Infinity! Bigger than Aleph-0, which we could represent by the number line. So, yeah: the number of those different “road” universes is bigger than the number of all the integers — because no matter how infinitely long the number line is, the compass face is still deeper. So, just before we jump into the matter of the Divergent Universes, I just thought I’d point out that it’s senseless to number them, because their number is greater than the number of numbers that we have available to count them with. So give up on “Earth-616”, is I guess what I’m saying: in numerical terms, the designation’s useless. Nonsensical. Of course you can call a universe whatever you want, you can call it “616” or you can call it “Fred”…but the thing to remember is, calling it Fred is the same as calling it 616.

I don’t know, though…it’s fun, isn’t it? Wacky, to imagine that the number of universes can be numbered. Now that’s an exciting flight of fancy!

How do they come up with this stuff?!

But in any case, the point is: if you imagine Aleph-0 as a number line, an infinitely-long yardstick, then (as Rudy Rucker suggests) you might imagine Aleph-1 as a book with an infinite number of pages. You read one page and then turn it…but if you try to turn it back, you don’t get the same page again, but instead you get a new page you’ve never seen before, that lies between the page you started on and the page you turned to. And if you try to flip forward again, the same thing happens: caught between the numbers, you descend through all the fractions, and you never stop falling. So if it is the case that Limbo is a kind of place that never repeats itself, then it would be like that book: Immortus leaves his castle to fight the Avengers, and then he returns, but not to the same castle…merely to a castle “between”, that looks just like it. And where there’s no difference to be told between two things, then there’s obviously no reason to say they’re different…if the measurements are all exactly the same then the thing must be the same as well…so in the end it may not matter and I can’t prove that it does matter, but I just thought you should bear it in mind, that it might be this way…

And, see? I mentioned Immortus again!

We’re getting closer…

But first, I should just say a word about those universes.

You know how everyone complains that all the stories in What If? either show that Peter Parker must become Spider-Man, or that if he doesn’t then the universe is destoyed and everybody dies? It is annoying, to just see nothing but arm-twisting arguments for the status quo…but it’s also kind of interesting, because it may also show how the status quo gets constructed. This is real physics again, about that business with the photon having a certain inclination to take any old path from A to B, and not necessarily the straight one. You see, it all begins with the immortal James Clerk Maxwell, and his little doodles about electromagnetism — they showed how you would go about counting all the different places an electron could be, and from this figure out why it happens to be just where it is. Later on, Richard Feynman made his famous “Feynman Diagrams”, that showed (among other things) how we get straight lines from light even though light doesn’t have to go in straight lines. This is fun stuff to play with, especially in time-travel stories! Because there are all these different ways the light might go, but some of those ways cancel one another out, and others reinforce the ones next to them. Take the path that goes from the emitter at A, then through every other coordinate point in the universe, and then finally to the receiver at B. Well, but there is also another path light might take, that’s just like that one except it goes in the reverse order! So this would mean that the odds of light taking the first path would be cancelled out by the equal odds of light taking the reverse path. So it takes neither path.

You’ll forgive me for speaking in really loose terms about this stuff, but…that’s the gist.

But then there are all the possible paths that go straight, or nearly straight, or straight but with a kink in the middle, or curved the same way on either side of “straight”…and there are a whole lot of paths like this that are nearly the same, they’re not outliers like the one-and-only “all the way clockwise around the universe” path, or its similarly one-and-only “all the way but counterclockwise this time” path, but there is just a huge bundle of them and they make up a large number of the possible paths and they’re close…so they don’t “cancel”, they amplify, and when you take all the paths together and you, er, “calculate them out”, what you end up with is a straight path in the end. Basically you just count everything you can possibly count, and then what you end up with after the counting tells you why you see what you see, instead of seeing something else. Just like Maxwell. So these different light-paths, they’re not really “real”, obviously…the light doesn’t actually go all these different ways only to then sit down with pencil and paper and figure out which way it should’ve gone, but we say there’s a special kind of “space” where these path-potentials live, and that’s where the “calculation” happens. We can totally screw with that calculation if we want to, by the way! Yes. Call it (again, shamefully loose speech, here) a “diffraction grating”, it’s a thing where if you just prune some of the possible paths, if you make it so they don’t factor into the calculation, then the path the light takes might be a bit curved, or something. It isn’t easy!

You can’t get massive effects out of it!

But it can in actual fact be done, and this too will be of some importance later. Not very much later, now! But first, let’s just finish off the Watcher. Yes, the Watcher, because in What If? he is looking into that “special space” where the calculations of different paths happen, and isn’t it fascinating how what he shows us is always just those two complementary status-quo preserving types of event-chains? The nearly-straight lines, where the answer to “What If…Someone Other Than Peter Parker Had Been Bitten By The Radioactive Spider?” is always “then Peter Parker would have eventually become Spider-Man”…and the outliers, where the answer to “What If…The Avengers Had Lost The Evolutionary War?” is always something weirdly specific and totally wrong and dumb, like “then Wolverine leads humanity into the Cosmic All-Mind of Superhumans and the universe ceases to be.” Note that the Watcher always presents these alternative event-chains as absolutely deterministic except for the one little change, right? If this happened then this other thing WOULD HAPPEN, no question about it…!

But, it’s all just because there are only so many ways to count things. The Watcher is just basically factoring all the different kinds of universes there can be, you know? The mainline MU’s events form the trunk of the tree…one little deviation and you get a branch. Well, but aren’t there any divergent universes where there’s more than one deviation? Sure, of course there must be…in fact it might even be kind of silly to say that there could “really” be any universes where total determinism rules, because if one thing changed then it might spawn many other changes, but if we have to COUNT the different ways things might have gone, then we have to be a bit efficient about it, so lets’s just make a tree. Trunk, branches…then other branches, then twigs. Beneath “What If Somebody Else Had Been Spider-Man” must be a bunch of other little branch-lets labelled “What If Someone Else Had Been Spider-Man AND Then Norman Osborn Had Lived”, and in fact we know these kinds of branch-lets are there because sometimes they’re included in the story the Watcher tells…in fact, every branching must terminate in a twig somehow, right?…and below “What If The Avengers Had Lost The Evolutionary War” there must be a sub-branch that appends “…And Wolverine Died”, so whatever, it’s a good counting method but that’s all it is…and that’s not nothing, but it’s also not everything.

Except there’s a problem. Because this is comics, to all appearances it seems as though the divergent universes share an ontological status with the mainline universe, within the MU’s fictional reality…to us, of course, they totally do, because they’re all just marks on paper anyhow…and so the Watcher’s “dimensional viewer” we could certainly explain as a machine that makes it so you can look into Hilbert Space just as though the things in it were “really happening”, and we could even go so far as to say “sure, you could visit these places, why not”…but the fact is, that isn’t how these divergent spaces are being treated, and if they aren’t treated that way then we get some peculiar things coming out of them. Maxwell’s equations and Feynman’s diagrams work because they’re counting up things that AREN’T, to explain why we see what IS…and why “what is” isn’t something different. But a divergent What If? factor tree that counts things that ARE, though at first it seems to give a good explanation analogous to Maxwell’s and Feynman’s, on just a bit closer inspection starts to give more and more freaky explanations, because the graph collapses instead of continuing to expand outward. Somewhere way down the branches, in a divergent universe the Watcher isn’t bothering to show us, the Spider-Man story and the Evolutionary War story fuse together…as something Flash Thompson did causes the Avengers to lose, and suddenly the straight-line paths start blending into the loopy outlier paths, and at a certain level somewhere down the tree there are divergent universes that fuse everything together, and do every possible thing, and invalidate the trunk itself. Somewhere way down there is a Zombie Watcher holding the Ultimate Nullifier, you know? And looking back at our Watcher and cackling as he pushes the lever all the way forward. It’s already happened, if it’s even possible.

Therefore…and I hope my logic is half-decent here, or we’re all in terrible trouble…it must not be possible.

The divergent universes must not share an ontological status with the mainline MU.

So…

If all that’s true, then what exactly is Immortus doing, in Avengers Forever?

Well…

What indeed?