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?
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…
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.
If all that’s true, then what exactly is Immortus doing, in Avengers Forever?
Filed under: Guest Posts