For those of you who are uninterested in my increasingly recondite ramblings on comics, continuity, canon, quantum physics and Doctor Who, here’s some music…
Incidentally, I lose track of what I have and haven’t included in these, but I hope there’s always enough new stuff to keep people interested…
Come To The Sunshine by Harper’s Bizarre is one of Van Dyke Parks’ early songwriting/production works, and a little soft-pop classic.
Soulful Dress by Sugar Pie Desanto is a Chess R&B track from the early 60s, about dressing up before going out.
Vox Wah Wah Ad by The Electric Prunes is just what it says it is – the Electric Prunes demonstrating the proper use of the wah-wah pedal.
It’s A Hard Business by Wild Man Fischer and Rosemary Clooney is… wait a second… let me say that again… by Wild Man Fischer and Rosemary Clooney. Yes, that Wild Man Fischer and that Rosemary Clooney. The homeless schizophrenic outsider musician and the jazz singer who starred in White Christmas and was George Clooney’s aunt. What will I find on Spotify next – Perry Como Sings Jandek?
Mrs Toad’s Cookies by Klaatu is from the last album by the Canadian band, who were most famous for writing Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft and for many people thinking they were the Beatles in disguise. I can *sort of* see the Beatles similarity here – especially McCartney – but to be honest it sounds like a collaboration between Jeff Lynne and Mike Batt. Which is no bad thing…
Wild Man Fischer and Rosemary Clooney?!
Ahem… Lighten Up, Morrissey by Sparks is a message I think we can all agree with…
Wagons West by The National Pep is another one by my own band, but again I do actually think it’s a good song. I wrote the music, my friend Tilt wrote the words. Tilt sings and plays drums, I play all the other instruments and Laura Denison also sings.
The Father, The Son And The Friendly Ghost by The Native Shrubs Of The Santa Monica Mountains is a soft-pop/bluegrass song about Casper The Friendly Ghost, Abraham Lincoln and Trotsky, a Beach Boys-esque waltz-time middle eight (with a tiny hint of Zappa in the changes in the end) contrasting with a common-time banjo-plucking verse.
Living In Sin by Janet Klein is another of her naughty covers of songs from the early part of the last century.
Wild Man Fischer and Rosemary Clooney?
Eleanor by Bob Lind is a great little track from someone who’s mostly only known for the one song Elusive Butterfly. This one’s very, very Lee Hazelwood.
Havana Moon by Chuck Berry is one of the earliest knock-offs of Louie Louie, performed solo by Berry on guitar and vocals.
Misty Roses by Colin Blunstone is one I’m sure I’ve included in a playlist before, but it’s also absolutely gorgeous. A Tim Hardin cover, with a fantastic string arrangement, this is one of those tracks that everyone should own.
Don’t Fear The Reaper by The Beautiful South is a cover version of the Blue Oyster Cult song. I used to live round the corner from Paul Heaton, and he used to go to our local pub on quiz nights, but after my sisters started coming and blatantly gawping at him he stopped going (unsure if it was coincidence…)
On Again! On Again! by Jake Thackray has the greatest opening line of any song – “I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day/To me it is palpable proof of God’s existence a posteriori“. Anyone who can make bilingual puns in Latin while doing Carry On style humour is all right with me. This song got Thackray pegged as a misogynist by many, who couldn’t see that it was just possibly tongue in cheek (lines like “Please understand that I love and admire the frailer sex/and I honour them every bit as much as the next/misogynist” were probably not meant to be taken entirely seriously…)
And Go Back by Crabby Appleton is a great glammed-up powerpop track, produced I think by Curt Boettcher (it certainly sounds like his work – it sounds like his songwriting as well, actually)
WILD MAN FISCHER AND ROSEMARY CLOONEY?!
“The only thing I can think of to do in that situation is what I usually do, which is lie and pretend I totally meant that to happen all along. Like, instead of a real gun, it’s a magic crime-solving gun, and how I always knew Despero’s secret plan was to take over the universe. I might even mention a few proper detective phrases, like ‘dusting for prints’ or ‘checking the carpet for hairs’. Once I get started, I can keep it up for hours. That’s why I, Ralph Dibny – I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – am, or was, the World’s Greatest Detective! In your face, Batman, you truth-telling beeeyotch.” – Ralph Dibny
In 2006, DC Comics, entirely by accident, put out a really good comic series.
DC had just finished a gigantic mega-crossover Nothing Will Ever Be The Same story called Infinite Crisis, in which absolutely nothing at all edifying happened (the plot, in so far as there was one, involved Superboy going insane, punching time to explain continuity errors away, then killing a different Superboy, while the original, proper, Siegel & Shuster Superman first turned evil, then got mocked by everyone, then also got killed by insane Superboy, while various comic characters stood around in the same poses they’d appeared in in other, better, comics, in order to ‘reference’ them. Utter, utter, irredeemable shit). At the end of this misbegotten mess, every DC comic jumped forward a year, had a new status quo (often the old status quo – so Comissioner Gordon was back in charge of Gotham police force, when earlier he’d been retired, and so on), and *we didn’t know what had happened*.
Dan DiDio (DC’s editor-in-chief) and Paul Levitz (DC’s publisher) decided they wanted to combine the real-time feel of 24 with the doling-out-answers-to-mysteries of Lost and make a gazillion dollars, so they commissioned a series called 52 that would, over the course of 52 weekly installments, tell us what had happened during that missing year. It was to be written by Geoff Johns (the writer of Infinite Crisis) and Greg Rucka (a solid, reliable writer who was also a friend of Johns). It’d cover the whole of the DC ‘universe’, and show why all the changes had been made.
As originally conceived, this would have been terrible, but before writing started it was decided to bring in two more writers – Mark Waid (a solid writer with a good knowledge of obscure DC characters) and his friend Grant Morrison (I may have mentioned him once or twice on here…) and it very quickly turned from an editorial-driven comic to a writer-driven one, keeping only the ‘real-time, missing year’ bits, and forgetting all about explaining dull continuity points. DiDio apparently hated the result (according to Waid he described the next DC weekly series, Countdown – quite possibly the worst thing in existence ever, and the final argument against the existence of a benevolent god – as “52 done right”) but it was a hit.
It was also a genuinely good comic. Not perfect – it sagged a *LOT* in the middle issues, and was wildly inconsistent – but every issue had *something* to recommend it, if only J.G. Jones’ stunning covers, and as a whole work it still works almost as well as it did as a serial, which I wouldn’t have bet on at the time.
Partly as an artistic decision, partly for practical reasons, the structure of the story ended up following very closely Morrison’s earlier work Seven Soldiers (about which more soon) . There was a central mystery, apparently Morrison’s idea (which DiDio decided to spoil before the end) , which was approached by several characters investigating several things, with each thread only briefly connecting. There were more explicit connections between the different threads than there had been in Seven Soldiers, but to a large extent each storyline was handled by a single writer – as Waid explains:
Some plot threads were passed like a baton more than others; I think all of us wrote John Henry Irons at one time, whereas the Montoya stuff was all Greg’s because it was important it maintained a very specific voice, and the space stuff was all Grant’s because none of us could figure out what the hell he was doing even though we enjoyed it greatly. Me, I get credit for Wicker Sue. Geoff and I shared Booster and probably collaborated more as a pair on different plot elements because we were the only two who lived in the same town.
But we definitely fed off one another’s talent and swapped some tips and tricks, and probably permanently raised one another’s game.
While Morrison said “Seven Soldiers was, in many ways, a blueprint for what we did in 52 – the idea of one big, extended epic, featuring a bunch of C-list heroes, and comprised of interlocking story arcs and plot threads had already worked very successfully there. “
It is an interesting experiment to read 52 separated into its constituent stories, as in the 52 remixed project. (NB do not download these as a substitute for buying the actual comics – it’s a very different experience). This reworks 52 into six miniseries – Black Adam: Reign Of Death, Booster Gold: Somewhere In Time, Ralph Dibny: The Quest For Fate, The Mystery in Space , The Question: Answer the Question and U.S. Steel: Be Your Own Hero.
Reading these stories like this is interesting, not only because you get to cut out the utterly pointless Steel story, which has little connection to the rest and is tedious beyond measure, but because you get to see exactly how ‘stand-alone’ the different threads of the story are. Every individual story comes very close to making sense in its own terms, but there are little hanging threads all over the place that never get picked up on in the same story that they start in, even though the big picture makes sense.
But the really interesting thing about 52 – even more than the comic itself – was the level of involvement from fans, of which 52 remixed was only one aspect. Most ‘famously’ (for values of famously that equal being known about among that part of the internet that talks about comics) journalist Douglas Wolk had a blog called 52 Pickup that analysed and annotated each issue as it came out, but by far the most interesting manifestation of this was Ralph Dibny’s Diary.
The Dibny Diary was the work of British comics writer Al Ewing, and is in many ways as interesting as 52, if not more so. Starting from the third issue, every week Ewing wrote a comedy blog post in character as ex-superhero Dibny (or, later, Dibny’s therapist, or Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Master) , dealing with the events of that week’s issue of the comic, but also filling in the rest of the events in Dibny’s life, showing Dibny as a narcissistic, washed-up, delusional, suicidal wreck, desperate to regain his self-respect, or, failing that, die.
Every week, Ewing had to fit together not only the story being told in 52, but his own story, and the comments he quickly started getting from other people, writing in-character as comics characters (some of whom got what he was doing, while others definitely didn’t), and over 50 weeks we were shown Dibny hiring ‘internet superhero’ Ram (an obscure 80s character from the New Guardians) to stop Jean Loring leaving comments on his blog, him getting a new flatmate who doesn’t flush *and* who is a supervillain, his brief, unsuccessful career as a TV pundit, him defecating in Doctor Fate’s helmet (and trying to persuade us that no matter what his psychiatrist said, Doctor Fate’s floating helmet *was* talking to him), Black Adam’s career as a swing vocalist, Dibny’s psychiatrist becoming a genocidal maniac, Dibny’s obsession with Superboy’s penis, the impossibility of getting good Bialyan takeaway the week after Black Adam razed the country, and much more.
I’m sure I saw an interview with the editor of 52 at the time which said that the creative team were reading the Dibny Diary, and towards the end of the story it seemed to me they even dropped in a couple of little nods to it.
Now, to me, this is exactly why ‘canon’ is a ridiculous concept. A large part of my enjoyment of reading 52 was reading Ewing’s work, and to me the experience of reading 52 is inextricable from reading this completely ‘non-canon’ work. As far as I’m concerned, the Ralph Dibny in the comics is less interesting than one who would write about the Flash Museum:
Well, I was all set to launch into the most glamorous suicide of all by using the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill to project myself back to the beginning of time and be blown up in the Big Bang itself – which may coincidentally have meant that the entire universe would have been remade in my image, which can’t be bad – but then I got a look at the broom closet they’re remembering me with, and I just can’t be bothered. What is the point? I ask you. What is the point of doing anything when these miserable skinflints won’t even spring for a proper room to remember it by?
I’ve had enough. Even Dr Fate is starting to sass me, like an unruly teenager, just because I enjoy the occasional methylated spirit. All great men have. Edgar Allen Poe drank meths all the time when we solved the case of Jack The Ripper. Or possibly that was me, I was drunk at the time… well, Edgar Allen Poe won’t have Ralph Dibny to push around any longer! And neither will you, dear reader, you bastard.
And a zombie Ralph Dibny, as we apparently see in Blackest Night, is positively dull in comparison (I had hoped that the resurrection of the character as a zombie would have brought about the resurrection of the blog, but apparently not…)
As the collaborative nature of the internet, blah blah social networks twitter wiki web2.0 etc (this sentence doesn’t actually need to be written, just insert one from any of a billion other things you’ve read), well anyway, I think we will see more of this sort of thing in the future, where the ‘canonical’ text is merely the jumping-off point for more imaginative creations. Not just fanfic as it exists at present (although some fanfic increasingly diverges from the source, especially collaborative online RPGs where people tend to play characters from different sources), but people creating the music made by fictional bands, or creating mashups of entirely different TV stories to try to tell new coherent stories, and so forth. Most of this will be shit, but it will be very interesting to see if we get much great art made out of rubbish.
This has already reached 1800 words and I’ve not even really started to talk about 52 proper. Rest assured, I will do…
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. – Saint Augustine
This post comes with a health warning – I am talking here about quantum physics. There is nothing more likely to produce wrongheaded drivel than this, of the “did you hear, right, there’s this cat and it’s in a box, and if you look into the box you go into another universe?” variety. Even most professional quantum physicists, once they start talking about what the equations actually *mean*, tend to start saying things which every other physicist will find ridiculous and unscientific.
So with that in mind, please assume that everything I say here is wrong. What I’m going to talk about here isn’t the truth, but rather a set of ideas put forward by a group of physicists including David Deutsch, Max Tegmark and Julian Barbour, as I understand them based on their explanations. These physicists are all people who are respected in their fields, but who are definitely in the minority as far as their explanations of reality go, so I’m not talking here about what reality ‘really is’.
But I *do* think that not only are these ideas interesting in themselves, they’re also an influence on the comics of Grant Morrison, which I’ve been talking about and will be talking about in this series. I suspect the idea of Hypertime has its origins in these ideas, which are expressed most fully in Barbour’s book The End Of Time, and most clearly in Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality. I’m going to oversimplify hugely here, but I’ll give a bibliography at the end of books which only oversimplify quite a lot…
One of the basic problems in physics over the last century or so has been an experiment that anyone can do at home, at least in its basics. If you shine a point source of light through a double slit onto a screen, you see fringes of light and darkness – interference patterns. These patterns are characteristic of things that exist as waves, like sound, but we know from other experiments that light comes in particles, which we call photons.
Now, when a lot of light is being shone through the slits, the explanation seems simple enough – all the photons travelling through the slits are interfering with each other – bouncing off the photons coming through the other slit, if you like – which is why we get the pattern. But this pattern also happens if we send *one photon at a time* through the slits – it builds up into exactly the same pattern as when we send lots through at once.
So how can a photon interfere with itself (no sniggering at the back there)?
Well, we have an equation – the Schrodinger equation – which lets us predict very accurately (but statistically) how many photons will land where. It doesn’t tell us where any given photon will land, but it does say that given x number of photons travelling through the slits, so many will land here, and so many there. The problem is trying to explain what this equation *means*.
There are several different explanations of it, but the two most popular are the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many-Worlds hypothesis. The Copenhagen interpretation essentially says that when you send a photon through a bit of card with two slits, it sort of ‘smears out’ in space and time, and is everywhere it could possibly be until we look at it. When we look at it, it decides to be in just one place, and it’s never been in any of the others – it’s retrospectively only taken one of the paths it smeared out across.
The many worlds interpretation, on the other hand, says that in fact there are loads of different photons – as many as there are different paths the photon could take – but that we can only see one, the others being in separate universes. But the photons still bounce off each other, causing the interference patterns.
Now, as far as the maths goes, these two give exactly the same results – at present we have no way at all of distinguishing between them, so choosing between them is mostly a matter of aesthetics – whether you think it’s neater to say “if we look at something, it’s magically in just one place and we don’t know why” or “there are a near-infinity of actually-existing universes out there, most of which only differ by things like the position of one electron in a star fifteen galaxies away”. Neither of these seem especially neat or preferable to me…
But some of the physicists who favour the idea of a multiverse go further. They point out that, looking at these equations, there’s nothing to differ the past and the future from other universes. What we see as moving forward through time could just as easily be explained as a line ‘drawn’ through ‘neighbouring’ universes – those which are almost identical, except for small movements which are in line with the laws of physics.
So instead of time passing in a single universe, our experience of time could equally be put down to a contour that can be drawn through a near-infinite number of points in a multi-dimensional configuration space. That line wouldn’t have to go in any particular direction, so long as it was a continuous line – the laws of physics are (with a couple of possibly-explicable exceptions) time-reversible anyway.
So why do we have a sense of time going in one direction? Well, there are more ways of arranging things in a disordered manner than in an ordered manner, which means that there are more disordered universes than there are ordered ones. So if you draw a line from one universe (with enough order in it to have human beings who can think and write blog posts and so on) to another one very close to it (and therefore very similar), the chances are that the one next to it will be slightly less ordered. And the next one in the line will be less ordered again.
From this, then, we get a sense of direction – at any point, things are going to act in ways consistent with the laws of physics (because the universes next to us are those where particles have moved in ways it is possible for them to move), but overall disorder – entropy – is going to increase. So if we hit a cup with a hammer, we see it smash, but if we hit smashed crockery with a hammer, it doesn’t turn into a cup – because there are lots of ways to arrange those molecules into smashed crockery, but only one to arrange it into a cup.
But just because we’re experiencing one line, that doesn’t make it the ‘true’ line. There are a near-infinite number of ways to get to any universe, and a near-infinite number of directions it can go. That means there are a practically infinite number of those lines, all crossing each other. Every line that’s consistent with the laws of physics is a ‘universe’ just as real as our own – there is one ‘universe’ where every instant in its history up until the point at which I hit the next comma in this sentence is different from the instants in this universe, and where every instant going forward is different, but which overlapped with this universe at precisely that point and only that point. In fact (assuming this interpretation is true) there are an infinite number of such universes.
Now, doesn’t that sound to you like
Take a glass sphere studded all over with holes, and then drive a long stick right through the middle of it, passing exactly through the center of the volume. That’s the base DC timeline. Jab another stick through right next to it, but at a different angle, so that they’re touching at one point. That’s an Elseworlds story. Another stick, this one rippled, placed close in so that it touches the first stick at two or three points. That’s the base Marvel timeline. Perhaps others follow the line of the DC stick for a while before diverging, a slow diagonal collision along it before peeling off. This sphere contains the timeline of all comic-book realities, and they theoretically all have access to each other.
So for ‘comic-book science’, Hypertime is, if not actually true (remember, I’ve been throwing around metaphors, generalisations, and general fudging left, right and centre here), at least far less ridiculous than it sounds.
But there are some people out there who say that doesn’t actually go far enough – that it’s too conservative a picture of reality. Max Tegmark is one of them.
Tegmark wonders why the set of universes seems to be limited to those that are physically possible – those where the particles are in an arrangement that’s consistent with the laws of physics. He also wonders why it appears possible to describe the laws of physics mathematically, and he’s come to a conclusion that is unprovable – possibly even in theory – but is at the very least interesting.
Tegmark points out that if we can reduce the laws of physics to one equation (as some physicists hope) or a set of equations, then the multiverse described above is the set of all possible solutions to that equation. The multiverse is acting like what in mathematics is called a ‘formal system’ – in fact it *is* a formal system, from the point of view of mathematics (mathematically, if two things behave exactly the same way, they are the same thing) – it’s a set of rules, plus a starting point.
Tegmark wondered why that particular formal system would be the one that would be ‘real’, and he’s been unable to come up with any reason why our one would be ‘real’ but the others wouldn’t. Absent other explanation, he’s decided that our multiverse *isn’t* any more real than the others – that there are as many multiverses out there as there are consistent formal systems. So there’s a multiverse where the laws of physics are the same as our laws of arithmetic, and another one where the laws of physics are the rules of 2D Euclidian geometry. In Tegmark’s neo-Platonic (though he hates the term) view, numbers and triangles aren’t just abstract ideas – they’re things that physically exist, and are precisely as real as you or I.
And so if Tegmark is right, somewhere out there A. Square’s great-great-grandson is busily writing on his blog about these strange, bizarre ideas of Hyperspace that some geometers have been coming up with, where there’s a third spatial dimension…
A brief pop-science bibliography
Here’s a list of books on these subjects that should be comprehensible to people who don’t like looking at equations full of Greek letters. You can’t really grasp this stuff without serious study (and not even then, quite possibly – I’ve read original works by Dirac, Bell, Wheeler, Feynman and so on and still don’t have anything like a proper understanding) but these are all reasonable reads:
The End Of Time by Julian Barbour – a dense read, aimed equally at physicists and a lay audience.
The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch – gets far too speculative for my tastes, but a stimlating read.
The Universe Next Door by Marcus Chown – a good summary of the more extravagant ideas at the frontiers of research.
Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert – a very straightforward account of quantum physics.
New Theories Of Everything by John Barrow – a very dense read, on branes, M-Theory and all that stuff.
Programming The Universe by Seth Lloyd – a brief introduction to the field of quantum computing.
Timewarps by John Gribbin – a very 70s book (Gribbin, usually fairly hard-headed, talks here about stuff like past-life regression as a serious possibility) but my first exposure to these ideas. Gribbin’s later In Search Of Schrodinger’s Cat is the ‘canonical’ pop-science book on quantum strangeness.