Canon & Fugue (Hyperpost 11) (The End Of The Road)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Liberation, by Escher

Liberation, by Escher

‘Oh?’ asked the dog, sounding rather withering. ‘Listen, Fitz. Learn to think of all these things as stories. And stories can’t contradict each other because, in the end, they’re all made up. Nothing can take precedence then. All right?’
‘I’m not sure I know what you’re on about.’
‘Well, you reckon the world you live in takes precedence over the world you’re reading about. So you’ve established a hierarchy, yeah?’
‘Of course! I’d be out of my tree not to!’
The dog was looking sceptical again. He gave a kind of shrug and started nibbling the herbs once more. ‘Maybe. But think how happy you might be if you didn’t have to make those choices about what you should invest belief in. Here in the Obverse you can think of it all as a kind of fugue.’
‘Hmm,’ said the dog, chewing. ‘No contradictions anymore. Every story holding equal sway. It means there are always alternatives. And it means no natural ending.’
Fitz took his last drag on his cigarette and ground it out on the window sill.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘No?’ asked the dog.
‘No. One reality has to be more valid than the other. It has to be realer.’
The little dog laughed and said, ‘Well… what if you found out that the one you’re in was the less real one? What if you found out that you yourself are less than real?’
Fitz laughed and looked at the moon.
‘You’re one hell of a dog. Do you know that?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Canine primly.
Doctor Who: The Blue Angel by Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad

So we’ve finally come pretty much to the end of the hyperposts. I’ve created a page, which is linked from the sidebar as well as here, where I’ve linked all these posts, plus a bibliography of sorts and links to the responses I’ve had. If anyone wants to do a response post to these, as a couple of people have said they will, I’ll link it from there. There are quite a few bits I’ve not got to and won’t now – the plot of my fanfic novel (which I think I’ve managed to turn into a non-fanfic novel in my head), where The Flash fits into all of this, and I wanted to do more about Doctor Who, as well as wanting to bring in the Beach Boys’ Smile into the discussion.

Basically, I wanted to do a book. But it’d be a book *nobody* would read, so these posts were self-defeating from the start.

Maybe I’ll write those posts at some point in the future, but there was the severe danger that if I didn’t keep to some sort of structure this would go on forever, so for now I’m declaring this series closed.

So what was the point?

Well, there were many, as the responses I’ve had show – not having a single point was, among other things, one of the points. But I suppose the point that started this is the idea of ‘canon’ and ‘continuity’.

A lack of agreement among creators about what stories ‘count’ can, as Millennium pointed out, lead to the kind of confusion that happened with Doctor Who in the late 90s/early 2000s, where even attempts to deal with it like the ‘fugue’ quoted above (very much the Doctor Who equivalent of Hypertime, and possibly a better name, being a pun on ‘canon’ in case you hadn’t noticed) immediately became ‘canon’ and had ‘rules’ placed around them – just another way for one group to assert dominance over another.

Because the need for a single, linear, tidy continuity for your fiction to take place in is not only unrealistic and unscientific – the world doesn’t work like that – and not only *no fun at all* – why tie yourself down to one story when you can have more – it also seems to me to come from a profoundly illiberal viewpoint.

The craving for order, for simplicity, to get everything in little boxes, is a very, very, very dangerous one, because sometimes – often – the things you want to put in those little boxes are people, and then you have to cut parts off them to fit, and saying sorry afterward doesn’t really help…

I’m not saying that retconning away Superman’s time as Superboy, or not counting both versions of Shada, are motivated by fascism – that would be a reductio ad absurdem of my argument. What I *AM* saying is that the world itself is a miraculous, complex, multiplex place, and none of us little monkeys really have a clue how it really works. We should expect nothing less from the stories we tell each other – be they stories about Superman, or stories about how the economy responds to an increase in lending to the banks.

Unless one of you has a working model of the entire universe in your head that you’ve not told me about (if you do, can I have a look?) then the chances are you’re as confused, bemused and befuddled by the world around you as I am. Stories are one of the tools we have for making sense of the universe, and I at least want as many of those tools as I can have. Throwing away stories – for any other reason than ‘it’s not a good story’ – seems a real waste to me.

The universe, as far as I can tell from quantum physics, keeps its options open – there doesn’t appear to be one singular solid universe with only one option. Species that diversify survive better than those that don’t. And in politics, keeping your options open works better than closing them off. Being able to respond to new possibilities is, as far as I can tell, as good a definition of ‘intelligence’ as there is.

So don’t let the bullies who want to say a story is ‘non-canonical’ and less ‘real’ influence your thinking, any more than you should let the bullies who want you to have an ID card and be assumed to be a child molester unless proven guilty influence you. And if you do start wondering if the story you’re reading is canon, just say to yourself:
This is an imaginary story… AREN’T THEY ALL?

Crisis On Multiple Blogs – A Response To Pillock’s Response To Me (Hyperpost 10)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Panel from page 1 of Crisis On Infinite Earths 1. Written by Marv Wolfman, drawn by George Perez & Dick Giordano.

Panel from page 1 of Crisis On Infinite Earths 1. Written by Marv Wolfman, drawn by George Perez & Dick Giordano.

One of the things I was proudest about since starting this blog – something that nobody except me would have considered remarkable – was a sentence from Gavin B in the comments section to my ridiculously popular NHS post.

Speaking to a troll, Gavin said, in part, “Generally on Andrew’s blog we play the ball, not the man.”

It seems like a very little thing, and I’m sure to everyone else it is, but it confirmed for me that my posts here aren’t just standing on their own, but they’re part of a community – a ‘we’. (Actually, I think my blog’s comments section is the intersection between two or three different communities, which is one of the things I’m happiest about). I like that that community is identifiable enough that you can make generalisations about it, quite casually.

While I blog in great part to get the thoughts in my head out of it, I also do it because I crave discussion, and I get that from the responses people post to my stuff, be it in comments here, or on The Mindless Ones, or Sean at Supervillain or David at Vibrational Match linking my posts, or Debi reposting my NHS post, or James Graham reacting to my posts, or even Charlotte ‘fisking’ me. It makes me feel like my ramblings have some actual importance…

And one of the more important people in the community/ies that this blog belongs to is pillock, who is one of several regular commenters here whose comments inevitably make me feel like I’ve not thought out my original post enough (if you count as a ‘regular commenter’, you’re probably one of these – I get regular small epiphanies from the comments section here – the comments to the postmodernism post being very much a case in point).

So, much like Millennium’s post about my quantum physics post, I think pillock’s post about my Crisis On Infinite Earths post deserves a reply.

His main point, that a reinvigoration of DC Comics was absolutely necessary, and coincided with Crisis coming out, is absolutely true. Immediately pre-Crisis, with a few bright spots like Moore’s Swamp Thing (and if I had infinitely many posts in this series before I exhausted the last reader’s patience, I would devote at least one post to how Moore actually made use of Crisis in ways few others had, and how Morrison references this in Seven Soldiers), DC was full of absolute crap. A while ago I downloaded a torrent of all the Crisis tie-in issues – which is to say every DCU comic from 1985 and 86 – and other than Swamp Thing , and some of Engelhart’s Green Lantern (and even that had horribly dated) there was literally nothing of any value.

On the other hand, the period immediately post-Crisis and for a few years afterwards was probably the most creatively fertile for DC since the late 1930s. Byrne’s revamp of Superman – though widely derided now – was regarded at the time as a necessary move. Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire’s Justice League is still thought of fondly twenty-odd years later. Grant and Breyfogle on Batman introduced more new villains than anyone since the forties, Grant Morrison completely reinvented what could be done with mainstream superhero comics in Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and even the basic filler comics like Booster Gold had a base level of competence that was completely missing from even DC’s top selling comics a couple of years earlier.

We can debate to what extent this would have happened without Crisis – after all, Moore was making great use of the ‘outdated’ Silver Age concepts in his few superhero stories at the time, and my own view is that much of the change was due to the old freelancers who made up most of the DC workforce upping their game in response to the competition from the new blood coming over from the UK (the Giffen/DeMatteis League for example starts out as as blatant an attempt at a Watchmen follow-up as you could get). But I agree that Crisis provided a very good ‘line in the sand’ – we can talk about pre-Crisis and post-Crisis DC in a way we can’t with any other event. There was a change there, and Crisis was, if not the instigator, certainly part of that change.

I’m also perfectly happy to agree that on its own terms Crisis is actually a very good comic. Not a great comic – Wolfman’s purple prose stops that being a possibility – but a solid piece of superhero sturm und drang. Matt Rossi sums up most of my thoughts about the comic, and I can only add my own experience to this.

I first read Crisis when I was eleven or twelve, and the comic itself had come out several years earlier. At the time I had no real access to US comics except through British reprints, living in a tiny town, but for Xmas every year I was allowed to place a mail order for about a hundred quid’s worth with Forbidden Planet. I’d built Crisis up in my mind into some huge, legendary story that was totally unlike everything else ever – and when I read it, it didn’t disappoint me.

(You could actually do an analysis of Crisis as being a psychological journey for Superman – the archetypal superhero – as he rids himself of his demons (Ultraman) before fully integrating his child (Superboy) and father (Superman of Earth 2) aspects into one rounded personality. It’s appropriate that Superman is the only character whose post-Crisis changes really mattered).

But where I do disagree with Pillock is his suggestion that Crisis wasn’t ‘motivated by a nerdish need to enforce continuity’. To which I can only respond with these quotes from Marv Wolfman’s backmatter in Crisis issue one (well before any revisionism could happen):

Writers like to complicate matters and what began as a dream of a story – “Flash of Two Worlds” – had turned into a nightmare. DC continuity was so confusing no new reader could easily understand it while older readers had to keep miles-long lists to keep things straight.

Which simply isn’t true. When I was seven or eight I’d see random issues, out of order, sometimes printed decades apart, many of which were multiple-universe stories, and even then I’d never had any problem keeping track of it. Read Wolfman’s full essay – page 1 and page 2 – and you’ll see that he refers to the very idea of parallel universes as ‘problems’ and ‘complications’ and ‘nightmares’. While I like it as a comic it was very clearly created because Wolfman saw the very existence of these things as problematic.

What I find odd is Pillock defending this story with this reasoning:

All I’m saying is: there are always alternative narratives, and although weighing and judging them to see which ones have the better possibilities in them isn’t doing history either — is no closer to truth! — still as long as “history” isn’t what we’re doing, we might as well feel free to consider our different options. My story of the history of Crisis and continuity here, for all its inevitable lapses and inaccuracies, is at least as true to fact as is the Official Story…and maybe it even has a slight edge over it?

Which is in fact a big part – possibly the most important part – of what I’ve been saying in all these parts, and which is the very thing that Crisis set itself up in opposition to. The whole point of Crisis is a reaction against the very idea of ‘alternative narratives’. It’s a very Reaganite comic in fact – a bright new dawn, but you mustn’t disagree with the consensus. We can build a new future, but there’s only one possible future, and you’re not allowed to prefer the other possibilities.

Just look at that panel at the top of the page – “A multiverse that should have been one became many”.

“Should have been”. Wolfman appears morally affronted by the idea of multiplicity, alternatives, messiness. He wants a nice, orderly universe with everything in its place. And one can argue about whether removing all the ‘clutter’ is a necessary thing or not (just as one could argue about, say, Thatcher’s recreation of the British economy and the consequent destruction of Britain’s industrial base) but I think the impulse behind it is a worrying one, no matter what the result.

Like I said, I enjoy it as a comic, still – it’s one of only a handful of Big Superhero Crossovers that have had anything interesting about them (all the others have been written or co-written by Grant Morrison, without exception) – but it’s a good comic made for bad motives, and for once the early-21st-century consensus is probably the right one, overall…

Modernism Vs Post-Modernism – Why Can’t Comics Reviewers Define Terms? (Hyperpost 9)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

T. Rex feels like having a nice conversation about post-modernism.

T. Rex feels like having a nice conversation about post-modernism.

This one’s going to be quite a short one, and more of a rant than a coherent statement.

Put simply, I am sick of comics reviewers referring to Grant Morrison’s work (and various others like him) as being post-modernist in some way. In a way, it’s an understandable claim – Morrison is clearly extremely influenced by Borges, Burroughs and other of the early postmodernists (at least in his early work, especially Doom Patrol). The problem is that in literature the term postmodern has a vastly different meaning – for God knows what reason – than it does in any of the other arts, and much as I don’t like comics aping cinema for popularity, nor do I like them aping literature for critical acceptance.

In most art-forms, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism – a re-appropriation of the styles and techniques of pre-modern art, but used with a more ironic, knowing attitude that comes from seeing the old styles in the light of modernist thought. Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, for example, where he retreated from his earlier advances and those of his contemporaries, was postmodernist music, as was, for example, Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, which was an affectionate but knowing pastiche of doo-wop but using techniques far advanced from the original practicioners and with a subversive lyrical intent.

In literature, on the other hand, postmodernists have tended to be a direct continuation of modernist thought, rather than a reaction to it – Gravity’s Rainbow is very obviously the same kind of thing as Ulysses, rather than something set up in opposition to it, while Burroughs’ cut-up technique is a direct lift from Tzara’s How To Write A Dadaist Poem. In form and technique there is a direct continuation between modernist and postmodernist literature, whereas if you compare a postmodern composer like Philip Glass with a modernist like Edgard Varese, the two are practically working in different media.

And it is that technique – at least in Morrison’s early works (he hasn’t really used those techniques since The Invisibles, after which he stopped being so influenced by fiction writers and became more influenced by TV, video games and non-fiction, by his own account) which people are thinking of as post-modern. But things like The Brotherhood Of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, and the fictional world which becomes real (taken from Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges) are all at least as much modernist as postmodernist concepts, while his breaking of the fourth wall and acknowledgement of the work as fiction within the work itself are both things that Brecht played with as often as any postmodernist.

The reason literary postmodernists are lumped with the postmodernists in other arts, rather than with the modernists – their one distinguishing attribute – is that they share the postmodernist worldview. Essentially, postmodernism is a reaction to enlightenment values, claiming that rationality and human progress were illusions, and that they led to the atrocities that made up most of mid-twentieth-century history. While accepting the modernist critique of earlier eras’ irrationality, they claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that the notions of rationality and human perfectibility within a scientific worldview led to Hitler and Stalin (both of whose governments had portrayed themselves as modern and scientific, even as both had a visceral distaste for ‘decadent’ modernist art, and indeed for real science).

Having rejected both God and Man, that left only absurdism – the idea that not only does the world have no meaning, but we cannot even impose one on it, that the only reaction that is possible is to play with symbols, and that nothing will ever get better. (It’s hardly surprising that so many postmodernist writers either committed suicide or effectively killed themselves with addictions – if you’ve given up on the very idea of hope, it seems like a reasonable strategy. It’s a worldview that can lead to great art – much of the ‘serious’ fiction I’ve enjoyed has been by American postmodern writers like Vonnegut, Koszinski, Pynchon and so on – but which is not especially conducive to good mental health).

Now that, of course, is not an attitude Morrison shares – Morrison’s attitude is far closer to that of Nietzsche, that humanity is a bridge between the ape and the superman. A lot of the reason Morrison does so much superhero work is that he considers superheroes to be characters intended as signposts along the way to humanity’s destiny. He *believes* in perfectibility, in the future, in the innate good of humanity, and in all those things which the postmodernists denied.

He’s a modernist – practically the only one in comics.

Geoff Johns, on the other hand, is a post-modernist. Not in the literary way – he’s not at all interested in form – but in attitude. Johns is, in every way, trying to recreate what he sees as a ‘classic’ period of American comics (roughly, those produced by Marv Wolfman and Roy Thomas ca. 1982, a time which most other people consider one of the most artistically empty of all comics ‘eras’), but he is writing after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns made it impossible to write an innocent superhero story like those – every superhero story since then has had to take their influence into account, even if, like Johns, one is in reaction to it.

Johns is also determinedly anti-rational – scientists in his work are almost universally cast in the ‘meddling with things man was not meant to know’ mould rather than being seekers of knowledge, while many of his stories are based on the ‘logic’ of emotion rather than rationality. He also has a fascination with the surface elements of things – characters are used neither as characters, nor as representatives of ideas, but as toys to play with.

This can be seen in all his work, but the most obvious example is the appearance of Mongul in Infinite Crisis. The character appears in issue 1, does some bad stuff, and then disappears from the story altogether (as far as I can remember, I’ve not read the wretched thing since it came out). The only reason – the only reason – the character appeared was so Johns could have this panel:

Panel from a bad comic

Panel from a bad comic

Which in turn he only wanted to include as a reference to this panel:
Panel from a very good comic

Panel from a very good comic

Not to refer to anything about the panel – which in the original story had a purpose, a reason for being there as part of a coherent narrative – but just to say “look, here’s this thing – do you remember it from another comic? So do I!” Were Johns’ comics not so often so joyless (with rare exceptions like Booster Gold and Up, Up And Away!) they would be ludic – playing with the characters as if they were action figures, making them act out all his favourite bits from all his favourite comics, and not bothering with any kind of meaning to their actions.

The denial of the idea of progress runs very deep in Johns as well (though one suspects for essentially Conservative reasons, rather than the postmodern horror at the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden and so on). He’s determined to return the status of all the characters in the DC Universe to their early-80s versions, even if this means killing off half of them while returning the other half from the dead. Which of course also robs the concepts of life and death within his stories of meaning quite as efficiently as Vonnegut’s distancing effects do.

So by any reasonable metric, Morrison is a modernist while Johns is a postmodernist.

Of course, I still wonder if it would be possible to have a *good* postmodern superhero comic. I don’t see why it wouldn’t – in fact, Hypertime, if used properly, could be a tool to do just that…

Degrees Of Freedom – Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Morrison Doing Kirby (or Why Kirby Matters) (Hyperpost 8)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Some of you might have noticed that I occasionally talk about a comic writer called Grant Morrison – I may have mentioned him once or twice on here.

The reason I talk about Morrison so much is that, more than any other writer I know of, he manages to deal with a whole ton of issues that I’m interested in (the nature of consciousness and creation, trying to live freely in an unfree world, levels of reality, and basically see every other post I’ve made on this blog…) and unlike someone like Robert Anton Wilson (a very similar writer in terms of themes) he makes these themes integral parts of his fiction, rather than just having characters state those views.

But Morrison definitely has antecedents in the comics world. Most obvious is Alan Moore – and entire books could be written on the complicated influence Moore has had over Morrison’s work even while Morrison tries to distance himself from that influence – but equally important is Jack Kirby,

If you’re not a comics person, you probably don’t know the name Jack Kirby, but you definitely know his work. He created or co-created The Fantastic Four, Etrigan the Demon, Captain America, Darkseid, Doctor Doom, The Challengers Of The Unknown, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Devil Dinosaur, The X-Men, Thor, the Silver Surfer and hundreds of other characters. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kirby was one of the twenty or so most influential creative artists of the twentieth century (off the top of my head the others would be The Beatles, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Siegel & Shuster, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Will Eisner, Stravinsky, Picasso, Borges… he’s up there with those in terms of all-pervading cultural influence).

Kirby was primarily a visual artist, who did his best-known work in collaboration with writers (early on with Joe Simon, later with Stan Lee), but while he often didn’t write the dialogue for his stories, he was a great *concept* creator (and for most of his work with Lee in particular, he did at least half the job that one would normally think of as writing). But his best work, and the one that influences Morrison most, is his early-1970s Fourth World group of series.

The Fourth World stories were four separate comic series – New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen, which between them told the (sadly never-finished due to cancellations) story of a Manichean conflict between two sets of gods – the good gods of New Genesis against the evil ones of Apokolips – and in particular the story of the conflict between Darkseid, evil ruler of Apokolips, and his two sons – his biological son Orion, brought up on New Genesis, and his adopted son Scott “Mister Miracle” Free, who was born on New Genesis. (George Lucas pinched much of the relationship between Orion and Darkseid for Star Wars – Darth Vader is Darkseid wearing Doctor Doom’s mask, but nowhere near as scary as either).

Trying to read stuff into Kirby’s work is a complicated proposition – Kirby was simultaneously almost primitivist in his work and deeply thoughtful about it. He often slaps the reader around the face with obvious metaphors and characters named things like Verman Vundabar (a militaristic man with a monocle) or Lashina (she likes whips…) as if subtext was something that he’d heard about, but decided was for other people.

On the other hand, he created these works at a fever pitch – three pages or more a day, many days, and put chunks of his own life into the stories (Mister Miracle’s wife, Big Barda, being based on Kirby’s own wife). And his works have a power and weight behind them that nothing else from that time does. And Kirby was far more aware of the potential to do multi-layered symbolic stories than one might thing – two of his other projects of around this time were a graphic novel adaptation of 2001 and an (unpublished) Prisoner comic series.

So often, when we look at Kirby’s best work, we find an obvious – metaphor is too kind a word – thing that’s obviously, blatantly, representative of another thing. But underneath that, we find seemingly simplistic goodies-vs-baddies stories carrying a ton of allegorical weight.

Take the conflict between Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Darkseid is a tyrant who is so scared of death – so scared of non-existence, that he has to take control over everything. He wants to remake the universe in his image. As I put it in an earlier post:

Darkseid has looked at the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thought “fuck that”. Or, more likely, “Bother not Darkseid with your ‘entropy’ and your ‘universal laws’ Obeisance to laws, made by man or nature, is the morality of the slave. The morality of Darkseid is conquest. Darkseid is all.”

That was inspired by a line from one of Grant Morrison’s better takes on the Fourth World characters, Rock Of Ages – “I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad… and when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror… and know what fear is.”

Darkseid needs to control the universe, to reshape it, to remove choice from everyone else. Which means removing knowledge and options from everyone else. In various stories Morrison has Darkseid producing slaves with their faces covered by hands in echo of the three wise monkeys, or has characters burning books saying (in echo of the apocryphal quote attributed to Caliph Umar) “If it agrees with Darkseid it is redundant, if it disagrees with Darkseid it is heresy”.

Darkseid’s quest for the anti-life equation is all part of this – he’s after a way to get complete control, and control *is* the opposite of life – life grows and evolves by exploiting new niches, by changing, by being uncontrolled. What Darkseid really wants is to do what I described in my response to Millennium – to (HORRIBLE MIXED METAPHOR ALERT!!!) prune away all the branches of the web of time (END OF MIXED METAPHOR), making Darkseid the only one who can make decisions for the entire universe.

Except we know it doesn’t work like that, don’t we?

Scott Free – Mister Miracle – is an escapologist. When weighted against someone who wants to control the entire universe, that says a lot. Escapology is all about escaping from control – about taking a situation which someone else has tried to control utterly, where they’ve tried to restrict all your options, so you can’t move *at all*, and exploiting whatever tiny leeway they’ve given you to get yourself complete freedom. It’s about using the one option you have to get all your options back.

In this light, the fact that Mister Miracle is often *not* using conventional escapology, but is often cheating using technology, is not a downside to the character, it merely makes him a hacker (in this sense ), which is in many ways analogous to escapology – much of ‘hacker culture’ has been about turning tools of repression around to gain increased freedom (for example the GNU GPL, which uses copyright law to ensure that no-one can stop anyone copying GNU software). There is a mathematical connection I won’t go into here between the second law of thermodynamics (which says everything decays), Ashby’s Law (which says you can never completely control a system) and information theory (which is why information-processing devices often wrongly get referred to as cybernetic), so it’s appropriate that he’d use computers like Motherbox to help evade restrictions both literal and metaphorical.

No matter how tight Darkseid’s fist grows, Mister Miracle can slip through it. Anti-life can never beat the Human Factor.

Can You Rewrite History, Even One Line? Doctor Who, The Web Of Time, And A Response To Millennium (Hyperpost 7)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

ceci n'est pas un blog post

ceci n'est pas un blog post

Gratifyingly , the response to my Hyperpost series has not been people saying “Shut up, you incredibly tedious little man”, but instead some people who I admire greatly as writers have been using it as a springboard for their own ideas – and have done so so well I’ve extended the series by two posts – this one and one later one – from its original intended length to talk about their posts.

To start with, let’s look at Millennium Elephant’s response.

Now, I actually agree with the vast majority of what Millennium is saying here – only really disagreeing with the assertion that free will exists, which I think is a debatable proposition (but he’s intelligent enough to say “Though if we are wrong about that it makes no difference because all our actions, including believing we have free will, are all pre-determined anyway!” – acceptance of the possibility that one *could* be wrong is, to my mind, the basis for all rational discussion). I’m also less convinced of the Copenhagen interpretation than he is – but like him, don’t actually see it as incompatible with the many-worlds interpretation, but rather that they’re both metaphors for what’s Actually Going On, which is some not-readily-describable combination of the different interpretations.

(Luckily, for the purposes of this series of essays, I’m more interested in what’s interesting than what’s right – I’m trying to play with a whole bunch of interrelated ideas here, about canon and continuity, time and hypertime).

However, what I *do* disagree with is the assertion that, for Doctor Who at least, the Copenhagen Interpretation makes us more responsible for the consequences of our actions than the variant of the Many Worlds interpretation that I have been referring to (with a hat tip to Messrs. Morrison & Waid) as Hypertime (Doctor Who fans may be familiar with a similar-but-possibly-distinct idea under the name of The Fugue).

I’m going to attempt to show this, in the time-honoured tradition of Doctor Who fans, by referring to a single line from one story – in this case 1985’s Attack Of The Cybermen, where the Doctor refers to ‘the web of time’ in passing.

Now that line has got a lot of attention in various fanfics and spinoffery in the twenty-four years since the episode was transmitted, and there’s a reason for that – the image of time as a web, rather than the more conventional line, says quite a lot.

And this image is compatible both with the ‘hypertime’ view, and with actions carrying a *lot* of weight.

Imagine that time *is* like a web – all the points of all the multiple universes are connected to other points. A normal person’s life follows a line from one point to another to a third, and will always be a consistent timeline, because they’re only travelling forward at a rate of sixty seconds per minute.

Now imagine that every time you make a decision, you strengthen one connection (the one where you make that decision) but break other connections from that point – from a point of view outside time (and such a point of view exists in Doctor Who, though I suspect not in reality, whatever that is) – something like the collapse of the waveform in the Copenhagen Interpretation, but this is breaking off connections between different objectively-existing universes.

This would mean that everyone had a consistent history – once you’ve broken a connection, there are universes you ‘can’t get to from here’, those that directly contradicted the past decision. But it would also mean that the Doctor had an awesome responsibility as a time traveller, and his decisions would matter not only for him but for all the universe.

For the other thing about a web, along with its interconnectedness, is its fragility.

Every time the Doctor makes a decision, he breaks and makes connections between different points of time – those he’s been to before and will be again. He can alter some things – so long as there’s a way for a consistent timeline to route through all the points he’s visited. So he can save a life that wasn’t saved before, because there is a consistent universe where that person was saved, but he can’t kill Hitler in 1933, because there’s no way to make that consistent with the universes he’s visited in the past.

Because the Doctor is very aware of something – as he travels up and down his ‘timeline’ in the web of time, he’s selecting a smaller and smaller number of possible timelines, and condemning more and more to impossibility. That’s bad enough in itself, but we all do that every time we make a decision.

But he could – all too easily – break a segment of his own timeline off altogether. If he makes the wrong decisions at points A and B, then the whole section of his timeline between those points could become completely detached from the rest of the web, inaccessible from either past or future. Which would of course mean condemning all the inhabitants of that fragment of the web of time to nonexistence… the more he interferes – the more he does *anything* – the more likely this becomes, but he can’t use that as an excuse *not* to intervene.

(And of course from there we can get to all sorts of story possibilities like villains trying to make ‘pocket timelines’ to control, people in broken-off fragments trying to rejoin their fragment to reality, the Doctor unable to save entire planets because doing so would break the last connection between universes, and so on).

This would also, of course, help explain why the rest of the Gallifreyans never meddle (with the exception of all the meddlers). It’s just too dangerous – making choices has *too many* consequences.

(I’m not suggesting that this is the case in real-world physics, of course – in fact I think it’s nonsensical for multiple different reasons – but I think it *is* the case in my own Doctor Who ‘canon’…)

Liberalism And Cybernetics : Hyperpost 6

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

I was only going to linkblog today, but I’m going to have to push on with these… I’ve said for a while that were this series of posts ever to be complete, it would actually take the form of two full books – one non-fiction series of essays, and one gigantic fanfic epic crossover novel. Today my friend Tilt, based on the content of my earlier posts, sent me an email titled “My silly idea for the day” which was actually the core of the plot of the epic fanfic thing (which remains unwritten, but is entirely there in my head). So if people are jumping ahead, I need to write more.

This one’s on politics and science, but it does relate to the others in the series…

As most of you know, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, a British political party that are liberal in the British, rather than the American, sense – while for the most part the beliefs of the party as a whole (though not of every member) tend to overlap with the USian definition, for us liberalism is based around the idea of allowing the individual the maximum freedom to run their life as they wish – the role of the state being to remove, rather than to add, restrictions on individual liberty. (In the opinion of some/most of us, those restrictions include things like poverty, illness and lack of education, so the state has a role in those areas).

So we support things like greater democratic representation and accountability, mutualism, devolution of power to local levels, civil liberties, and so on.

Now, I actually support these things because I’m arrogant and stroppy – I’m arrogant enough to think that no-one is my better, or knows better than me about… well, anything really, but certainly not about how I should live my life, and I’m stroppy enough that if anyone tells me what to do I’ll do the opposite just to spite them. So I want as much freedom as possible for myself. Politically, that gives me two choices – either become absolute dictator of the world and crush the wretched masses under my bootheel for all eternity, or try to get freedom for *everyone*, so I can have some myself. The first sounds like a lot of work, to be honest. and I’m also phenomenally lazy, so I joined the Liberal Democrats.

However, if you *tell* people that you support a political position because you’re arrogant, stroppy and lazy, they tend to see that as a bad thing, for some reason (this kind of thinking almost tempts one to the whole bootheel thing…) so it’s better to say you do it because it makes sense practically, or there’s evidence it’s a better system, or something like that. Happily, this happens to be the case – it’s called Ashby’s Law Of Requisite Variety.

Assuming that governments are meant to control things (and we can argue about what, and how much, they should control, and why, but their function does appear to be to control stuff), then they are subject to the laws of cybernetics, which despite what many many bad SF TV shows have told you isn’t about turning people into hideous machine creatures, but is rather the science of control systems. Ashby’s Law is the most fundamental law in cybernetics, and simply states that if you want to control a system, you must have more options open to you than there are possible things that can happen.

As an example, say you’re driving a car, you don’t want just a button that says ‘left’ and one that says ‘right’ – you want a steering wheel, so you can constantly correct the direction. Even if it just goes in a straight line, you need to be able to compensate for drift, by making minute changes. Anything other than a steering wheel with a huge number of possible positions will cause you to crash almost instantly.

The same goes for controlling systems made of people. You need to have an option for *every possible thing that can go wrong*.

Now, the problem with this is that people can do quite a lot of different things, and there are quite a lot of them. And that means quite a lot of different things can happen.

For example, say you’re a manager, and you manage three people, and you have to keep track of all the different relationships between them. And say the only real relationship you’re interested in is who’s ‘formed an alliance’. With three people, A, B and C, there are only three possible ‘alliances’ of two or more people – A&B vs C, A&C vs B, B&C vs A. With four people, that number increases to thirty-six. With five, two hundred. So imagine how many possible ‘alliances’ could be made in a country of sixty million… (hint – it’s several orders of magnitude higher than the number of subatomic particles in the known universe…)

If you want to control that, then, you need as many options open to you as there are possibilities. Clearly, no government has more options open to it than there are particles in the universe – and even if it did have, it would be impossible to find any way to choose between them. So what can a government do?

The simple answer is – prioritise, localise, and allow as much freedom as possible. The effect of Ashby’s law is that attempts at control actually lead to increased chaos (in fact one can formulate Ashby’s law as a corollary of the second law of thermodynamics – anyone who thinks they’ve found a perfect method of controlling people with no unforeseen results, that won’t lead to increased societal chaos, is saying something that is *exactly equivalent* to having invented a perpetual motion machine, or at best a time machine, and their claims should be treated with the same scepticism one would apply to those claims).

But we don’t care about some kinds of chaos – or shouldn’t, anyway. It might be possible for a hypothetical government to, for example, completely stop all murders from happening (a desirable kind of control), but at the expense of, say, a relaxation in what society considers an acceptable dress code (a kind of control that doesn’t matter to our hypothetical government). The key is to only try to control – at the national level – a small, relatively simple, subset of things, and accepting that this control *will* have unforeseen, probably bad, side-effects – so only trying to control something when the alternative is worse than the side-effects, rather than trying to micro-manage away the side-effects as the current government does.

You then devolve as much as possible to low levels – a regional government has to deal with fewer factors than a national one – and allow as much freedom as possible in implementing the details.

Incidentally, this is *not* saying ‘let the market decide’/’let corporations run everything’ – large corporations. some of which have a hundred thousand or more employees, and on top of that have millions or billions of customers, are just as inefficient as any government for exactly the same reasons (in fact, more inefficient – democratic governments have to pay at least token attention to the will of the people, which corporations don’t). It’s saying that if you’re going to have publicly funded education or healthcare – as I think you should – the decisions should be made by pupils and teachers, or patients and care staff, rather than being based on centrally-imposed one-size-fits-all targets.

This is also *NOT* saying that ‘progressive’ aims shouldn’t be pursued by government – in fact if governments stop trying to do stupid stuff like punish kids for swearing at old ladies or give everyone in the country an ID card, they’ll be able to concentrate on doing stuff like health services and education *properly*. Governments have power, but it’s not unlimited, and the problem comes when they think it is…

But what does this have to do with Darkseid and Doctor Who? Find out tomorrow

52, fanfic and Ralph Dibny’s Diary – Hyperpost 5

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Cover of 52 19

Cover of 52 19

“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…