Art, Physics, and Your Place in the Omniverse

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This surreal moment—in which Michael Scott (of the American version of “The Office”) meets David Brent (of the British version)—took place on the American one recently. I thought it was hilarious and apt that they form a hug-worthy bond within seconds of meeting. This was due, I assumed, to them basically being the same person, thrust together by the most divine of chances.

On the website I first saw this at, Nikki’s Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, a commenter named cookmeyer1970 took a less breezy view of it. Although they said they ultimately enjoyed it, they began by saying:

I was very much against this (the two series shared practically the same script for an episode as well as duplicate characters making it, in my opinion, two parallel universes that shouldn’t cross)…

I don’t think the issue of “duplicate characters” really has to come into play—most of the American characters that were adapted from British ones are done so pretty roughly, and even Michael and David have their differences. And by this point, the American show (which has aired 140 episodes) has created a whole swarm of characters that have no equivalent on the British show (which aired 14). But I admit I hadn’t thought about the fact that the first episodes of the two series are identical nearly line-to-line.

Does a fact like that firmly establish that the two “Offices” could not possibly exist within the same plane of being? Should Scott and Brent have destroyed each other like matter and anti-matter the instant they ran into each other?

From a practical standpoint, my answer was: I don’t care. It goes without saying that virtually any TV series requires suspension of disbelief, and as far as potential inconsistencies go, I realize this might be one of the most obscure, technical ones ever. But from a theoretical perspective, I think it’s quite interesting to consider.

You sometimes hear about “the universe” of a particular film, TV series, book, or other work of art. Some of these universes are extremely obvious. Clearly the universe of, say, “The Lord of the Rings” is not our own. But the truth is that literally all stories, even those that might appear firmly grounded in reality, create their own universe that necessarily cannot be the same as our own.

For instance, look at “The West Wing.” Despite relying on ripped-from-the-headlines political issues for much of its drama and intellectual substance, not to mention frequently discussing U.S. history and governmental minutiae, the world it depicted was in some ways as alien as Middle Earth. The show established that Nixon was the last real president its universe shared with ours, and despite incorporating real foreign states into storylines all the time, also invented the countries of “Qumar” and “Equatorial Kundu” to stand in for generalized representations of the Middle East and Africa, respectively. (It also presented a universe in which every human is capable of delivering a searingly witty riposte without a second’s hesitation at any given moment and for any given situation, but that’s another issue.)

Does this mean we should consider “The West Wing” a fantasy? Certainly not. Does it mean we can’t appreciate the voluminous amount it has to say about the real issues in our world? Not in the least. But it’s not our universe, and actually it’s not even particularly close to being our universe.

The divergence point for the universe of a movie or TV show can come from an even more elementary source. Consider the fact that in the universe of any work that involves actors playing characters, it would be fair to assume the actors don’t exist within that work’s universe. The most brilliant, succinct explanation of this concept is found in the underrated existential action comedy “Last Action Hero,” when a kid enters the universe of a Schwarzenegger film. He finds that in a world without Arnold, logic dictates that the Terminator could very well have been played by Sylvester Stallone.

If I remember correctly, there was also a joke on “Seinfeld” once in which Frank Costanza reads about Jerry Stiller dying. This would prove that actors on a show could possibly still exist within that show’s universe, as odd as it would be for George Costanza’s perfect doppelganger to exist and for him to be an actor to boot. But the bottom line is, it wouldn’t be a joke if that wasn’t the case—and it’s only the case in the “Seinfeld” universe.

This idea is a overlapping concept between art and quantum mechanics. They many-worlds interpretation is too complicated, certainly for me, and possibly for anyone, to fully understand, but the basic principle is that every possible outcome of every possible divergence point exists in a universe somewhere within the “multiverse.” In other words, every single thing that could happen does happen, and it creates a new universe when it does. Does this mean that every choice the author of a work of fiction makes determines what real universe, out there amongst countless others, they end up describing? Who’s to say?

(By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the multiverse is, theoretically anyway, not the be-all and end-all. It is “simply” the collection of possible quantum configurations of our universe; it’s conceivable that there are more multiverses, as well as multiverse-type realms in other dimensions, that we don’t understand. The collection of everything, anytime, anywhere, in any dimension, is referred to as the “omniverse.”)

This panel depicting the DC Comics character the Flash existing in different forms in different universes illustrates the "many worlds" concept.

The medium that has undoubtedly explored this concept the most is comic books. Both DC Comics and Marvel Comics have made explicit references to the many-worlds idea and have taken advantage of it in far more ways than just depicting characters with superpowers. They’ve had DC and Marvel characters fighting each other, transported their characters into the Renaissance, and imagined what it would be like if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union rather than America. There was even a storyline in which the Fantastic Four made their way to our Earth, in which Marvel Comics is a company that produces stories about them, to beg “God” (author Jack Kirby) to save a particular character’s life. This is all while within the many-worlds framework, which ends up being an elegant solution to any potential continuity problems—and, incredibly, a scientifically plausible one at that.

I really like the idea that every story that has ever been conceived is part of the actual omniverse. Everything that you have ever imagined has happened. So when it comes to “The Office,” why can’t two office managers, who presided over an episode-long period of strikingly identical events, exist together? It doesn’t make much sense in our universe, but in the “Office” universe? Why not?

The only point I want to make here is this: You can look at the creation of art and fiction as wondrous, magical even, and I certainly do. But you can also look at it in terms of tapping into the most incredible potential realities that science tells us could exist. And I think that’s pretty damn cool.

One of the most amazing stories of “Star Trek” is a Deep Space Nine episode, “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which Captain Sisko has visions of himself as a sci-fi writer struggling to get his stories—about space station Deep Space Nine and its commanding officer, Ben Sisko—published in segregated America. Even if racist editors prevent his work from being published, he insists, his creations still exist because “you can’t destroy an idea.”


One Response

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  1. Great collection of examples of multiverse talk in art. The Soviet Superman book is the most interesting Superman title I’ve ever read, which isn’t saying a lot I suppose.

    Joseph Brannigan Lynch

    02.01.11 at 4:46 pm

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