Thursday, July 29

Weird Comics And The Topology Of Non-Orientable Manifolds

Not quite 18 months ago, I published a column on “weird”, X-Files-ish phenomena, the kinds of events and (alleged) experiences that are regularly recorded in Fate magazine. My original intent in writing and publishing that column was, quite frankly, to break my addiction to Donald Trump, Trump-ism, Russia-gate, and what was, and often still is, my unhealthy incipient addiction to the raw sewage that has flooded the White House and the Executive Branch, by getting my mind onto a different track.  But writing that column also had the unintended and unforeseen side-benefit of prompting some persistent reminiscences of the kinds of comic books I used to read just before and just after I entered puberty.  During that time, in addition to Fate, I read three comics published by the American Comics Group (ACG):  Forbidden Worlds (hereafter FW), Adventures into the Unknown (AITU), and Unknown Worlds (UW). I realize in retrospect that, just as the earlier column got me out of the rut of Trump and American para-fascism, the reading and remembrances of those four magazines got me out of what would have been the rut of unalloyed skepticism. Maybe the following will do the same for you. At the very least, maybe it will give us both a good laugh after having suffered through the passing of the fiscal kidney stone of the Republican tax "reform" bill, a.k.a. "No Multi-Billionaire Plutocrat Left Behind".

The writing in the three latter magazines was almost unrelieved schlock, and the art on the covers -- comprising buxom, scantily clad young women dressed in tight bodices and levitating hemlines, rather risque for that day -- was often worse. (Fate was the most blatant offender, though in a different way, as a glance at today's over-the-top-lurid Fate web site will attest.) But, at least as far as the writing is concerned, the operative word in the above is almost:  " ... almost unrelieved schlock". Almost. But not always. Occasionally, i.e., often enough that I kept buying the "Big Three" ACG comics, the writing rose to the level of The Twilight Zone, Alcoa Presents One Step BeyondScience Fiction Theater (which was appearing at about the same time), and The Outer Limits. That the writing attained even occasional brilliance is all the more remarkable when you reflect that all the stories -- every last one -- were written by one man, the managing editor of ACG, Richard E. Hughes, who wrote all the stories under a series of five pseudonyms:  Lafcadio Lee, Zev  Zimmer, Kurato Osaki  (!), Shane O'Shea, and Pierre Alonzo, drawings of whose purely fictitious faces prefaced each story. To this day, I consider Richard E. Hughes to be a literary diamond in a cattle feed-lot. Consider ...

o Forbidden Worlds

Hughes wrote what I consider 3 classics in the "weird-comic" genre, the first of which is "The Train that Vanished" in a May-June (cannot recall the year) issue of FW. The story centered on a brilliant, avant-garde subway design engineer who, working on his own time, discovers a way to enable 2 subway trains to run on the same subway track at the same time. (Think of Albert Einstein working in the Swiss Patent Office.) As a proof-of-concept / "beta test," this genius engineer designs a black box and installs it on the track. When train 1 passes the black box, it is shifted to dimension A; when train 2 passes that black box, it is shifted to dimension B, and the 2 trains then alternate by trading dimensions, each time they pass the black box, so they never occupy the same track in the same dimension at the same time. Subway senior management discovers what he has done, and, perhaps because the engineer had not filled out the "goldenrod" copy of his time-sheet correctly in quadruplicate, fires him, whereup0n the engineer boards a subway train, waits for it to shift dimensions, and then leaps from the car into a community of dimension-B beings, who do value his creativity and genius.

When I first encountered this issue of FW and the subway story, I was coincidentally getting interested in the topology of what I later learned were called non-orientable manifolds, intuitively, surfaces like Mobius strips and Klein bottles in which concepts like "up-down", "in-out", "top-bottom", "inside-outside", etc., cannot be defined. (Hence the term "non-orientable".) Going into detail about the "weeds" of non-orientable surfaces would eat me alive. So suffice to say that, if a way could be found to alter the local topology of spacetime into a non-orientable manifold, then, with other, even more technical tweaks, what the subway engineer did with the subway trains would be possible. I am astounded that Richard E. Hughes understood such a recondite subject even well enough to write a -- rather brief! -- comic-book story around it.

o Adventures Into the Unknown

The second "Hughes classic" is "The Man Who Couldn't Sleep" in a November issue (again, I cannot recall the year) issue of AITU. Larry Keith -- I still remember the character's name after 50-plus years -- is a neurochemist who becomes fascinated with what human beings might achieve if they no longer needed to sleep ... and thereby waste roughly one-third of their lives unconscious. So he formulates a drug which, he thinks, will perform all the functions of sleep and yet leave the person fully awake, conscious, and alert. He violates the canons of science, however, and tests the drug on himself.

At first, he only notices that he is up, out, and about 'way past his normal bedtime. But as the night wears on, he notices that weird things begin to happen, the kinds of things that occur typically in nightmares:  his neighborhood is invaded by dinosaurs, including a troupe of great apes; a raucous Mardi Gras, New Orleans-style jazz band, hundreds strong, camps outside his window and begins to howl for human sacrifice, etc. Of course, they settle on Larry Keith as their victim. (I still remember their blood-cry from having read the story so long ago:  "Larry Keith! Let it be he!") Finally, the drug wears off, and he awakes in his own living room unharmed, but splashed with mud and filthy water from his headlong flight away from the dinosaurs and the jazz-band musicians. The last frame of the story shows Keith, dressed in pajamas, and now in bed and remarking "I guess sleep is more important than I believed. So I'm going to get some. Good night!"

Aside from broaching the old conundrum about how one knows that the world one sees round about is the real world, and that one's dream world is just a dream world, the story raises the unsettling possibility that, even if the waking world is the real world, perhaps the dream world would become real, were it not that it is just that:  the dream world. Maybe our dreams would come true in the absence of sleep, thereby, in a Platonic nightmare, releasing the visions of the id from the constraints of the superego and allowing them to become ontologically realized in what we are pleased to consider the actual world. If you are inclined to just smile indulgently at such a possibility, remember that Dr. C. G. Jung speculated that UFOs -- phenomena with a demonstrably objective existence -- were projections from within the mind's collective unconscious. In any event, be careful what you wish for.

o Unknown Worlds

The third "Hughes classic" is a story that appeared in UW about an obscure, grey little man, much like Simon and Garfunkel sang about in "A Most Peculiar Man", who keeps to himself in his basement apartment, has no friends, and who remains unknown to everyone. All that makes him conspicuous is that he has a prodigious talent for fixing all kinds of machinery. But not only does he repair it, he ends up improving it ... without intending to or knowing how he does it. As the story unfolds, a young couple brings him a black-and-white TV to repair. They leave it with him, pick it up when he calls to say it is fixed, but immediately return, breathless with amazement. Their black-and-white TV now displays vivid color. (Remember: this story was published back when color TV was a high-tech luxury, unaffordable to anyone but the one-percenters of the late 50s / early 60s.) But notwithstanding, people still persecute and ridicule the little man because of his harmless eccentricities.

Some time before, the grey little man noticed he has a large hole in his apartment wall. He has never bothered  to fix it, and just hangs a curtain over it. But one day, especially depressed at being the pariah of his apartment building, he decides to explore. He climbs through the hole ... and to his astonishment discovers an entire world on the far side of the hole. In that through-the-hole world, there are people of great compassion and discernment who, recognizing his genius, not only accept him, but accord him an exalted place in their society. The last frame of the story shows the grey little man as viewed through the hole, surrounded by his new adoring friends on the far side, who, like the people in our world, bring their devices to him, not only because they value his skill, but even more so, because they value him. As a kid who was a nerd before such a word had ever been coined, this UW story, for obvious reasons, resonated profoundly with me. Twenty-five years or so later, I found my own refugs -- my own "hole in the wall," if you will -- in my wife and in my in-law family.

If there is a common motif in all three "Hughes classics", it is that physical technology, especially when developed carelessly, can bite the hand that creates it. But the "technology" of compassion and dignity never turns upon and rends the one who practices  it. The former involves only confronting problems. The latter involves confronting Mystery. A mature skepticism always requires a recognition of one's cognitive limitations. As the old Scholastics expressed it Omnia exeunt in mysterium.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"Adventures Into the Unknown" cover ... Edvard Montz ... Public domain
"Unknown Worlds" cover ... American Comics Group ... Public domain
ACG pseudonyms of Richard Hughes ... ... Public domain
Photograph of Richard E. Hughes ... American Comics Group ... Public domain
"The Train that Vanished" ... American Comics Group .... Public domain

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