Alan Moore Book Club: ‘Illuminations’: “The Improbably Complex High-Energy State”

by Koom Kankesan


This column of posts will deal with the stories in Alan Moore’s new collection Illuminations. Some of these stories are old and some are new.

The fifth entry in the book, “The Improbably Complex High-Energy State”, at thirty-eight pages long, is a playful but ultimately bitter look at the first femtosecond of creation. In Moore’s version of the instant right after the big bang, where time hardly exists and space rapidly evolves and changes, a very developed state of abstract structures exist which can only be visualized through surreal Dadaist similes. Into this surreal-scape enters the Boltzmann brain, a formed giant (or perhaps miniscule – remember, there is no scale for space at this moment) brain hypothesized by Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. Boltzmann theorized that in an increasingly complex random universe, a living brain with memories and self awareness would spontaneously be created. I’m not sure if this is similar to the idea that a room of monkeys typing away at typewriters for eternity would eventually produce the play Hamlet but that’s what I immediately thought of.

Moore’s Boltzmann brain is quite taken with itself, communicates in tessellations of sound and image, discovers the ability to augment reality, gives itself a tail so it can manoeuvre, and names itself the Panperule which, imperious and ridiculous in all it connotes, is another perfect Moore-ish name. The Panperule eventually comes across another brain and begins the best practices tradition, time honoured throughout human history, of subjugating and exploiting the new presence as if that is the natural law of things. The Panperule claims that it has brought the universe into being, lords over the second brain which it names Glynne, and the two brains engage in a master-pupil relationship before discovering sexual congress. When these two brains come across a fleet of a hundred and twenty-five nascent brains, newly minted and waiting like a school of fish, the Panperule sees the possibilities of ruling and creating an ordered society, marshalled to its own glory, celebration, and rule. It deems the best course of action for the fleet is to build a university in which the Panperule lectures the greatness of Thermo-never-die-namics, the philosophy that things will only get better and better, a condition which is only true from the Panperule’s self-serving point of view.

This is the most original of Moore’s newer stories and since the early stages of his femtosecond are fawned over in bizarre and loving detail by Moore, is also the most challenging of the stories thus far. I cannot really say that this story employs a twist except in the most abstract sense – the twist is the creation of matter as we know it and the advent of entropy. In many ways, this is one of Moore’s longer scientific, psychedelic fantasies, full of alien descriptions and sensations, Brian Eno induced and tonally challenging for people who wish for something more conventional. It’s in line with the Qys’ mating rituals in Marvelman or the galactic experiences of Swamp Thing in issue #60, “Loving the Alien.” This is the kind of story that requires patience and effort to read, like “Hob’s Hog” in Voice of the Fire and the Lucia Joyce chapter in Jerusalem or to be honest, Jerusalem as a whole. This challenge to his would-be readers has become a feature of Moore’s writing in the latter part of his career. He wants fans that are willing to work and slog through pieces that are mind exercises rather than tales primarily designed to entertain.

As to what this story refers to, there is obviously a critique of self-aggrandisement and fascism. We know that fascism is going to be a component in the upcoming story “What We Can Know About Thunderman”, the longest entry in Illuminations, and it’s impossible not to think of the malpractices in the comics industry Moore has highlighted already. Moore has always spoken for individuality and self-determination, to the point of being a political anarchist. This short story also seems to be a critique of Trump, his followers, and the Trump doctrine which ignored reality in favour of self-serving jingoism. When Moore talks about the coif of the Boltzmann brains (follicles brought into being in order to sense and feel), it is hard not to think of Trump and his infamous hair. Furthermore, the belief that things will only get better and better, a solipsistic view that ignores reality as well as the lived experiences of others, was a feature staple of Trump’s speeches.

I think this story will divide people. Some will probably hate it while others will find much to like in Moore’s detail, poetics, and invention. My favourite element was the periodic table of emotions which the first Boltzmann brain creates to understand its reaction to events and which the other brains adopt. Whenever one of these emotions is mentioned, it is catalogued by the number assigned to it on the table. I can see Moore actually mapping out this table of varied and complex emotions in the process of writing the story – I feel it must exist somewhere, in a notebook or on a scrap of paper – and I wish he’d make it available for readers to see.

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