The Loneliest Man in the Universe
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
A blue man stands “on a balcony of pink sand hardened to glass” (Moore 136). That balcony is part of an unimaginably enormous and intricate construct. It’s indescribable, yet if I had to compare it to something, it would definitely be clockwork. The structure is dwarfed by the barren expanse which surrounds it, red sand dotted with nondescript and randomly interspersed rock formations. Later, the blue man will return to earth. With the unfeeling extension of his arm he will turn a paranoid, misogynistic, borderline white nationalist into a steaming red blob in the snow in retribution for one of the only sincerely good things that man had ever planned to do. It will be one of the few things he didn’t see coming before it happened. The blue man is naked. He has no need for clothes here on Mars. He had little use for them on Earth either.
It’s no secret that Alan Moore captured something special in his 1986 comic book classic Watchmen. David Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and ironically enough of HBO’s 2019 Watchmen series which continues the story of Moore’s titular comic, described it as “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” The comic is a vision of the possible lifestyles and world-views of masked crime-fighters plopped into the red-scare-tough-on-crime eighties, and a fascinating deconstruction of the superhero genre. The comic also functions as poignant social commentary on the dangers of unchecked authority, nuclear proliferation, and political apathy.
Before the blue man fled to Mars, he was born in 1929 as Jonathan Osterman. He once wanted to be a watchmaker, following in the footsteps of his German immigrant father. This dream was quickly snuffed out in the name of that same father’s vision of a bright future for his son. Thirteen years later Jon graduates from Princeton. “Other people seem to make all [his] moves for [him]” (Moore 115). He is thirty years old, and holds a PhD in Atomic Physics. I want to weep for Jonathan Osterman. In his essay utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill describes the human capacity for life’s higher pleasures as a “very tender plant, easily killed.” Jon’s shattered dreams, cogs falling from the balcony of a bright-eyed young man’s childhood home, are a reminder of this fact. A reminder of my own deep seated fears for the future.
Dr. Manhattan is Alan Moore’s inverted vision of Superman as a cultural symbol. He is supremely powerful, near omnipotent, and despite being born on earth, feels just as alien as the last son of Krypton ever could be. Unlike DC’s shining beacon of hope, Dr. Manhattan’s connection to his humanity is gradually slipping away. His perception of reality is almost completely incomprehensible to the people around him. He can see subatomic particles, can bend his body and the objects around him completely to his will, and perceives the past and future with the same clarity as he does the present. He regularly drives the people closest to him away, as he fails to understand them as readily as they fail to comprehend the internal workings of his mind. The general population is terrified of Dr. Manhattan. How couldn’t they be, with the power he wields and the destruction he could herald? By the first time we meet Dr. Manhattan, these ideas have already begun to affect the way he imagines himself. His intense feelings of loneliness are beginning to twist and warp his self-image into something separate and incompatible to the human species.
Jon’s failed aspirations as a watchmaker make me want to cry. The next part of his story never fails to bring tears to my eyes. After graduation, Jon Osterman quickly finds employment studying intrinsic fields at Gila Flats, a government research facility in the New Mexico Desert. His father was correct when he proclaimed the bombing of Hiroshima as a forewarning of the coming nuclear age. At Gila Flats, Jon will meet Janey Slater. She will buy him a drink, “the first time a woman has ever done that for [him]” and their fingers will touch as she hands him the glass (Moore 115). The pair will quickly fall in love, the lives of the two young scientists rapidly intertwining. Then the accident will happen, and the couple’s hopes for a contented life spent together will be dashed against the rocks. Jon will offer to fix Janey’s watch. A simple enough proposition, but by accepting, Janey unknowingly validates Jon’s desire for someone to understand his childhood passion. At lunch, she’ll ask him if he’s finished the repairs yet. He’ll remember that he left her watch in his lab coat pocket, stashed away in the main chamber of the intrinsic field subtractor. When he enters the squat metal box, its thick safety door slams shut behind him. He’s trapped inside, the door locking automatically as the generators warm up for the afternoon’s round of experiments. Janey can’t watch what will come next; she runs out of the room in tears. Jon longs “for a very beautiful woman to hand [him] a glass of very cold beer” one last time (Moore 118). His last thoughts will be of Janey. The subtractor switches on, and every atom of Jon’s body disintegrates in a flash of sickly blue light.
Chapter four of Watchmen, which explores Dr. Manhattan’s past through the lens of his seemingly timeless perception of reality, quite naturally brings to mind Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Both are intensely fascinated with the changes in behavior and mentality that might come with an altered perception of time. Through a strange and poetic serendipity, both stories arrive at similar conclusions about the cognitive results of seeing the future, settling on the explanation that “ it [evokes] a sense of urgency, an obligation to act” in the exact manner that has been predicted (Chiang 29). In both stories, agents with the capability to see into the future, have no desire or ability to alter the future events they bear witness to. Despite constructing very similar rules for the effects of precognition on an agent, each story uses these ideas to develop and explore very different questions about free will, and the value of human life.
In Ted Chiang's vision of first contact, Heptapods, aliens who have arrived on earth with seemingly no explanation, use a semasiographic writing system. This means that it doesn’t correlate with any spoken sounds or syllables. The heptapod writing system also lacks linearity. The circular symbols of written heptapod, referred to as semagrams, can be read in any order without altering their meaning. Both traits are directly inherited from the hetapods’ non-linear perception of time. While heptapods do have a spoken language, entirely separate from their written one, they appear much more comfortable communicating non-verbally. It seems that their non-linear thinking is better served by writing, since their communication is easily constrained by the inherently sequential nature of speech. Another interesting effect of non-linear thinking in heptapods is their radically different mathematical models of physical phenomena. Heptapods communicate the properties of the natural world through variational principles. While principles of this kind are sometimes used in human explanations of nature, we are much more apt to express these physical laws in terms of cause and effect. This difference, much like the differences in language explored previously, appears to originate from differences in perception. While cause and effect is intuitive to humans, beings who perceive reality linearly, it makes sense that this concept might be confusing to aliens who experience their entire lives simultaneously.
This brings me back to Dr. Manhattan. While other factors are at play in his progressing distance from humanity, Dr. Manhattan’s non-linear perception of reality almost certainly plays a part in his alienation. Just like the heptapods, Jon feels constrained by the limitations of verbal communication. He is prone to both long-winded explanations of experiences no one else understands, and awkwardly fumbling through conversations about the everyday concerns and feelings of others. Dr. Manhattan feels trapped by human language, unable to adequately express emotions and sensations that have never been adequately expressed by another speaker. Every human consciousness is in some sense an island, but after his transformation, Jon Osterman isn’t even afforded the luxury of sending out a message in a bottle.
The mind of Louise Banks, a linguist contracted by the US military to translate Heptapod into English, is transforming. This fact doesn’t disturb her, after all, in her many years as a linguist she has come to understand that learning any language can alter the way a person thinks. Yet there’s something different about Heptapod. Even if she hasn’t realized it yet, Louise Banks is beginning to see the future. Not in its entirety yet; in fact, Louise’s human mind will never fully acclimate to this new and radically different mode of sensing the passage of time. Nevertheless, by learning Heptapod, Louise Banks has begun to see sporadic flashes of future events.
The idea that language can affect a person’s perception of time isn’t new. Benjamin Lee Whorf once claimed, erroneously, that the Hopi people of the American Southwest perceive time differently on account of their language describing time differently. While fully acknowledging this particular example’s role in stereotyping indigenous people as less industrious or hard-working in order to justify colonial expansion, it does pose an interesting question: To what extent are our subjective realities affected by language, and conversely, to what extent is language affected by its speaker’s perception of reality? Could a different description of time really affect the way we perceive it?
In the case of Heptapod, the answer appears to be yes. Louise has been forever altered by her encounter. The aliens will eventually leave as suddenly and inexplicably as they arrived, but their language’s impact on Louise Banks will remain as a lasting echo of their once physical presence on Earth. Louise can see the events of her life, from the moment she learns Heptapod to the moment she dies, not sequentially but simultaneously. Every joy, every sorrow, and every bland moment wasted are laid out before her. None of this can be altered, none of it can be undone, and every moment will arrive with a complete lack of surprise or spontaneity. This should be crushing to her; it’s crushing to me. Yet Louise Banks carries on, living her life as if nothing has changed. She knows that her daughter will die young in a mountain climbing accident, and that her marriage will fall to tatters when her husband realizes that she knew ahead of time. She’ll go through with both anyway. She can even see the exact time, place, and manner of her own death. So why does she keep going? Then, it hits me. The same thing that Louise has realized: life isn’t beautiful because we control it and mold it in our own image. Life is worth experiencing for its own sake. It’s beautiful even without our intervention, when we observe its aimless winding path as little more than glorified bystanders. As I walk away from the story of Louise Banks, I step away not with her ability to see the future, or even her ability to read Heptapod. What I am left with is Louise Banks’ uncanny ability to find life meaningful when confronted with her own entirely predetermined future.
Jon Osterman survived the accident. After all, how else could he have ended up as a blue man sitting alone in his glass castle on Mars. The intrinsic field subtractor hadn’t destroyed him, at least not completely. It just scattered every individual atom in his body to the wind. Several months after his apparent demise, these same atoms began collecting themselves into something resembling the man they had been a part of once before. First there was a circulatory system, accompanied by nerves, a brain and a floating pair of eyes. Then grew a skeleton, and on that skeleton grew musculature, skin and organs. Jonathan Osterman was reborn, and soon after renamed and rebranded by the US military as Dr. Manhattan. He was the same Jon Osterman that dreamed of repairing watches and marrying Janey. That same Jon Osterman had changed though. He was omnipotent, ageless, undying, and undoubtedly traumatized by his brush with death, even if he never admitted it. How could anyone even begin to relate to that? Being violently and suddenly torn into billions of pieces, and surviving it. He and Janey would attempt to continue their relationship as if nothing happened. This would work, at least from the outside, for a time, but would eventually lead to a messy divorce as Janey aged and Jon’s body remained identical to the day he was reborn, with the exception of the crude drawing of a hydrogen atom he had carved into his own forehead. Worse still, he knew their relationship was doomed from the moment he had reappeared at Gila Flats, but could do nothing but sit and watch as it slowly disintegrated before his eyes.
Unlike Louise Banks, who was granted the fortunate circumstances of a normal lifespan and limited precognition, Jon’s mind slowly crumpled under the weight of its own magnitude. He lost himself in the same boundless sea of information that granted him such immeasurable power. Small vestiges of the old Jon remain, but despite being the most powerful man on earth, I can’t see him as anything but the hollowed out shell of the Jon that once was. It was only a matter of time before Dr. Manhattan broke. Near the end, the tenuous strings that remained between him and humanity were just waiting to snap under the right pressure. On October 19th 1986, Jon Osterman was accused of being a living, breathing carcinogen. The claim was false. Slander, levied by one of the few men Jon could even remotely consider a friend, as part of a monstrous attempt to bring his own twisted image of world peace to life. As the reporters swarmed Dr. Manhattan, he finally burst. In a fit of rage, they instantaneously popped out of existence. Teleported into the news studio parking lot. Then, he left earth.
Now the blue man stands “on a balcony of pink sand hardened to glass” (Moore 136). That balcony is part of an unimaginably enormous and intricate construct. It is indescribable, yet if I had to compare it to something, it would definitely be clockwork. The structure is dwarfed by the barren expanse which surrounds it, red sand dotted with nondescript and randomly interspersed rock formations. In the distance, meteors fall over the Nodus Gordii mountain range. The blue man stares over the balcony, in quiet contemplation, at an event that only he could ever lay eyes on. He is the loneliest man in the universe.