Lost in Phase Space

This is what I’ve been doing this week.

 

 

Universe Gun has four completed chapters unpublished, so I’m very comfortably ahead of schedule. I’m taking a small break to do an anthology strip for Titan Comics Talent Search.

The theme for this competition is “Lost in Space“. After deliberating on a couple of ideas I decided to go with this one, where someone or something gets lost in a very small space, albeit a multi-dimensional one. Its a chance to draw some difficult wacky stuff, because trying to represent three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane just isn’t hard enough. Lets try 26!

Higher dimensional spaces have been used in comics before, they’re a natural fit for science fiction. Alan Moore did a great story with The Hypernaut in his 1963 series, that illustrated quite realistically what it would be like to fight a four dimensional being. Grant Morrison has practically made a career out of it, from the Cthulu-esque “Many Angled Ones” known as the  Lloigor in Zenith, via the descriptions of the Outer Church in The Invisibles to his recent run on Action Comics which revolved around the Fifth Dimension.

Outside of comics, HP Lovecraft played with these ideas, and a host of authors have used them to create fcition like Edwin Abbott’s seminal Flatland through to much of Rudy Rucker’s writing.

DC’s Fifth Dimension, home to Mr Mxyzptlk has always been this wonderful place of gibbering hebephrenia. Funny little imps speaking without consonants to make magic things happen always strikes me as rooted in fear of schizophrenia or dementia. The fear that one day you’ll think you’re a magic elf doing wonderful tricks, and then find you’re just spouting nonsense with your pants round your ankles in a shopping mall. Morrison managed to give it a kind of maths and physics respectability in a variety of stories, starting with Crisis Times Five in his run on JLA, via All Star Superman #6 and then Action Comics  and Vndktvx‘s assault on Superman across all times in his life.

That’s your higher dimensional reading list, and what I’m up against.

Now, I could say I’ve had direct experience of higher dimensional spaces, and I’d be stretching the truth rather than just outright lying.

Ten years ago I was working for Ratbag Games making World of Outlaw Sprint Cars 2002, a realistic racing sim. I was in charge of the AI programming. We had a model for the non-player car’s driving AI, which involved a lot of tuneable parameters. Just how much do you slow down for an upcoming bend? How strongly do you steer in response to your deviation from the ideal race line? And so on. All up there were 20-something numbers that needed tuning to give the best competition for the player. Each possible set of numbers produces a different behaviour that results in a different quality, lets say average lap time when following that behaviour.

Now, if you view this problem geometrically, you effectively have a 20-odd dimensional landscape, and you’re trying to find the highest point (ie the best lap time). Imagine you’re in a 3D mountainscape, trying to find the highest point. Its pretty easy to find the local uphill direction, just spin around and see what’s steepest, and keep on going that way. This will take you to a local maximum, and from there you can see even higher peaks and trek over to them. In a multi-dimensional space it gets so much harder, because there are so many ways to turn. You could be right next to your target and not realise because you’re looking straight around it!

This was how I felt trying to solve that AI problem. I knew I was close, but the optimal set of numbers, the local peak, was hidden mere millimetres aways. With the aid of neural nets and gradient ascent algorithms, I’ve seen what it takes to navigate a N-dimensional problem space, and it’s staggering.

So this story is based partly on that idea and feeling, only here the problem is made explicitly physical. If you’re one of the little sliver of the human race who inhabit the Venn  Diagram intersection of comic readers and mathematicians, you might really dig this. If you’re a comic reader who likes weird trippy stories, then this is for you too, as is everything I do.

For me its a nice opportunity to play with a character I’ve shelved from other projects, and a chance to use a title I’ve been wanting to use for ages. Look out for Little Zeno in Numberland! Coming to some anthology or other near you later this year!

 

See you in seven, sixty-sided supercubes! Dr Mike 2000, 20 June 2014

 

 

 

 

 

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