Turn to Urban Furniture (The Last War in Albion Part 34: Alan Moore's Final Future Shocks)


This is the tenth and final part of Chapter Five of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Future Shocks for 2000 AD from 1980 to 1983. An ebook omnibus of all ten parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation.

Most of the comics discussed in this chapter are collected in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore's late Time Twisters short stories for IPC served as the occasion for some of his most interesting storytelling for that company.

Don't move. For almost sixty years, don't move. Stand still and turn to urban furniture, to your own monument, to landscape. - Alan Moore, Unearthing

Figure 255: The big clock from whence all time is
mined. (From "The Big Clock," written by Alan
Moore, art by Eric Bradbury, in 2000 AD #315, 1983)
But the uptick in the quality of Moore’s stories cannot be attributed entirely to his serious stories. DR & Quinch, after all, are thoroughly comedic, as is “Chrono-Cops.” “The Big Clock” takes a positively whimsical tone. It’s a guide to how time functions, which turns out to be because of the work of people living in a giant clock “suspended at the center of eternity” run by a gentleman named Arthur Seck. Seck takes the reader on a tour of the facility, showing them the process by which time is dug up, the fate sisters who weave time once it’s been processed into fine wires, the people who sort it into good times and bad times, and so on. It is unabashedly a list story - a plotless exploration of various entertaining concepts of how time might work. The best is Cyril, whose job it is “to remember everything in the whole of existence. If he forgets something, it vanishes from living memory,” which is exactly what happens when Seck interrupts him by asking how its going, leading to everybody in the cosmos losing their ballpoint pens. (“Portugese dramatist Gil Vicente was born in 1470… Mrs Booth of Islington has to cancel her milk tomorrow… Stalactites grow down, not up…,” he mutters to himself, trying to keep track of the rest of it). The story ends with Seck realizing that he’s behind on winding up the mainspring of the clock, leading to it running down and, presumably, time stopping entirely. It is unabashedly a slender thing, but it’s terribly charming and memorable.

Also memorable is “Eureka,” one of Moore’s later Future Shocks, which tells of a ship fruitlessly searching for alien life. Eventually one of the crewmen suggests that “an alien could be anything,” wondering “what if an alien is just a concept? Something that doesn’t even exist in any physical sense.” A few months later the same crewman, Marty Kessler, proclaims that he’s “had an idea. It just popped into my head. And it wasn’t human! No human mind could have conceived of it unaided. That idea was an alien… and the alien’s in my mind right now!” Steadily the crew comes to realize that Kessler is right as he explains his idea to them, and they proceed to become possessed by the alien too. Eventually the narrator is the only one left, until he’s cornered by the crew who, in unison, explain the idea to him, converting him as well.

Figure 256: Alan Moore describes "Eureka" as "a story where
everybody ends up happy and smiling" in his introduction to
the Shocking Futures collection. (From "Eureka," written by
Alan Moore, art by Mike White, in 2000 AD #325, 1983)
Several aspects of the story jump out. First, Moore conjures an impressively tangible sense of possession out of just a few small details. The narrator mentions that Kessler always says “I mean,” and, when he’s talking about the possibility that an alien is just an idea does just that, repeating “I mean” twelve times on a single page. But when Kessler proclaims that he’s “made contact with the aliens” he doesn’t say “I mean” once. Further giving a clear sense of possession is fact that everybody who hears the idea starts smiling, in marked contrast to the grumpy misery on the ship at first. (They hadn’t found any aliens, the narrator notes, “but we had each found fifteen other human beings that we didn’t much like.”) But secondly, and more broadly interesting, is the nature of the alien idea. The idea is never stated in full - the story’s punchline is Tharg deciding that “this Future Shock is too dangerous to continue” just as the narrator is going to explain the idea. But the beginning of the idea is stated: “if all time is simultaneous and all events happen in a single instant, then time is but a figment of the mind, and…” 

Figure 257: Mammoth late career works titled
Jerusalem are a British tradition.
And what, though? The answer may be unstated in “Eureka,” but a look at his larger work explores this in greater detail. He describes his mammoth novel Jerusalem in almost identical terms, explaining that “the universe is a four-dimensional solid in which nothing is moving and nothing is changing. The only thing that is moving through that solid along the time axis is our consciousness. The past is still there, the future has always been here, and, in this gigantic solid, every moment that has ever existed or will ever exist is all existing conterminously at the same moment.” This is almost exactly what the “Eurkea” alien seems to be pointing towards. Moore’s conclusion in his later work is that this “completely solves the minor problem of death” as “when our consciousness gets to the end of our life, there’s nowhere for it to go other than back to the beginning… we have our lives over and over again an infinite number of times and, each time, we are having exactly the same thoughts, saying exactly the same things,” which, in Moore’s view, makes us immortal. “You’re welcome,” he notes.

Much as this idea comes out of Moore’s later, explicitly mystical thought, the underlying concepts are vividly present in Moore’s earliest work. “The Reversible Man” is, in many ways, an illustration of the idea of consciousness having to go back to the beginning of life at the end, only with the added detail of consciousness having to travel backwards instead of simply leaping back seamlessly. “Ring Road,” the plot of which is a literal illustration of this idea, and indeed Moore’s propensity for elliptical narrative structure in general is similar evidence that these concerns have been present throughout his career. Nor is the idea original to him - in interviews he references an Einstein quote he was told, which he paraphrases as Einstein saying that “death isn’t really a big thing because I understand the persistent illusion of transience.” In fiction the idea can be traced back easily to the British new wave of science fiction and stories like Ballard’s “The Day of Forever,” set in a world where time has stopped, and which Grant Morrison claimed as the inspiration for his Gideon Stargrave character. Morrison, for his part, has snarked that his professionally published comic, “Time is a Four-Letter Word,” was “based around the simultaneity of time concept Alan Moore himself is so fond of these days and which informs his in-progress novel Jerusalem,” which, while an accurate description of “Time is a Four-Letter Word,” largely ignores the fact that Moore had visibly been playing with these concepts since the early 1980s, when Morrison was largely out of comics and playing in a succession of failed rock bands.

More to the point, it is clear that the introduction of time as an available theme for Moore enlivened his 2000 AD work considerably. Moore admits as much, saying that he “received the news that 2000 AD’s staple Future Shocks would henceforth be augmented with the chronological convolutions of the Time Twisters series with undiluted glee.” Moore further explains his glee, expressing a lifelong interest in time and telling of childhood memories of “doggedly staring at an hour hand for what seemed like entire afternoons in the hope of seeing it move, even slightly” and “the awe and delight accompanying any cinematic display of a flower speeded up, a gull slowed down, or almost anything running backwards.” But for all of Moore’s interest in time, it’s striking how often his work seems a refutation of it. By most definitions, after all, time is fundamentally related to the notion of change. And yet in Moore’s conception time becomes a fixed and absolute thing.

Figure 258: Sweet Neanderthal love. (From "Going Native,"
written by Alan Moore, art by Mike White, in 2000 AD #318,
This tendency is clear by the time of Jerusalem, but the tendency is clear in his 2000 AD work as well. In “Ring Road,” for instance, the entire point is that the story lacks a meaningful beginning or end, instead looping around on itself such that every event is its own cause and effect. “Chrono-Cops” is the same way, albeit with a deliberately tangled construction. The fifth panel of the story depicts a meeting in the lobby in which, in the background, two nuns are walking by. This same event appears as the first panel of the final page, where we finally understand that the nuns are in fact Saturday and Thursday, and that Thursday has just come back from the assignment that drives Thursday over the edge into madness. What’s important to notice here is not just the comically recursive structure, but the fact that when the story starts the events of its ending have, in fact, already happened. The story may be full of incident, but almost every incident within it is one that has already taken place at the outset. It is not so much that anything happens as it is that Moore’s narrative slowly pans across a segment of time in which everything has already happened. A similar thing takes place in “Going Native,” a Time Twister from May of 1983 in which a man sent back in time to discover the missing link between neanderthals and cro-magnon and who, in the course of looking for it, falls in love with a neanderthal and becomes the missing link. In this case, it is not merely the events of the story that become looped and immutable, but the entire sweep of human history from its beginnings to its far future in the 63rd century. 

“The Big Clock” takes this tendency towards fixity even further. Its conceit - that time is run out of a physical clock - represents time not as a process of change but as a singular, physical location. Time becomes matter, physically mined out of a several millenia large “time-seam.” Time, in other words, becomes a material object, much like the four dimensional solid Moore talks about in his later career. It’s interesting that Moore describes this story as the “closest to the way that I saw time as a child” and “nearest to the source from which the other stories flow,” suggesting that even Moore’s notion of time was not something that evolved and changed over the course of his life, but rather some pre-existing idea that Moore merely came to better understand the shape of over his career. Understood this way, Moore’s career ceases to be a progression of events at all, instead becoming a single concept that has been threaded through the psychic geography of Albion, winding serpent-like through its history. From this perspective, it becomes possible that Moore is not even a combatant in the War at all, but rather a pre-existing portion of it, and that the entire War exists as a confusion over the distinction between the battle and the battlefield. His sole set of tactics in the War amount to a steadfast refusal to move or change in any way.

Figure 259: Heavy metal excess
as only Alan Davis can draw it
(From "The Hyperhistoric Headbang,"
written by Alan Moore, art by Alan
Davis, in 2000 AD #322, 1983)
But Moore’s temporal renaissance was ultimately short-lived, as, indeed, was his interest in continuing to do short stories for IPC. By June of 1983 he was turning in one-note fare like “The Hyperhistoric Headbang!,” which is to This Is Spinal Tap what DR & Quinch are to OC & Stiggs, which is to say, a sci-fi upgrade adding thermonuclear weapons. Alan Davis provides some entertaining visuals, but it is hard to escape the sense that its inclusion in the Shocking Futures collection is due mainly to a desire to be able to put Davis’s name on the book, as the story itself is a list story without a particularly interesting list. Its only two ideas of note are a planet in which every inhabitant has been genetically engineered to scream at a certain pitch, which is subsequently destroyed by a stylus playing it like a record, causing the animals to scream, and a drum line consisting of time travelling past major explosions in galactic history. Similarly uninspired is the next issue’s “The Lethal Laziness of Lobelia Loam,” which amounts to an attempt to redo “A Cautionary Fable” with a light time travel twist. His final Time Twister, “The Startling Success of Sideways Scuttleton,” is likewise flaccid - a five-pager about a con man who can “wiggle me back in a certain way” to step between alternate realities, but whose life of crime comes to an end when he throws his back out and can no longer control his dimension hopping. Although a potentially novel concept - Moore writes excellent con men - the story lacks much of a plot, ending with a half-hearted twist.

Figure 260: The grim ending reveal of "Dad," one of Moore's
last shorts for 2000 AD. (From "Dad," written by Alan Moore,
art by A. Langford, in 2000 AD #329, 1983)
Moore’s remaining three Future Shocks are all two-pagers. The first, “Dad,” is about a man standing outside a space station where he’s been locked out by a “father” that’s demanding he apologize. As the comic shows the scene from different angles it eventually becomes clear that the father is just a computer, and that the spaceman has been dead for years, having had a meteorite shatter his helmet. It’s bleak little number, to be sure. But its context only really becomes clear in light of Moore’s next two stories, “Buzz Off!” and “Look Before You Leap!” Both are almost entirely wordless - “Look Before You Leap!” only has non-verbal sounds like a bird going “Gluwook-Gluwook!” or a man laughing, and “Buzz Off!” consists only of buzzing-noises, sound effects, and a final, very small caption offering the story a pithy punchline. In this context “Dad,” which features only a single computer voice and no captions, becomes clearer. Moore, in his final stories, is pushing his stylistic envelope again, working to tell stories in ways that trust the visuals more. Ironically, this is what he was trying to do back with “Southern Comfort.” In these stories the visuals support him better than Howarth’s did, but the point is the same.

In that regard, then, Moore finished his time doing shorts for IPC the way he began it - by trying to learn new storytelling techniques. In this regard his comments about “doing an apprenticeship in public” and using short stories to learn “to do all the things that you will have to do in a bigger work but in a much more constrained space” are very much on target through and through. He used his time at IPC to learn his trade and craft. That not all of his experiments came off is, in many ways, proof of this fact. But notably, many of the experiments that did come off demonstrate techniques he would later make considerable use of, up to and including his confidence in purely visual storytelling that he was clearly trying to build in his last few strips. The effect is not entirely unlike the old story about Michelangelo creating the David by taking a block of marble and removing everything that wasn’t the David. The figure that is Alan Moore visibly emerges into the narrative, and comes ever more into focus over the course of these dozens of short stories. [continued]

Next Time: Alan Moore takes inspiration from E.T., The National Lampoon, Boys from the Blackstuff, and The Beano as he begins writing ongoing stories for 2000 AD. It's Chapter Six of The Last War in Albion: Skizz and D.R. & Quinch.


jane 6 years, 10 months ago

Time is an abstract conceptualization of Change, dependent primarily on metaphors extended from our experience of moving through Space, and secondarily on our experience utilizing significant but finite resources.

There is no time. It is not an arrow. It is not a flat circle. There is only change.

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Adam Riggio 6 years, 10 months ago

The unreality of time was also a central concept in the British Idealist philosophy that dominated the humanities programs in Oxford and Cambridge. John MacTaggart's 1908 paper arguing for the incoherence of the concept of temporality and change actually made something of a popular splash at the time for its snarky tone and provocative subject matter. The image of block time that Einstein's relativity popularized only helped spread this initially very strange idea. By the time Ballard and Moore picked it up, it's become a fairly common trope of science fiction and the philosophy of science.

I find its power lies in how uncomfortable its moral implications can make people, combined with the beauty of its vision of the universe.

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encyclops 6 years, 10 months ago

Insert True Detective reference here.

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Matthew Blanchette 6 years, 10 months ago

I can only assume that your entry on "The Crimson Horror" will be one big Blakean mishnah, considering which song we get in a certain scene...

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Iain Coleman 6 years, 10 months ago

Our subjective perception of time and the nature of change is a consequence of the thermodynamic arrow of time. I wrote about this at some length in the Relative Dimension entry on The Space Museum.

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Alex Wilcock 6 years, 10 months ago

To be fair to "The Startling Success of Sideways Scuttleton", I always enjoyed the very British juxtaposition of a '50s cliché spiv with alternate timeline-hopping, and that he's not stopped by The Dimension Police or Fate or anything terribly serious but by putting his back out. And the thing that's never been made clear in any of the reprints, but why it stuck in my head from reading it at the time in Prog 327 was the topical punchline: by definition, it's never so effective re-read years later, but it was first published the week the £1 coin was launched, so readers should have anticipated the twist plastered all over the country but didn't (well, I didn't, anyway).

To be less fair to "The Hyperhistoric Headbang!", the artwork is stylish and the stylus is a cool / horrid idea, but it's mostly just another of Moore's nicking a joke from Douglas Adams.

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Alex Wilcock 6 years, 10 months ago

Oh, and "Arthur Seck" still makes me laugh.

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Micle Kar 6 years, 4 months ago

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Daru 5 years, 11 months ago

Chapter 5 has been wonderful Phil - thanks for providing a time travel journey through my childhood with the Future Shocks.

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