Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Understanding Time

Overture: Here I look at Randall Munroe's xkcd comic experience Time, from reviewing his remarkable story to detailing the extraordinary lengths Munroe went to in its experimental publication. Published in 3099 hourly panels over 123 Days, some describe the work as a type of unique animation, but I make the argument that it is a comic first and foremost - indeed a monumental achievement of the form and one of the most important works of the year.

Randall Monroe's xkcd has long been one of my favorite webcomics. Munroe, a former NASA scientist turned full-time cartoonist, produces entertaining, thoughtful comics and astonishingly detailed infograms featuring a unique mix of esoteric subjects focusing on math, science, history, computer programming - and often matters of the heart. His cartooning style, extremely basic stick figures sometimes mixed with intricately detailed natural illustration all within an impeccable minimalistic design aesthetic, manages to be deceptively simple and representative while translating a surprising amount of emotion. Often hilarious and thought provoking, and always very, very smart, xkcd's unique nature has won the title a devoted and extremely creative and intelligent legion of fans.

In March, Munroe published xkcd #1190, Time. At first it was unclear what Munroe's intent was with Time; the comic consisted of a single panel of two figures sitting on a beach. Then the image changed. And it began to change, incrementally, every half hour at first, then every hour. Some panels would feature a small change from the previous one, showing a small fraction of time passing; others contained dialog and events and changes in scenery indicative of minutes or hours passing. Every hour, a new panel would be published over the old one, and this would go on, every hour without stopping... for four months. Time finished last week, after 3099 frames. That is a comic in 3099 panels, with each panel published every hour for 123 days.

As soon as the xkcd fan base saw what Munroe was logistically attempting, intrepid fans created websites to track the comics' process, even if they didn't know the scope of what he was doing (and he wasn't saying) - the best is The Geekwagon Time reader. There you can "watch" the comic, controlling the frame rate, stopping at any point or reading it frame by frame. But that doesn't even scratch the surface, as there was a 1300 page discussion forum thread on the comic and an entire wiki devoted to just Time. But what started out as a fun project to track a unique experimental comic, turned into a vibrant community of scientists and artists and everyone in between decoding the comic's many mysteries. The discussion changed from the what and how to the why of the story, which is in itself another remarkable achievement.

The comic progresses. The two unnamed figures, a couple, start building a sand castle. As time goes on (or as Time goes on) the castle grows increasingly elaborate. They don't say much, lost in the business of creation. But something is happening. The woman looks out from their creation, and says the words that will impact the rest of their lives: "I don't understand what the sea is doing." There's something profoundly wrong, and they go on a journey to discover why the sea is rising faster than they have ever seen. As they journey out, it becomes clear that they have not been far from home in their lives, and they don't seem to know about basic things about the natural world. The journey is hard, and over days they continue to go higher and higher up the "mountains" that surround them, encountering many animals and plants they have never seen, and further mysteries about the inundation happening around them. Inspired by a sense of discovery, they drive forward, further and further into an uncertain future.

As the land begins to level out, they encounter evidence of human settlements that have been hastily abandoned. The more new things they discover, the deeper the mysteries that unfold. At the top of the "mountains" they encounter a group of people speaking a language they don't understand. After some pictographic communication, they are introduced to someone who can almost speak their language. This woman, the group's leader and chief scientist, manages to tell them what is happening - her group is not on a mountain, but at sea level; the travelers don't live in a valley, but at the base of a great sea which dried out millenia ago. And now that sea is flooding back. With the fate of everyone they love in the balance, the travelers head back down to try to alert their village before things are too late... but they might be out of time.

The mysteries of the setting are not some boilerplate fantasy, but an elaborate piece of speculative fiction. Munroe is not someone who does anything casually; even in his more narrative and emotional short xkcd strips, there is a core of mathematical and scientific accuracy. The details of the setting - from the flora and fauna encountered, the lengths the couple travel, to even the stars in the sky at night - point to even further mysteries that the exploding community that formed around the strip were able to solve. It does not reduce the enjoyment of the story to know these details - the mystery of the how and why of the setting are subsumed by the drama of the proceedings - if anything, it enhances the enjoyment.

Once all was said and done, it was revealed by the community (and confirmed last week by Munroe on his blog1 and in an interview with Laura Hudson at Wired2), that the travelers live at the base of the Mediterranean basin. Some geological calamity has caused it to dry out, and it is suddenly, quickly, violently flooding back. This is something that actually happened five million years ago, the Zanclean flood. Except the flood the travelers are encountering isn't happening in the distant past, but the far future. As revealed in the night sky Munroe meticulously displayed, this journey takes place in April of 13291 CE. But not all the mysteries are resolved: the language of the people the travelers encounter is a real language that Munroe developed just for the strip, and fans have not been able to crack the code (and Munroe isn't revealing what it means).

But we can begin to understand the significance of Munroe's accomplishment. The details of the comic's setting yet again reveal Munroe to be a creator of extraordinary multidisciplinary intelligence. That attitudes of the characters reveal a humanity and thirst for discovery present in many of his strips. Munroe has experimented with the comic form in the past on xkcd, but not nearly to the frankly revolutionary extent of Time. His art, so deceptively simple, continues to be detailed and above all else shockingly expressive for featureless stick figures. The work is free and copyleft, fostering an environment of narrative participation. But the narrative scope, the length of the comic - 3099 separate panels - is new for Munroe, revealing a depth of long-form storytelling skills that we haven't seen from him before. And the end result is breathtaking and dramatic.

The formal inventions of Time are completely unique in the history of comics. In many places - from Hudson to the fan-run xkcd wiki, for instance - I see the comic described as a slowly drawn out animation, that the experience of reading Time as it was being published was one of a very long, very slowly playing cartoon being displayed one frame per hour over four months. But this is emphatically not the case with Time. With a cartoon (or live action or stop motion, in essence any motion picture), each frame of the work represents a set fraction of time that when played back gives the sensation of movement. By necessity, every frame is transitional and inhabits an identical sliver of time. But Time does not do this. There are certainly transitional panels in Time that take less time to read, but there are just as many unique, illustrative narrative panels that must take more time to read. If it was animation, the panels with dialog or significant events would happen across multiple frames, but they don't. They happen, without fail, in one frame, one panel.

The confusion for the perception of Time lies in the fact that the 3099 panels of the comic do not inhabit two or three dimensional space like most other comics: the panels of Time inhabit the fourth dimension of time. As originally presented over the initial publication over 123 days, Munroe controlled the pacing of the work to hourly presentations of panels, where the prior panel would be wiped out replaced with a new one. As republished by fans in the Munroe-approved (but not -controlled) Geekwagon Time reader, you can play back the comic at a rate of your choice, or one panel at a time. This is a comic and not a cartoon, one that takes up temporal space as well as physical space if you, the reader, so choose. Comics are defined by their nature of the reader defining the temporality of the fiction, both the pace at which it is read and how the story plays back in the mind. Munroe dictated the pace of Time's consumption at first - like an elaborate live art installation - but now the reader is back in charge of the time of Time
The title of the piece refers to the unknowable future the characters inhabit, a future where recognizable human society has collapsed. It refers to the experience the travelers share, the time they spend together discovering things about the world and themselves they never could before guess. It refers to the unexpected deadline the travelers fall under to save their people. And it refers to the experience of reading the comic - separate from the unique temporal experience of its initial publication - the way the reader can manipulate the time of experiencing the work, one of modern comics truly monumental achievements.

xkcd by Randall Munroe can be found at xkcd.com; Time originally published at xkcd.com/1190. Experience Time at Geekwagon at geekwagon.net/projects/xkcd1190. See the Time wiki at xkcd-time.wikia.com.

1 comment:

  1. For anyone interested, Ng Suat Tong has a phenomenal essay on xkcd: Time up now at the Hooded Utilitarian. He brings up many great points about both Time and the critical reaction to it, including and especially this review.

    See Ng's wonderful essay and the ensuing discussion at http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/08/xkcd-on-time-and-twinkies/