What is the Shape of the Universe?

The other night while waiting to visit Slumberland, I lay in my bed thinking about Einstein. Long ago before people knew the Earth was round, people imagined our world to be a vast plane. Some people imagined the plane to be infinite in all directions and others speculated finding the edge and falling off. Then along came some smart Greek dudes, no, not Geeks, but Greeks, but maybe Geek Greeks, who suggested that maybe Earth was round. If this was true they theorized one test of their theory’s validity would be to start walking in one direction and eventually you’ll end up back where you started. Imagine how mind-blowing that bizarre concept was to fathom back then. We know it’s true, but then we know the ending of the story.

Now I’m reading Einstein and I’m trying to imagine the shape of the universe. Like our ancestors who felt that Earth was one vast plane, we feel the universe is one infinite three-dimensional space and Einstein, like the smart Greeks of long ago, is suggesting something different. And guess what, the same test would apply. You head out in one direction and eventually you’ll get back to where you started. Boy is that hard to imagine.

I’ve always loved astronomy and all my life astronomers have talked about how big or how old the universe is and they argue whether it’s 12 billion light years or 14 billion light years. And it’s never 7 billion in that direction, and 14 billion in that direction and 2 billion in that direction. No, they always talk about the size of the universe as if we’re smack in the middle of it. My mental picture of the universe is a giant cube of black Lucite embedded with grains of galaxies that occasionally make swirls of clusters. But that begs to ask what’s outside of the universe.

According to Einstein and others there is nothing outside of the universe. No space-time, no empty space, not even non-existence – the only thing that exists is our universe. How can that be? It hurts to think of such a universe. To grasp that we have to ask: what is the shape of the universe? This has gotten me to read The Poincare Conjecture by Donal O’Shea which is the history of developing a geometry that answers that question. I’m slowly working my way through the book and O’Shea is carefully building the background that I hope will give me a slight cognitive glimpse. It is beyond any fantasy I might have to think I’ll actually understand it.

While thinking and reading about all of this I got the idea if the universe is finite in one direction, what about the other direction, the world of small. This reminded me of that classic film The Powers of Ten and wondered how many magnitudes of distance up is compared to down. It turns out its roughly 1026 expanding out and 10-18 shrinking down until we reach the current barrier of perception. So in this case we’re not in the middle of things unless we haven’t gone all the way down as small as possible. Wouldn’t it be weird if we were always in the middle of everything? If on the cosmological scale the universe can’t be infinite, then it would also seem on the microscopic scale we’d reach a finite end to the world of tiny.

This doesn’t make mental sense does it? It’s like the Greek who argued that the universe was infinite because no matter where the edge was if he stood there and stuck his arm out wouldn’t there be more of something? Or if we found the smallest particle our minds just beg to break it in two. It’s like the old story of kids asking about what made God, and then asking who made whatever made God. It’s damn strange, but we just can’t comprehend a finite world.

Doesn’t the universe feel smaller already when you think its size is just twenty-five magnitudes greater than our own little space in the world? There have been a number of people who have made Powers of Ten films, books and websites. There’s an excellent IMAX film you can rent from Netflix called Cosmic Voyage that gives a fancier version of Powers of Ten with a lot of fantastic computer animation. The link takes you to a web version, but it’s worthwhile to get the DVD – it’s quite beautiful.

Also visit Quarks to Quasars for another conceptual approach to this subject and be sure and look at the index page, which is a quick one page summation. This Powers of Ten has a great little ruler menu. Click on 108 and 10-8 shows the Earth from space and DNA. I wonder if that means we’re the size of DNA if seen from a high orbit.

The fun thing about playing with the powers of ten is to try and conceptualize our place in the universe. Essentially these films, web sites and books try to create a very simplified map of reality. It’s wonderful to meditate on each power of the scale. A big chunk of the scale from 10-12 to 1012 is from the realm of the atom to the Sun, both objects we have intimate relationships with, so we should try to comprehend them. While we send rockets up to explore the higher positive powers ten we work with nanotechnology to capitalize on the negative powers of ten.

At 100 we’re at the one meter vantage. That’s roughly the world of personal contact with other people. I like to think the starting point is the point of consciousness that reside behind my eyes. Within that one meter world is the distance to my monitor. People and pets we love the most are the beings we let into this range of magnitude.

At 101 we’ve expanded our world out to ten meters, or roughly the size of a large room. This takes our conscious minds into the sphere of homes and offices and cars interiors. This is the magnitude of our social world. At 102 or 100 meters we reach the limits of very large social events like football stadiums, shopping malls, downtown areas, and where we lose our ability to distinguish other individuals.

It’s hard for our minds to grasp the area of 103, or 1000 meters, which is 5/8th of a mile. This is a whole neighborhood, a large farm, an area of woods, even a small town. It’s difficult to know all the people in an area this size but most people can maintain a fairly intimate social relation within this magnitude. It’s like living in a small town. For people who can’t comprehend maps or geography this is probably the limit of their conscious world.

Expanding out to 104 brings us 10,000 meters or six miles, about the size of a large downtown city. There have been whole populations that never ventured out of a world this size. I’d guess in some populated cities they could squeeze in a million people at this scale. And the next jump to 105 brings us to 100,000 meters or about sixty miles. This is a large city and its surrounding towns, but it isn’t so big that many people can’t commute to work such distances. At 106 or a million meters we’re getting into the size of states and small countries.

The next two jumps 107 and 108 take us to 10 million and 100 million meters and we’re seeing a large segment of the Earth like an astronaut to zooming out to see the Earth as a marble in the sky as if seen by travelers heading to the moon. At 109 we could see the orbit of the moon because we’re looking across 1 million kilometers of space. We’ve now reach the limits of manned exploration and we’re into the magnitudes of space age awareness.

All of world politics happen on the scale between 7 and 8 magnitudes and few people try to keep up with events at that level. Most people’s conscious world of events remains below magnitude 5. It is between magnitude 7 and 8 that we see that our world is a sphere and the end of human territory. Few people in the course of a day think about things outside of magnitude 7.

People at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) think and work in magnitudes 1010 through 1013, which take us out to the edge of the solar system. Anyone willing to study astronomy can grasp a basic idea of this territory. It’s the territory of popular science, and even though objects within this scope are immense, like the Sun or Jupiter, they are within our ability to imagine.

At step 1016 we reach one light year and expanding out to 1017 we pass by our nearest neighbor star before we hit the 10 light year sphere. Astronomers and science fiction writers explore this territory often, but most of humanity never thinks this big. We have to expand out four magnitudes to 1021 to see our home galaxy. Very few science fiction stories have ever been written about traveling beyond our galaxy. We can still imagine that space is a huge three dimension void speckled with a bit of matter.

Few people can make mental maps of expanding out further than our galaxy. Imagine the three dimensional positions of galaxy clusters at 1025 or a billion light years of volume is mind numbing even to think about. Making that last jump or two in magnitudes to see the whole universe as it really is, is a feat of imagination beyond all but a few humans. The idea that someone can imagine it, even mathematically, is beyond my abilities. How many magnitudes of mental power must Einstein have needed over us normal people to see what he saw?

It’s out in this territory where we’ll find the shape of the universe, where it continues to expand. It’s so hard not to think of the universe as an explosion of matter shooting out in all directions in infinite empty space. If I knew what I know now as a little kid starting school I sure would have studied harder, especially math.

Maybe they should start kids out by teaching them all the far out puzzling facts about the universe and then tell them if they want to understand the answers they better study math. They never really gave me an incentive to study math – hell I didn’t buy into that whole grade thing back then. What motivation is having the letter A marked in a box over the value of having the letter C? Damnation, why didn’t they warn me that one day I’d want to read The Poincare Conjecture and understanding mathematics was the key.


Science Fiction and Global Warming

I’ve yet to read any science fiction extrapolating stories about the effects of global warming.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy could be about global warming but it could also be about anything that brings on the collapse of civilization.  So I jumped over to Google and searched on [“science fiction” “global warming“] and discovered there are a few books to read, and it appears Kim Stanley Robinson is out in the forefront with Forty Signs of Rain, the first in a trilogy.  And damn, wouldn’t you know it, I already own it in hardback.  I often buy books and then forget about them since I have hundreds waiting to be read.

I shall move this volume up my waiting list but sadly it hasn’t gotten good reviews.  Science Fiction Book Reviews at SciFi.com only gave it a C+.  There are sixty reader reviews over at Amazon.com but only 22 are five and four stars.  It appears to be more cerebral than action packed.  But that’s a depressing fact about the topic of global warming anyway.  It would be hard to make the subject into a techno thriller.  The apparent way to make the subject exciting is to assume the ice caps go down the drain and we all become barbarians like in Waterwold.

Still you’d think global warming would be a big topic for science fiction.  This crisis will determine just how intelligent of a species we are.  Global warming could be our dinosaur killer asteroid.  Most people ignore the topic writing it off as some old Al Gore issue that’s just plain boring.  But in reality it’s a hot scientific topic that has rocketed forward so its no longer just a minor political issue.  Most people think Inconvenient Truth, whereas new data is flooding in all the time.  The new researchers never talk about Al Gore anymore.

Try and catch Dimming the Sun on PBS’s Nova.  Scientists now think pollution has been significantly dimming the sun and masking the effects of global warming for years.  Things are much worse than anything Al Gore discussed in his dog and pony show.  Now that whole legions of scientists are studying the subject the topic seems to have fallen out of favor with the public.  Public interest peaked much too soon.

Science fiction writers have a unique opportunity to bridge real science with speculation.  Unfortunately science fiction has never been good at subtle drama and the impact of global warming is more suited for quiet literary fiction.  Whether humanity succeeds or fails at facing this issue will not be due to a few heroes who save the world but how we all choose to act in our personal lives.  Think about the relocation of the victims of Katrina on a massive scale.  Global warming isn’t about adjusting to heat and rising shorelines but in our lifetimes its about living with drought and mass relocations.  Nature is about to get downright Biblical on us.

Over at Grist, a blog for Environmental News & Commentary they have interview with Paolo Bacigalupi about science fiction and environmentalism called “Stranger than Fiction.”  He mentions one of his stories, “The Tamarisk Hunter” about drought and a bounty hunter who kills tamarisk trees, a rather unique bit of speculation predicting the need for water is so great that the government will pay to kill off parasitic trees that take too much.  It’s another grim future, positive only in that it says people will survive one way or another.  A telling paragraph:

When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about how “hot” it was. It didn’t really matter how “hot” it was. The problem wasn’t lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn’t touch it.

I think in the United States most people for the next few decades will face global warming over issues about water and drought and not anything as dramatic as rising oceans stealing land from the coasts.  Look at Georgia, the state is trying to redraw the Tennessee state line so they can have access to the Tennessee River.  “The Tamarisk Hunter” shows one personal story of our possible future.  I’d think there would be millions of stories to tell.

One vital purpose of science fiction is to warn us away from futures we don’t want to find ourselves living in.  If you caught Six Degrees Could Change the World then you know millions of people are already living in stories like “The Tamarisk Hunter.”  It’s no longer science fiction to them.

Science fiction can be escapist fiction that thrills us while we try to ignore our real lives, or it can influence us to change our lives, inspiring us to alter our future.  At work I’ve become a boring nag about global warming.  Most people want to brush the topic aside as soon as they hear it.  Others bristle and want to attack Al Gore.  Scientists have played Chicken Little too many times and cried the sky is falling so often that people just don’t believe them anymore.  Science fiction writers have an opportunity to paint realistic views of the future that may convince more people to return to this topic.

Read “The Tamarisk Hunter” and see what you think.  Don’t you think Paolo Bacigalupi has set up complex image of the future in very few words?  Would you have preferred escaping into a military SF story that’s a cross between Starship Troopers and Halo?   I’m asking for a bit of naval gazing here, a bit of self-analysis.  This little Rorschach test tells whether you seek deeper understanding of reality, or whether you prefer to escape it.


Update 2/28/8:  Jason Sanford reviews Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi new book and says its the best speculative fiction collection since Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life.  That’s very high praise indeed.  Another a review focusing on its econological aspects can be found at Locus Magazine.  This book includes “The Tamarisk Hunter” that I discuss above plus ten other stories.


Back to the Future

I’ve enjoyed a lot of embedded film clips on the blogs I read so I thought I’d experiment and try to embed a clip here, unfortunately I learned through trial and error and the FAQ page at WordPress that Flash videos are a no-no.  That’s too bad.  If you want to watch the film I’m about to discuss go here:

Watch The Video

The clip is from Hula.com a new video site I’m checking out and the show is 30 Days from FX, one I’ve never heard of before.  But I was attracted to the episode entitled “Off the Grid,” where the show producers took two city slickers from the Bronx down to Missouri to live on a Eco-Green Commune.  Talk about back to the future because I’ve stayed at a couple communes and remember the Mother Earth News hippie subculture of trying to live self-sufficient on five acres.

This show has a lot of good information in it, but it also gives a totally wrong impression.  To change our lives to fight global warming we don’t all need to move to the country and crap in a bucket.  This show was very positive, but I worry about the subtle implications.  Modern people hate the hippie lifestyle and culture.  Back in 1972 when I had hair, and it was long and I looked and acted the hippie part, I hated my visit to the country commune like the one in this show.

The people were great and sincere but I just couldn’t stomach working so hard to live the simple lifestyle.  Before the real experience I loved reading Mother Earth News and contemplating how to be self-sufficient off the grid.  This isn’t a new idea because these memories of mine are over  forty years old.  But we also know such movements have always come and gone.  Just think about Henry David Thoreau living in the woods and inspiring generations, and he was far from the first man to think up the idea.  The urge to return to nature is as old as cities.

Like I said, this show has a lot of useful information in it.  At the beginning the visitors to the commune where told we’d need over twelve Earths to sustain everyone living on the planet at their current consumption levels.  At the end of the show, they were told we’d need just 1.3 Earths if everyone lived like the people at the commune.  That’s an amazing bit of data because it means billions live on this planet in living conditions worse than those hippies and that’s pretty damn scary.

To successfully combat global warming we will need to alter our lifestyles but not so drastically.  I think this may be why so many people do not want to face up to the global warming problem – they’re afraid they’ll have to live like the hippies in this show.  I think we can transform society and still live in the suburbs and drive to work.  Does it matter if the power in your outlets come from fossil fuels or renewable energy sources?

Imagine if we could build enough solar energy plants and other sources of clean energy, and if we switched to driving electric cars or other vehicles with clean fuel, would our lives be that much different?  We’ll also need to waste a whole lot less, but is that a real big deal either?  I think the most drastic change might be the end of the beef industry, which is incredibly energy wasteful.  But like this show shows, there are ways to raise cattle naturally too.

We all want to get back to the future where living is science fictional and far out.  There are probably damn few people who want to live like humans did in the past, close to nature, working as hard as animals, living without convenience.  However, that’s exactly how we will live if civilization collapses.  If you’re afraid of living like a hippie, change and modernize for a clean energy future.

By the way, this was a fun show and I liked how the couple changed and adapted.  They didn’t wimp out.  I was impressed, especially with the girl.



Fantasy & Science Fiction

My favorite SF/F magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction is getting a lot of attention this week because of their new blog.  I’ve been reading this magazine since the mid 1960s and I eventually collected most of the issues back to the early 1950s.  Sad to say I had to sell my collection during lean college years.

A great way to get a feel for this wonderful mag is to look at their cover history.  If you scan these covers you’ll discover that a lot of famous SF&F short stories and novels first appeared in this little digest magazine, including my all-time favorite novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel


You’ll also see the evolution of their cover art, and that makes this page a very neat art gallery.  You can click on the thumbnails to see a larger image and it’s well worth spending some time doing that.  Be sure and read the titles and authors listed on each cover.  [By the way, if you love covers from old pulp magazines be sure to jump over to Cover Browser and look at the Astounding Stories.  What a gas it is to compare the Astounding cover art from the 1930s and 1940s to the F&SF art of the 1950s, 1960s and later.]

I’ve even collected a few rejection slips from F&SF over the years.  One of my personal wake-up-in-the-middle-of-night trying to get back to sleep fantasies is to sell a story to F&SF.  A good way to deal with insomnia downtime is to imagine a short story plot.

A lot of readers don’t like short stories but I think they are a very special art form that is going the way of the poem.  I hope the web brings F&SF more readers so it can keep publishing for the rest of my life.  I wish there was some way to help people get into short stories and discover their potential for great entertainment.  I consider the best SF&F short stories far more sense of wonder filled than any of the big SF blockbuster movies.  Films are so conservative when it comes to fantastic fiction.

Back in 2003 Audible.com ran five bi-monthly audio editions of F&SF and a Best of 2002 issue that I think showcase just how good this magazine is and how entertaining short stories can be.  It’s a crying shame this audio edition didn’t catch on, but you can still find those six audio collections on Audible.com and at iTunes.  I wish all these stories were on MP3 and sold like songs.  Maybe that’s the new meme for short fiction – sold one at a time for your iPod pleasure.

If you can’t find F&SF at your newsstand take a gamble and subscribe, or even hyperlink over to Fictionwise.com and buy an ebook edition to read on your computer, PDA and even Kindle.


Science Fiction Overload

I’ve always loved science fiction but keeping up with the genre is a big damn job.  I constantly worry I’m going to miss a breakthrough novel with the impact of Neuormancer or The Life of Pi or Replay just because I was wasn’t keeping up with the times. 

As a young bookworm I read several books a week at a time when the science fiction section at the bookstore was a wire rack at the drugstore where I bought my Popular Science and Mad Magazines.  There just wasn’t that many new books being published every month and the real focus was on feeding an indiscriminate reading appetite.  Reading the book review sections in Amazing, Fantastic, Analog, Galaxy, If, and F&SF kept me perfectly up-to-date on the world of science fiction publishing in 1968, but it’s not enough for 2008.

Every year now Locus Magazine reports there are over 2,000 SF&F books being published as well as a large variety of magazines, graphic novels, online zines, ebooks and other outlets of SF&F storytelling.  The field is long past the size that I can comprehend.  I’m a small town bookworm living in a giant metropolis of fantastic fiction.  Last night I was watching a documentary on Discovery HD about Miami, the town I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.  My father’s family moved there in the 1920s.  The show made me realize just how much of the city and its glamorous history I had never noticed even though I had lived in many places in Dade County.  If I went back home I’d be just another tourist.  That’s how I feel about SF&F today.  I can’t believe I miss so much.

What I need is a Lonely Planet Guide to the vast hyperactive country of science fiction.  For years that was Locus Magazine’s job but even it overwhelms me today.  Thank God for the Internet, and a special prayer of thanks to the guys who invented RSS.  This year I’ve been on a voyage of discovery to find just the right RSS feeds that are easy to read and reduce the fire-hose of SF information overload down to a water fountain burble.

Of course I added the RSS feed to my old favorite Locus Magazine but strangely enough I was disappointed with its cryptic posts in my Outlook inbox.  Some RSS feeds send the entire article and others just send snack-size snippets to entice you to click on a hyperlink and jump over to their site to eat the whole whole meal.  The bite-size phrases from Locus seldom get me to byte.  I do click now and then and sometimes discover perfect little gems like 2007 SF/F/H Books on Year’s Best Lists, which cross-tabs several review sites to list the books that have gotten the most recommendations for best books of 2007 (first posted on 2/13/8).

This same article was written up by SF Signal on 2/20/8.  SF Signal is a fantastic web site that very successfully reports on the most tasty data bits about SF&F.  It serves the same function for our genre as Slashdot does for computer news.  I’m now trying to decide if I can abandon my RSS feed for Locus Magazine and depend on SF Signal to keep me up-to-date about anything worthy that Locus does publish.  In other words a plain RSS feed is not always perfect, so maybe a meta-feed is even better.

Of course the best solution would a single RSS feed that notified me from many sites just the stories I would likely love to read.  So if I could train my feed from SF Signal for just the kinds of stories I want to read then that would really save me some major time, but that might be too science fictional of an idea.  What I’m wishing for is a reading robot companion that gets to know me perfectly and then spoon feeds me just the right stories.

The trouble is I can only read maybe 7-10 science fiction and fantasy novels a year and maybe another 20-25 short stories.  (OK, yes SF&F is great, but there’s actually more healthy stuff to consume too, like science and history books, so I have to limit my SF&F candy.)  Logically I should ignore all books but the very best sellers and also read one SF best of the year anthology to sample the best of each year.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well doing that.  I can dip into several best of anthologies and only find a few real nuggets among the fool’s gold.  Not that a diamond to me won’t be cut glass to someone else, or vice versa.  And many best sellers are less than filling to me.

What I’m learning to do is search out blogs by various SF&F bookworms with the hope I’ll find a few taste-clones of myself.  I’m currently reading:

These readers don’t have my exact reading habits but they read much slower than review sites and they comment about books in a low key personal manner that I identify with.  This slows the pace down for finding books. I hope to add other blogs in the future.  I find it very easy to keep up with their blog feeds and figure I can eventually handle maybe ten or twelve blogging friends this way.  It’s a virtual book club and we chat with each other without even knowing the other is in the room, so to say.

I also find speciality sites like The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Audio to be very helpful too.  They cover more stuff than I ever want to handle, but I can easily pick and choose.  SF Audio has a good RSS feed with enough content in each post so I quickly click yay or nay with my mouse.  IRoSF is formatted like a magazine so it’s easy to pick and choose in the TOC, however I think I would like it better if they sent out RSS feeds of their full stories.  Although that might not be what they want after creating such a nice magazine format, but my desire does fit with the new reading paradigm of the RSS.

When it comes down to it we spend a lot of time reading emails, so RSS feeds simply spoon feed us reading material in email size bites.  I wish my Kindle was more of a true RSS reader.  I haven’t experimented with it using RSS feeds, but I will.  The Kindle is even easier to read than my Outlook client.  And that’s what my needs comes down to, an easy method to shovel just the right words into my head.  I’m getting old, so I can’t process as many words as I want, but these futuristic times really do have the technologies to do less with more.  Imagine if I could get all my reading through email sized chunks of words?

Sure, there are downsides to the emailization of reading.  It’s all fast food consumption and nothing is saved for studying.  What some clever programmer needs to do is marry Outlook with MediaWiki.  That way we could read and digest our words into something for long term memory.

I wish I had more time to read more books.  Reading reviews at least show me the myriad of ideas being explored in the world of SF&F.  To get an idea of what I mean just read January 2008: Short Fiction at IRoSF – there’s a reason why the old magazines were called Amazing Stories or Astounding Stories of Super Science and Fantastic Tales.  There’s a lot more to SF than spaceships and more to fantasy than hobbits. 

SF&F are the genres that require their writers to think up wild ideas, and boy to they ever.  And me, I’d love to explore than all, but I can’t.  I just can’t.  So what I want to do is find the most sense of wonder I can for my limited reading time.


Humans Are Making Global Warming

For many people the thought that humans are the cause of global warming is unbelievable.  Some refuse to believe, others can’t believe.  I’ve always wondered why.  Sometimes I think it might be a religious issue.  If you believe in God and believe that God takes care of us, why would he allow us to do something this horrible.  Others might think that mankind is too puny to do something so big.  Strangely enough, I think others refuse to believe because the idea was promoted by Al Gore and they won’t let Al be right about anything.  Ultimately, I don’t know why they think this.  To me it’s obvious we all did this to ourselves.  Sure there are other causes, but in the end if society had never industrialized we wouldn’t be having this problem.

I think I’ve finally found the logic to prove our guilt in the new National Geographic Channel documentary “Six Degrees Could Change the World.”  Towards the end of the show they explained that Earth had once been six degrees hotter and also had an earlier problem with too much carbon in the atmosphere.  They reported that it took millions of years for the Earth to sequester the carbon underground in natural stockpiles of coal and oil.  In other words, if this is true, what nature took millions of years to do, we undid in just over a hundred years.  And the irony is we’re scrambling to develop technology to put carbon underground again.

Six Degrees Could Change the World is the most powerful documentary I’ve yet seen to warn us about the impact of global warming.  We should all get a copy and watch it every Sunday morning and contemplate our future.  I do believe we are the current cause of global warning and I also believe we have the technology to reverse its effects, but the tragedy of all of this will be when humans refuse to do anything.

To refuse the blame for causing global warming is one thing, to refuse to do anything about it is something else altogether.


Dangerous Psi-Fi Phantasies

There’s a major difference between science fiction and fantasy. Both work with the “What if…” hypothesis, but there should be a distinct difference in intent that the reader should recognize. The Sci-Fi writer might say, “What if we could travel to the planets?” Whereas the fantasy writer might say, “What if fairies lived in Central Park?” In the former, the author is suggesting that people might build machines and travel to Mars. He or she is creating a story about something that could happen in our reality. The fantasy writer, on the other hand, wants to tell a fun tale and asks the reader to assume there is another world, it might be like ours or very different, and hopes we will pretend to believe.

Most modern science fiction is a mixture of both kinds of “What if…” stories. For example, “What if people could travel to the stars?” and “What if people could build machines that could travel faster than light?” However, there is a special kind of “What if…” that I want to deal with, and that is “What if people had psychic powers?”

This “What if…” theme is fantasy but I believe that many people want to believe its science. Fantasy for fun is a delightful pastime. Fantasy for believing is being delusional. The difference can be the fun kids have playing first person shooters and going berserk and shooting people.

Years ago I ran across an article in an old science fiction magazine that reported that for decades public libraries banned the Oz books because they felt the books gave children unrealistic expectations about life. Since I was an Oz book fan growing up I was outraged at this idea, but as an adult I can’t help wonder if it wasn’t true.

Looking back I can see there are also a number of power fantasies for adolescents that I wonder about now. The two that I want to deal with the most are Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein and the Star Wars films by George Lucas. Both stories mix science fiction and mysticism and advocate the existence of mind powers. Heinlein even mixed traditional religion of God and Angels with super-evolved Martians in an effort to legitimize old ideas with exciting new SF ones.

I’ve read and reread Stranger in a Strange Land many times since 1965. It was the perfect power fantasy for a thirteen-year-old because it promised the power to think your enemies out of existence and have sex with lots of eager women. Now that I’m closer to Heinlein’s age when he wrote Stranger I realize it was also the perfect power fantasy for a horny old man. Stranger in a Strange Land was breakout radical for science fiction at the time. Now I see it as a pathetic fantasy about wife-swapping, wishing for life after to death, and the desire to either talk your enemies to death or blink them out of existence with a thought. It’s both a great novel and a sick fantasy.

Star Wars is actually a horse of a different color. On one hand it’s an old fashion adventure serial like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. Like Stranger it wants to mix in some mysticism but in a neutral non-religious way. Good versus Evil has always been part of fiction but George Lucas lucked out by inventing “The Force.” It’s such a nice packaging of an old concept that I can easily imagine that a religion being built around it in the future. It’s sort of a distilled essence of all mysticism. And that brings up the problem I have: is there any reality to mystic theories?

There are many kinds of mysticism but basically it suggests that humans can tune into a higher power. In some forms this is just communing with God and in other forms it means acquiring super powers to use on Earth. The problem with mysticism is it requires making a decision about reality and it’s a very fundamental philosophical decision. Even traditional theology has problems with mysticism. Mysticism opens up a can of worms for both theists and atheists.

The question becomes how powerful can a person be? In Star Wars and Stranger in a Strange Land people can become very powerful indeed. Even popular books like The Secret suggest people can tune into success via mental effort alone. Heinlein might have promoted the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch but his belief in mysticism suggested otherwise. That’s the problem with mysticism with its money for nothing and chicks for free attitude. Mysticism allows the universe to be anything. It’s a funny thing to believe in when most people do not have the mental discipline to lose weight. I also think it’s obvious that mental powers don’t exist; otherwise the stories of history would be very different.

In both real life and fiction life the reader needs to make a decision about the reality of this world and the fictional world. If you believe that magic works in books but not life then you’re probably sane, but if you believe that magic works in both places then you might be in trouble. There is a third alternative with a spooky physics of quantum mechanics solution and that suggests the universe is whatever the observer wants it to be, so in your universe mysticism works, but in mine I keep things orderly with the laws of science.

Einstein never could accept the spooky world of quantum physics that he discovered. He insisted that there is an objective reality that exists outside our minds. Back in the sixties and seventies when I was exploring altered states of consciousness and New Age philosophies I eventually came to the same conclusion. I decided that mystical thinking was indistinguishable from madness. And that is why at 56 I find stories like Stranger in a Strange Land and Star Wars repugnant. They are psi-fi phantasies.

“May the Force be with you,” is a wonderful sentiment for an adolescent fantasy but it’s a dangerous idea to live by. There are forces of nature, like gravity, electro-magnetism, etc. And there are forces we may not understand, but the belief that our minds can achieve godlike powers is a dangerous concept. In Stranger in a Strange Land everyone was God, but what about all those people Mike winked out? Weren’t they God too?

I don’t believe in Good and Evil, but I do think there are two forces in nature that those concepts can be compared to. Entropy is the obvious force resulting from the Big Bang but the harder to understand one is the force that assembles complexity out of chaos. That force took billions of years to arrange for us to exist. We aren’t here because of a blink of a thought. In our part of reality we are the crown of complexity, able to be self-aware of the reality around us and the history of the universe.

To deny this position in reality, to shut our eyes and dream of magic is a tragedy of epic proportions. “What if there was a world of tiny creatures that woke up in an immense reality of infinite possibilities and they chose to close their eyes and ignore it?”