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Sep 2, 2012

Pushing Potion

"Convex and Concave" by M. C. Escher
In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter's story "Little Harmonic Labyrinth" the characters make use of "pushing-potion" to allow entry into fictional worlds such as that depicted by Escher in his drawing "Convex and Concave".

Pushing-potion is a liquid that when drunk by someone looking at a picture pushes the viewer into the world depicted in the picture.

Science fiction stories are sometimes set inside strange cultures where memories of the experiences of our everyday lives do not assist understanding of the motivations of the characters. If I, as the author, push you, the unsuspecting reader, into a truly alien fictional environment, is it best for me to subject the reader to a large amount of explanatory back story from an omniscient narrator or is it better to present the story from the perspective of a first person narrator who shares some of the reader's confusion?

Rebirth of Qattagon. In Assignment Nor'Dyren by Sydney Van Scyoc, the protagonist, an equipment repairman named Tollan Bailey, is not happy on Earth (an Earth of the near future where machines do all the boring work). He has a meaningless "job" where his employer pays him not to work and there is no real work to do.

His boss diagnoses Tollan as having been infected by a disease: the Protestant Work Ethic. Lucky for Tollan, he is sent off across space to a little planet where the inhabitants are inexplicably mired in a vast array of damaged and decaying equipment and nobody but Tollan has the skills needed to make repairs. Tollan has found the world that is perfect for him: he loves fixing machines.

Tollan's happy fate on the world Nor'Dyren is almost as magical as stepping into Escher's topsy-turvy "convex and concave" world where the woman at the upper left is going to go down the stairs and then exit stage right. At the same time, the guy on the ladder at the lower right is climbing up to the balcony where he will be standing 180 degrees flipped around on the other side of the floor that the woman will be walking on. 

I love the way that Sydney Van Scyoc was able to "push" Tollan into the alien culture of Nor'Dyren so as to simultaneously
1)  provide a way to put an end to the decline of Nor'Dyrenese civilization and also
2) provide Tollan with just the kind of world that would make him happy...he even gets the girl.

Tollan is the perfect "potion" for curing the ills of Nor'Dyren, a world that is just strange enough to induce in readers a rich sense of alien mystery and Sci Fi adventure. Van Scyoc was able to use third person omniscient narration but tell the story from Tollan's perspective while he struggled to understand the alien culture he had been suddenly pushed into. The omniscient narrator only dissolved the mystery of Nor'Dyren at the pace achieved by Tollan's rather bumbling exploration of his new world.

popping out of a world that you once inhabited
Pop-corn. Inspired by Assignment: Nor'Dyren, I've long imagined writing a story in which an unhappy protagonist travels to a distant planet and is lucky enough to find that the new environment is a perfect match to the protagonist's temperament. I've been trying to engineer the fan fiction story Assignment: Marune along these lines.

At the end of each of Vance's Alastor Cluster novels he leaves us with a young couple that is a bit adrift... after we finish reading the book we are forced to wonder: what are their fates? It is as if these couples have been dosed with popping-tonic or munched a bunch of pop-corn as the magical antidote to pushing-potion: they have been transformed and they no longer really fit into their world. Being softhearted and with a preference for happy endings, I'm strongly motivated to pull out the pushing-potion and move Vance's characters into a world where they do fit in and will be happy.



On the planet Wyst, the fanciful Jantiff Ravensroke saves and befriends an orphan nomad, Glisten, only to have her disappear into the wastelands along side the Moaning Ocean. At the end of Vance's story (with the help of the Conatic*) Glisten is not only reunited with Jantiff, but she has been cured of her people's odd compulsion to avoid speaking. But would Glisten be happy living on the tranquil planet where Jantiff was born? I think not. What about the planet Marune, is it a better fit for Glisten? We shall see. Something tells me that Glisten is not going to be content to simply sit at Yeak House while Jantiff is off on a mission and facing danger in the Rhune Realms.

At the end of Vance's story (Marune: Alastor 933), Efraim and Maerio must confront the fact that they are not really happy in their role as royal Runes. Is there hope for this couple? At the end of Wyst: Alastor 1716 the Conatic is prepared to start the difficult process of dismantling the great dysfunctional cities of Wyst, so it is not hard to imagine some social engineering for the world Marune. What if the Conatic assigns Jantiff and Glisten the task of working with Efraim and Maerio to start transforming the Rune Realms so as to put an end to the incessant feuds of the Runes? Can Jantiff and Glisten, if pushed into Rune culture, be the perfect curative potion for the social ills of the Runes?

Galactic Core.

I'm currently developing the story Exode, which takes a much less Earth-centric approach than previous stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. For other exodemic stories I have often placed an emphasis on Earthlings who escape from Earth then live as Genesaunts on other worlds. There are such characters in Exode (Hana and Gwyned), but Exode begins
with Kach and Parthney who are born on a distant world (Hemmal) located near the center of our galaxy. Kach and Parthney are mutants who do not fit into the strange culture of Hemmal. They must be popped out of their own world and sent in search of a world that is better suited to them. I have the fun of toying with the idea that Earth's culture is the one that Kach and Parthney should be pushed into. They grow up ignorant of Earth, only knowing that they do not fit in with their home world. They discover that their shared mutation makes them genetically indistinguishable from the humans on Earth.

Original artwork by Lee Moyer

Within the Exode story, the Fru'wu are another humanoid species that evolved in our galaxy. With some help from the Fru'wu, Parthney goes to Earth as an Interventionist, but he ends up being captured by the Overseers  and he is returned to the Galactic core. He now knows too much and, by the dictates of The Rules of Intervention, he is not allowed to return home to Hemmal.

After a long mission on Earth (13 years), Parthney returns to the galactic core and learns that he is a father, Kach having given birth to their son, Boswei. Parthney is able to arrange for Kach and Boswei to leave Hemmal (pop! pop!) and they go in search of the aliens who are responsible for creating the human species. Hana (the woman from Earth) is on a similar quest and the four of them come together in their efforts...ultimately they are rewarded by their discovery of the fact that the Fru'wu, while using their advanced technology to support Interventionist missions to Earth, are not trusted by the Nereids. The Nereids are human-like aliens from the Andromeda galaxy who have taken an interest in we humans.....

Location of the Nereid world visited by Kach

Andromeda. The name "Nereids" is given by Parthney to the aliens who he and his travel companions meet upon reaching the Andromeda galaxy. The Nereids originated as otter-like creatures who returned to land and then evolved along humanoid lines. The Andromeda galaxy was reached by the Huaoshy before the Huaoshy came to our galaxy and the Nereids are somewhat more technologically advanced than are the Fru'wu. About 300,000 years ago the Nereids were able to develop their own hierion technology and put out of business the Overseers who protected and nurtured their species during its technological adolescence.

The Nereids sent explorers to our galaxy and they have long had an interest in helping humans develop as a species, but, knowing the primitive nature of Earthlings, the Nereids have been reluctant to interfere with the Overseers who still monitor Earth. The Nereids trust the Overseers to do a good job of protecting Earth and they do not trust the Fru'wu. The Fru'wu have been trying to obtain advanced technology from the more technologically advanced residents of the Andromeda galaxy, technology that will allow the Interventionists of our galaxy to gain an advantage over the Overseers. The Nereids have no intention of helping the Fru'wu, since they know how important it is for the rivalry between the Interventionists and the Overseers of any species to play itself out.

Hana has also been searching for her long-lost husband, but she finally learns he is dead, having been lost when he was taken on a Fru'wu mission to the Andromeda galaxy, the mission when the Fru'wu last tried to make contact with the Nereids. Recognizing the reluctance of the Nereids to help them, the Fru'wu finally decide to make possible a human-only mission to the Andromeda galaxy. While on that new mission, Kach and Parthney relentlessly pursue their quest to make contact with the Huaoshy: the aliens who are responsible for creating Nereids, the Fru'wu and the Human species.

Izhiun's childhood home
After learning the fate of her husband, Hana wants nothing further to do with aliens, Overseers and Interventionists. By this time, Boswei has fallen in love with Hana. They become colonists on an  Earth-like world in the Andromeda galaxy. Hana and Beswei have been successfully popped out of their home worlds, found each other, and been pushed into a new world where they are happy. They have a total of 9 children, the oldest being named Izhiun.

For Izhiun, worlds like Earth, Hemmal and Reahand (the home world of the Fru'wu) are like mythical fantasy lands, only known through comments made by Hana and Boswei. Parthney and Kach continue their quest to find more aliens, aliens who are even more technologically advanced than the Nereids. When Kach goes missing, Parthney fears that he has lost her to the Huaoshy. Parthney also fears that his descendants (like Izhiun) will never know anything about
1) the history of Earth as the origin world of humanity or
2) Kach and the story of her life and efforts to learn about how the Huaoshy created our species, and why.
Parthney writes down what he wants Izhiun to know about his grandparents and ancestors. Reading Parthney's account, Izhiun becomes fascinated by Earth, the world that Parthney claims is the origin of humanity.

It turns out that Kach was not captured by the Huaoshy, she is secretly working with the Nereids and has been sent to Earth in an attempt to penetrate the Overseer base on Earth's Moon. In order to carry out their plot, they need the help of a human who, unlike Kach, shows no sign of having been a host for nanites. Izhiun is recruited by the Nereids and ends up going to Earth. Izhiun is able to help Kach and the Nereids "liberate" Earth from the Overseers, although the Nereids have no intention allowing the Interventionists to have their way with Earth, either. Neither Kach or Izhiun remain on Earth. Kach returns to the Andromeda galaxy to be with Parthney and Izhiun finds a new task that I describe in outline, below.

I've been trying to arrange for Exode to be in an epistolary format, a nested set of documents authored by Izhiun, Hanna and Parthney telling the story of their lives and adventures. This approach to telling the story takes some extra work above and beyond what is required when a story is told by an all-seeing third person narrator, however, I have a special motivation for telling the story in this way. (Hint)

Speed limit. Sadly, it appears that the speed of light is the speed limit in our universe. When I started writing stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe I respected that speed limit, so it was important to pay attention to signals arriving at Earth by way of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Back in those days I was greatly influenced by An XT Called Stanley which has a first contact plot similar to that in Carl Sagan's Sci Fi novel Contact. A radio signal broadcast by aliens is received by Earthlings who must decode the transmission. In An XT Called Stanley the alien message contains instructions for making a fancy computer. The alien-designed computer is built and it becomes the host for an artificial lifeform, the code for which also arrives by radio signal from the distant aliens.

A radio message from aliens might be detected by SETI, but what if radio waves are not the preferred method for interstellar communications? Maybe next year we will discover an entirely unexpected means of more efficiently sending information across vast distances. Various advanced technologies for interstellar communication have been plot devices for science fiction including Asimov's hyperwave and Ursula K. Le Guin's ansible.

For Exode I adopt the idea that the Huaoshy long ago discovered a way to send information at speeds greater than the speed of light. I even wrote a story about the era long ago when the Huaoshy were not yet able to travel through space at superluminal velocities, so they made first contact with some other species by means of hierion-based communications technology. Species such as the Fru'wu and the Nereids are just starting to explore the science of hierions that makes possible faster-than-light communications. The Huaoshy are much older than the Fru'wu or the Nereids and we humans. In addition to having mastered hierion engineering, the Huaoshy have a very sophisticated science of sedrons which allows for faster-than-light space travel.

In Asimov's story Nemesis he imagined an intermediate step before the development of faster-than-light space travel, a way to travel at just under the speed of light. In Exode, the Huaoshy are in no hurry to provide their advanced technologies to lowly species such as we humans. The Huaoshy have been in our galaxy for the past 7,000,000 years and during most of that time they have worked to help native species such as we humans evolve towards biological forms that are able to sustain a technological civilization. The first such species in our galaxy to discover hierions were the Fru'wu, and they accomplished that about 50,000 years ago (spoiler alert: how the Fru'wu accomplished this dramatic technological advance is one of the major mysteries in Exode). After 20,000 years of effort the Fru'wu learned how to make use of hierions to move spaceships at close to the speed of light, making possible "generation ships".

The Fru'wu provided some of the humans living near the galactic center with generation ships. Those Prelands with spaceships became the Buld Clan. Working together, elements of the Buld Clan, the Fru'wu and the Nereids function as Interventionists, attempting to speed the pace of technological development on planets like Earth and Reahand. The dynamic equilibrium between Interventionists and Overseers is carefully maintained by the Huaoshy (without the knowledge of either the Interventionists or the Overseers) and creates the conditions under which a species like the Fru'wu or we humans can learn the wisdom of the Rules of Intervention.

The Fru'wu long ago provided the crew of one of the human generation ships with the coordinates of Earth, suggesting that although Earth is for from the galactic core, it was the origin world of humans. That ship has been on a thousand's-of-years-long journey to Earth, although, due to relativistic time contraction, the crew only experiences a couple of hundred years during the trip. It turns out that these Bulds are going to reach Earth just about now, which forces the hand of the Nereids: they can no longer stand by and let the dance between Overseers and Interventionists play itself out on Earth.

The Nereid Solution. In the end, the Nereids do not let either the Overseers, the Interventionists or the newly arriving Buld have their way with Earth and our primitive culture. The Buld spaceship is deflected away from Earth and Izhiun joins the Buld in starting the process of terraforming Mars. We Earthlings are confronted by the shock of knowing that humans are now colonizing Mars and they need our help. When going to join the Bulds on Mars, Izhiun leaves behind, uploaded to the internet, a copy of Exode.

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*In the Alastor Cluster novels of Jack Vance, the Conatic is the hereditary ruler of the Cluster. The Conatic lives shrouded in mystery and often plays the role of a traveling journalist or minor government official in order to freely move among the people of the Cluster. (return)

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