Dec 19, 2015

Phase Space

Squids in Fiction!
No, this blog post has nothing to do with Stephen Baxter (or the souls of squids). Although Souls of Squids would be a good name for a rock band.

In mathematics, a phase space analysis can help inform us about the interesting features of a dynamical system. One of the fun things you can do with a phase space is study trajectories. Where will I end up if I start at this location in space? For many systems, there are attractors that govern trajectories.

Even if you never studied mathematics, as a primate you can think of events in your environment as existing in a phase space. Start with what we call "space" and think about how objects behave in space and time.

A famous example of a trajectory is that of an apple falling from a tree. We all expect an apple to grow on the branch of a tree. If the stem snaps we expect the apple to fall towards ground, accelerating due to gravity and then stopping and resting on the ground. A genius like Newton can realize (and mathematically confirm) that the same force that controls the trajectory of an apple controls the trajectory (orbit) of the Moon.

After a million years of bipedal primates wondering about what held the Moon in the sky, careful thinking, a few measurements and mathematics solved the mystery. Just how widely can we apes apply phase space analysis? Let's try using it to study fiction.

Science Fiction
A fiction phase space (click image to enlarge).
We humans are story tellers. Many of us are greatly entertained by telling and hearing stories. Imagine a phase space where there are three story telling parameters: skepticism, wonder and humor.

For the image to the left, I arbitrarily labeled the three axes with skepticism, wonder and humor. Also, I arbitrarily labeled three attractors as Fantasy, Mystery and Science Fiction.

I'm thinking of the color-coded blobs in this diagram as mapping out popular literary genres. Let's say that red shading in the diagram indicates the most popular types of stories in each genre.

genre analysis
Different readers, due to the chance environmental conditions of their early lives, might have different trajectories and get swept into having a particularly strong appreciation for one genre. For example, in my case, at an early age I was caught up in science fiction and to this day I have very little interest in fantasy.

I recently blogged about a short story written by Isaac Asimov called "Cal". Cal is an example of a story that manages to simultaneously include elements of science fiction, mystery and fantasy (see the fms attractor in the diagram to the right).

The "sub-genre" labeled "s" in this diagram represents stories that are both mysteries and science fiction. Example's of such stories are the positronic robot stories that feature Asimov's futuristic detective, Lije Baley.

The Great Attractor
skepticism and wonder
The type of skepticism that I had in mind as an axis for this phase space analysis of fiction is what Carl Sagan wrote about when he described science as involving a combination of skepticism and wonder. We can often distinguish between fiction and non-fiction by applying science-based standards for critical analysis of observations and evidence. As an example, think of people such as Sagan and Asimov who were writers of both fiction and non-fiction. As a specific example, think of their writings that involved UFOs and space aliens.

Sagan and Asimov both wrote fiction about space aliens, but in their non-fiction they both were "skeptics" with respect to existing evidence for actual alien visitations as popularized by "ufologists" and "new wave" believers in "UFO religions".

Even before I had discovered the existence of the science fiction literature I read Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. In my case, I grew up reading science before I discovered either printed science fiction stories or psuedoscience. However, for some people, psuedoscience and conspiracy theory dominates their world view. There have always been some people who believe in a flat Earth, Atlantis or the idea that space aliens secretly live among us.

The Event will probably be in 2016!
While I have fun inventing fictional stories about space aliens living secretly among us, other people claim to be in contact with actual space aliens, beings that the rest of us cannot detect or perceive. In my phase space analysis of fiction, I find these folks existing within the confines of a special sub-genre that attracts people who don't respect or abide by our society's conventional distinctions between reality and fantasy.

I'm intrigued by the fact that there have always been such "believers" at the fringe of the science fiction genre. For examples, I point to both the Shaver mystery and to John W. Campbell's fascination with what Frederik Pohl called "magic", such as L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics.

hottest esoteric, metaphysical, and spiritual news on the net!
If people enjoy fiction for the sense of wonder that it can provoke, then is it the case that "the most wonderful" type of fiction must be fiction that you believe to be non-fiction?

The Great Attractor
Is the most powerful attractor in the fiction phase space those stories that are viewed (by their believers) as non-fiction?

Here in this blog, I sometimes lapse into playing the role of a character in the Exode Trilogy. I've had a lot of fun writing myself into my own science fiction story, but I don't have any trouble keeping clear in my thoughts the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

I suspect that most people who put science fiction-like conspiracy theories onto the internet also have no trouble distinguishing their fiction from reality. Like me, they are just enjoying a particular science fiction sub-genre in which an author can pretend to be part of discovering the hidden secrets of our world. I suppose some folks dream of creating a popular fantasy about secret aliens on Earth and earning million$ from it. A few poor souls probably believe their self-created fantasies and have lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Imaginary collaborator.
For the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that the science fiction genre was designed and created on Earth in order to smoothly accomplish and accommodate a type of alien First Contact that would satisfy both the Huaoshy and Gohrlay. I frequently have fun by slipping into a blogging mode in which I pretend to describe for readers my imaginary discussions with Gohrlay, a fictional character.

I have to wonder: will the future be dominated by a new genre of fiction created by authors who purposefully blur the distinction between reality and fiction? Will science fiction, as we know it, fade away?

Related Reading: "there are some works that bridge the gap between speculative and realistic fiction" -Tom Rothamel

Recursive science fiction

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