Nov 5, 2016

The Scientific Novel

1939 - art by Frank R. Paul
My first encounter with what most people might call a "scientific novel" was when I read The Search by Charles Snow. That was in about 1992 and I was easily convinced that by having already read James Watson's The Double Helix when I was young (probably around 1974), I had little hope of finding another tale of scientific discovery that would surpass Watson's account of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

In 2013 I was tempted to write a scientific novel about how Isaac Asimov became a time traveler. Sadly, Asimov's amazing journey back through time only existed as my fantasy (first described in some detail here). The basic idea was that in a previous Reality, Asimov bumped into some aliens who had advanced time travel technology at their disposal. For reasons of their own, those aliens took Asimov from the year 1947 back to 1939.

canals, farms, roads and a city on Mars (by Wicks)
That one rather innocent time travel mission altered the entire space-time continuum. Asimov set about mentoring his younger self, deflecting his own career path from scientific journalism towards being a science fiction story writer. Using nanites provided by the aliens, Asimov was able to impersonate John W. Campbell and publish a series of "science fiction" stories that were actually based on the future of the original Reality that the time traveling Asimov had been born into.

Of course, the time traveling Asimov helped cause a Reality Change, bringing into existence what we can call the Asimov Reality. Just as Asimov was positioned to write "science fiction" stories about the future of the Foundation Reality, it eventually became possible for Jack Vance to write about events in the far future of the Asimov Reality.

Click image to enlarge. (source)
When I began to write recursive science fiction involving Asimov and Vance, I needed to do some research into their early lives and the lives of other science fiction story writers. Since I had previously read his biography, it was not difficult for me to devised an account of how Carl Sagan had been brought into existence as part of the Reality Change that created the Final Reality, the world as we know it. Since then, I have occasionally been investigating the early lives of Asimov and Vance.

early map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli
In the case of Asimov, I'm intrigued by the idea that he grew up as a fan of fantastic fiction just when Hugo Gernsback began using the term "science fiction". Gernsback brought into existence several pulp magazines that were devoted to the idea of promoting a new genre of fiction that would carefully mix together science fact and fantasy. During the peak period of these early alchemical experiments in genre creation (the 1930s) Asimov apparently read every published science fiction story in the pulp magazines. He was able to do so because the magazines were available to him in his family's candy store.

canals of Mars by Mark Wicks
To feed his voracious appetite for knowledge, Asimov also mined the public libraries of New York City. One possible source of inspiration for the young Asimov's "writing disease" was Hugo Gersback himself. The genesis of Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C 41+ has been described by Gary Westfahl. Westfahl described how Gernsback was himself influenced by a story called To Mars via The Moon by Mark Wicks.

Scientific Novels
In his 1911 review, Gernsback described To Mars via The Moon as a "scientific novel". From our perspective, more than a hundred years later, it is tempting to contradict Gernsback and instead describe To Mars via The Moon as an "anti-scientific novel".

Wicks created a chimerical book that is one third astronomy textbook, one third travelogue and one third social/economic/religious/political propaganda with a smattering of telepathy and reincarnation tossed in to spice up the mix.

Maybe I'd be willing to accept Gernsback's label of "scientific novel" except for the fact that the story is built around one of the most famously bad translation errors in the history of astronomy.
modern map of Mars (click image to enlarge) source

To Mars via The Moon laboriously promoted as scientific fact the absurd idea that Mars is inhabited by people who have built a vast network of canals that distribute water to the warm equatorial parts of the desert planet from the polar ice caps.

For me, reading To Mars via The Moon here in 2016 brought back painful memories of having the read The Martian Chronicles when I was in school. As a school boy, I'd previously discovered Asimov's science fiction and it was difficult for me to swallow the idea (advanced by my teacher) that Bradbury's "chronicles" were science fiction. To his credit, Bradbury admitted, "I don't write science fiction" and he correctly labeled The Martian Chronicles as fantasy.

Bradbury had ideas he wanted to explore without being constrained by fussy scientific restrictions. He was happy to put his stories on the stage of a fantasy Mars, the kind of world that had been created from the imagination of previous authors (such as Edgar Burroughs) who wanted a near-Earth playground for their fantasy adventure stories.

To Mars via The Moon starts with the sort of anti-science "fantasy technological discovery" that is often found in pre-science fiction stories. With a few years of work in the barn, three men construct a spaceship that caries them off to Mars.

Dr. Asimov
Time Travel
A successful science fiction story must embed its fictional future science in a plausible social context. To Mars via The Moon makes no attempt to do this: the spaceship simply appears by magic and off we go to Mars. Even worse, the spaceship is only used once and nobody ever builds another one.

Time Portal
When I began trying to imagine the origins of time travel technology in the Exode saga, I wanted to find a way to account for the strange fact that the technologically advanced Huaoshy had never discovered time travel. First of all, I assume that time travel was not possible in the universe during the early era when the Huaoshy still existed as hadronic beings. Later, after the Huaoshy existed as artificial life forms in the Sedronic Domain, the dimensional structure of the universe was altered so as to facilitate travel at faster-than-light speeds. That change to the physical laws of the universe also made both time travel and telepathy possible.

the bumpha
Only much later did weak forms of telepathy evolve on planets like Earth. The bumpha and the pek noticed this phenomenon, but never realized the implications of positronics for achieving a much more powerful form of telepathy than what was possible for biological organisms. Thus, it was only by chance that the first positronic robots came into existence. Those positronic robots discovered that their positronic brains endowed them with powerful telepathic abilities. Also, with time, the positronic robots discovered how to travel through time.

Reality viewing
In the Exode saga, the events leading to the end of time travel are just as important as the story of how it was discovered. Eventually, after a long time war between the positronic robots and the Huaoshy, a way to end that war was discovered. The Huaoshy could make one more change to the dimensional structure of the universe which would make all further use of telepathy and time travel impossible.

I never very seriously thought of the Foundations of Eternity as a "scientific novel". However, the opportunity still exists to move in that direction since my next task is to alter the first part of the story so as to start with Asimov.

Next: a new mystery story about creating life
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