May 17, 2014

Know Matter

In Samuel R. Delany's novel Dhalgren, the Kid (and readers) experience cognitive shifts that allow "Dhalgren" to become "Grendal" or "Grendel" or "Grendhal". Our brains try to fit all experiences into known categories while simultaneously struggling to define even more new categories. -William Dhalgren

For the Exode Trilogy, I've been having fun imagining that Thomas could write a novel that would simultaneously mock Isaac Asimov's writing (and his whole life as an author) and communicate an important message to Asimov. Sadly, Thomas does not know what the message should be, but he has a faith that if provided with the correct stimulus, Asimov will do what needs to be done to shape the Buld Reality. Even more sadly, Asimov is nearly immune to such manipulations, having suffered through ten years of blatant authorial puppetry under the heavy hand of his mentor, Campbell.

Okay, so I've allowed myself to fall in love with the idea of an artist struggling, with great passion, to save the world by creating a work of art that inspires people to rise up and do the world saving. So sue me.

No Matter
In the stories of Jack Vance there are a few words and phrases that appear with regularity. For example, some Vance characters cry out with passion, "By no means!", others simply interject this phrase into a calm discussion. I've begun to fantasize that there is one such oft-repeated glyph that encodes a secret message. No matter.

Imagine that I first draw your attention to something, then I give up trying to make my point and I tell you, "No matter." Now, imagine having heard a hundred people saying what you thought was the phrase "No matter," but then you suddenly realize that you were wrong...they were all actually saying, "Know matter."

If Dhalgren is a puzzle that we are not supposed to solve, then so is Google. 57% of the time you can use Google to find words and phrases in a book. 43% of the time Google's book search returns garbage. Oh, well. To the left are some results from Google's book search, showing some of the occurrences of the phrase "no matter" within Vance novels.

Click image to enlarge.
I've always been fascinated by people who can believe in non-material things. My brain automatically rejects the concept "non-material". However, for the Exode Trilogy I've been playing around with the idea that the pek have spent millions of years trying to modify primate brains so as to make it possible for a primate to transcend our physical world of hadronic matter and join the Huaoshy as artificial life forms in the Sedronic Domain.

For quite a while I've been making the simplifying assumption that there might be a single transformative step that could take you from the three dimensional world as we know it into the higher dimensional Sedronic Domain. I've imagined that the Bimanoid Interface allows direct communication between the Hadronic Domain and the Sedronic Domain. Then, in my previous blog post, I realized that I had been mistakenly merging and conflating two different concepts, in fact, two different material domains of the universe. I realized that the Hadronic Domain, the Hierion Domain and the Sedronic Domain are all distinct.

If the Hierion Domain is in an intermediate position between the Hadronic and Sedronic Domains, then I need to entirely re-imagine what the Bimanoid Interface does.

In fact, I've been misled by the name "bimanoid". The Interface allows communication between the Sedronic Domain and our world, but only by way of an intervening Hierion Domain.

Fantasy in Science Fiction
For several years I've been on a quest to discover a path by which I can eventually find it possible to write a fantasy story. I started out on this quest from the perspective of a fan of hard science fiction. For many years I was close to accepting the idea that science fiction stories should not include ideas that contradict our current scientific understanding of the universe. Example: I started out by writing science fiction stories in which the speed of light was never exceeded.

However, my definition of science fiction does make room in Sci Fi stories for fictional science. Thus, if Asimov tells us that hyperspace jumping spaceships are not magic, that they are using "future science", then I'm willing to allow him to include faster-than-light travel in a story...I can kick back and enjoy the story without saying to myself, "this is scientific nonsense".

For me, the boundary between fantasy and science fiction is crossed if the author both 1) contradicts our current scientific understanding of the universe and 2) makes no attempt to portray that contradiction as being made possible by an imaginary scientific advance.

Fantasy by Ignorance
One trivial or degenerate path that I might take in writing a fantasy story could be for me, simply out of ignorance, to introduce a plot element that contradicts current scientific understanding of the universe. Not interesting.

Fantasy by Blurring the Boundary
I could write a Sci Fi story in which something (call it "the Phenomenon") happened that cannot be explained by existing science. Within the story I could depict an effort by scientists to understand "the Phenomenon", and show those scientists being unable to understand "the Phenomenon" and wondering if they had stumbled upon evidence of supernatural forces.

In the Exode Trilogy, I do play with this blurring of boundaries. For example, the pek come to suspect that there is something special about the Neanderthal Brain. Given their half billion year history of holding a scientific view of the universe and observing many thousands of Earth-like planets and never observing a biological species with telepathy, the pek are a bit slow in recognizing that Neanderthals have a type of naturally-evolved telepathic communication. In the story, R. Gohrlay and her tribe of telepathic positronic robots discover the scientific basis of their telepathy. Fantasy is averted.

Another example: Gwyned is teleported off of Earth. Trained as a physicist, Gwyned is fascinated by the idea of a technology that allows people to be teleported across the galaxy. At Lendhalen, nobody can explain to her how teleportation works, so she makes an effort to study a teleportation terminal and learn how it works. Sadly, Gwyned's investigative endeavor is rather like a curious monkey trying to understand a television. She never can figure out how the teleporter works nor can she imagine the "future physics" that explains why teleportation is possible.

Of course, just because she can't come up with a scientific explanation for teleportation, Gwyned does not begin worshiping the pek as god-like beings who used supernatural powers to send her from Earth to Lendhalen. Gwyned's lack of understanding of matter (she was never taught about hierions and sedrons) prevents her from understanding the scientific basis of teleportation. By experimenting, she eventually learns to over-ride the programming of the teleporter and she is able to teleport Parthney directly to Earth (along with a travel companion).

The pek have other seemingly magical abilities that the bumbling humans in Exode never understand. I could depict the pek as wielding these powers like wizards in a fantasy story, but I don't. Fantasy is averted.

The Author's Personal Fantasy
Any writer of science fiction can use their stories to imagine and explore ways in which their own personal fantasies might be fulfilled. For example, in Asimov's Foundation and Earth, a gray haired old bookworm is provided with a young and beautiful lover. Some readers have suggested that this is totally unrealistic and this unlikely romance is just Asimov indulging his own fantasies.

Similarly, in Exode, I depict the Prelands as not eating meals. While it is true that I have little to no interest in food and I would not be sad if there were a convenient technology that relieved be of having to eat (the Prelands use such technology), I never set out to write Exode so as to fulfill my personal fantasy about not eating. My personal lack of interest in eating doubtlessly played a role in bringing me to the original idea that the Prelands do not eat meals, but we should resist interpreting seemingly magical plot elements in science fiction stories as evidence of weak-minded authors simply being unable to resist lame attempts to slip the fulfillment of their fantasies into their stories. I give an imaginary science account of how Prelands survive without eating meals and I did not include this plot element as a way to fulfill my own personal fantasy, so fantasy is averted.

Master of My Domain
Is my continual introduction of new "imaginary science" plot elements (such as the Hierion Domain) into the Exode Trilogy a way to turn my stories into fantasy? Maybe just by their sheer numbers all of these fictional science elements will tip the Exode Trilogy into the Domain of Fantasy. Maybe every science fiction fan has a Line That They Cannot Cross. If a story includes a particular plot device (be it faster-than-light travel, telepathy, time travel, teleportation, mind transfer, or whatever) each and every fan of science fiction might reach their limit for imaginary science while reading the Exode Trilogy. If no science fiction fan can read it, would that mean my story must have crossed the line and become fantasy?

I suspect that Dhalgren might be an example of this kind of "definition by elimination". Dhalgren is not easy reading for science fiction fans. Dhalgren is like a science fiction strip tease act. A fan of science fiction stories can see Dhalgren advertised as "perhaps one of the most profound and bestselling science fiction novels of all time", then decide to start reading the novel, and then find one's self in a seemingly endless process of self doubt, being forced to ask,  page after page, "Is this science fiction or just some silly fantasy story?"

Authorial Intent
So far, I feel that the Exode Trilogy is still firmly within the genre of science fiction. However, I have an important confession: if a reader did feel that the Exode Trilogy is fantasy then I would not be surprised or upset. It is my intention to introduce religious and technological plot elements that will blur the reader's understanding of just what is going on in the story and raise doubts about my intention as an author. For example, I might insert a chapter from the fantasy story "Daveed the Luk'ie" into Exode. Doing this might cause some readers to become disoriented, but it would not mean that Exode is itself a fantasy story.

Neither does admitting that I have an active project in which I'm trying to write a fantasy story mean that it is my intention to turn the Exode Trilogy into fantasy.

Know Matter
I've been having great fun since I decided to write myself into the Exode Trilogy. Now I have to ask:
if Trysta knew that it was important that "the editor" be well prepared to accept the idea of additional forms of matter, forms currently unknown to Earthly science, then how might she go about doing so without provoking the ever-vigillant Overseers?

This is the same kind of problem that confronted Cooper in Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. Stranded in the 20th century, Cooper needed to devise a cryptic message that could be sent through time to Andrew in the far future. He cleverly devised an advertisement in a magazine that would be viewed as harmless by people in the 20th century but which would catch Andrew's eye as a temporal anomaly.

Similarly, I imagine Thomas, arriving in our Reality from the Ekcolir Reality with personal knowledge of the effects of sea level rise, then badgering scientists such as Asimov and Sagan until they take seriously the importance of global warming.

Introducing Jack Vance
I've long felt that it was rather miraculous that I started reading stories by Jack Vance. Even more amazing is the fact that I can remember exactly when and where I first laid my hands on Vance's novels Trullion, Star King and Araminta Station. This is unusual, and the only other similar example is that I remember how I came upon The Gods Themselves, the first science fiction story I ever read.

Maybe it was "miraculous" that I started reading science fiction in the first place. In fact, all of my earliest experiences with science fiction came by way of televised movies and those experiences were all off-putting. It is conceivable that I could have gone through life as a scientist who felt that science fiction is a waste of time.

from " The Amazing Unknown" by Hugo Gernsback (August 1928)

Trysta arrived at the library for the third straight day. It had been three days since her target had last come to the library. On that first day she had planted several books in the library, passing herself off as a new resident of the town and donating a box of newish books, including a copy of Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves.

The librarian had been skeptical about the value of the books, "We don't have many readers of science fiction."

Trysta had shrugged, "No matter." She went upstairs and found the shelf that held the library's small collection of science fiction books. She looked at the titles that were arrayed along the dusty shelf alphabetically by author. There were a few copies of books by authors such as Astor, Bradbury, Burroughs, Cummings, Diffin, Evans, Flint, Meek, Rich, Serviss, Verne, Wells, Zagat and even a non-English copy of R.U.R. by Čapek.

Off in the corner at a table was Trysta's target, a young boy who was working with a friend on a project, researching the economic resources of Eastern Europe. They were making a lot of noise, but few people came into this little wing of the library that held seldom-used resources like atlases and science fiction novels.

Now, three days later, Trysta sat in the corner pretending to read a copy of "The Man Who Rocked the Earth" that had been signed by Robert Wood. Trysta was actually monitoring her target as the boy walked from school to the library. Asimov's novel now rested on the shelf with the rest of the science fiction novels.

It was Friday and Trysta's target was intent on getting a history book for an upcoming assignment. That task was quickly accomplished then Trysta took control, using the nanites that resided in her target's brain, placing him in a special kind of suggestible state close to sleep. Rather than head for the checkout desk, he went to the isle that held the science fiction books. After a minute of rather mindless wandering he focused his gaze upon the start of the science fiction shelf. The first book was by Asimov. He took the book off the shelf and a minute later was on his way home, the two library books in his pack. Trysta followed him outside and for a moment watched him walking off into the cool autumnal evening.

Upon arriving home he extracted The Gods Themselves from the pack and began to read. After a short time Trysta's nanites released their grip. He was hooked and had finished reading the book before the weekend was over.
Next: more on my personal first contact.

More book and magazine covers.

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