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The God Particle

As you’ve likely heard by now, there’s been big news in the particle physics world this past week. CERN managed to discover a Higgs boson particle. Why is this a big deal? Well, my physics knowledge is fairly basic, but from what I gather, the Higgs boson is the particle that gives things mass. In essence, it is the thing that makes physical matter possible. This, as you can imagine, is a HUGELY important little particle. Without it, the world as we know it would not exist. Hence, it’s been called ‘the God Particle’.

In the Higgs boson, science fiction authors across the world suddenly have new and interesting ways to envision the future. Already, folks have been discussing the applications of the Higgs, and this is just the beginning. The Higgs boson gives hard sci-fi authors ways to explain FTL travel, antigravity, teleportation, and a bunch of other things without having to resort to the discovery of ‘handwavium’ on some distant world or the use of wishy-washy science babble to explain wild concepts. This is a really cool time to be writing hard scifi.

(Note to self: start writing more hard sci fi) 

You watch: the future will show spaceship cockpits to look exactly like this. Just to spite us all.

It’s always interesting to see what science fiction sees as the technology of our future. It is almost always colored by what they thought, at the time, was the Next Big Thing. In Asimov’s Foundation series, for instance, he present nuclear power as the gateway to things like hyperspace travel, personal energy shields, advanced industrial cutting equipment, and host of other things. Heck, they even irradiated their dishes to clean them. Today, such advances seem either irresponsible or ridiculous, mostly since we know a good deal more about nuclear power than we did and know that it wouldn’t be terribly useful in many of those applications, and mostly because the average person doesn’t want to die from radiation exposure.

Earlier than that, HG Wells used balloons to explain time travel in The Time Machine, theorizing that travel through time wasn’t substantially different than any other kind of travel–we simply lacked the technology to move forth dimensionally at will, just as man kind lacked the capacity to move in the third dimension at will until the advent of the balloon. Likewise, in War of the Worlds, the Martians arrive here in ballistic capsules that are fired from Mars to Earth from, presumably, very large cannons. This would demonstrate the Victorian era’s skepticism towards rocketry as a useful science. Oh, how wrong they were.

But, of course, this sneering down our nose needs to be accompanied with a fair amount of humility. We’re also probably wrong, you see. Predicting the future is never a good gamble, and what we think will be the Next Big Thing today might very well be a complete bust. Likewise, that gadget we’ve left by the wayside or decided to ignore (e.g. nuclear fission) might, in fact, be the very thing we find solves a myriad of problems in years to come. There is simply no way to tell, since science isn’t the kind of field that obeys deadlines or gives up its secrets easily. This is, ultimately, why I think all avenues of scientific research should be pursued. Someday, when we least expect it, the silliest thing we can imagine will wind up being the most important thing in the world.

I mean, c’mon, if I told you in 1982 that, in thirty years, they’d find a little particle that makes everything around you ‘actual’ and it was only found by creating a giant racetrack for subatomic particles at a cost of billions of dollars, you’d be skeptical. Then you’d probably watch something on Betamax, just for irony’s sake.

For Freedom of Bathroom

Ah, yes. Sweet freedom of bathroom...

Science Fiction, by its nature, tends to travel some dark roads. None darker, I fear, than a single, disturbing question: Why Do We Matter?

Asimov put the issue in pretty stark terms during an interview with Bill Moyers on A World of Ideas in 1988. The exchange went like this:

Bill Moyers: “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?”

Isaac Asimov: “It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.”

As should be growing more and more evident the more you pay attention to the world, we have less and less ‘freedom of bathroom’ as time goes on. If you aren’t disturbed by this, you should be. If you hope there’s a way out of this without something terrible happening, you should be a fan of science fiction.

Let us be bluntly, terribly frank: if you or I or any other person on this planet were to die *right now* or, indeed, if any ten or twenty thousand of us were to die this very moment, the world would continue to roll along. In some cases there may be political implications, sure, or this or that company on the NYSE may trade up or down as a result. But, in the end, it won’t matter one bit. There are billions of us; a couple thousand barely makes a dent. Hell, a million won’t stop much. Ten million. Demographics may alter, but will the world be changed? Probably not. At least not in any substantive sense. If you think McDonalds will vanish because the population of Mississippi croaks overnight, think again. If you think Assad will cease to be ruler of Syria just because he kills 10,000 of his own people, you’re probably wrong (if he leaves/is deposed, it will be different reasons altogether).

Population pressure is a supremely terrifying reality, and it is growing. This isn’t the first time it’s done this, and thus far humanity has been ingenious enough to figure out a way out of it. When cities overgrew their capacity to provide food and water to their inhabitants, humanity developed aqueducts and sewer systems. When the prospect of employment or decent lives grew ever more improbable or impossible in this or that locale, humanity found other places to colonize. When food became scarce, humanity found ways to utilize food more wisely. But how much further can we push this?

The only sustainable way to escape this pressure cooker we call Earth without the deaths of untold hundreds of millions is to find somewhere else to go. Otherwise, the more of us there are, the less we matter. This isn’t a moral judgement , this isn’t apocalyptic doomsaying, this is math.

So, for God’s sake, fund NASA. Replace the Space Shuttle with something new and better. Get our butts to Mars. Build a colony on the Moon. Think it’s a waste of money? Well, I’m going to give you two choices: spend money to build new frontiers for humanity, or spend money to destroy our fellow humans when they come after our bathrooms. Your choice. I know what I’d prefer; I only wish more people preferred that.

Anyone for Recreational Essay Writing?

I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:

The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.

 Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.

 Topic Suggestions

Paper 1 (pre-1960)

  • How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
  • Is The Time Machine  racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
  • How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
  • Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
  • Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?

 Paper 2 (post-1960)

  • Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
  • Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
  • In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
  • What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
  • In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
  • Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.

Well, enjoy!

Staggering Exposition

So I’ve been reading Michael J Sullivan’s novel Theft of Swords in between epic bouts of pre-semester preparation and a titanic move that seems endless. The story is passably engaging, the characters fairly familiar takes on the same old tropes, and has a few winning moments. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any further in the series after this one, but it has got me thinking about a particularly onerous and prickly aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy–exposition.

One thing I like about spec-fic is the immersion in a new and alien world (I describe this affection in more detail here). When you first start reading, you don’t understand the world, its rules, its history, its culture–nothing. You need to learn this as you go. Furthermore, the more intricate the plot and the more convoluted the intrigue, the more work the reader needs to do to figure out what’s going on, what the stakes are, and where the tension lies. The way writers need to help the readers along is with the use of exposition. The funny thing is, though, is that exposition is atrociously boring to read. No matter how necessary it is (and in a fantasy novel, it is very necessary), reading giant walls of text wherein the meaning of this or that thing is revealed is, well, dull. If you’re anything like me, you start hearing the voice of the teacher in all the Charlie Brown specials (“wah wah, wawah, woh WA wa wah”). Anybody who’s read The Fellowship of the Ring probably knows exactly what I’m talking about–those two chapters in the middle (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”) are DREADFUL reading. I think I’ve read that book four or five times now, and I still nod off during those things.

It’s easy, as a writer fully invested in your own fantasy world, to forget how boring exposition is. We sort of expect

Friends don’t let friends infodump like Holmes.

everybody to be as fascinated in the minutiae of our imaginary kingdom’s foreign trade imbalances and pottery exports as we are. We need to remember that this isn’t so. I could go on and on and on about the politics involved between the Guild Lords and Barons in the Duchy of Galaspin and how this has affected the history of Freegate, but I know none of you really, truly care. The reader only cares insofar as it is related to the story, and that’s it. My primary problem with Theft of Swords is how often the bad guys sit down, drink brandy, and spend pages after pages chatting aimlessly about their stupid plans–conducting conversations no real person would ever have–simply for the obvious and naked purpose of making sure the audience is keeping up. Ugh. 

So, if you’re writing fantasy and you need lots of exposition to get people on the same page as you, but exposition kills reader interest, narrative momentum, and dramatic tension, how, then, do you do it well? Well, keeping in mind that I’m just a poor unpublished author with an MFA, here are my humble suggestions:

  1. Trust Thy Audience: Don’t assume your readers are idiots who can’t keep up. You don’t need to spell every single thing out for them, nor should you. Keep it understandable, sure, but don’t hold their hands. They are smart people–they’ll figure things out through context clues faster than you think. Holding their hands too much makes them roll their eyes. Of course, there is a careful balance to be kept in check here. When I figure that balance out myself, I’ll be sure to tell you.
  2. Spread it Out: Under no circumstances should an author infodump the whole she-bang in one indigestible lump. In the first case, nobody really talks like this and no one allows themselves to be talked to in this way. There is literally no one I have ever met who will let me explain the full concept of reality-tweaking from The Rubric of All Things  in just one sitting. There’s too much to be said, and it gums up a person’s mind. Don’t do this to your audience–explain a piece at a time over a long period. Trust the audience to remember–they will!
  3. Explain Only What is Necessary: Always remember that characters aren’t going to have conversations about stuff they consider to be everyday, normal things. We don’t explain how the subway system works to each other each commute because it is, to us, utterly normal. To do otherwise is artificial and weird, and it reads that way, too. Therefore, exposition should always be strictly curtailed by what would naturally be discussed by the characters in question. Don’t talk about irrelevant stuff, either–stick to the point.
  4. Keep Exposition Tied to the Plot: Only exposit what is needed for the audience to understand and follow along. If it isn’t important, it gets almost no space to be explained. Don’t spend pages explaining how a magic ritual works if it doesn’t come up later in some important capacity. The minutiae aren’t all that important.
  5. Have Something Else Happening: Don’t pull the old Isaac Asimov trick of having two men in a room talking their heads off while sharing coffee. Exposition is no excuse to eliminate tension or conflict–have your characters explaining things quickly, on the fly, during something interesting or dangerous. Granted, there is a point at which a character shouting ‘no time to explain’ gets annoying (eg Lost), but equally annoying is being forced to eavesdrop on an artificial conversation that is constructed solely for the reader’s benefit.  

So, there you have it. Those are my rules, as they stand. I think I’m following them, but it’s not easy. Exposition is a delicate balance that even the best fantasy or scifi authors have trouble handling. It is, arguably, one of the most challenging aspects of the genre.

Wonder Vs Terror

So, recently my attention was drawn to this diagram floating around the internet that traces the history of science fiction. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I agree with much if not all of its suggestions (it gets a bit muddy towards the end there, but that is to be expected) and, in particular, I am drawn to the two words that are crouching atop its very beginnings: Fear and Wonder. Since I like the word better, I’m going to talk about them as Wonder and Terror.

Speculative fiction of all types derive their power, chiefly, from those two basic human emotions. Interestingly, they both primarily relate to what could be and not what is. Wonder is being stunned by something new you had never imagined before and Terror is dreading the manifestation of the same thing. These emotions led to the creation of pantheons of Gods, endless cycles of mythology, sea monsters, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the drawings of DaVinci and so on and so forth. Wonder and Terror–what could be and what we hope won’t be.

These emotions are the engines of human progress. They have brought us from the bands of nomadic hominids staring up and a night sky and led us all the way to this–the Internet. The endless tales we have told one another throughout the aeons regarding what we wonder and live in terror of have inspired humanity to strive for change and avoid the many pitfalls our progress may afford us. Though we haven’t been successful in all our endeavors, we still try. We try because we can’t stop wondering and we can’t stop quailing in terror at our collective futures.

The balance of these forces change, as well, as time marches on. Our relationship with technology and progress–whether we live in awe of its possibilities or in fear of its consequences–is in constant flux, dependent not only on the power of the technology itself, but also upon the mood of the society itself. In the times of Jules Verne, for instance, science was the great gateway to a better world–the engines of technology would wipe away the injustices of man, clear up the cloudy corners of his ignorance, and lead him to a bright new tomorrow. That tomorrow wound up being the early 20th century, with its horrifying wars and human atrocities, and so we read the works of Orwell and Huxley and even HG Wells, who cautioned us against unguarded optimism and warned of the terrible things to come. The cycle was to be repeated again, with the optimism of the 1950s (Asimov, Clarke) giving way to the dark avenues of writers like Philip K Dick and even William Gibson.

Where do we stand now? I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say this is a dark age for speculative fiction. We look to the future with pessimism, not optimism. Our visions of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise) are numerous and bleak. With every era there are your bright lights of hope–the Federations of Planets and Cultures–that say that yes, one day humankind will rise to meet its imagined destiny with wonders of glorious power, but for every Player of Games  there seems to be a World War Z or The Road. Perhaps I’m wrong.

This coming spring, if all works out (and it looks like it might), I will be exploring this idea in much greater detail in a class I’ll be teaching on Technology and Literature. I’ve been wanting to teach this elective for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I can teach but, more importantly, to see what I’ll learn in the process.