Thursday 15 June 2017
book review: Thought X
Thought X: fictions and hypotheticals.
Comma Press. 2017
Ra Page at Comma Press has commissioned several books with the same concept: a bunch of academics are paired up with a bunch of fiction writers; they share a technical concept, the writer uses it for a (usualy science fictional) story, the academic writes an after-word explaining the technicalities. I was involved in an earlier book (Beta-Life) themed on Artificial Life and Unconventional Computing; this book covers thought experiments and philosophical paradoxes. Caveat: because of my earlier involvement, the publishers sent me a free copy of this book, for review.
One of the reasons I read science fiction is for the way it can include technical information as part of the story. And as I was reading many of these, I was reminded of several other tales based on simlar concepts. The technical after-words cite technical papers for further reading; I thought that here I could reference other fiction (and a little non-fiction, I confess), for readers who want more.
Several stories are based on special and general relativity: apparent paradoxes from its non-intuitive nature, and thought experiments by Einstein, master of such Gedankenexperimente. We start with Adam Marek’s “Lightspeed”, based on the Twin Paradox, where a person who goes of in a spacecraft moving close to the speed of light will find on their return that they have aged less that those who stayed at home. Here the traveller is a husband and father, leaving his family ever further behind on each trip he takes. This form of time dilation is a staple in SF, including Robert Heinlein’s 1956 juvenile novel Time for the Stars, featuring actual twins, and Joan D. Vinge’s 1974 novella “Tin Soldier”, which pairs a slowly-ageing cyborg with a time-dilated space pilot.
The next topic is the Experience Machine: is it better to live in reality, or experience more pleasure in a simulated world? The argument applies to drug use, too. Zoe Gilbert’s “Tether” gives us a story where the experience may be a magical hallucination, or such advanced tech that it is indistinguishable from magic; either way, the bliss of flying as high as a kite is irresistible. Examples of Virtual Reality and consciousness uploading abound in SF. Tom Cool in his late 1990s novels Infectress and Secret Realms delves into full immersion VR, and shows how, rather than being utopia, it can be used as the most sophisticated torture device ever invented. A few years earlier Greg Egan was exploring uploading, in Permutation City and Diaspora. The trope is common in SF movies too: 1999 alone saw The Matrix and eXistenZ.
Sarah Schofield’s “The Tiniest Atom”, a story of loss in war time, takes on Laplace’s Demon working in a Newtonian universe, where if you know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, you can perfectly predict the future. Recently, chaos theory has shown that determinism does not necessarily imply predictability, because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions; one consequence is the Butterfly Effect, which has made its way into science fiction literature, with Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder” (presciently killing a butterfly) and James P. Hogan’s wonderfully titled 1997 story “Madam Butterfly”.
Annie Kirby’s “Red” moves from the technological to the psychological, and the thought experiment of Mary’s Room: a scientist is raised in black and white world, yet knowing everything there is to know about light, and the colour red; how will she react when she first sees that colour? (I always worry about the protocol of this experiment: the first time Mary gets a paper cut, or bites her nails over-enthusiastically, it will ruin the setup.) Here the protagonist loses her colour vision, but red plays a key role in why. I don’t know any SF based on this thought experiment (although gaining a whole new sense might be related), but the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written an interesting chapter on Mary in his 2005 book Sweet Dreams.
Andy Hedgecock’s “XOR” is a clever little double-loop variant of the Grandfather Paradox, where you go back in time and kill your grandfather, or make some other change, that alters the future so that you are no longer in the position to go back in time to kill your grandfather. Science fiction is full of Time Patrols, and Time Police, and Time Guardians, to stop this sort of thing in its tracks, and full of Time Criminals refusing to be stopped. Robert Heinlein has a couple of variants on this theme, with the time travel actually creating, rather than destroying, the timeline: his 1941 five finger exercise “By His Bootstraps” and his 1959 masterpiece “All You Zombies—”. There are several films in the sub-genre: The fun Back to the Future (1985), the bonkers Looper (2012), and the twisty Primer (2004) are just three examples.
Mary Louise Cookson’s “Bright Boy” is inspired by Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment attempting to break the second law of thermodynamics. Here a little boy appears to have uncanny control over information and entropy. I’m not sure I know any SF that is explicitly about breaking this law, although many blithely ignore it.
The Chinese Room is an old chestnut in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence: a man who does not know Chinese sits in a room following an algorithm to translate input Chinese symbols into output Chinese answers: where is the understanding of Chinese? Annie Clarkson’s “The Rooms” features a woman employed to converse with human-like robots, to help teach them their roles. But she is following a prepared script. Who then is the robot? SF is full of robots, but their intelligence and interior life is usually a given (or at least as much of a given as the interior life of any of the other characters). Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett take a long hard look at the overall argument in their 1981 collection The Mind’s I.
Schrödinger’s Cat has long bothered quantum mechanics. Put a cat in a box with some poison that has a 50:50 chance of killing it. Is the cat dead, alive, or somehow both before you observe it? Here Margaret Wilkinson, in “If He Wakes”, has a protagonist who does not want to ask a fateful question, for fear of causing the very incident she is asking after. Greg Egan’s 1992 novel Quarantine explores different aspects of what happens when you open that box, and Jo Walton’s moving 2014 novel My Real Children explores a whole two lifetimes of superimposed consequences.
Several hundred years before Einstein, Galileo had a way with thought experiments. One, Galileo’s ship, shows that we could be enclosed in a ship and unaware of our motion relative to the sea; today we have this experience in cars, trains, and planes all the time. Claire Dean’s “People Watching” uses this idea to play games with the reader’s perspective: we are not where we think we are.
In “Monkey Business”, Ian Watson builds a world where the proverbial randomly typing monkeys are being monitored for their Shakespearean output. His world is growing more complex as a whole infrastructure is being built up to support the monkeys and the analysis of their outputs; there are even different factions of philosophical arguments about the success criteria. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published his story “The Library of Babel”, sufficient to file away all the monkeys’ outputs. William Goldbloom Bloch’s 2008 treatise The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel captures the sheer Vastness of this endeavour, along with other bizarre properties.
Sandra Alland’s “Equivalence” is based on Einstein’s Equivalence Principle: enclosed in a lift, you can’t tell if the lift is stationary on the ground and force pressing you down is gravity, or if the lift is in space and accelerating upwards. In the story, an acrobat who performs drops with aerial silk is confined in a windowless room.
Robin Ince’s story “The Child in the Lock” is based (mostly) on the philosophical argument about The Drowning Child: if we saw a drowning child, we would save it, even at cost to ourselves, so why don’t we spend at least as much saving the out of sight starving millions? The protagonist comes to a different conclusion: they don’t save the child, for several mutually inconsistent reasons that sound all too plausible. Although this story borders on horror, Ince gets humour in early with the line “Tom had been an actor but decided to take a break from it as he’d always been keen to get into telemarketing”. The story also obliquely refers to The Spider in the Urinal, where the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes, or, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Meaning well is not enough. There is a small sub-genre of SF stories about going back in time to kill Hitler, which just makes things worse.
Adam Roberts, in “Keep it Dark”, is trying out a novel explanation of Olber’s paradox, or why is the sky dark at night? If the universe were infinite and homogeneous, every line of sight should eventually end on the surface of a star: although they look smaller when they are further away, there are many more of them. Roberts goes for a solution based on the latest physics. One famous SF story about the sky being dark at night, but not as dark as expected, is Isaac Asimov’s 1941 novellette, “Nightfall”. And Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 story “The Nine Billion Names of God” has the night sky getting darker than usual, with one of the best last lines of a short story.
The book finishes as it starts, with another of Einstein’s thought experiments, here, chasing a beam of light, never catching it, but experiencing time dilation. Anneliese Mackintosh, with “Interia”, studies the time dilation of dying.
Thought X is a good entry in the long tradition of basing fiction on scientific fact. Here we have a wide range of thought experiments and paradoxes, with stories questioning, stretching, and interpreting them, then after-words explaining the scientific basis. The lucky reader thus gets the best of both worlds.
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