Already here

2009 July 27
by Stace

I finished listening to Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World” today. You may be thinking to yourself, “Didn’t you read that back in high school?” Nope, not me. I went to high school in a place where a book like this could never be assigned. It has sexual promiscuity in it, and talks a lot about birth control. :::GASP::: No teacher would have dared to assign it.

Now, thanks to a sale at Audible.com, I picked up this missed classic on the cheap … and you know how I love picking up stuff on the cheap. Especially if it’s a classic.

So … “Brave New World.” What’d I think of this dystopia? Well, maybe in 1931 when Huxley wrote it, it was science fiction. Today, it’s reality, in any way that matters — in America, at any rate. I see little point in expanding this, since I’m sure I’ve made my opinions on American popular culture well known by now (in case you’re new here, I’ll just summarize by saying that I feel great contempt for it, in all its shallow, ignorant and deluded glory).

Enough of that.

I’ve been reading other sci-fi on the Kindle, namely two books in a series by Stephen Baxter, “Manifold: Time” and “Manifold: Space.” I’ve bought the third book, “Manifold: Origins,” but haven’t finished it yet.

These books are hard sci-fi, not to be confused with other, somehow softer, in a Charmin bath tissue kind of way, sci-fi. Hard sci-fi is based on real (aka “hard”) science, actual current theories of what we believe is truly possible. Compare this with, for instance , oh, I don’t know, Anne McCaffrey. She has a whole series of sci-fi novels with a unicorn girl and another where telepaths fling ships around space. Fun, yes, if you’re in the mood for it. Hard sci-fi, no.

These Baxter books were pretty much what I expect when I read hard sci-fi. Characterization is lousy. Nothing but a handful of archetypes tossed in the mix because, well, it’s hard to write about people in the future if there’s no actual people in it (or sentient life, whatever). But this is okay. It’s to be expected. These writers are into science, not people.

What makes up for it is that you get a look at the possibilities, of what the current thinking is about the future, without having to read any of those mind-bogglingly dull articles in real, honest-to-god scientific journals. You ever been over at Google Scholar? Egads. I can barely follow the synopses, let alone the actual articles.

That a writer is happy to do all that work for you, then rephrase it in language you have some small hope which you might grasp, I say is pretty awesome. Characterization be damned.

In “Manifold: Time,” I learned about the “Carter catastrophe,” the Feynman radio,” and vacuum decay, among other things. In “Manifold: Space” I learned about different types of spacecraft drives, the “Fermi paradox” and what happens when two neutron stars collide.

Okay, so if you ask me about these things next week, I probably won’t remember any of it, but right now … I’m golden.

It’s sad, really, that no matter how hard I try, I still can’t get my head around some really basic concepts in physics. Take the following as an example:

If you are traveling in a space ship at a high enough fraction of the speed of light, time will undergo some weirdness where it will move much slower than time for those people you left behind on Earth. The closer you approach the speed of light, the more pronounced this effect becomes. For instance what felt like, and was, a three-year trip for you, was a 30-year span of time on Earth. This has something or the other to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity, I guess.

Here’s the thing. I get the general idea, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I get it, but I don’t GET IT, you know? How can time slow down like that? I once read an article where bends in time were explained using an analogy with some bug walking around the rim of a bowl, and if the bug … oh, hell, I don’t remember. I didn’t get it. I guess I’m too concrete a thinker to really find an innate understanding here.

Still, I enjoy dabbling in it every once in a while, and if I spend half the novel scratching my head and going, “Huh?” well, at least I managed to grasp the other half. That’s the beauty of hard sci-fi, compared to something non-fiction, like “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking. About a fourth of the way in, I gave up on it. Nothing was sticking.

Wish I had some kind of nifty plan in mind, when I started this post, on how to tie it all together when I was finished blathering. Hmm … thinking … thinking … nope. I’ve got nothing. You’d think this was astrophysics.

4 Responses
  1. 2009 July 28
    Stephen permalink

    Yep, it’s all about the relativity, and even as a math/science guy it took me years to wrap my head around the idea. In a nutshell, relativity says that no matter where you are or how fast you’re moving, light appears to move at the same constant speed. The difficulty comes because that property is patently untrue in our experience. If you’re on a train moving 50mph, and you throw a baseball forward at 50mph, an observer outside the train “obviously” sees the ball moving at 100mph. Relativity says that, if you shine some light forward instead of throw a ball, you would see the light moving at C and so would the observer, no matter how fast the train was moving. The reason is that the faster the train goes, the more time on the train slows down compared to time for the stationary observer. Time is not a fixed quantity but rather “relative” to the speed you’re moving (hence the name of the theory).

    This bizarre prediction has actually been proven: an atomic clock on the peak of a mountain runs “slower” than an identical atomic clock at the base of the same mountain because the peak is rotating around the Earth’s axis marginally faster. Of course, the clock isn’t actually running slow — time itself is running slower up there, though not enough that you’d ever know without scientific instruments.

    • 2009 July 31

      I’ll have to spend some time thinking about that train thing. Thx. Maybe it will eventually sink in.

  2. 2009 July 28

    Stace,

    You are exactly correct! And I can relate to you. You see, I’m a science fiction fantasy author, BUT I’m not the “rocket scientist” of my family. My brother is the aerospace engineer (genius) who thrives on the real physics and math. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

    • 2009 July 31

      How cool! Congrats! I’ll definitely check it out.

Comments are closed.

hello