Friday, May 22, 2009

Master of Space and Time

Master of Space and Time
Rudy Rucker
pp 229

1984 is a little outside "my period" for science fiction - I remember having a conversation with the fellow at the till about it: as good as the Star Wars and Star Trek films were (and in the case of the latter, the series and original books), the tie-ins that started appearing, in Britain at least, flooded the market with fiction that wasn't as cerebral as one would like sci-fi to be. But when I looked at the list of chapters and saw titles like This is the Name of this Chapter, Godzilla meets the Toad Man and 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, I knew I had to read it. James Warhola's cover art also intrigued me.

Rucker is a great-great-great grandson of the German philosopher GF Hegel. According to the author's online autobiography, his grandfather "could sense the gathering storm" in 1937, and sent Rucker's mother to America - "the land of the future" identified by the great philosopher in The Philosophy of History, "where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself".

Rucker is the originator of the literary art of transrealism, and has written a manifesto in which he sets out his stall, perhaps a trifle hubristically, but then the mathematician and computer scientist turned author displays his ability to dissect the makeup of a novel in his Writer's Toolkit. Here in his manifesto he explains the relation between SF and other forms of fiction:

The familiar tools of SF — time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. — are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully. This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.
Drs Harry Gerber and Joe Fletcher used to build fantastic machines together - for example, for the military, to make the enemy's water supply radioactive - but couldn't get patents for their inventions because they couldn't explain how they worked.

The machine at the centre of this novel is a "blunzer", a machine that works by altering the value of Planck's measurement in a flow of gluons (which hold quarks together in subatomic particles) which is then injected into the brain of the blunzee, giving him or her godlike powers for a limited period of time.

But time, as Einstein found, is the joker of the pack. Harry Gerber builds the machine first (before he forgets how he did it), but Fletcher sends him back the instructions upon being blunzed. Then...but that would be telling.

Herein lies one of the themes of the novel: as one reviewer stated, "Rucker is bewitched by the absurdities of the universe implied by quantum theory".

And boy, is the quantum universe absurd, as are its architects. Even as certain scientists fight tooth-and-nail to remove any trace of God from their universe, the "god-particle", the elusive Higgs boson, is sought by the Large Hadron Collider at Cern - the underground basilica of physics to which preposterous sums of money are sacrificed (although Austria has had enough of haemmorhaging shrinking resources, and may be the first of many). Even other scientists, including Cambridge's eminent Stephen Hawking, are sidelined: Hawking was publicly subjected to the astounding charge of his work being not good enough by Professor Stephen Higgs, who proposed the eponymous particle's existence in 1964, who had not read the paper in which Hawking stated that the universe would be "more exciting" if it were not found than if it were.

However, the novel transcends mere science, and is also a meditation on the traditional Hungarian folk-tale of "the peasant and the sausage" - a peasant catches a fish, which promises him three wishes in return for its release. Going home and telling his wife of his good fortune, he unthinkingly wishes for a sausage, and one appears; his wife, cursing his stupidity for wasting a wish, cries that the sausage should grow on his nose; and the third wish has to be used to remove the sausage. So, remembering that there are three sorts of gluons...anyway, the tale can be seen in only slightly altered form at the start of MGM's 1958 version of Tom Thumb.

Religion of a sort is present: the Church of Scientific Mysticism has "grown out of the mystical teachings of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel", and has a minister with the surname Bitter - Rucker's mother's maiden name (his father became an Episcopal minister). Fletcher's wife finds some comfort here, being worried about world hunger, but feeling angry and offended at Gerber's indication of an answer typical of those scientists who set the western agenda - that "there are too many people".

I don't think Rucker's being facetious here. Born in 1946, he would have been in his senior years at St Xavier's High School in Kentucky at a time when some theologians started to speak more and more like social workers, leaving scientists to pick up the discarded mantle and sew their own cloth thereon. For, as much as scientists try to obliterate God from the world they present for the consumption of the masses, all they succede in doing is effacing religious language. They are still left with some form of intentionality, or at the most basic level the question of the goldilocks universe, "why us?" Rucker deals with this question in a way that I found totally unexpected; his solution is far from an orthodox Judaeo-Christian one, but he nevertheless points, in his own way, towards "the higher reality in which life is embedded.

As both a modern take on the dangers of getting what you wish for and a fun read, I thoroughly recommend this cynical and witty working-out of quantum science in action as an antidote to theoreticians who take themselves a little too seriously.

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