domingo, outubro 22, 2017

Vintage Wave-function Collapse: "What Mad Universe" by Fredric Brown

And then you say "putting ideas under the noses of the people who most hate them. That's what science fiction exists for." You sure about that? I suspect most readers who expressed a preference would say that they are generally rather keen on ideas. In fact, the literary-fiction crowd often use 'the idea is the protagonist' as a stick with which to beat SF. The problem is that the notion of travel comes from movement through space. When we're standing still, and on no conveyance, we are not traveling relative to the world around us (of course, the planet is traveling through space). But in the case of time, when we stand still, we are indeed moving forward at the pace of life in time. So, in that context, time travel must mean more than that standing still movement - it must mean traveling faster than that to the future, or at any speed at all to the past, which does not happen at all in natural life time. One view of time is that is does not actually "pass", as we experience it, and that there is nothing uniquely real about the present. There is a 21st century and there is a 16th Century, there are elephants and there are trilobites. The past or future are not less real because we do not coexist with them, any more than distant universes, separated from us by the speed of light, are less real because we cannot perceive them. As Einstein put it: "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion".
The events, say, in a person's life, can be viewed, not as a cradle to grave chronology, but as continuous whole that can be narrated in any order. Forwards, backwards, or hopping around like a knight on a chessboard. This view of time is explored in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five", and a 'backwards' version in Dick's "Counter-Clock World". This kind of time-travel is, I'd argue, consistent with physics; time cannot 'move' because it doesn't occupy a physical location from which it can move.

The idea of time travel was first set out by H. G. Wells (Fredric Brown makes a clever use of him in this book) but since then, like the internal combustion engine, very little of the idea has changed. We still generally think in terms of a machine or cabinet that propels the passenger backwards or forwards in time. Think for one moment however of the written word used by Mr. Wells and Mr. Brown to convey this idea. Well’s book was written in 1895 following thoughts happening inside his head. Without the written word, those thoughts would have remained trapped in 1895 unless some form of aural tradition of storytelling had taken it forward. Hence thoughts inside Mr. Wells' head have travelled from 1895 to 2017 and beyond as did the character Keith Winton (aka Karl Winston, his doppelgänger).

But Brown is not interested in time travel. As someone who is here and not there (possibly), I have noticed that there are two, possibly more universes, or realities in Portugal today. I cannot comment about other countries because, as I said, I am here, not there, yet it seems that, for many years now, the clear majority of people have been viewing the world through a screen. They awake and turn on the screen, then travel to work looking at the world through a screen, spend eight hours or so staring at another screen, sometime obeying the instructions that are displayed again and again and again, like Pavlov's dogs they salivate at each ping. Then they return home, looking at the world through a screen and doze off with a plastic tray on their knees staring wide eyed at another screen again. In this reality, there are a host of people who do not exist. Some of them are reported to have died years ago. I always understood that Adolf Hitler died in 1945, but there he is, still driving round Europe with his arm stretched out, shouting at people. And what is Henry VIII doing there? Apart from the dead people, there are many who believe that we should celebrate the fact that they do not exist. What is worse, they have award ceremonies to congratulate each other on their nonexistence. Recently I observed a new and disturbing phenomenon. These machine people from planet Screen now walk along the pavement with their eyes focused intently upon a tiny screen in their hands while jabbering away to an invisible man. I admit that my brain didn’t start to fall apart while reading “What Mad Universe”, but the massive torrent of ideas that Brown puts forward, and the startling consequences of those ideas are so interesting that I was reading it as the washing up piled up in the sink, and the house plants were dying around me. Too bad Brown was not more of a stylist. The prose is as wooden as a dead tree. But alas, the ideas are all there. Too bad Brown didn’t travel forward in time to 1957 to take full advantage of the fact that the many-worlds interpretation was not being really about the universe splitting per se, i.e., to avoid the problem of wave-function collapse that is invoked in measurement. The principle of superposition means that we can create states that are, for example, half spin up and half spin down. When we make a measurement of the spin, the wave-function collapses into only one of these states. However, these measurement processes are qualitatively different from unobserved processes, which allow the wave-function to evolve smoothly with time. This has led to a lot of discussions about the role of observers in quantum mechanics (Schrödinger's cat, etc.) The basic idea of many worlds is that there is nothing special about measurement. The wave-function only appears to collapse to the (necessarily quantum) observer, but all possible universes coexist in the same way that the states spin up and down can coexist for the electron.

There's more than one way to skin Schrodinger's cat. Dexter Palmer, 67 years later, wrote what Brown couldn’t.

5 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

See, this exactly the same kind of stuff that Blake Crouch deals with in "Dark Matter". And everyone is losing their mind about what a great idea author he is. Rehashed ideas, blahh.

I am just this year beginning to realize how much people ignore the past. They refuse to read old SF in favor of new releases so they get their panties in a bunch at ideas that are decades old. I read a lot of SF that I didn't care for in the 90s as a teenager, Budry's "Rogue Moon" is the PRIME example. But all that gave me a much wider base for my later reads. If I hadn't read Rogue Moon, when I read that collection of short stories by Reynolds, his reference would have meant nothing. I wouldn't have missed out but my experience wouldn't have been as deep.

It just seems to me that people are paddling in the kiddie pool these days and exclaiming what a wonderful experience swimming is. While I've in the deep end of the pool, looking out at the ocean, wondering.

So, do you think this book is worth reading? It sounds pretty rough and not very appealing to be honest.

Also, is it easier for you to do the whole comments thing here on blogger or back over on wordpress? You just let me know what works the best...

Manuel Antão disse...

It's a pretty rough read by today's standards. But sometimes I just want to read SF for the ideas, not for the prose. This one of those cases. The prose is horribly pedestrian, but I can imagine you and me reading reading it when it came out eons ago. We'd be glued to the pages!

One of my favourite writers ever, Cordwainer Smith. Aged 10, I read "The Game of Rat and Dragon" in a short story collection and fell into the world of the Instrumentality of Mankind. I return to it regularly...other treasures include (off the top of my head):

Iain M Banks - Player of Games, Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward
Ursula Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness; Four Ways to Forgiveness
Roger Zelazny - Lord of Light, Doorways in the Sand (plenty of wry humour in both)
Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon & the Baroque Trilogy
Walter M Miller - A Canticle for Leibowitz
John Brunner - The Jagged Orbit
Samuel R Delany - Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones
Kornbluth & Pohl - Wolfbane
A Scanner Darkly by Phil Dick
White Light - Rudy Rucker
Barrington Bayley - The Garments of Caean
Thomas Disch - Camp Concentration
Non Stop - Brian Aldiss
The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
Flow My Tears the Policeman Said - Phil Dick
The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
The City and the Stars - Arthur C Clarke
The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula Le Guin
Ubik - Phil Dick
The Invincible - Stanislaw Lem
Farewell Horizontal - K.W. Jeter
Captive Universe - Harry Harrison
Tower of Glass - Robert Silverberg
The End of Eternity b- Isaac Asimov
We - Yevgeny Zamyatin
The incomparable Douglas Adams, especially the earlier ones
Sirius by Olaf Stapledon - utterly haunting and heartbreaking
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
Dune by Frank Herbert (just don't ever go near some of the sequels, they increase exponentially in awfulness)
The Faded Sun trilogy - CJ Cherryh (and her Chanur novels, cats with intelligence and attitude)
The Majipoor novels - Robert Silverberg
The Star - Arthur C. Clarke - (I think that's what it's called): only a short story, but very thought-provoking)
Pavane - Keith Roberts - does that count as SF or is it alternative history?
I also recommend John Sladek’s very funny and thoughtful novel The Complete Roderick, a sort of SF Bildungsroman about an Artificial Intelligence given a robotic body, smuggled out of the laboratory where it was developed, and raised by human parents. Roderick’s exploits are reminiscent of those of the heroes in novels by Fielding and Smollet, but Sladek’s witty dialogue, satirical vision, and love of wordplay are uniquely his own.
The Moon is a harsh Mistress - Heinlein
Time enough For Love - Heinlein
Citizen of the Galaxy - Heinlein
The mote in Gods eye - Pournelle/Niven
A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge (and A Deepness in the Sky, by the same author)

Why am I writing all this? You know all these books...You don't need to be converted to the "cause" of SF...

It's true that some technologies haven't gone as far as the golden age authors thought they would, but others have advanced further than almost anyone imagined - look at the way that computers permeate everyday life now. The thing that dates a lot of classic SF isn't the space travel, it's the computers (or lack of them). In James Blish's 'Earthman Come Home', the characters spend months working out complicated equations with slide rules, before feeding the results into the city's computer (which consists of vacuum tubes). I think that's one reason why Jack Vance still seems so fresh - although his stories are often set on alien worlds, his stories typically concern societies, language and personality, rather than specific technologies.

NB: I prefer commenting here.

Book Stooge disse...

That is good to know that you prefer here. I'll stick to this then.

Now, one issue I had was that I read a lot of short stories/collections from the likes of Clarke, Asimov, etc and really enjoyed them. But as soon as they approached novel length stuff, it was ALWAYS a toss up if I would enjoy it or not. Honestly, besides Asimov's Foundation trilogy, I'd just recommend his varied collections of short stories. He can spin a wicked good yarn.

And a lot of the stuff I read I didn't particularly enjoy. I suspect that is why I'm definitely in the Fantasy camp these days. Take Canticle for Leibowitz. I don't remember much but my impression is dry and dusty and nothing happens. That might not be the case, but that's what has stuck with me over the years.

As for "technology", makes me wonder how many authors today, like say Blake Crouch or Tal Klein, with all their techno-babble talk, will be looked at tomorrow. If they're lucky, they'll be like Heinlein, who I just gloss over his "science" bits and enjoy the story. If they're not lucky, which is what I think, they'll be shown as examples of what exactly was wrong with the 21st century. Bunch of ignorant, lazy cretins! :-D
Practically ate their own poop and bathed in urine...

Manuel Antão disse...

I agree with you up to a point; it's a shame that Canticle, for all it's good qualities isn't as well constructed and tight as it might be... Good as it is, there's a loss of discipline towards the end. Not sure that that's a genre problem, but it is a problem.

Perhaps there should be two separate SF shelves in bookshops... SF that will probably never happen, ie faster than light travel, alien invasions, me going to work with a jetpack on my back and having a roast dinner pill for my lunch, and SF that could well happen: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and - rather depressingly - Cormac McCarthy...:)

Book Stooge disse...

But if you introduced that kind of split, then you'd have people arguing like crazy about WHICH category put their favorite book into.

It would be yet another schism :-D