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A Novelist in Awe of Physics

17 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Should sci-fi be centered on human beings and human problems, as Theodore Sturgeon insisted long ago? Or is actual science vital for producing the “sense of wonder”? Most sci-fi authors these days lean toward the focus on people, no longer generating stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 “A Fall of Moondust” or Poul Anderson’s 1963 “Shield,” which had at their core a technical problem, or a technical breakthrough.

Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning” . . . swings firmly the other way. At the start Mr. Liu insists that all descriptions he uses of the titular phenomenon—in which lightning takes the form of floating balls of plasma—are based on historical records, and very strange they are. People burned instantaneously to ash while the wooden stools they were sitting on are left untouched; a man’s toenails burned off without affecting his boots.

The first quest, then, is for a theory to explain this intensely selective release of energy. The second is to find a use for it, if it can be controlled. Once ozone replaces gun smoke as the scent of the battlefield, ball lightning will succeed the tank and the nuclear bomb as the ultimate war-winner.

The theory, though, is what creates the wonder. We know about microscopic fundamental particles. Is ball lightning a macroscopic fundamental particle? If so, maybe the strangeness is quantum. When Mr. Liu’s protagonist Dr. Chen, whose parents were killed by a burst of ball lightning, and his colleagues create a thunderball gun, they find it works only in the presence of an observer. If you try it with the cameras off, it remains a probability cloud.

The trouble is that sometimes it works even when they have taken all precautions. So someone is observing, but they have no idea who. One thought is that ball lightning’s victims may continue to exist in a quantum state—like ghosts, in fact, trying to communicate. But how? The head theoretician says that once “you yourself become a macro-particle in a quantum state,” understanding the world will become a lot easier. Could this be reassurance? It doesn’t feel like it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


13 Comments to “A Novelist in Awe of Physics”

  1. All good stories are about people. But a good science fiction story is one that doesn’t work if you take the science fictional elements out of it.

    • SF works best at the intersection of humanity and the universe at large. Sometimes literally.

      One of my all time favorite novels is Gordon Dickson’s TIME STORM, which is exactly that: one contemporary man (not exactly sane) trying to fix a broken universe.

      A common theme: F.M. Busby’s TO CAGE A MAN and RISSA KERGUELEN both feature people driven to fix the world around them or die trying. Poul Anderson’s TAU ZERO and THERE WILL BE TIME. James Blish’s CITIES IN FLIGHT, Herbert’s DUNE. Dozens more are easy to list and I strongly suspect they are all hard if not impossible to find in China.

      Back in the day I read a fair amount of government-tolerated russian SF and found it ranged from trivial to empty “high concept”.

      The literature of ideas needs room to roam and authoritarian mindsets/regimes can’t allow that.

      • Mr. Liu’s novel is an excellent example of “what if” that does fit the hard science fiction label. “Best knowledge at the time” – his delightful hook is perfectly consistent with quantum theory. (That quantum theory has serious issues is besides the point – it is still the best current description of the real world that we have.)

        “Cities in Flight” – well, if you strain very hard; there is a serious excess of handwavium in the mix. “The Seedling Stars,” though! Pure fantasy. (But better written fantasy than “The Day the World Turned Upside Down – at least it was self-consistent once it threw out a basic scientific law!)

        • There’s more to SF than hard science and “best science of the time” stories.

          If that were the case there would be few if any classics since everything would be dated after a decade or two. The genre allows for speculation and extrapolation and, above all, the idea that the science of the day might be incomplete (a certainty) or even flat out wrong.

          There’s other metrics, which is where Sturgeon’s brand of SF comes in along with Heinlein, Bradbury, Anderson, Dickson, Blish, Herbert, and even LeGuin.

          It’s a broad field and, frankly, hard SF is the smallest niche in what is already a niche.

          I’ll grant that China being China, Liu has little choice but to stick with hard science since his masters won’t allow much commentary about human nature or societies.

          • One of the more amusing ploys I’ve seen came in the 60’s reissue of the seminal SKYLARK of SPACE, broadly seen as space opera or space fantasy today but written as hard SF in the early 20th. Written before Einstein or Quantum Mechanics, it is set in a purely Newtonian, quasi-MAXWELLIAN universe.
            In the tweaked version, one of the characters points out that the SKYLARK’s speed should be impossible under relatitivity. To which the protagonist shrugs and replies: It was a theory. The speed is real. We’ll need a new theory.

            No much else Doc Smith could do; his best science of the day had been superseded so the best he could do was to assume relativity would be superseded itself soon enough.

            The story remains as readable as it ever was, with the same flaws and the same seminal tropes, regardless of which genre pigeonhole somebody chooses to file it under.

            The fact remains that a good chunk of what has come after it owes its form to SKYLARK and any serious student of the genre should be aware of it. “Bad science” or not. The same applies to all older SF, hard science or not.

            (Recommended read: THE PRACTICE EFFECT by David Brin.)

            All fiction is the product of its time and place. And, besides, all fiction takes place in alternate universes, anyway. 😀

            • This is a great example of why “hard” science fiction should never be the foremost point of the story: you make yourself fortune’s pet. Stick with the timeless elements of the story: adventure! Cool characters! Exciting plots! /commercial voice.

              Burroughs thought Mars had dead seas. So did scientists back in the day of A Princess of Mars. Leigh Brackett thought Venus might be a jungle. My school’s science textbooks said that scientists thought the same thing at one point. The textbooks also said we have nine planets, and I occasionally see articles about revisions to the parameters for the Goldilocks Zone in solar systems. But Burroughs and Brackett made the story the focus, so readers still enjoy them.

              • “Fortune’s pet!” Ha! Great term!

                Asimov’s LUCKY STARR YA series would probably be a perennial read for younger readers if they had less “accurate” science. 🙂
                (Hard to send youngsters off with “fun reads but ignore the science lessons.” )

                A couple of authors have taken to writing stories in alternate universes where the old 20th c visions of the solar system are real or the planets were terraformed, just to tell old school solar adventures.

                Scientific concepts have to be integral to good SF but they don’t have to be the whole story.

            • Quibble: Skylark was written from 1915 to 1921 and published in 1928. Einstein published his paper on special relativity in 1905, and general relativity in 1915; Planck proposed the basis of quantum mechanics in 1900. ‘Doc’ Smith certainly had the opportunity to inform himself about these developments; I suspect he just didn’t care. That, I suppose, is why his work is generally classified not as hard SF but as space opera.

              • 1- He was a chemist, not a physicist. Pre-internet. News moved slower those days.

                2- Einstein wasn’t instantly acclaimed or accepted.


                3- Don’t forget Paradigm lag. Both Smith and the audience were Newtonians.

                • Smith didn’t set out to write space opera: he set out to write hard SF according to the best science of his day, what was commonly accepted.

                  Relativity was as “commonly accepted” at the time (ca 1915) as holographic cosmologies are today. 🙂

                • 1. News didn’t move that much slower in those days. They had these things called newspapers. Einstein was all over them. As a Ph.D. in a hard science, E. E. Smith certainly had time to inform himself of the new theories in the thirteen years that elapsed between the commencement of Skylark and its publication, and to revise the work if he chose.

                  2. Einstein’s theories were quickly supported by experimental evidence. Alternative systems were proposed, but all of them conflicted with well-established observational data. Every physicist involved in those criticisms agreed that the Newtonian view of space and time was defective; they disagreed only about the solution to that problem.

                  3. If Smith had been a pure Newtonian, he would not have seen any need for a special invention to allow a craft to exceed the speed of light. He was, in fact, not disagreeing with Einstein and other critics of Newtonian mechanics; he was proposing an exception for the purpose of telling an interesting story. One does not bother to propose an exception unless one at least provisionally accepts the rule.

                  4. Relativity was as “commonly accepted” at the time (ca 1915) as holographic cosmologies are today.

                  Nonsense, for the reasons cited above. And the really germane time, in any case, is not 1915, but 1921 when the manuscript was finished, or 1928 when it was submitted for publication. By that time, Newtonian mechanics was a dead duck.

                • Further, it is an obvious anachronism to say that Smith set out to write ‘hard SF’. Neither the concept of hard SF nor the term ‘science fiction’ itself existed at the time that Skylark was composed, nor even when it was published. His work was considered to be the prototype of the category ‘space opera’ as soon as that category was defined in the 1940s. The term ‘hard SF’ was not used until the late 1950s.

  2. Like any of the sciences/physics/sites/histories, if it isn’t there to help explain/move the story’s plot along you’re boring your readers.

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