"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Prayer in the Far Future

I'm fascinated with stories of the far future. Something about speculation showcasing the future of the human race through time and space speaks to me on a cellular level. Recently I've engaged in a few of these kinds of stories, and I want to try to explain what makes them meaningful to me. As a result, this post might be a bit lengthy, so if you don't want to read about the books, skip down to the part about Star Trek because that's where I gets provocative.

This trip starts with my perusal of the book Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson. It's the third (probably the last) in a series that begins with Spin and then Axis.

The premise begins with the day the stars go out. Spin is about how the Earth is suddenly encircled by some kind of force field that allows the planet to experience time at a much slower rate than the rest of the universe (which is the phenomenon they dub "the Spin"). Millions of years pass on the outside, while just a few pass for Earth's humans. The much abbreviated version of the story is that an advanced and ancient alien intelligence called the Hypotheticals has taken it upon itself to cocoon the Earth before we destroy ourselves. At the end, a portal has opened to another Earth-like planet, allowing humanity to plunder it for its resources and continue our passive march towards oblivion.

Axis tells a new story, after the portal has been open for years, with different characters, one of whom is a genetically engineered boy named Isaac born through technology stolen from the Hypotheticals. It allows him to establish some kind of connection with the alien intelligence, and he and a regular old human named Turk end up melding with the Hypotheticals in an unexplained way. It's a differently told book, and not as engrossing as Spin. Worse, Axis doesn't expound on the questions put forth in Spin about who the Hypotheticals are and what they really want.

Vortex is yet another different kind of book set in this same universe, but this time told in the dual time periods of both a few years after the Spin begins and ten thousand years after Turk and Isaac are taken. Turk and Isaac discover more about the nature of the Hypotheticals as they witness the death of the planet Earth. Meanwhile, ten thousand years earlier, their story is written down by a young man who's hearing voices and in trouble with the post-Spin law. You understand how this is possible by the end of the book, but again, it's not as epic as Spin.

Still, the coda of Vortex takes you on another journey as Isaac becomes one with the Hypotheticals and goes even further through time and space than any human might imagine. I became much more interested in that story than the previous ones and was disappointed when it came to an end, seemingly to the end of the series. I wanted to know more about these ancient Hypotheticals and the far future Isaac had been flung into.

Wilson's series has reminded me all along of one of my favorite authors, Alastair Reynolds, who writes the Revelation Space series, which, somewhat like the Spin series, deals with humans in the future under threat of extinction from an ancient machine race. However, my favorite book from Reynolds isn't one from the Revelation Space series. It's Pushing Ice, a stand-alone story that begins with one of Saturn's moon, Janus, revealing itself as an alien spacecraft and taking its leave of the solar system. Swept into its wake, a human mining crew is pulled into an uncharted (I don't know if that's the correct astronomy term; it sounds very Gilligan's Island, but I guess that's what happens) sector of the galaxy and end up part of a solar-system-sized structure where they encounter alien races and have to work out their own all-too-human differences. What these humans do here has repercussions on the rest of humanity they left behind, but who have advanced during the thousands of years of their travel.

Pushing Ice is full of an intriguing circular logic connecting time and space, but told with ease and skill. Reynolds has a talent for describing the awe of something that to us would seem like the eternities.

One more book I will push out here isn't the same kind of far future travelog but instead is about humans traveling through dimensions. Neal Stephenson's Anathem, to put it extremely succinctly, shows what might happen when a society is able to react physically to the thoughts and desires of another society from a separate dimension of the multiverse. In other words, one world's thought patterns are able to call into existence a group of people from another dimension. I think. This book is difficult to describe. But it's this idea that I think is most fascinating about it.

Pulling all of this together, I need to talk about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Where No One Has Gone Before." I recently re-watched this episode, and it's one that I remember clearly from the first time I saw it.

The Enterprise often travels fast and far, but always within the limits of warp speed set up as part of their universe. In this episode, however, an alien who comes to be known as the Traveler takes the ship across galaxies, somewhere humans never could have reached in millions of years. They assume they are near the Outer Rim of the universe, a place where thoughts begin to become reality. There's some talk about the nature of reality, but the big concern is getting home, which the Traveler is able to accommodate, but not without phasing out of reality himself.

The physics here don't exactly work as explained in the episode. They talk about a "burst of speed" that takes them well beyond light speed. Of course, if that's really how they travel, the effects of relativity would put them back home probably billions of years later. If they would have just called it a worm hole or something, it might make more theoretical sense. But this is just my current response, since I've read a book on physics in the intervening years and am therefore a scholar on astrophysics.

What I remember responding to about this episode, and what I still notice now, is that if they traveled that far, they would be in the future. And it's a most intriguing picture of humanity's tomorrow.

Perhaps more interestingly, though far less coherently, I also reacted to this idea about being in a place--a space--where thoughts create reality. To explain without getting overly religious, because this is definitely The Gospel According to Me, my school of thought (which has some kind of basis in my Mormonism; I promise I'm not just being kooky--unless you just think Mormonism is just that--in which case, I make no such promise to you as I head for the lunatic fringe here) is that spiritual ideas have to have a physical counterpart in some way. For instance, the power of prayer is something I wholeheartedly believe in. For me there's something about faithful, deliberate concentration on a higher power that has to have a link to physical reality. I don't know what that means, other than I know we don't know everything about physics, and as the book Anathem posits, there is a fascinating, physically real consequence to something like prayer. And I trust that our future discoveries and enlightenment will hold answers to these kinds of questions.

I'm sure this makes little sense. Like how these books are at all connected to one idea from a poorly executed TV show. (Watching season one of TNG is hard, but I know it gets better.) In my head, it's clear as Crystal Pepsi. Perhaps in conversation, we can come to some understanding. What do you think?
It's like a crystal ball in there.

12 comments:

  1. I've recently found myself attracted to sci-fi novels. Every single summary or review I read of sci-fi makes me want to read the book.

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    1. I, too, love the speculation. The what-ifs. The predictions. It fascinates me.

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  2. It's amazing sometimes what we have speculated about over the years. Go back and read HG Wells then go forward through Gernsback and Campbell and Azimov and Heinlein and onto some of the modern writers and see how even our imaginations have evolved.

    And I really wish you would kill that word verification.

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    1. I'm in the middle of Heinlein's Number of the Beast, which I've never read, and it's fun to see what he thought up in 1980 as a result of early real theories on a Multiverse.

      And I have turned off the verification thingy. Just for you. But if I start getting spammed, it's your fault. :)

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    2. "Number" is a favorite of mine. But then I loved all of his books.

      And thank you. Those words were hard to see and I kept screwing it up.

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    3. I read a lot of Heinlein when I was younger. I loved him then, but now it's difficult to get past a lot of his old conventions. I mean, "Number"'s protagonists are basically a group of swingers running around on Mars. Definitely a product of the seventies.

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  3. I love the cover for Vortex and how the "O" becomes the vortex in the illustration. That's just awesome.

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    1. It does seem a step beyond the cover for Spin.

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  4. I'm always interested in "intriguing circular logic connecting time and space." I might have to check that out.

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    1. I have a feeling you'd really enjoy most of Reynolds's books, Bryan.

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  5. brent have you seen the following documentary on quantum physics??

    http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/What_the_Do_We_Know/70011191?trkid=2361637

    There is a section about water and the effects prayer has on it. (the spiritual effecting the physical) AMAZING!!!

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    1. I've heard of that movie. Seemed kind of New Agey. Did my comments above sound New Agey?

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