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Quantum Theory and Alternate Universes

March 9, 2012 1 comment

One of the major innovations in SF has been a turn to a whole new basis in the physical sciences—the quantum theory. In Newtonian/Einsteinian physics, reality has a definite existence, and conforms absolutely to the rules of the universe. Furthermore, these rules are, at least to physicists, relatively simple; they give law and order to a universe that we assume is knowable. Quantum theory, on the other hand, forces us to revise all our thinking about the construction of the physical world. Whole books cannot manage a complete layman’s discussion of quantum theory, so here we can only look at some major features of the revolution in thinking that quantum theory represents.

Scientists long enjoyed the assurance that at the visible level of reality matter behaves according to Newtonian/Einsteinian laws. And because objects behaved orderly at the visible level, they assumed that matter would behave orderly at the subatomic level.

But as physicists looked closer and closer at the atom, they found that its particles (its “quanta”) behaved unpredictably, even randomly. Quantum theory seriously challenges the centuries-old assumption that beneath the complexities of appearance lies the simplicity of law. (Einstein, in arguing against the assumptions of quantum theory, protested that God does not play dice).

Physicists discovered that a thousand electrons moving from point A to point B will move along a thousand different paths. This discovery was against all expectations of how subatomic particles would behave. The only way to predict the movement of particles is through statistical average. That is, the average path from A to B is straight—but no one path necessarily is.

Although we cannot predict the movement of any one electron, each electron seems to know where to go. This is yet another startling feature of the behavior of subatomic particles. The famous two-slit screen experiment shows that individually fired electrons know where to go to form an appropriately distributed light interference pattern.

alternate universe

is reality made of alternate dimensions?

How can any one electron know where to go (especially as no one electron has to go anywhere)? Some interpretations of the two-slit screen experiment involve the existence of alternate realities. The actual path that the electron takes in our reality is influenced by the paths in other realities. Because the available paths in the other realities are taken, the electron must take the path that is available to it.

The several schools of quantum theory have different approaches to the alternate realities. One school says that the alternate realities are merely mathematical models, having no concrete reality. But another school theorizes on an infinite number of concrete, existing alternate realities for every instance of reality that we perceive. Where are these realities? Presumably they transpire in some dimension totally inaccessible from our reality (unless, of course, you read or write SF).

It is this last version of quantum theory that interests SF writers. The alternate worlds, after all, make for an infinite number of new conditions under which to write SF. At the simplest level they provide a scientific basis for “what if?” stories that illustrate the probable results of taking a different turn at a significant historical juncture. Michael Moorcock (The Warlords of the Air, 1971), Norman Spinrad (The Iron Dream, 1972), Harry Harrison (Tunnel Through the Deeps, 1972), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle, 1962)—just to name a few—have set stories in alternate time tracks. Whether they are in any significant way illustrating the role of quantum theory in our daily lives is another matter.

Einstein

image by NoorR

It is an open question as to whether quantum theory has any significant relationship to human behavior. The moral extension of Newton and Einstein was that the universe was comprised of relatively simple and consistent laws (to the end-of his life, Einstein was looking for the unified field theory that would place all phenomena under one set of laws). The orderliness of the physical world translates, according to some, into orderliness in human behavior. If we follow nature, we at least have a reasonable model to imitate.

Does quantum theory make any similar kind of impact on human values? It is perhaps too easy a generalization to say that quantum theory reflects the indeterminableness, the randomness of modern civilization. Still, a writer like Philip K. Dick seems to reflect a chaos in the moral realm that he often links with the physical realm. And other writers have used quantum theory to illustrate a universe that is queerer than we can know, a universe that ultimately is indecipherable. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the physics of the quanta could provide a framework for pessimism, if pessimism is what we want.

Whatever our feelings about the moral dimension of the quanta, the theory has an important role in SF. Space-time SF is still a viable direction, but it cannot sustain another generation of creative writers. Quantum theory opens up a considerable amount of new and strange real estate for SF writers to build on.

-Steve Anderson

Philip K. Dick: Explorer of an Uncertain Reality

February 14, 2011 2 comments

author Philip K. Dick published 44 novels


Of contemporary science fiction (SF) writers, one of the most interesting is the late Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), although there is some question whether Dick, strictly speaking, wrote science fiction at all. Certainly he had little concern for Vernian accuracy on hardware; sometimes he seems to have a contempt for it. Still, he used the conventions of SF, and in the minds of most critics he greatly enriched the genre.

In his prolific career, he worked through many of the conventions and themes of SF, but finally his work always had a personal stamp. His favorite subject matter is the alternate universe fiction, although it usually seems that the alternate universe is essentially his means of exploring the slipperiness of reality, even the burden of reality. In whatever version of reality we find ourselves in Dick’s work, one feature is consistent: the future is as sleazy as the present. The future does have the gleaming chrome and steel that we anticipate, but it also has unswept streets and cluttered hallways of everyday reality. One does not escape the dreariness of life in the future; the problems of life are with you in all versions of reality.

Eye in the Sky
One of the earliest of Dick’s novels, Eye in the Sky (1957), illustrates his special method. It is crude by the standards of his later work, and has signs of having been hastily written. (We suspect, though, that even some of his best work was hastily written. Fast writing was long a fact of life for anybody who wanted to make a full-time living as a SF writer. Writers didn’t get paid much for each book, so they had to write a lot of them.)

Eye in the Sky depicts a nuclear plant accident that causes eight people who were on a plant tour to experience a new and special relationship with reality. The characters discover that they experience, in turn, existence in each others’ minds. First, all the characters must live in the mind of a religious fanatic, and reality in that world
corresponds accordingly. Angels swarm in the sky, and in the middle is a giant eye (thus the title), presumably belonging to God, watching everything. The characters move
through the mind of a Victorian prude, a psychotic, a Russian Communist, and so on. The important aspect of this novel isn’t the idea so much as it is the technique. In a Dick
novel, you aren’t just told that you are in an alternate reality; you experience and feel that reality.

Another dimension of his career was his ability to build a personal vision out of the gamut of SF themes and conventions. For example, in The Martian Time-Slip (1964), he writes a novel in the Mars tradition, complete with canals and an ancient civilization. But we know that the story is uniquely his when we find the canals lined with suburban-like housing developments and bored housewives carrying on affairs with traveling salesmen.

Dr. Blood Money
Dr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) is a post-nuclear war novel, but one that has a bizarrely cheerful ending. In Dick’s vision of post-holocaust existence, even the mutated life forms come happily out of the sewers to join the panorama of life.

The Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) is in the galactic tradition, but it is evolved far beyond Asimov’s galactic empires. In Dick’s version of the future, pottery has become so rare that any handmade pot is worth preserving, and a pottery repairman travels the galaxy fixing them. The novel is obviously a put on, but so well done that we accept and enjoy it.

Some of Dick’s other adaptions of traditional SF include The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, (1964) about time travel; Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, 1974 (technologically enforced political dystopia); and The Unteleported Man, 1966 (interstellar travel by “gates”). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) deals with artificial life (portions of-the novel were the basis for the movie Blade Runner).

One of his major novels, Ubik (1969), is so unusual that it defies conventional description. Set in what is presumably the near-future, Ubik starts as a satire on paranormal powers, as the novel introduces telepaths, parakineticists, resurrectors, animators, and others, all available for hire through an agency. Next, the novel seems to show Dick’s light regard for conventional SF, as a group of paranormals are sent to the moon to protect a starship project—an absurd development, given the near-future setting.

Ubik
The novel takes yet another turn after the paranormals, sabotaged in their mission, start to experience strange events—reality starts to wither around them (these scenes can only be appreciated by reading them). We assume that he is working with the same technique as in Eye in the Sky—the characters seem to exist within the reality of somebody’s mind.

Then what is at first a surprise ending suggests an even more radical perspective in the novel.

The novel has been interpreted as everything from a satire on capitalism to a criticism of the limitations of the bourgeois novel.

The rest of this article is devoted to another of Dick’s acknowledged masterpieces, The Man In the High Castle (1962), a work that is unlike anything else he wrote (a strong statement, considering the variety of his work). It is his only alternate universe story in which he so closely extrapolates from a clearly defined historical period (the decades before and after World War II. It is also a very tightly constructed novel, not always one of Dick’s virtues.



The Man in the High Castle is set in a world in which the U.S. lost World War II. Nazi conquerors occupy the east coast, while the Japanese occupy the west coast. In the middle, serving as a buffer between the conquering powers, is the PSA (the Pacific States of America), the last home of free Americans. At the most obvious level, the novel explores the traits of the occupying powers. The Nazis are the monsters we know them to be, but the Japanese turn out to be relatively benign masters. They did not, as one American character says, “build ovens” (referring to the mass extermination in the Nazi concentration camps).

But the novel is about many other things, and is open to multiple interpretations. We may see the novel as an analysis of the mind-set that produces technological innovation. In this version of history, set in 1962, technological development is well ahead of the timetable in our “real” world. Not only have the Nazis colonized the moon, they have already reached Mars.

Dick presents a runaway technology that is a product of fascistic, masculine thinking–a thinking that refuses to take an ecological perspective into consideration. The Nazis are clearly on a path to self-destruction, which, if unaltered, will result in the destruction of the entire globe. But Dick’s criticism of runaway Nazi technology is, by indirection, a criticism of runaway American technology.


At the center of the action is Operation Dandelion, the plan that the Nazis have for a nuclear strike on the Japanese home islands. The Nazis in their paranoia are unwilling to share world power with anyone else. In a surprising way, though, Operation Dandelion is an observation on the reality that we know. Even while we share with the characters a horror of the planned nuclear strike, we can’t help but remember that Americans, in our reality, in fact carried out something quite like Operation Dandelion. There has been only one nuclear war, and Americans fought and won it.

From yet another direction, the novel is about art. Some of the characters of the novel are themselves reading a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts a version of history in which the Japanese and Germans do not win the war. Considered subversive, the book is forbidden in the Nazi zone, although the Japanese tolerate it. The author, Hawthorne Abendsen, reportedly lives in a highly fortified home (the “high castle” of the title) within the Pacific American States, and is the target of a Nazi assassination attempt.

It is tempting to assume that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is about our world, thus giving the novel a total symmetry. That is, we read a novel about an alternate world in which the people are reading about our world. But this is not the case. The alternate world setting in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts yet a third reality. Dick is very skillful in planting mysteries that keep the reader speculating.


The novel may also be about the scientific assumptions that underlie our thinking. As we pointed out previously, the book may be seen as having a basis in quantum theory rather than space-time physics. But Dick does not attempt to use that terminology. He presents his scientific assumptions through the behavior of his characters. Several characters seem not to rely on cause-effect logic (what we might see as space-time logic) for making careful decisions. Instead, they refer to the I Ching, a book in Chinese culture used for divination. The I Ching is related to a concept of “synchronicity,” which sees the oneness of all events, and the relation of individual subjectivity to those events. Thus a random cast of dice can, for the person doing the casting, assist in predicting his or her future.

The cast of the dice is part of the oneness of all, and can help us predict seemingly unrelated future events.

Steve Anderson

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