The magic of science fiction

Picture of CosmosWhat sets SF apart from Fantasy is that if you label your work as science fiction, you can’t employ ‘magic’ as a cause of stuff. That’s pretty much understood. Sure, at the moment we can’t move (so we’re told) at speeds greater than that of light. And if we can’t, we’re a bit stuck at something like the Star Wars universe, where moving from planet to planet is a bit like catching the number 19 bus.

Enter FTL travel. (Faster Than Light for those who don’t know the acronym.) We can’t do this, nobody knows if it will ever be possible but it’s accepted for the purpose of fiction. Somebody invented Hyperspace a long time ago and that’s how this strange space/time place thing where you could cross the light years quickly is often known. I’m no scientist but cosmology and astronomy have fascinated me for years and years. I watched all the bad black and white footage from the moon and then from the Voyager missions to the outer planets launched in the mid-70s. Sadly, those images from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, beamed back from a tiny satellite with a processor smaller than the thing in your iPhone are still the basis of all the documentaries on those planets. But I digress.

For me, science is becoming weirder and weirder, with scientists having to invent other constants to make the mathematical algorithms come up with the right answer when they’re looking at extremely distant objects. So now we have dark matter and we have dark energy. It’s all reminiscent of ‘ether’; that stuff with which the universe was supposed to be permeated before Einstein came up with an alternative.

This week’s ‘New Scientist’ discusses the theories of one John Webb. If he’s right, physicists will have to reconsider the basic assumption of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, that the speed of light is constant in all directions, everywhere. Webb’s theory is in its infancy. But little old non-physicist me welcomes his questioning, on a number of fronts. If he’s right the concept that there are additional physical dimensions in space (apart from height, width and depth) becomes more of a reality. Why is that important? Well, it gives the possibility of additional pathways between places. As a kind of analogy, look at an intersection where four roads meet. In the centre of that intersection is a square. The fastest (and shortest) route for a pedestrian to go from one corner to the diagonally opposite corner is through the middle of the square. The example is still only a two dimensional model, but it’s the sort of reasoning supporting the concept of space travel I use in my SF. I call it shift-space where a starship moves into this other geometry, if you will. So I guess I’m using string theory as the scientific reasoning that makes my space travel non-magical.

Last week’s ‘New Scientist’ talked about ‘fractal evolution’ and that pressed another button. I love fractal theory and I think we must accept that these rules determine nature. Fractal rules for leaves, fractal rules for weather, snow flakes, coastlines you name it. So why not evolution? Makes sense to me. It equally makes sense to me that galaxies are fractal. I recall seeing an article (small and hidden) on that very subject a year or two ago.

For me, a multi-dimensional, fractal universe makes a heap of sense. Sure, I can’t prove it. But it isn’t magic, so it must be science fiction. How do you think this division works?

4 thoughts on “The magic of science fiction

  1. gretavdr

    Tom, I think a number of people are now starting to talk about the possibility that light speed has changed. I can’t give you a citation but I’ve read something like that, too. Not sure about ‘much higher’ – but I like the idea that we can’t see or measure these things properly because we can’t ‘see’ all the dimensions. Eg in a two dimensional world all you’d see of a a sphere would be a flat circle.

  2. Tom

    Yes I agree, I’ve written a SF novel and faster than light travel is assumed but never talked about how it is done. It’s just an assumption.

    As for fantasy, I suppose the existence of magic is what sets it apart from other genre.

    As for the speed of light, I have read that there’s a theory that in the past it was much higher, but I’m not sure if that’s a serious theory or not.

  3. Patty

    I think the essence of Science Fiction is not so much that your explanation has to be absolutely true. After all, we accept FTL travel in a lot of SF books and movies simply because without it, things would become awfully boring. I think that the essence of Science Fiction is that you attempt to find a logical explanation, however much bullshit that explanation may be. Because a lot of science that pushes at the edges of what we know is possible is also speculation. And, as we’re constantly reminded, even a lot of accepted science is based on theories/formulas that explain what we’re seeing most of the time. That does not preclude different behaviour under different circumstances.

    Sure, we know the speed of light in a vacuum, and as far as we can measure it, it’s constant. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility that somewhere in the cosmos, or for that matter, under water or in liquid methane, the speed of light may be very different. Until that time, Einstein serves us well.

    I’ve been reading some astronomy/SF books. It’s funny how, when physicists talk about the past and what people once thought was/wasn’t possible, they often cite SF authors as having posed an idea for the first time, even though that idea was seen, at that time, as complete BS and 100% fictional.

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