Friday, April 25, 2014

A Particular View of Magic in the Context of Science

There have been quite a few different systems of magic invented for fantasy stories. It's not the purpose of this post to examine these systems broadly. Instead, I'd like to talk about the implications of specific concept of magic. One of mine.

I'm not the only person to do so, but I've hypothesized that one type of magic could simply be a form of energy unknown in our universe. A form that could be harnessed in a systematic way, which we do not know about either because it is too uncommon in our world or does not exist at all here. But which responds to concentrated thought or other acts directed from a person, such as speaking out loud, which would wind up resembling the magical spells of fantasy lore.

This type of story would not utilize Wizard of Oz type magic, where the entire world had reasons for existence that don't make sense in scientific terms, where pretty much anything is allowed. No, saying that magic is an additional principle added on to what we already known to be true from science, available in an alternate universe which in other regards resembles our own, is a concept that carries some inherent limitations with it. And certain implications.

If other scientific principles are still true, causing an item to levitate by a spell "just because" would be impossible in the type of story world I'm talking about. Scientific principles still apply, so gravity is still gravity and will still be in effect. Perhaps a spell could locally shut off gravity, but doing so could cause the strange or damaging effects of shutting down the Higgs field, which I described in a post on the Higgs Boson. Perhaps a more practical form of levitation would involve increasing an object's repulsion against the magnetic field that would exist around this fantasy planet. If that's how it would work, ferro-magnetic objects made of iron, nickel, and cobalt would be easier to levitate than anything else. Note that a magician in this universe would not necessarily have to understand that a magnetic field exits or that what he or she did involved magnetism. He or she would simply know from experience it's easier to lift particular kinds of metal than anything else.

Or perhaps levitation could involve creating an additional gravitational pull from above, or magnifying the pull of an orbiting moon. If so, the position of the moon could effect levitation. Or delicate objects might prove difficult to lift without fracturing them between stresses from gravity above and gravity below.

Since so many reactions in the natural world described by science produce heat (chemical reactions, friction, absorption of radiation, etc), it would make sense that one of the simplest spells in this hypothetical magical system would be heat generation. Lighting a fire would be simple, but throwing a fireball or simply burning an enemy would not be far removed from that (and welding would be a breeze). Making something cold is actually removing heat, so it's harder. Cold spells and heat spells, treated as opposites in most fantasy tales, would not be opposites in the system I'm thinking of. Generating cold would be significantly harder.

Alchemists would still attempt to transmute lead into gold--under this type of magic, doing so would be definitely possible and in fact simpler than a number of other imaginable spells. But alteration of atomic nuclei by magic (the magic user does not have realize that's what he or she is doing to be doing it), would bear the terrible risk of setting off an atomic blast if matter were to be converted to energy and back for the purpose of changing elements. In fact, setting off an atomic blast by magic should be a real possibility, since the physical world would still operate under the same principles that makes such blasts possible in our world. (Nuclear magic may be a component of some fantasy story I've never heard of, but as far as I know, the idea is new.)

Likewise, since light amplified by sharing a common phase is a natural phenomenon, a laser spell ought to be common, simpler in fact that many other types of spells. Electrical-based spells should also be prevalent, not just the lightning bolts that are common enough, but taser-like paralyzing effects, and steady electric arcs for lighting, and more.

Spells that would be hard would be any that involve the creation of matter from nothing (because these would have to gather a great deal of ambient energy first in accordance with E=mc2). Especially those that create life. In fact spells involving significant alterations to living creatures might be virtually impossible--life is just so complex. Though a plant's growth might be accelerated by altering time for the plant (again, the sorcerer may perceive her or his spell makes the roots grow instantly, but what they actually would do is accelerate time for the plant in question, allowing it to produce what it would normally do, only much faster). Restoring someone from the dead may never work, but even if it did, it would almost surely produce a zombie instead of a normal person. Such a spell could perhaps work more effectively by, once again, attempting to restore a part or the whole of a person's body back to an earlier time--as opposed to regenerating highly complex individual cells. Accelerating natural healing might be an effective form of healing spell--though it would have the inherent limitation of eventually aging the patient to the point of death if used too often.

Time based effects, not commonly explored in fantasy stories, perhaps should be extremely common, since time is scientifically known as one of the dimensions of the existence of any object. Perhaps though, a bit like hot and cold, accelerating time in the direction its already going would be a far, far easier than reversing it.

I float this concept for readers of my blog giving some examples of how science being real and valid would affect and limit a system of magic added onto a world like the one we know. Heat, lasers, atomic blasts, the difficulty of making life, levitation, electricity, and time are by no means the only subjects this discussion could have covered. What other examples can you think of, dear reader? Please do share...

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Monday, April 14, 2014

A Galactic Superhero Rebellion--a solution to the supervillain shortage

Superhero stories are becoming increasingly popular in American and yes, world culture. I'm not actually a huge fan of the superhero story, though. The most important reason why not is because to be interesting, a powerful hero needs to be opposed by powerful villains. Of course superhero stories feature supervillains, but as a general rule, supered-up bad guys tend to be silly and/or uninteresting for me.

Silly because there is something compelling about someone who goes through an extraordinary set of circumstances to make him or her no longer an ordinary person for the cause of goodness. We all root for the superhero, wishing secretly we had a set of circumstances happen to us to propelled us into that role. A superhero is, ironically, an everyman sort of figure, who most people are able to identify with. But the supervillain goes through a process to make him or her extraordinary as well--but then must adopt characteristics the audience will not identify with or like to be seen as villainous. The everyman aspect of the hero causes the audience to suspend disbelief about the nature of how he or she gained his or her powers. We have no such cause to suspend disbelief for the villain, who as a result so often seems larger than life in a way that's at least a little silly.

It's also good storytelling form in a story for a hero or heroine to struggle against a foe or foes stronger than he or she is, or more numerous. As a point of fact, every superhero of comic book lore has a complete set of very powerful villains to fight. Therefore the total number of supervillains as a result far outnumbers the superheroes. Which are already an already highly improbable group, so the huge number of super bad guys really makes no logical sense from even the most imaginative point of view.

So I have found the bad guys too improbable, too uninteresting, or too weak to really challenge the good guys, which has ruined a lot of superhero stories for me. Not at all coincidentally, the superhero stories that come across the best for me--Superman outnumbered by Kryptonians as powerful as he is--Batman facing a brilliantly insane Joker--the X-men against mutant counterparts every bit as powerful and empathetic as they are--all have had great villains.

One of the problems of the supervillain is that he or she would be scarier if we, the audience, felt the world we live in was in actual danger from that kind of person. Which is why mobsters and assassins and tech lords make realistic super bad guys--but they are almost always too weak when matched up against the superhero. The audience of the superhero story simply knows that while villains may rule our world, supervillains do not.

It occurred to me there needs to be a story setting in which the villains are given a clear and obvious upper hand, where the bad guys rule with an iron fist, where any superhero is a definite underdog in a way that makes sense to the audience and causes our superhero to struggle for victory. Thinking over these problems, I realized mingling a dystopian galactic empire akin to the one in Star Wars with superhero stories would provide the kind of overarching but realistic villainy that would give superheroes worthy opponents to fight.

Imagine a galactic empire, brutal and oppressive. With the equivalent of Storm Troopers, but these ones really fight well and would burn every last Ewok on the forest moon to death without sustaining a single loss. This galactic empire would involve major hybridization between man and machine of its enforcers, its stock of people designed to read minds, torture, and kill anyone who would oppose them with an widespread efficiency and brutality that only Darth Vader himself matched in the Star Wars universe.

Opposing these monstrously oppressive villains you'd find on each planet of this empire a mysterious force would create a single hero on each inhabited world to combat the evil enemy. Perhaps this force would be spiritual or quasi-spiritual, like the Force of Star Wars. Or perhaps it would be a secret organization. But whatever the cause, each hero would have a variety of powers and abilities like superheroes of familiar comics. Each one would start out on his or her own world in a rebellion against the evil empire, but would eventually join forces with each another, forming their own organization devoted to defeating the all-powerful enemy, something like a mixture of the Avengers or Xmen or Justice League and the Rebel Alliance of Star Wars.

This Galactic Superhero Rebellion would face off headlong against the ruthless cyborg armies of the galactic empire, outnumbered literally millions to one...

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Watcher--A Story of an Intelligent Tree

Call it the lingering influence of 1973's The Secret Life of Plants if you like. A story idea today popped into my mind today with an intelligent tree as the central character.

The book I referenced above made many claims that plants observe what human beings and other animals do. That they are aware of other plants being destroyed and can recognize the particular human who destroyed another plant--so the book claimed. The book also legitimized things some people tended to do with plants anyway, such as talk to them or play Morzart to them. Because supposedly, the plants recognize this.

The book was largely debunked not long after publication. There is no proof trees or other plants really do such things.

But modern science does find that trees actually do have a number of sensory perceptions. Roots know which way up and down are (like the human sense of balance). They also seek out water, including the sound of rushing water when experiments are performed that exclude any extra moisture that would lead them there otherwise. So plants have a form of hearing. They react to light, which could be called a form of sight. Roots move around certain kinds of hard objects on contact with them, which could be considered a form of touch. Plants roots move toward soils with nutrients they need and away from toxic soil, indicating a form of taste or smell.

What plants lack is a central nervous system to funnel all these sensory perceptions into one "self" that would be able to coordinate these perceptions into a common picture of reality. Or do they? Some kinds of things plants react to send chemical signals through the entire body of a plant. Some electrical signal activity is also seen in plants. This is happens slower and not as coordinated as what happens in animals, but it is observed to exist.

Trees especially have long been thought to have spirits among animist religions. This is why fantasy, which often draws on legends to build its stories, not infrequently has trees with magic powers or trees with the ability to communicate in some way or other.

But I'm talking about a writing story from a science fiction setting in which a tree is an unexpected character. A setting like our world, in which trees are thought to be essentially inanimate objects, but in reality are not. Maybe this could be from alien trees in or from another world. Or better, trees on our own world with unusual properties--trees that have been genetically modified somehow, but nobody realizes the botanical impact of these modifications. Or maybe a story could take quite ordinary trees and give animistic concepts a fresh coat of paint to explain how trees could be intelligent without having a physical reason for being that way. For example, as a Christian writer I could craft a story in which trees as part of God's creation share a common spiritual heritage with the rest of nature in having a form of spiritual life, one found in all things, both living and non-living. This life would be unlike the spiritual nature of a human being, in that it would not be eternal. (I'm not saying I believe such a common spiritual nature to all creation is true, but there are truths about nature the Scriptures do not reveal, and there happen to be poetic parts of the Bible that talk about rocks crying out and waves clapping their hands and the like. And the idea could make an interesting premise for a story, even though I don't believe it.)

In any case, in a world of trees either unintelligent in fact or expected to be unintelligent, the story focuses on one particular tree that is observing the events in the lives of a family nearby over a long period of time. I'd write it so the tree experiences the passage of time much more slowly than we do, so that a year might seem like a week or something in tree subjective time. So there would be a lot of things the tree would not notice about the fast-moving creatures around it. But it would notice some things. Perhaps a child that lingered for hours at time in its branches would catch its attention. And then perhaps if this child were to be killed and buried, the tree's roots might find the corpse and recognize it.

Part of the story would be told from the tree's point of view, but I'd also feature human beings somehow discovering what the tree knows. Perhaps through an examination of this unusual tree's DNA and physical make up, cracking it's internal messaging code as it were. Or perhaps through some kind of message the tree manages to send in human language--a branch growing with phonograph ridges or something very unexpected like that, which someone learns to play or read. Or perhaps the story could show an angelic being in communication with the tree. Or reference such a spiritual communication. To the end that what the tree knows is found out.

I think a tree helping solve a murder has a natural resonance with me. But the tree could be a "watcher" in other ways as well. It's not as gripping, but a story could feature a tree having a long-time loving relationship with a family, or perhaps a particular human being...

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Alteration of Subjective Time

A number of speculative fiction stories have played with the notion of changing subjective time for a person in one way or other. In Inception, the changes in the perception of time between differing levels of the dream world is a significant element in the plot (even thought the idea of time passing at a different rate in a dream is not established in reality).

Quite a number of stories have also played with the notion that a great deal of subjective time could pass in a short time in the real world and vice versa. For example, an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine has Chief Miles O'Brien receiving a twenty-year prison sentence in subjective time from an alien culture, which takes only a few hours to serve in real time (episode title: Hard Time).

What's new about this story idea (as pointed out to me by Lisa Gefrides) is that current work is ongoing in 2014 neurobiology to change a human brain's perception of the passage of time. This actually should not come as big surprise, since psychological research shows that under certain circumstances, such as in combat, the perception of subjective time can decrease by roughly one half or a bit more, giving a soldier greater time to react to an enemy than he or she otherwise would have. (Which makes people appear to be moving in slow motion and which would allow someone to see bullets flying through the air, which soldiers occasional report being able to see.) And everyone is familiar with the sense that subjective "time flies when you are having fun." What the brain naturally does under the right circumstances could be done to a greater degree artificially. There are probably maximum limits to how much subjective time can change, but no one really knows as of yet what those limits are.

What this means for story ideas is that long before science develops warp drive or transporters (which may never happen), perhaps even before worlds of virtual reality that allow 100% realistic simulation of all the senses (which certainly will happen if technology continues to develop in the direction it's going), there will be drugs or installed biotechnological equipment that lets a person change the subjective passage of time at will. If changing the passage of time is highly dangerous or expensive, you can expect that only a handful of the very rich or secret uber-soldiers will have access to the technology. As noted, it would be very useful for a gunman to be able to slow time down in a firefight so as to carefully select targets and plan strategies. Or conversely to pass through moments when nothing much is happening by speeding up time, such as when laying in ambush for an enemy.

If the technology is relatively cheap and safe, this could become an accessory in everyday life as much as mobile devices are today. Bored while waiting for a train? People used to read a book or newspaper. Now they more often surf the Internet or text. In our near future, people may do the equivalent of pushing a fast forward button, and voilĂ , the wait seems instantly over. Or conversely, certain moments, such as the last hug goodbye between parting lovers could be drawn out so that the experience would seem to last for hours.

Note also that in worlds of fantasy spells that change the perception of the passage of time should be fairly commonplace. I know stories exist that feature such spells, but perhaps there should be a greater usage of this device in fantasy than there is.

Stories ought to be written that reflect this aspect of the change of subjective time. Because it's highly realistic...

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