stranger, then fiction…

I am old enough to remember research before the advent of the internet. Data and inspiration for A Song Heard in the Future would have taken quite a bit longer without the worldwide web. It seems possible that some sources may never have turned up in my exploration of ancient Greek mythology. With Astral, as the current work-in-progress is set at least 550 years in the future, the process is somewhat easier. There has been, however, still some research involved.

Visiting the nearest significant library involves an hour by train and an additional half hour on foot (round trip). Topics that have informed Astral include: some of Aristotle’s views on government, Neo-Platonist metaphysics, astrophysics, forensic and police procedures, and posthumanism. Finding just a few useful details might have taken a full afternoon. Similarly, my taste for esotericism is usually unrewarded in even great bookstores.

There are, of course, two chief problems with data mining online: 1. not every page is necessarily accurate or reliable and, 2. it is too easy to find something fascinating. Some months ago, for example, while collecting details for a piece of short fiction in an upcoming anthology I found details about Keumalahayati, the 16th century Indonesian, female admiral. I’d never read about her before; I suspect that when I read more she’ll grow in my estimation as a new, old hero.

That same short story prompted digging for only a few tidbits of Indonesian religion prior to the arrival of Abrahamic faiths on the islands. I was surprised to see so many parallels to Western folklore – useful threads for the story and enjoyable due to my fondness for seeing sameness between diverse cultures.

Since the project that brought both the admiral’s career and the mythology of her not so distant ancestors to my attention involved only a few thousand words, they’ve been easy to file away for any future need or reference. More recently I have in fact fallen down the wikihole a little bit, requiring me to summon discipline.

The idea that truth can be stranger than fiction is not new – although it has been more dramatically described in the past:

who-knew.jpg

When something is unexpected and fascinating, almost regardless of how it may be presented or phrased, I think we’ll all a bit prone to rubbernecking on the information superhighway.

Within the past two weeks I have been discovering the details of a true story – from during the years of the Black Death and Europe’s witch craze. I am already resolved to both make this a novel and to let that wait its turn – until after Astral but probably before returning to work on Song. Posting about this experience – if a little obliquely – helps in setting a low priority in adapting my new discovery as a work of fiction.

ran-seven-samurai

If one imagines something like Seven Samurai (七人の侍) meets Ran (乱) — involving shifting alliances between monarchs and mercenaries, add hidden agenda on each side and occult practices on at least one — digging into this a little counts less as distraction. It can be viewed as binge watching a season of The Man in the High Castle or Stranger Things.

One very unexpected side benefit to watching this season of “Well, who knew that?” was finding something I’d been hunting off and on for at least thirteen years. In another capacity I go by DJ Zophiel, one of the characters in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Finding the sigil for the angel known as God’s spy in Hell and as the “cherubim of swiftest wing” proved impossible when I selected the alias. As it turns out, Gabriel’s got his trumpet – Zophiel could be said to have his upturned thurner horn.

sigil

The problem isn’t the wikihole but in remembering not to get stuck at the event horizon. All. In good time.


Perilous by pelorus…

I wouldn’t be the first to describe the difference between hard and soft science fiction. In fact, Tor provides a quite reasonable guide.

From the advent of sci-fi there have been at least two camps. In general, Jules Verne suggested the grand adventures technology might make possible while H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley offered cautions about the potential consequences.

Roughly a century later, the voyages of the USS Enterprise might have begun nearer to Verne. The final frontier gradually became less about exploration of a boundless sea and more an unending series of tensions played out upon it. If not Wells’ territory, certainly near the neutral zone.

How much attention is paid prevailing scientific theories depends on balancing the needs of the story. The world-building for Astral has been to provide an understanding of the hardship the characters have faced before the story begins. The action takes place on a world quite distant from Earth so part of this process has been devising reasonable rules and repercussions for faster-than-light (FTL) travel.

In soft sci-fi FTL simply works at the often literal press of a button. How long the trip may take, what fuel is used, and some understanding of what laws of physics are being broken and how never enter the picture. As the genre approaches the other extreme, nothing superluminal (neither travel nor communications) happens; light not only has a speed limit but it’s one that’s part of the definition of the universe. In between there are warps, jumps, and hyperspace – and that’s where Astral sits presently – on a scale from 1 to 10, somewhere near 5.

NASA is exploring the possibilities of EM Drive and, while decidedly thrilling, the realities of that are now firmly in the realm of scientific speculation rather than speculative fiction. On the other side of the coin, hyperspace will be forever associated with the Star Wars franchise – at least in the mind of this author.

Making something sound like science can give rise to La Forge syndrome:

“The phase inducers are connected to the emitter array. The override is completely gone and the pattern buffer’s been locked into a continuous diagnostic cycle.”

I’m not a mathematician and I don’t want to run the risk of actually getting some critical math completely wrong. Similarly, I’m not ready to plant a flag and reclaim luminiferous aether in the name of voyages extraordinaire. Some time was spent in study of certain theories of Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz. While this did not result in a formula it pointed (perhaps tangentially) to answers I can use.

The characters would not be making hops of several light-years in less than the blink of an eye. The farther the actual distance traveled it would still take longer. In Astral a trip from Earth to δ Pavonis would take between two weeks and nine months depending on the equivalent of a warp factor or calculations from a navicomputer. These durations compare to a single Atlantic crossing by steamship at the dawn of the Victorian era or three such journeys under sail combined during the mid-1700s, respectively. A hop of even one light-year would depend on finding a shorter distance than Euclidean geometry would permit.

Ultimately there’s no actual need within the story to know the precise settings of any phase inducers. In the original Star Trek series, the set designers put the label “GNDN” in several places. When asked what this stood for they replied, “Goes nowhere, does nothing.” This in-joke can also serve as a warning to a writer. When it can’t serve the story it can’t be included.

People don’t usually talk about travel unless something goes wrong. Otherwise, a long car trip is reduced in the telling to roads taken and noteworthy sights along the way. With all of this in mind the only reality of FTL travel that matters is what impact they may have on the characters who undertake a crossing.

Astral Space

Non-Euclidean geometry, in strictly mathematical terms, does not equate to things Lovecraft. But while traveling along any weird topology suggested by an extradimensional, self-intersecting manifold what might be seen if looking out a portal? What do the characters think it means? Does it shape their point of view without twisting it to madness?

The navigation of Astral may be in Verne’s spirit but the story winds up at the intersection of Wells and Shelley.


sic itur ad astra…

Note: There’s been a longer than normal interval between posts as there was more than usual work involved with this one.

Science fiction is very probably my first genre love. As readers of this blog already know, this affinity began with Star Trek. Given that, it won’t be surprising that my taste in scifi is generally best served when the setting is against the backdrop of a human interstellar presence. My story set in ancient Greece has been replaced as a priority with a novel-in-progress that takes place almost 50 light-years from Earth and roughly 550 years in the future.

Part of my outline process usually involves a map of some sort. This scifi effort (working title, Astral) is no different. By making a chart of most of the stars within 50 ly of our solar system, details about the future politics of humanity came into sharper focus. This is as much a part of the world building for the tale as FTL travel, terraforming, and human genetic engineering.

Stars

The volume around Earth at the given radius includes at least 583 star systems. There are red and white dwarf stars not shown in the first chart. Similarly, the stars shown do not double up with regard to arity (binary, trinary, and so on). If habitable worlds may be assumed to orbit stars like the Sun, about 10% ±x of these systems could support life. It should be noted, since extrasolar discoveries are being made “all the time”, no real effort was made to match exoplanet reality.

Settlements

A presumption was made that faster-than-light travel would have limitations based on mass and material composition of any ships involved. Relatively instantaneous hops of 20 light-years or fewer are the standard.

This decision puts ten systems with potential for colonization within direct reach of Earth. Each colony would then become a waypoint for the next tier of expansion. The result would be a web of worlds, each having a neighborhood of 10 other colonized systems on average including 2 colonies of their own.

The first question after making these determinations was, “How far from Mother Earth would humanity spread before thinking of their new home world as more important than the origin point of the species?” The answer lay as much with history, sociology, and psychology as with astrophysics. The critical star turned out to be Xi Boötis (ξ Boo, “zai boh-oh-tis”). Two hops from Earth, with 70 Ophiuchus in between as the staging point, Xi could have almost as many imperial opportunities as the initial starting point of the human race.

The expanding network of worlds colonized from Xi (and the colonies growing from those, etc.) would reach to between 20 and 30 more systems by the time humanity began to push outside the 50-ly radius sphere. If such a significant branch of colonial propagation were to stage a revolution, Earth society could be thrown into a panic. What’s more, other factions might seize the event as an opportunity for their own independence – to one degree or another.

All of this is the backdrop of Astral, with Xi and its extended family as the new hub of human destiny in space (for the time being) and two other, though smaller, federations as political entities separate from Mother Earth. Apart from ME, the factions are Federalist Arcadia* (sharing in etymology with Arcturus, one of two “named” stars among those claimed from Xi), the Hamarchy of Keid*, and the Ophiuchid Cantons*.

So, what’s the story? To that I’ll cryptically reply, “Imagine Plato meets Poe.”

* © 2016 Thom Truelove



sententiae antiquae…

An admission of a bias in thinking due to the near-total immersion in Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy must be made. There is the concept of (Abraham) Maslow’s hammer, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Recently, the question arose in two parts of whether writers in this modern zeitgeist are consciously using elements of the philosophy of Plato (et alia) in their works of fiction. Parallels seem strongly evident; are they always intentional? Are the tropes of ancient thought strong and pervasive enough that even those who are not aware of their origins – or seeking them out – are almost destined to use them?

George Lucas is known to have based Star Wars on his study of Joseph Campbell’s work, which was in turn a summary of many others, Plato included. Similarly, Lana and Andy Wachowski may have based their Matrix (at least, in part) on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

IDEA

The reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2012) probably could not avoid using Greek myth as source material with many of the characters named after the Olympians. BSG also paralleled Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Peter Pan when Six and President Laura Roslin (among several others) presented variations of “All of this has happened before, and it all will happen again.” The verse in the Bible goes on to postulate “…and there is no new thing under the Sun.” – an idea about which I’ve previously railed.

The past week’s musing has given me a series of ideas that may cause me to adjust my perspective for A Song Heard in the Future, my novel-in-progress set 3.5 millennia ago.

Some scholars of myth believe that Teiresias was a well-known character before he was written into the tragedies of nearly all kings of Thebes, including the trilogy of Oedipus’ life. Of the dozen or so tales that include Teiresias and still exist only a small percentage of them could be said to feature him as the main character.

Hesiod is said to have written about the famous seer almost 2700 years ago but that story has been lost. At roughly the same time Homer also included Teiresias but as a shade in the Asphodel Meadows neighborhood of Hades. The intent in Song is giving Teiresias back the lost story of his life.

If an author’s themes are preordained, if there truly is nothing new, the task at hand is to make the best of it. To craft the best from it. If Song is reimagined based on last week, there’s a very good chance the book will be better. Oddly, it will also take a few steps closer to the reason for researching Teiresias in the first place. Psychic abilities have always fascinated me whether they exist or not. (And I blame Spock for it.)

A leap to someone in Ancient Greece who could see the future seems obvious but the road was not quite that direct. During my middle school years, I sometimes would construct fantasy timelines of reincarnations I might have had. My birthday was in mid-December of 1964; who died earlier that year that I might have been? And who just prior to their date of death? And so on… This fabrication of an uninterrupted line of past lives would extend as far as my knowledge of history would permit.

Something very like this led to Teiresias but I allowed the tracking and musing to move into legend and then myth, as records grew less authoritative. To my mind, the jury is still out on the details of reincarnation. I’m not sure we can be certain who we may once have been. Here the innumerable ex-Cleopatras have to be discounted.

In psychical research there is a term “anomalous cognition” that is meant to describe having knowledge without learning it. The best example of this may be the understanding some aspect of a dream without the establishing that would be required if the same plot were presented in fiction. Psychic studies go beyond that point but it means knowledge without a source or explanation. There had to be a word for the idea that we can retain knowledge from past lives, if any.

In the field of psychology (if I have this right), anomalous cognition is used to describe specific exaggerated reactions. As both science and paranormal research employ AC and with neither usage hitting the nail on the head, there had to be a more precise word. With all due respect to reverse dictionaries, they nearly always far short. Finding a new word is simple. Read more. Talk to smart people. Finding an extant but unknown word that precisely fits a specific concept is not so easy.

Just yesterday, while exploring Plato’s ideas, I discovered the word anamnesis. This is precisely what I find fascinating in anomalous cognition while not preferring the term. What you knew in a past life is something your education may serve to remind you of that past knowledge.

Plato suggested that we are reincarnated based on what we know. Ultimately, aisa (“αἶσα” meaning “destiny”) doesn’t matter in our thinking and work. It is how we think and work that remains our own.

Maybe there is nothing new under the Sun. When Song is published, however, I’ll invite you to curl up against a tree and read it in sunlight. If it surprises you – that may disprove predestination. If not, welcome back.


Tell me. Let me not guess.

It took a while…

For artThis chart shows the lineage of most of the characters involved with the major plotlines of A Song Heard in the Future – as a single, rather extended family. Scholars of the Greek myth might be able to detect a few contradictions between this and attempts by other. For example, according to some, Hecate was a virgin goddess. Aeëtes could not have been her husband – and father with her of Circe.

Parentage is just one source of discrepancy. There may be two characters named Chariclo – one marrying Chiron (with Carystus and Melanippe as children) and the other Everes (giving the world Teiresias). I’ve decided that Chariclo is just one person – nymphe – having had two marriages. More than a few myths will show a character as the son or daughter of another, while a related telling indicates the name of the son or daughter is actually the spouse. Is Antiope the daughter of Asopus and Metope or of Nycteus and Polyxo?

Then there’s the omission of a spouse, usually the wife. While there are myths that state Teiresias had at least three daughters. There are no accounts of the other parent(s). I’ve made my own selections here.

The last of the puzzles posed by mythology is there is no evidence in any myth that Historis (the presumed eldest daughter of Teiresias) married and had children. Her wedding to Poeas, the Argonaut archer, is another choice of art.

Talos

Talos, from Jason and the Argonauts (1963, Columbia Pictures)*

* Ownership of the image of Talos is neither claimed nor implied. In mythology, the automaton was created Hephaestus. In the film, by Ray Harryhausen.

Two red stars indicate the divine partners of Alcyone and Antiope. A simple search will find the names I’ve not shown. From the perspective of these two women, it may not be completely wise to disclose the presumed Pops.

A few characters’ names appear more than once on the chart: Chronus, Everes, Chariclo, Melanippe, and Teiresias/Teireseia. The first four are immortals and, therefore, capable of being sexually active in many different generations – sometimes century or longer apart. With the last, the seer undergoes a famous transformation and becomes part of two different families.

It may not be possible to build a family tree of Greek mythological characters without what some would consider errors. The stories involved are part of an anthology written by Greeks and Romans over almost a millennium. The authors didn’t always compare notes. A very respectable effort was made in A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology (2003, University of North Carolina Press). Two factors prevented me from using it for Song: 1) It contradicts some of the connections I required and/or omits some of the characters I needed to use and, 2) the price is pretty high.

Writing is making decisions.

Was this trip really necessary? Given the need to keep track of more than 85 named characters (not to mention those not appearing on this chart), each of whom has at least some established history (according to Plato, Ovid, Pausanias, et al.); I think it vital.

Of course, I’ve no way of knowing if the book, when published, will include this chart or one like it. The reader may not benefit from it as much as I or the story itself have/will. Included or not, it will help me make things clear.


Note: The Olympioi and Titanes are, of course, the Olympian deities and the Titans, respectively. The Nomioi were the denizens of the non-human wilderness, including lesser divinities. It would have broadly included the centaurs (kentauroi), satyrs (satyroi), nymphs (nymphai), and river gods (potamoi). Mortoi means “mortals”.


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The Fault — Is Not in Our Stars…

A component of being a purist may be thinking that the science in science fiction should be reasonably valid and the result of some research. If so, then I am at least partially a purist. If a starship can go anywhere in the galaxy in a few seconds, the accomplishment of space travel becomes quite meaningless. How do we preserve a sense of awe? How can new science fiction inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers?

In a less lofty capacity, if a writer won’t do a bit of research to make the science feel correct is it fair to assume they might stint on other details? Yes, it’s true that the emotions and growth of the characters is the vital core of fiction. How the main character feels may be the best way to capture a reader’s desire to identify with her or him. Comparing that character at the start of the tale and its conclusion provides the essential meaning of the journey.

We’re hard on our potential fictional heroes for a reason. They are more than reflections of our selves. They can – and when done best, should – mirror who we hope to be. The worlds in which they live illustrate where we hope to live. In rare cases, sci fi heroes can help us get there.

Science fiction can serve to criticize the aspects of our society that warrant correction. When the emphasis is on good science, the genre includes a different rationale than some others: that the meaning of our journeys can be understood. There are truly cosmic answers that can be had.

If the rocketship can reach the Moon in less than ten seconds, the landing pad can be green cheese. In “All We Now Hold True” it matters How Far and How Fast. Part of the story is a race against time.

rom-halan-draftDescriptions in prose and by equation need not be in conflict. It has recently been pointed out to me that some of my explanations of formulæ can wax poetic. Balance is part of my preferred aesthetic, whether in composition or equation. Science and math – like hue and light – underlie representations of beauty.

sic itur ad astrathus one goes to the stars

The Scientific Spiritualist…

I have always been fascinated by astrophysics. Mars and Stars have been on my mind since time immemorial. One of my earliest memories is actually of wishing on a star.

Noctua copy

The career and works of Camille Flammarion illustrate that he held similar passions. His speculations on Mars and other planets – and the potential for life there – have been part of my musings for some while.

The concept that there may be life on other worlds did not originated with Flammarion. And although we have gone 24± centuries without definitive proof of extraterrestrials, there is a legitimate search for evidence that is considered under the wings of science.

Only recently have I learned that Flammarion’s study and published material also treated on psychical matters. The scientist was also a Spiritualist – for more than 60 years. He was a contemporary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and they both made “pilgrimages” to renowned figures in Spiritualism, including to Eusapia Palladino. In 1897, what may be considered as the height of that movement, Flammarion’s writing turned exclusively to the conditions and environment(s) of the soul.

Having once been a scientist (chemistry), I must admit to some conflict between logic and the subjects to which I’m attracted as an author. Apart from A Song Heard in the Future, my novel-in-progress about the life of the seer Teiresias, I’ve been developing another book about the legacy of Spiritualism during World War II.

Richard Feynman – a theoretical physicist – is purported to have said, “…nobody understands quantum mechanics.” While I don’t believe that such uncertainty demands that all possible explanations are of equal potential validity, I do think there’s enough vagary to support the idea that even those who study quantum physics do not fully comprehend their own field.

The zeitgeist has seen fit to give television shows to some who think beginning presentation of any wonky theory with the phrase, “Is it possible…” is sufficient to intercept skepticism. I am and will remain far from going that far. I am much more comfortable with “What if…”, which has been the spark of every theory. Part of quantum mechanics may prove Flammarion – and all scientific spiritualists – partially right.

“The sight of my soul far exceeded that of my body, and, to my surprise, this power of sight appeared to be subject to my will.” — from Flammarion’s “Lumen”

Two dozen centuries without proof of a hypothesis is not proof of the antithesis.