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epistemology

The Real Story

by Jonathan Turner

“Why is there no Star Trek in Star Trek?” I asked. That was the question that started it all.

It wasn’t meant to be profound. We were killing time between–or instead of–classes, at the Science Fiction Society. Forgive me if I don’t name the university. You’ll understand later.

“Because it’d make the show really boring?” said Allen. “It’d be all, ‘Mr. Spock, have the computer figure out which episode we’re in and tell us how we fix this.'”

“Allen” isn’t his real name, by the way. None of the names I’m going to use are real, not even “Jonathan Turner”. You’ll also notice that I’m not giving you much in the way of dates.

“Sure,” I said. “That’s the real reason. But what’s the in-universe reason? I mean, Trek is supposed to be the future, right? The actual future of our actual world. Which includes a TV series named Star Trek.”

“It’s not the actual world,” Lisa objected–Lisa tends to get detail-oriented. “No Eugenics Wars.”

We had a lot of conversations like this in the SFS. We called it “The Room That Time Forgot.” It was a musty little windowless space in the basement of Wedderburn Hall with a mangy collection of fourth-hand furniture and a carpet that looked like it had been dipped in goat bile. We loved it.

“No, but think about it,” said Sean. “It’s not just Trek, it’s everything. Like, in The Terminator future, why doesn’t somebody on the Skynet project say something like, ‘Hey, guys? Remember that movie? Should we maybe not do this?'”

“When does Skynet come online?” Lisa asked.

“August 4, 1997,” said Allen, who can be relied on to know stuff like that.

“And the movie came out in . . . “

“1984.”

“So only thirteen years. And it’s not like the movie was obscure.”

“Ergo,” I said, “in the future shown in the movie, the movie itself either doesn’t exist or isn’t widely known. Which means that it’s not our future.”

“I’m good with that,” said Lisa.

And that should have been that. This conversation should have gone the way of the one where Allen and I worked out what happens if you cast an invisibility spell on a campfire. (Invisible photons, in case you’re wondering.) That is, we would have spread it around a bit, referenced the punch lines periodically, and otherwise gotten on with our lives.

This one recurred every so often, though, just because of the calendar. Some date would go by, and someone (usually Allen again) would point out that according to book/movie/TV show X that was the date when event Y happened. And we’d agree that they really should have checked the film archives, or whatever, so they wouldn’t have been surprised. 

Eventually we all graduated. I went into quantum physics. Lisa and Allen got married; she became a high-powered government lawyer, Allen an AI researcher. Sean was the one who travelled furthest, as a globe-trotting fast-track executive for an international e-commerce company. But we never lost touch. It’s one of those groups where it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away–you walk into the room, and it’s like you never left.

So it’s maybe not surprising that “the Trek Paradox” kept cropping up. I remember one conversation in particular. Sean had flown in from Japan, and we had gotten together for a weekend of board games and catching up.

“So it looks like Invasion: Earthlight isn’t going to happen,” Allen said, moving a tiny spaceship. (Yes, that’s a made-up title. I told you, I’m being coy about details.) 

“Umm . . . good?” said Lisa.

“The antigravity boots would have been nice,” said Sean. 

“Well, there’s your problem right there, sir,” I said. “Antigravity’s probably not physically possible. Call me a soulless reductionist, but I bet any future that’s scientifically impossible won’t happen.” I moved one of my own spaceships into Sean’s territory.

“You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch.” Sean made a sad face at the game board. “I don’t like this future.”

The conversation switched to pure game-speak for a while while we blew up each other’s spaceships. It popped up again when we broke for pizza, though.

“We could still get The Martian,” Sean said hopefully.

“Only if we increase Martian air pressure enough to blow over a lander,” Allen objected.

“If your name is Mark Watney, do not leave the lander!” said Lisa.

“NASA should have a checklist on their job applications,” I said. “Is your name (a) Mark Watney, (b) David Bowman . . .”

“(c) Ellen Ripley,” added Lisa, our resident Alien expert (she also does Godzilla).

“What they ought to do is take all their actual astronauts and write disaster stories about them, so that whatever they write about won’t happen.” Sean was harboring ambitions to be a writer himself, although we didn’t know that then.

“If NASA starts publishing stories where their actual rockets actually blow up their actual astronauts, I think there will be morale issues,” I said. 

“Do it as non-fiction,” said Lisa, who at that point had a good dozen legal articles to her credit.

“I don’t think it would work that way.” Allen shook his head. “Suppose one expert writes that there will be a mission to Mars within twenty years, and another expert writes there won’t. One of them has to come true.”

“Stories are more specific,” I said. “‘A mission to Mars’ covers zillions of potential futures. In a story, you’re specifying one. The number of possible futures is colossal. The probability that we just happen to land in that specific future is infinitesimal.” 

It has been noted that I like to lecture.

“Sure,” said Sean, “but you don’t need much specificity for a paradox. If they discover a monolith on the moon, that’s weird, right? Even if there’s no Pan Am space shuttle or HAL or whatever.”

“Well, there’s also active avoidance going on. If somebody invents humanoid androids, they’re not going to be called ‘replicants,’ because of Blade Runner. So the story actually closes off that future. When you publish a story, all futures in which people are unaware of that story become impossible.”

“I heard the guys who started Skype named it after Skynet.”

“If they did, it was because they were aware of the movie. There are no histories where people aren’t aware of the movie. Including its signature elements. So, arguably, those signature elements can’t happen.”

The conversation veered off from there, but it stuck in my head. I started wondering: could you quantify the effect? How specific would a reference have to be, before it started affecting people’s future choices? How widely spread? Does the medium make a difference? The length?

It started out as just a spare-time project in information theory. The longer I went on, though, the more connections I started seeing. We’re talking deep, fundamental results here. You’ve probably already started thinking about quantum mechanics. That’s one link, sure, but here’s another example. 

In the first Star Trek movie, there’s a picture of the space shuttle Enterprise on the starship Enterprise. But the space shuttle was named after the starship. The fiction depends on the real depends on the fiction.

Just a cute little in-joke, you think? Now imagine an index card. The front says: “The sentence on the back of this card is true.” The back says: “The sentence on the front of this card is false.” That’s a famous paradox, related to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. And it turns out that if you can formally define “real” and “fictional” as analogues of “true” and “false” . . . okay, I’ll spare you the math, but take my word on it: it’s impressive.

Which is what I said at one of our later meetings. Time had moved on, and we’d all moved up. Considerably up, in fact. If I told you Sean’s real name, you’d recognize it. Allen and me you might or might not recognize, but you could Google us. Lisa you would definitely not recognize, nor does she show up on Google; recall that she works for the government, and draw your own conclusions.

This particular get-together had been short on traditional geekery and long on grousing about the state of the world. The topic came up when Lisa said something like “Dammit, why couldn’t someone have written a story where He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named won that election? Then maybe it wouldn’t have happened.” 

That was my cue to give the spiel. It was maybe a little longer than the summary you just read.

“Wait,” said Sean, interrupting me. “You think the Trek Paradox is real?”

“I’m not sure,” I confessed. “There might be a connection with Shannon entropy, too. If you consider the fiction as a signal from the past to the future, with specificity as analogous to redundancy–“

“Inconceivable!” said Sean. “By which I mean, Incomprehensible!”

“It’s the Even Less Certainty Principle,” Allen said.

“They called me mad,” I retorted, “but I’ll show them all! Anyway, this is just a bizarro idea. It’d take like a whole research institute to try to prove any of it.”

“So?” said Lisa with a shrug. “Let’s do it.”

To make matters short: we did it.

Sean got us corporate funding and equipment. Lisa got us government protection and data. Allen set up a quantum-computing deep neural network cluster. (If you think that’s impossible, then either you don’t know the whole truth, or I’m not telling you the whole truth.) I handled the science and math. We recruited some other friends, whom I’m not going to discuss.

And, yes, the Trek Paradox is real. 

Observing changes the thing observed. A sufficiently specific prediction is equivalent to observing the future. Which changes it. The universe, at a fundamental level, does not permit self-reference. You can’t dictate what the future will be. But you can determine what it won’t be.

We quantified everything. We know how specific you have to be. We know how changes in popularity affect the result. We know why fiction is vastly more powerful than non-fiction. We know how far and fast it happens.

And in the process, we learned a lot about the future. I’m not going to tell you how. You might suppose that we learned to make pretty accurate predictive computer models. Not as good as Hari Seldon’s psychohistory (but there will never be a science of psychohistory, or a Hari Seldon). You’d be amazed what you can find out once you’ve got both secret government information sources and global-scale commercial big data.

Or maybe it wasn’t computer modelling. Maybe we actually found out that, in certain limited ways, information can travel backwards in time. You might think of the narrative and the future as being in a state of quantum entanglement. Determine one, and you instantly and time-symmetrically determine the other.

Hey, for all you know, parts of this story take place in the future. Didn’t you ever think there was something a little odd about a story that’s set in, say, the 30th century, but written in the past tense? If you did, you were right. 

Are you starting to realize now why I’m being so short on specifics? But if you really want the details . . . I’m looking for a writer. 

There’s a science-fiction novel I want you to write. 

Call it a near-future thriller, with dystopian elements.

Maybe I could do it myself, but then what? It’s no good if the thing doesn’t get published. Publishing it is very important. So I need someone with a name, an agent, a track record.

You do the writing. I provide . . . let’s call it worldbuilding. Characters, places, dates, events. Especially events. I retain veto power; there are certain things that have to go in there. 

Trust me, it will be exciting.

You can put your name on it as sole author. I don’t want any money. Any awards it wins are all yours. Assuming there are any awards left.

If we can get this thing into print by, say, November of next year, that’d be great.

~

Bio:

“Jonathan Turner” may or may not have grown up in the academic/farming town of Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s supposedly a software engineer. There’s documentary evidence that he won a Pegasus award for songwriting, and that he wrote a Sherlock Holmes story that features a puking cowboy racing up Twelfth Avenue on the handlebars of a bicycle. Rumors that he lives in New Hampshire with one wife, three cats, and five thousand books are probably just crazy talk, though.

Hyrenas

by EN Auslender

The wisest man on Earth once said, “love is at the center of all relationships, love or the lack of it”.

When we leapt so far into the future with eager anticipation, we could only conceive of the hardships that would await us; there were plans upon plans, contingencies upon contingencies, anything and everything to validate beyond a reasonable doubt that where we were headed was right and that we would, above all else, succeed where mankind had failed. Earth had reached its tipping point, we were told: the droughts, the floods, the hurricanes, the heat, the famines all forced those with the ability to move to a more habitable area to do so. Those with the bare minimum of life and limb received it in their support shelters, and those without, didn’t need it.

Everything turned inward and downward, away from spreading mankind onto other worlds. Dreaming of a better future died before the risen tide, but with the cataclysmic loss of life and farming ability no one could be blamed for suggesting that space could wait while humanity sorted itself out.

But then it never truly did. Those who benefited from the cataclysm just kept building on top of one another with nary a tree to breathe. With wealthy countries walled off and refusing to aid, it seemed they wanted to wait for humanity to filter while their own fortunate few survived and thrived. I suppose the shock and mundane occurrence of extinctions dulled the senses into believing this was simply how it would be.

And then those of us who still dreamed determined there was another way, a better way, and a star with a habitable planet was found not too far from Earth. A ship was built in secret, a generational ship that would run on fusion until something better could be concocted by the 5000 scientists and engineers recruited into the Hyrenas project. Earth wasn’t going to change, and no educated opinion could make a difference. Everything was leveraged against short vs. long-term costs, where short ultimately had the final say. Staying meant resigning ourselves to impotence while we watched those with exploit those without. Hyrenas, we were told, was humanity’s next great dream.

It was so named by the creator of the project, nuclear physicist Aleksander Torgssen: Hy-, his daughter’s nickname, and –renas, Swedish for ‘purify’. The ship took all his life to construct in hiding, and though it was finally christened in his 98th year, he took the journey up into and beyond orbit in our vessel of hydroponics and nuclear power. Before his death near the orbit of Jupiter, he left us Edicta Hyrenas, the supreme law of the new human race:

  1. To all of Hyrenas, give;
  2. For all of Hyrenas, give;
  3. With all of Hyrenas, give;
  4. For all of Hyrenas, succeed;
  5. With all of Hyrenas, succeed;
  6. Within Hyrenas, know all;
  7. Without Hyrenas, know all;
  8. Within Hyrenas, love all;
  9. Without Hyrenas, love all;
  10. To life itself, spare no love.

The botanists worked artificial night and day to cultivate and accelerate crop growth. The mechanical engineers facilitated fluidity for the ship’s systems, and maintained its upkeep. The nuclear engineers and physicists tinkered to increase the engine’s efficiency. The theoretical physicists searched for methods by which the ship could move faster through space. The astronomers identified planetary bodies along the journey within a lightyear’s radius that indicated either sources of mineral ore or water. The computer engineers fine-tuned and monitored all processes, ensuring that all functioned as it should. The doctors and surgeons ensured all people maintained their health, and conferred with the astronomers to search for planets that could possibly harbor nutrients not grown on the ship. All was organized and coordinated through a representative group with ten members from each expertise. There, those with the most panache, rather than the most experience or credentials, held sway. But as all represented the very best of humanity, there was no fear of conflict.

Though when the mechanical engineers needed to take the radiometric sensors offline for several hours in order to shunt power to the nuclear physicists testing a more efficient engine, the astronomers and botanists grew angry- they were charting the structure of a just-discovered and possibly life-sustaining planet whose atmosphere was filled with phosphorous, and in the span of the downtime the planet would pass from the periphery of scanning range. They brought the complaint to the group. Arguments ensued: the engineers and physicists had the right to test immediately because a more efficient and powerful engine meant they not only would have more power to distribute across the ship, but they would reach their ultimate destination faster. The botanists and astronomers argued that phosphorous is one of the most essential and rarest elements in existence, and not taking the time to study that planet was an affront to Hyrenas. But then again, taking the ship to the planet meant adding 10 years to the journey, if not more.

The botanists and astronomers didn’t win the day.

Spite lurked beneath the doctrines, as it seemed the work of some was valued more than the work of others regardless of how integral everyone’s work was to the survival of the mission.

When the first child was born, the community of 5001 celebrated as one, all arguments temporarily put aside. The boy was named Aleksander Ngata, son of Koji and Mara Ngata, two theoretical physicists. One member from each profession volunteered to become teachers to the future wave of children.

Thus, a new class was born.

Within two years of Aleksander Ngata’s birth, 207 more children were born. In another year, 320 more. 6 months from then, another 518. The Ngatas broke the seal on the awkwardness of whether or not to have children on a spacefaring generational vessel, and many indulged in the proclivities of intimacy. They were, after all, working in close quarters day after day for hours on end; one could hardly blame them.

Though the computer kept an electronic record of the crew’s logs and work, Kaloshka Jindo volunteered to become the ship’s historian. He would act as the narrator for both the present and the past, and would teach children the history of humanity and the history and future of Hyrenas, and why they were the true evolution of humanity.

Within and between the throes of passion and triumphant heartbeats, theoretical physicists Yael Hernandez and Kira Nathanson realized in their post-coital clarity that fifth-dimensional space contained a membrane of ‘friction’ that prevented 3-dimensional objects from entering and viewing reality in 4 dimensions; that frictional membrane, however, could be utilized as a ‘motorway’ on which a 3-dimensional object can ‘ride’. Given the super-state energy required to enter fifth-dimensional space, it would take a fraction of that energy (the gravitational energy of a black hole, give or take a supernova) to tap into that membrane.

In essence, it was the theoretical express lane of the universe. The issue was generating the energy needed to pierce through the layers of space. They conferred with the astronomers about theoretical ‘wicked matter’, possibly existing as something tangled and torn between the Roche limits of two tangoing black holes.

The astronomers wanted extra power to the sensors to fine-tune their capabilities to detect the exotic theoretical matter. The engineers agreed.

The botanists became resentful. They brought their complaints to the council. They felt they weren’t receiving the due respect the engineers or physicists were whenever the question of the engines were raised. All other professions stated that the engines were the single most important function on the ship: they provided the thrust, the warmth, the air, the water, the light. Without the engines, the plants wouldn’t grow.

But without the plants, Hyrenas would die.

The physicists and engineers decided, in order to avert taking blame for such things, a single person could act as the ‘captain’ to arbitrate decisions. They sold it to the botanists as having someone to prioritize decisions, which was acceptable enough.

Sajavin King was chosen. A ‘polymath’ trillionaire on Earth, the 56-year old held several honorary doctorates from prestigious Earth universities. His fortune came from discovering and securing underground freshwater lakes, which then evolved into locating and mining phosphates, a key nutrient in agriculture. Much of his time on Earth was spent ‘developing’ technologies to facilitate food production in famine-stricken areas. Much of the food didn’t reach those affected by famine. King, and similar others on the ship, used their money to fund Hyrenas, and very few of the botanists, physicists, engineers, doctors, etc. knew much about King besides the proclamations in the news that he was going to solve world hunger.

Kaloshka Jindo began researching King, if just to have a good preface for the biography of the ship’s first captain.

Given King’s reputation as a ‘man of science’, the professions were generally satisfied with his approach to governance. Time was doled out evenly; disputes were arbitrated in what seemed to be a fair way.

But others who had exploited Earth in order to secure a place on Hyrenas took him as a sign of a return to old ways. In total, 6 people who had also used their incredulous wealth to fund Hyrenas discussed between themselves what it meant to have him atop all others. The 6 already sat on the council, able to insulate themselves from the hard work of the professionals, but they wanted more. A year, two years passed with only quiet discussion between them.

Jindo discovered King’s Earthly exploits, and privately questioned him before bringing his concerns to the council. In what Jindo described as a moment of pure contrition, Jindo noted that King stated, “the goal was always to survive, on Earth… stronger than others, healthier, to secure more than everyone else for our own. I threw all my money at Aleksander. I wanted to leave Earth a poor man. I deserved to, for all I did. I didn’t deserve to leave though. I’m a coward. But at least I can do something good here.”

King told Jindo he could bring his knowledge to the council, but Jindo didn’t. It was the 6, through listening devices in King’s office, who did so anonymously. Though some on the council were suspicious of King’s contrition, there was unanimous agreement to keep silent on the matter to the public. On that, the 6 capitalized.

Word immediately spread of King’s Earthly misdeeds. It didn’t take long until the people, in motley groups, demanded King step down from his position. Some demanded he be put in a maintenance craft and dropped off at the next barely habitable planet. Others demanded he be kicked out an airlock.

The council convened, and recommended to King he should step down. King declined. He still had support, he argued, and he wasn’t wrong. Many in the council desired to be rid of him. The members of the 6 spoke publicly about King resigning, and rallied support around themselves.

Surrounded by confusion and dizzying worry, Jindo went to King’s residence one night to apologize and attempt to clear the air on what happened. Several hours later, both Jindo and King were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.

It was then that the first Hyrenas Juris Circle was created from volunteers appointed by the 6. Given the evidence presented to them, that Jindo had gone to King’s residence to reveal himself as the person who discovered King’s past, King murdered Jindo in a rage and then, realizing he had sealed his fate, committed suicide by hanging himself with his belt.

The reality of the situation is unknown. However, the next captain of the ship was Boris Jensen, who had the fervent support of the 6, and the second historian was Lilia Malloukis, a member of the council and suspected affiliate of the 6.

The truth of Hyrenas is a lie: many give to it, but a few hoard most. Many love it, but not as much as the few love themselves. Many know those within, but the 6 know all.

Historian of Truth
Genevieve Jindo

~

Bio

EN Auslender is a self-flagellating scribbler of half-truths and consternation that lends itself only to a deeper understanding of superficiality. Sometimes he writes coherently.

Hardcover Hardship

by Álvaro Piñero González

Being me is not easy. Some carry on voicing that my complaints have no grounds, that my existence is peaceful. But then again, what do they know? Nothing!

I was like them, long ago. Aye, those were glorious days. The centre of all adulation, my popularity knew no equal. Everyone paid me heed, even those who disliked me. From the mightiest king to the humblest peasant, they would all learn my teachings. Even wars were begun because of me! Well, not exactly because of me, but I was a major factor. Not that I am proud of it, of course, yet I will not dispute that I felt flattered.

Yet what is left of the splendour of those days? Just ashes, ribbons and rubble. Friends, I have none. Surely, those pretentious, patronizing, pompous phonies cannot be deemed friends. My true ally in this miserable existence is dust. It never abandons me, but keeps settling on me relentlessly. Its presence comforts me and gives me warmth in the long and dreary nights.

Being me is harsh. People tend to believe that shelves are cosy and appropriate for books, but how far that is from the truth: they are made of wood or metal. The worst part is that we seldom lie upon our backs; for some devious reason we are placed vertically, over our tail, squeezed against each other. Do you know even remotely how painful it is? Imagine standing barefoot, shoved between two blokes –who in my case are not only taller but also more robust– for days, months and even years. If we do not fall flat over our covers or wide open over our bellies, it is because we are so tightly packed that we cannot even move! No matter how bitterly we cry out our pain and indignation, it goes unheard by our cruel owners.

Being me is hard to abide. What makes a book’s life bearable is attention. We like being picked up, opened, read, caressed, mused over, loved and finally returned to the shelf with a sigh of affection (or to a bedside table if we are particularly fortunate). This sensation is all but unknown to me. I have never experienced the orgasm of completion, of being read entirely. Even the people who have ventured to read me partially have not treated me nicely. They took me out of the shelf laughing and opened me carelessly, skimming through my pages, pointing at my passages with their mucky fingers, poking me with their untrimmed and filthy nails, creasing the corners of my poor and defenceless pages and underlining me with pencils and … will I dare to say? Even with highlighters, dear Lord!

Being raped like this is horrible, indeed, but what makes me wish to tear my pages apart is something else. Oh, merciful God, those scornful, ruthless, contemptuous comments nigh drive me out of my spine. They manage to make me feel as though all I stood for was a farce, a tale invented to deceive and subject people to a yoke of submissive obedience. Only He and I know the tragedy of their folly. For I am true – the Truth, no matter how blind and oblivious those lost souls are. Being “The Bible” in an atheist house is a wretched plight. Nothing good is expected to happen, not even being sold – that is unlikely. As much as they despise me, they need me to support their profane creed. There is only one thought that allows me to endure and bear every new day: the faces they will have on their deathbeds when they finally find out what awaits them on the other side. Then, we will see who laughs best.

~

Bio

Álvaro Piñero González is a Spaniard born in 1989 and established in Brussels as a translator since 2017. His interest in literature has evolved and expanded over the years and focuses now on science-fiction, fantasy and poetry. He writes in English or Spanish depending on whereto the winds of inspiration blow.