Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Friday: Anthropic principle, Dan Simmons

During the hours of my day job, spent mostly alone in the kitchen at an assisted living facility for elders with dementia, I can usually listen to the radio while I work. Of course I never tune it to anything but our local NPR affiliate, and on Fridays I especially look forward Science Friday. Unfortunately, today while the show was, on a lot of foolishness and mayhem, perpetrated by co-workers, interfered with my ability to hear it. Also, we were apparently dicked out of the show's second hour entirely today since the station was conducting its spring pledge drive and ran an archived show in the second hour slot, edited to fit into the pledge drive. So I need to get the podcast if I want to know entirely what was discussed.

One portion that I did catch, however, was a discussion of the "anthropic principle" in cosmology. Different versions of this have been explicated, but the real simple gist of what they were talking about is the idea that the universe as we can observe it exists because we observe it. The whole thing is a result and function of our existence. I've never been a big fan of this notion and neither were the scientists on the show. The discussion reminded me, however, of some of the science fiction of Dan Simmons. The impact of human creativity on the "real" world is a major point of his Ilium/Olympos duology. Also, his 1992 novel The Hollow Man deals deeply in it. The story ends with the protagonist literally changing the conditions of his reality by willing a sort of quantum shift.  Though I'm not a big fan of the idea--too quasi-theological, too human-centered, too "anthropic" for me--Simmons employs it effectively in these stories. His tales hold a capacious optimism for humanity, and I like that more than I might have expected (I think I'm more frequently drawn to a completely non-anthropic view of the universe, one where we exist at random and more less in chaos, a more Lovecraftian view, I suppose). 

Thinking about this also reminded of Really Neglected Project (potentially in the same universe as my slightly less ignored novel Neglected Project), a story that my friend Pat and I started on a couple years ago. Without giving away the whole store (since we may actually finish it someday), it has to do with a race of people who have figured out how to manipulate matter at the quantum level, using a technique to concentrate their mental power, and are able to achieve great feats of making "something out of nothing." They have developed a sort of religion around this, propped up by a vast theocratic state apparatus, and have become dangerously dependent upon their ability to meditate stuff into existence.  So dependent, in fact, that they are sitting ducks when an invasion by an enemy from another brane begins. The idea began as a snarky, deliciously mean dig at The Secret (TM), but we quickly fashioned a giant, elaborately-wrought epic out of it. Actually, it got so big it sort of collapsed under its own weight and probably needs some major retooling if we ever go back to work on it.

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D. D. said...

Have you tried Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy? That is a very good example of the anthropic principle. Also a great read...

Christopher Fletcher said...

I have not read those, but I should add them to the list. If I recall correctly Baxter writes some really cool very hard sf, and he's one I should look into more deeply. I think he either is or was president of the HG Wells society (that might be quite the real name of it).

Another Simmons book that's not quite so anthropic-principle in nature but also deals in the ability of humans to acquire a mastery over the universe resulting from mental development is the Hyperion/Endymion saga, also highly recommended. And then, of course, Simmons also wrote what I consider to be one of the greatest horror novels of all time (which could maybe be considered dark sf as well), the brilliant and unforgettable Carrion Comfort.

D. D. said...

Hyperion/Endymion is on my list of books I re-read every year. Every time I read it, I can't help but hear Jack Nicholson voicing the character of Martin Silenus. Baxter actually wrote an incredible sequel to Wells' "The Time Machine", called "The Time Ships." And his Manifold Trilogy takes the Quantum Physics concept of Observation to stunning new heights. His scientific outlook is the basis for all of his best works, like his Xeelee Sequence, which covers many books and short stories.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Interesting pick of Jack Nicholson as Martin Silenus! I think I tended to imagine him as being more like Dean Stockwell, but I think that's because I first read it during the Galactica era, and his tone reminded me a bit of Stockwell's character (Cavil) on that show. Now that I think about it, I could probably populate the whole story with the Galactica cast...Mary McDonnell as Meina Gladstone, Tahmoh Penikett as Raul Endymion--OK [stopping myself], I need to work on something more worthwhile than casting imaginary movies!

Pat Eisel said...

Possibly a part of the weight that collapsed our book was all of the time spent reading the Simmons books. I was enthralled.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah Pat and I were on a lengthy simultaneous run of reading tons of Simmons for a while. We're also Carrion Comfort fans from way back in the day. A few months ago Pat related to me a funny story about he discovered someone through work who also appeared to be a reader of genre fiction. Excited at this find, Pat lent this guy a copy of Comfort. Apparently this dude did not find that he was able to enjoy it. We decided he probably wasn't viable as a new friend after all.


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