Science, Symbolism, and Quantum Mechanics in SF

“Science fiction” is a sprawling, untidy genre, wearing so many masks it resists easy definition.  Even the “science” in science fiction spans a vast range, from incoherent technobabble to barely disguised excuses for magic to tightly constructed hard SF to Nebula and Hugo award-winning stories in which science makes no appearance at all. (Indeed, some have suggested the unifying thread is not science but history: James Gunn’s “the literature of change,” Kim Stanley Robinson’s “the histories we cannot know,” and David Brin’s “speculative history.”)  Some of the roles science plays in SF include:

* Scientific and technological advances signal that the world can and has changed, that history is in motion. This is especially relevant to the “speculative history” lens on SF.

* Advanced science and technology provide and justify exotic settings and characters, for example in many SFnal movies such as Avatar and Star Wars.

* Science can provide key plot points. This is particularly true in “hard” SF, where characters use science to reason their way out of a problem. Larry Niven at the height of his powers was a key exemplar, launching stories such as “The Coldest Place” and “Neutron Star.”

* Even the hardest SF is not really about science and technology but about our response to science and technological change. An example is the movie Gattaca, which critiques the danger of seeing people only through the lens of genetics.

What I want to write about today, however, is how science provides powerful symbols for SF, and how the imagery of science can echo the theme of a story.  And as befits SF, I’ll focus on stories that draw from a branch of science which is highly mathematical but which, deep down, appears as irrational and unreasoning as the Monster from the Id: quantum mechanics.

One of the bizarre elements of quantum mechanics, making it appear as if it were scripted by Philip K. Dick (and indeed, Dick’s Man in the High Castle uses languages that is very suggestive of quantum mechanics), is its randomness.  One cannot uniquely predict the future result of any experiment; rather one can only predict the probability of a range of possible outcomes. These probabilities can, however, be calculated, predicted, and measured with extremely high precision, which is why quantum mechanics is indeed a science and not a bumper sticker.

Now this statistical nature is not due to our ignorance or due to limitations of our measuring devices, as with classical chaos. Rather, the randomness is fundamental to quantum mechanics.  If God or anyone is in charge up there, She really does play dice with the Universe.

Unsurprisingly, the way quantum mechanics plays dice with the universe bothers many people, not only Albert Einstein but also award-winning SF authors. Ursula Leguin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980) both have scientist-heroes who reject quantum mechanics, specifically referencing the random element, and replace it with a new, deterministic theory. And both novels have themes of finding and communicating meaning and purpose in life and the universe.  Benford’s junior professor Gordon Bernstein is trying to carve out an academic career, maneuver through personal relationships, and struggle with professional ethics, all while facing one of the most monumental discoveries in history.  Leguin’s Shevek, an itinerant physicist from a planet of self-organizing anarchists, must journey further and further from his lover in order to pursue his theories and to re-establish diplomatic contact with the homeworld. Late in the novel, returning after years away, he heartbreakingly tells himself, “Even pain counts.” While the quarrels with quantum mechanics are not central plot points, they resonate with the protagonists’ desire to be assured their personal and professional efforts are not in vain.

Not all SF authors reject quantum mechanics. Some even use quantum-derived symbolism to positive effect in their novels.

One can propose alternatives to quantum mechanics in which the randomness is an illusion because the clockwork determinism is hidden. These are called hidden variable theories, and it turns out that the theoretical  differences between orthodox quantum mechanics and hidden variables can have measureable experimental consequences. (I should point out that in every experimental showdown to date, orthodox quantum mechanics has won hands down.)

These consequences are best seen in a phenomenon known as “entanglement,” where the properties of two separated particles remain, under special conditions, strongly correlated in ways that cannot be accounted for by classical physics. Elizabeth Bear, in her 2007 novel Undertow, postulated a mineral, “tanglestone,” a natural source of quantum mechanical entanglement, found only on Greene’s World (much like “unobtainium” in Avatar, only with a less farcical name).  Tanglestone is the foundation of this society’s technology, including communication and transportation.  The quantum mechanics entanglement echoes the biological and sociological entanglement of Greene’s World, complete with a species of intelligent amphibians, where (again, like Avatar, only more sophisticated) political and corporate machinations threaten the delicate balance.

(Unfortunately, I must point out that entanglement doesn’t work like this; under orthodox quantum mechanics, you cannot use entanglement to send messages. The very act of trying to send a message would break the entanglement.  Don’t blame Bear for this misunderstanding; the use of quantum entanglement as a communication device is widespread, found not only in non-scientist authors such as Bear and Phillip Pullman, but even ones who ought to know better. I’m looking at you, Steve Baxter.)

One strategy to dodge the randomness of quantum mechanics is found in the many-world picture, where each quantum event spawns new universes, one for each possible outcome. This paradigm is featured in John Scalzi’s debut novel Old Man’s War and its themes of identity. The consciousness of an old man is transferred into the new, young body of a star-faring soldier. Between battles with vicious aliens he meets a woman who has the body of his late wife; she doesn’t have his wife’s memories, but possesses many of her psychological traits.  Is he really the same person he was? Is she? These questions are echoed by the science of Scalzi’s faster-than-light drive. One character explains they don’t really go faster than light, but cheat by tunneling through to a neighboring universe that is nearly indistinguishable from the old one. This sleight of hand in his transport mechanism echoes the questions of identity that ring throughout the novel.

In all of the above the quoted use of science is symbolic. The science, generally, is not central to the plot; one could remove or modify the passages alluding to quantum mechanics without destroying the books. Scalzi’s soldiers could just have used “warp drive;” Bear’s corporations could have been mining “unobtainium.” But such deletions would weaken the novels. The science echoes and symbolizes and amplifies the themes of the stories.

Using scientific metaphors to echo the themes of an SF story is not easy.  A solid knowledge of science is helpful, although of my above examples only Benford is a professional scientist. There is no shake-and-bake method to tie the science to your themes; if it were easy, everyone would do it. But when plotting your story and when researching and devising the technology of your culture, look for those echoes and connections. Many SF stories thrive without such science-theme entanglement, but those that have them are stronger and more moving for them.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.