Friday, September 27, 2013

Fiction, Science, Truth

Lorentzian wormhole by Allen McC., Wikimedia Commons

Lorentzian wormhole, by Allen McC., Wikimedia Commons

In my last post I mentioned the apparent absurdity of a story that depends on drilling through Earth’s mantle with a rig that makes hole – when it’s actually working – at sixty miles an hour.

Reality check: the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest hole yet, began drilling in 1970 and stopped nineteen years later after running into insurmountable difficulties, namely heat. It had reached over seven and a half miles beneath the surface but had not penetrated Earth’s crust.

One could tell many gripping stories (and many of them factual) about such an effort, but none would be titled Core. A human-scale story about drilling a hole to the center of the Earth, like most hard science fiction, requires cheating.

I broached this theme in an essay for the New York Review of Science Fiction in 1994, titled “Loopholes in the Net,” a title inspired by Gregory Benford’s paraphrase of Robert Frost’s remark about free verse: “I’d rather play tennis with the net down.” Benford proposed that “Hard sf plays with the net of scientific fact up and strung as tight as the story allows.”

As the story allows? Most hard sf authors care enough about scientific accuracy to know when they’re bending the rules, but in fact almost no science fiction story can tolerate simultaneous adherence to real-world experience and well-founded theory.

A common victim is time. Space adventures routinely ignore relativity, and even novels that respect and depend on relativistic effects, such as Joe Haldeman’s notable Forever War, have to cheat. Wormhole gateways to distant parts of the universe (Haldeman’s “collapsars”) are a favorite device, but a ship falling into a wormhole would approach infinite velocity, at which point time stops.

Instead of boasting about playing with the net up, science fiction writers of all degrees of hardness could admit what they have in common with the entire fiction-writing community: all fiction is a lie, and also true.

This isn’t the claim, well stated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” unfortunately since devolved to a cliché and an excuse for lazy research. More fundamentally, the question of truth in fiction gives rise to a paradox not unrelated to the liar’s paradox beloved of logicians (“All Cretans are liars,” said Epimenides the Cretan), which lies deeper and has inspired a literary offshoot of the wonderfully named possible worlds theory.

A much-read 1976 essay by the late Princeton philosopher David Lewis, succinctly titled “Truth in Fiction,” describes the dilemma and roughs out a solution: “We can truly say that Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street, and that he liked to show off his mental powers,” he begins. Since that truth is a different sort of beast than truth in our real world, he suggests, “Let us not take our descriptions of fictional characters at face value, but instead let us regard them as abbreviations for longer sentences beginning with an operator ‘In such-and-such fiction…’.”

The point, expressed in philosopherese, is that such an operator “may be analyzed as a restricted universal quantifier over possible worlds…. The worlds we should consider, I suggest, are the worlds where the fiction is told, but as known fact rather than fiction. The act of storytelling occurs, just as it does here at our world; but there it is what here it falsely purports to be: truth-telling.”

Lewis meant those words, and those worlds, literally. Not least among the pleasures of his essay are encounters with weird-sounding concepts like Meinong’s jungle and philosophical zombies.  What interests me more, however, is the clear parallel with the many worlds theory of quantum mechanics. More on that next time.

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