Scientific Revolutions and “Red Queen: the Substrate Wars”

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

These two reviews illustrate a conflict that anyone writing science fiction needs to deal with.

The primary driver of any good story is the characters and how they handle problems. What makes science fiction different is that these problems will be related to new science and technology; while in fantasy, any magical system with consistent rules will do, in science fiction the technologies should be at least possible, preferably plausible extensions of what is known. That is how science fiction predicted 200% of the innovations of the past decades (we are all still waiting for flying cars, for example!)

There’s a trap here, though. Pop culture is now saturated with science fictional technologies that were once novel ideas: time travel, wormholes, warp drive, runaway nanotechnology, powered armor, etc. Where once a single idea of this kind could make a book exciting, they are now routine. And a whole subgenre of space opera simply transfers naval warfare into space, with a few new features but old stories.

There’s a risk in introducing a truly paradigm-shattering idea: only a small and shrinking market of readers will follow the author into a fictional world that says familiar scientific rules are broken. So in “Red Queen” I have a new technology based on revolutionary new physics that appears to allow violation of some rules all of us educated in physics hold dear, like conservation of energy. Even the fictional developer of the technology has trouble accepting that, even though these violations only happen in very unusual circumstances, and may well be accounted for by as-yet-unknown effects elsewhere in the universe. Which is reminiscent of Einstein’s reaction to quantum entanglement–“this appears to be right but I don’t like it so it must not be the last word.”

This is how it feels when old paradigms are broken by a new theory backed up by experiment: this explains what we have seen better than the old theory, but “it can’t be right, it makes me uncomfortable.” Darwin’s work for biologists, quantum theory for physicists, Copernican heliocentrism for astronomers: all had to wait for a generation of believers in the old theory to die off.

So half your readers will willingly suspend disbelief and follow along, and the other half will stay bound to their reality and have the nagging feeling their hard science fiction story just turned into a fantasy. It’s far less risky, but in the end less interesting, to stick with a known science-fictional technology like hyperspace or warp drive, with a few differentiating features to make it “yours.” The readers are prepped for it. But maybe there is now so much science fiction already written that truly new ideas are hard to come by, and we are left with character and plot as the drivers of interest.

The idea for the physics breakthrough in “Red Queen” is actually thirty years old, coming from long BS sessions with friends at MIT. That there has been little testable progress in string theory and unified field theories since that time is a problem — something is being missed, with dark energy, dark matter, and Mach’s principle all pointing at a failure to see something. The physics in the book is just one way things might go, and the truth when it is found is likely to be similarly surprising.

5.0 out of 5 stars
Classic style Hard Sci-Fi January 26, 2015
By Donald W. Campbell
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase

A great read in old-style hard science fiction. The social/economic predictions are an easy extrapolation from where we are now. (very short term future) The ‘science’ part of the fiction is; Imagine a cellular automation is the basis and under-pinning of our universe, and the laws of physics represent ‘rules’ of emergent behavior of this automata. (This is a current theory, the author postulates it is true.) Imagine Quantum computers really work. (A 90% probably true, not a long shot)

Now, accepting these two, let us speculate a ‘fiction’. Aforementioned quantum computer is capable of interacting directly with the underlying cellular automata, bypassing the emergent ruleset and subsituting its own. If we accept this ‘fiction’, the remainder of the book is a logical extrapolation of reality as it exists.

(Hopefully this description hasn’t created any real spoilers for future readers.)

4.0 out of 5 stars
Excellent novel, full of interesting plot points, January 25, 2015
By Dave
Verified Purchase

Excellent novel, full of interesting plot points. This novel intrigues. While it’s not plausible, at least by any known science, it is thought-provoking, and that is often the more interesting form of fiction: what if something were possible? What would it imply.

In this novel we are presented with a calamitous terrorist attack and the attendant overreach of various governments. Concomitant with that a group of rogue scientists discover a way to move immediately to another planet via that obvious trope of science fiction, the wormhole.

But, but, but! you say. “Wormholes are fake!” Well, sure, they very well may be. But so what? If you are able to suspend your narrative disbelief and enjoy the plot for what it is, an interesting thought experiment occurs: in a panopticon society, in which your every move is tracked, how do you rebel agains the authority of the state?

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

For more on science fiction and pop culture:

Science Fiction Fandom and SJW Warfare
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Game of Thrones” and the Problem of PowerThe Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor

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