Friday, August 29, 2008

Steamship Time

In some history course or other that I took sometime or other, the instructor talked about "steamship time." That's a view of history that says that when the era is ripe for something to be invented or discovered or changed -- when the right infrastructure of ideas has been building steadily -- someone will invent or discover or change it. It's a view of history that minimizes individual talents and emphasizes social/scientific climate. In other words, if Robert Fulton hadn't invented the steamship, someone else would have, because it was steamship time.

I have no idea if this theory is true, or universally applicable. (It's difficult, for instance, to imagine "general relativity time.") But the theory came to mind yesterday because I was organizing my magazine basket, a large wicker structure into which I pretty much dump everything until it won't hold any more. Among the magazines were the August and the October/November issues of ASIMOV'S. The August issue contains Ted Kosmatka's terrific story "Divining Light." I sat on the floor beside my basket and reread it.

"Divining Light" concerns the metaphysical implications of the two-slit experiments in physics, seminal experiments in which the wave/particle duality of light collapses OR NOT depending entirely on whether there is an observer. When I first read about these experiments, decades ago, I was struck dumb by them. They seem to imply that human consciousness -- or somebody's consciousness -- is woven into the very fabric of the universe. For a very long time, I wanted to write an SF story about that. And last year, I did. It's "The Erdmann Nexus," in the October/November ASIMOV'S.

Ted's story focuses tightly on the two-slit experiment. "The Erdmann Nexus" is about other things as well (which may be why editor Sheila Williams didn't see the two as repetitious), but the two-slit experiment is at the heart of it. I'm proud of this story; I think it's one of my best. But sitting on the floor and reading Ted's "Divining Light," I was struck by the similarity at their hearts. I didn't meet Ted until a month ago, at Worldcon, and we have never corresponded.

Maybe it's just two-slit-experiment time?


Tim of Angle said...

There certainly is such a thing as "steamship time", properly viewed.

Consider: The steam engine represented a portable non-muscular source of power. Prior to that development, power was limited to how many living creatures could be harnessed together, or to a specific location with appropriate wind or running water to provide its source.

Once one had a portable source of non-muscular power, it was merely a matter of random time before it was applied to any situation where a portable source of non-muscular power would be beneficial: "steamship time", yes, but also "railroad time", "pump water out of mines time", "mechanical elevator time", or what have you. "Steamship time" merely plucks a fairly obvious situation.

Similarly, when electric power (and small electric motors) became available, one had "vacuum cleaner time", "refrigerator time", etc.

dwesley said...

I'm in the midst of reading "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles C. Mann, and he points out a couple of instances where "steamship time" came and went without the steamship.

The first was a finding that the wheel was used by Mesoamerican societies from at least 1000 BC for children's toys, but were never scaled up to create carts or any other useful tool. The explanations for missing the opportunity include lack of animals suitable for domestication as beasts of burden, and a wet and soggy terrain that would have made the wheel useless anyway. But that doesn't explain why they didn't use the wheel to make ceramics or grind maize.

The author then uses the example of the Chinese invention of the mold-board plow in the third century BC. The mold-board plowshare is made of cast iron and shaped like a V, with the blade carving into the ground and the two arms arcing away in such a manner that the turned earth moves away from the blade. This reduced the friction and made plowing easier.

And Europeans never thought of it.

Until the Chinese plow was imported in the seventeenth century, European farmers used a narrow slab of metal that required teams of oxen, compared to the Chinese who only used one ox. Millions of Europeans spent centuries behind the plow and missed the "mold-board" time.

The point being made is that every society misses out on "obvious" technologies, which makes the concept of "steamship time" a little suspect.

Kosmo said...

Nancy, thanks for the kind words on "Divining Light". You made my day. It was wonderful meeting you at WorldCon, by the way. I've been a fan of your fiction for years, so it was a thrill to learn I'd shown up on your radar screen.

And I totally agree with you; it's two-slit experiment time.

The physics behind the two-slit test is so strange that it could fuel a whole anthology's worth of stories. Hey, now there's an idea...

I'm very much looking forward to reading the "Nancy Kress" spin on the subject matter.

Mark said...

In Other Words, technological advancement can be said to be demand-driven. Given a reasonably large society there will be enough creative, imaginitive, enterprising individuals to eventually bang out enough words to write Shakespeare, or invent the plow, or not, as dwesley pointed out.

But the equation seems to be that for a technology to flourish there must be both demand + engineering capability for it. There may have been a demand for flying machines in DaVinci's time, but not the know-how to make them practical, and there may be the know-how to start a Mars colony now, but not yet the demand.

I must go find the series "Connections" and watch it again. I'm sure the Phoenix library has it :-)

kendall said...

I read a great short story that was sorta about the two-slit thing, a long time ago, in one of the magazines. So, I'm intrigued!

I see I can get the August issue from Fictionwise, but I'll have to look for the Oct/Nov issue later, when it comes out (perhaps in the bookstore). Lucky authors with their advanced copies.... ;-)

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Newton and Leibnitz come to mind...

But Nancy, you're looking for a plot for a novel? Well, we know supernatural powers will help us in our need. All we gotta do is ask. The patron saint of sf is St. Joan of Quark. Just say a prayer to her, and I bet the good ideas will start flowing again!