Monday, October 27, 2008

Ted Chiang and Ursula LeGuin

Class this morning focused on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and on the first half of Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed. What these two have in common is an alien physics that substitutes simultaneity for sequency. In other words, instead of seeing the world as a series of cause-and-effect phenomena, simultaneity sees everything that ever happened as already present, and time as a single, non-divisible entity. Both story and novel turn on this concept.

It's not, however, an easy concept to get across to a roomful of non-science majors (including the teacher), in a language not their own. We had pictures on the board. We had analogies. We had much hand-waving. The index of refraction was dragged in, as was the reversibility of Einsteinian equations. I think the students did very well, from what I could tell from their responses. One asked if Ted Chiang had borrowed these ideas about time from Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I said I had no idea. We then tackled anarchy as a social system, in the version LeGuin has invented for Anarres. It was an intense class, and I'll be interested to see how many return for next week -- when things do in fact get easier.

Next came a lunch with representatives from Holtzbrinck, which owns (among a lot of other things) Tor, my main publisher. The two women came by train from Berlin in order to arrange my public presentations, one in Leipzig and one in Berlin. Lunch was fun. Christina, one of the Holtzbrinck PR people, leaves in a few days for a vacation in California. She and a friend are driving from San Francisco to San Diego, along the Pacific coast. Travelers eastward, travelers west. But she will get the better weather.

16 comments:

Tim of Angle said...

"n other words, instead of seeing the world as a series of cause-and-effect phenomena, simultaneity sees everything that ever happened as already present, and time as a single, non-divisible entity."

In Orthodox theology, this is how God knows things -- not a new concept, although one impossible for those steeped in the Latin Scholastic tradition (such as Calvin and Zwingli) to grasp.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

In August 1971, I had an LSD illumination. Time is an illusion. There is only the Eternal NOW.

Jack said...

To quote from a highly underrated novel: "Everything is simultaneous."

Nick A said...

_The Dispossessed_ is probably the novel I would take to a desert island, if given the choice of having a single work of fiction. It was quite, quite influential to me, reading it as a teenager.

Now, this short story you referenced is on my short-list to read. Thanks for that.

Mike Flynn said...

The concept of causation was also absent from both medieval China and medieval Islam, though in different ways. In China, the sages were interested in concatenation: if a flood occurred, a two-headed calf was born, a women reportedly turned into a man, the coincidence was treated as being meaningful. In Islam, al-Ghazali held that "the fire does not burn the cloth." God causes the fire, and God causes the cloth to blacken, and it is only the habit of God that the two happen together. Ibn Rushd argued in favor of causation, but lost out.

Both outlooks had consequence for the development of science in their respective societies.

Nancy Kress said...

Tim and Mike, that's all fascinating information I didn't know. Nick, I completely agree with you; I've read The Dispossessed maybe seven or eight times over the years. Jack -- what book is that from?

Neal Holtschulte said...

Al-Ghazali's argument mirrors arguments made by western philosophers of science. Observing that blackened cloth always appears after burning cloth does not prove that fire causes cloth to blacken.

I forget who made this point. Whoever it was used a cute analogy of a scientist peering through a hole in a fence. Every day a cow would walk past the other side of the fence. First the scientist saw the head, then the body, then the tail. After many days of observation the scientist exclaims, the head causes the tail!

Luke said...

That certainly sounds like an interesting class. I read and enjoyed both works, and clearly remember the alien's different conception of time in the Chiang work. But forgive me, I read The Dispossessed long ago and don't exactly remember how the simultaneity pertains. I remember that in terms of some of the technology, such as the future radio transmissions, but not as integral to the plot, which I remember centering more around the stagnant-socialism of the moon and the disparate-capitalism of the planet, pretty close to the Cold War. Did I miss something?

P.F. said...

Walter Jon Williams's "Surfacing" also presents an alien species that doesn't think in a linear, cause-and-effect kind of way.

For instance, instead of saying "I am talking to you", their syntax would be "You and I are in a state of conversation".

It's in The Best of the Best, Volume 2, edited by Gardner Dozois.

Mike Flynn said...

Al-Ghazali's argument mirrors arguments made by western philosophers of science.

Ockham reasoned that way. For that matter, so did Hume, iirc; which makes it weird that both became well-thought of by scientists. Still, causal thinking remained predominant in the West, while the Moists in China and mu'tazilites in Islam were far less influential than the Confucists and ash'arites. In the end, Ibn Rushd had to flee town.

Indeed, post hoc est non propter hoc. But proper application of resolutio et compositio can tease out a genuine propter quid from the quiae. The head may not cause the tail, but the fire surely does burn the cloth. The muslim objection was that God Did It, not the fire; but the Christians believed in the autonomy of nature and so that bodies could act upon bodies by their natures.

As an SFnal notion, it provides examples of the limitations and possibilities of a society that does not conceptualize causation (let alone secondary causation!); although in different ways than The Dispossessed.

Also: what PF says about the influence of grammar on how we think of things.

Nancy Kress said...

Luke-- The physics of sequency/simultaneity are critical to the plot of The Dispossessed because Shevek, the genius-physicist protagonist, is seeking a Unified Theory of both modes that will make possible instantaneous communcation across space (the "ansible" of LeGuin's later works). That theory is the reason that Urras societies want Shevek. What he does with his theory forms the book's climax.

Luke said...

Thanks Nancy. I think I was more caught up by the political than the scientific aspects.

Kevin Blake said...

While I have not read either work, my understanding of this was first developed reading Richard Bach's Illusions.
His analogy was with a finished film. The entirety exists at once but can only be experienced sequentially.
And for me it makes this analogy more fun to thinks about how films are made completely out of sequence most of the time. :)

Mike Flynn said...

Forsooth, I think that a good example of simultaneity in art is in medieval European visual arts, in which an entire sequence of events may be shown as happening "simultaneously" in different spatial regions of the painting or tapestry. One takes in the entire Norman Invasion gazing at the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Unlike the written, or spoken, word, which must happen in sequence, paintings happen "all at once." So that while the one medium has difficulty depicting sequence, the other has difficulty depicting simultaneity.

But then, simultaneity is an observer-dependent illusion, as Einstein observed. The flash and bang of a cannon are simultaneous to the cannoneer; but may occur seconds apart to those being cannonaded.

Kevin Blake: You're right about how films create sequence from an original unsequential shooting. The film Memento plays with this notion by showing scenes in reverse order. Mailer's novel Catch 22 used a "spiral" of scenes that kept circling around and around a pivotal event.

Nancy Kress said...

Mike -- Wasn't CATCH 22 by Heller, not Mailer?

Mike Flynn said...

Dagnabbit, that's right. Heller.