Pratchett, Science and the Nature of Fiction

A Higgs-Boson, apparently,  (CERN)

A Higgs boson, apparently, (CERN)

I made the mistake of interrupting a reading binge on Terry Pratchett (Guards! Guards!, Thief of Time and Hogfather) with a book on cosmology – Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe by Jeremiah Ostriker and Simon Mitton. Such a combination makes you wonder where the fiction leaves off and reality begins.

Or perhaps it helps you to understand that it’s all one and the same, born in the human mind.

Reality

The fascination for me in Ostriker and Mitton’s book was initially rather surprising – it was a real page-turner. What happened next?

I haven’t been all that interested in the details of dark energy/dark matter, which seems to be what they’re mostly talking about. Then I realized this is the “other shoe dropping.” The first “shoe” was all the news about cosmology back in the ’70s and ’80s. That was rooted in the post-WWII “superstar” status of many of the scientists behind relativity, quantum mechanics and all that. This, in turn, grew out of the literally world-changing developments in science at the turn of the 20th century.

O & M provide a succinct history of the development of our understanding of the universe from the earliest days up until the present. I used to be quite interested in that “cutting edge” stuff and now want to see how it all turned out.

The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. The signal from our galaxy was subtracted using the multi-frequency data.   (NASA/WMAP Science Team)  The other image is an orphic egg.

The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. (NASA/WMAP Science Team) The other image is an orphic egg.

Well, so far, it seems that they’ve erected quite an impressive nest of mathematics and observational data, but in it they have put the same old “World Egg,” though they call it something different. We are humans – that’s what we do.

I believe in their version, of course, just as I do Pratchett’s Discworld. I love fantasy of all sorts.

Pratchett on fantasy

I prefer Pratchett’s version of fantasy, though. It’s so much more honest.

All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand [Note to those unfamiliar with Pratchett – Death is a frequent character in his stories and is the only one to talk with the caps lock on all the time]. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Elsewhere in this book, Pratchett goes out of his way to make sure that the reader understands Death (the character) is incapable of cynicism. Thus, what he says here is meant literally, without any underlying agenda.

A human being, receiving a college degree.  (Image:  Patrick Theiner)

A human being, receiving a college degree. (Image: Patrick Theiner)

The 20th century

My one issue with the scientists is that, while they’re comfortable with being apes, they refuse to acknowledge the angel despite its very necessary contribution, per Pratchett, to the human scheme of things: Rightness.

It’s not an irrelevant point. The first and second world wars are also in Unraveling the Mysteries, regularly dancing in counterpoint to the massive advances in science. You can’t really separate that ugliness from the struggle to perfect thought. Channel your efforts into soaring that angel all the way to the ends of the Universe, and the rising ape will relapse.

For example, Einstein had what O & M call his annus mirabilis in 1905, at the dawn of the century when people really wanted to and did kill each other in record numbers – 230 million, by some estimates (PDF). That’s not counting the flu and other diseases.

And let’s not even talk about what aircraft have become, less than 100 years after Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic for the very first time.

Add it all up, and it seems that, in the 20th century and on into the 21st, the angels have flown away and brutes are gaining ground.

The Importance of Fiction

You may now have some very definite ideas, in agreement or disagreement, based on the definite statements made above. Please accept my apologies.

To define is to limit. This is often a good thing, but it is restricting. The lovely thing about fiction, especially fantasy, is that it states things in a very unlimited way. There’s more clarity and fewer restrictions.

We don’t have to agree with the writer in order to have our minds opened in enjoyable ways; it just happens, often in the most unlikely places (Rex Stout, I’m thinking of you).

With fiction, we don’t have to be Einsteins to think in pictures (that’s what he often did, per O & M). All fiction, especially fantasy, gives us pictures.

Terry Pratchett, now, he addressed this whole business of angels soaring and apes rising in another way in Thief of Time when he compared a group of beings called the Auditors with human beings. He didn’t exactly put down scientists, though a case could be made for comparing them to Auditors, because obviously scientists aren’t Auditors – they’re human beings, albeit perhaps a bit too specialized.

A scientist, being human.

A scientist, being human.

He did describe the human condition quite well by putting an Auditor into a human body. She realizes:

The brain itself did its own thinking!

That was the hardest part. The bag of soggy tissue behind the eyes worked away independently of its owner. It took in information from the senses, and checked them against memory, and presented options. Sometimes the hidden parts of it even fought for control of the mouth! Humans weren’t individuals, they were, each one, a committee!

Some of the other members of the committee were dark and red and entirely uncivilized. They had joined the brain before civilization; some of them had got aboard even before humanity. And the bit that did the joined-up thinking had to fight, in the darkness of the brain, to get the casting vote!

There’s the misery of the human condition, right there. It’s always a fight. How much easier to construct a nest out of whatever material is handy – tales around a winter fire, religious practices, mathematics and quantum physics – and imagine the dramatic hatching of any kind of a world egg. It’s a lot easier than the lonely, individual struggle with that darkness behind the eyes.

I know from my own limited experience with Theravadan Buddhism that it takes a religion to deal with such darkness. Lu-Tze aside, Pratchett doesn’t get into the specifics of religion, though the falling angel is a religious symbol. He does explore the complexities of human thought in some detail, though.

Right now, balanced between the Discworld and Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe, I think that scientists could do worse than realize that they have turned the falling angel into a universe-exploring drone just when it’s needed back home, in its original shape, to once again remind the ape how to rise.
 

This is Lao-Tse, independent of the world, NOT Lu-Tze riding a stolen witch-broom to Ankh-Morporkh.  (Image source)

This is Lao-Tse, independent of the world, NOT Lu-Tze riding a stolen witch-broom to Ankh-Morporkh on the Discworld. (Image source)



Categories: Thursday Fiction

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