You Just Don’t Understand…

It is a curious fact how often those who are most in need of insight into how they might improve their fiction writing are also among the most reluctant to accept suggestions. In the past I’ve suggested that this is because the craft of fiction is largely invisible. My words on a page will look very much like your words on a page. To discern the differences, you need already to have a grasp of both the technical elements of prose and the felicities of prose style.

Beyond that, I think we can point the finger of blame at the dumbing down of the United States. Abroad in the land is a widespread and pernicious view that expertise is not only unnecessary but suspect — that, as the phrase goes, my ignorance is just as valid as your knowledge.

A third factor, and one that I’m sure I ought to pay more attention to, is the depth at which aspiring writers are emotionally committed to — we might almost say ennobled by — their scribblings. A bizarre and garbled story concept that has no hope whatever of being commercially viable or even of passing interest to more than a few readers may embody the working out of some deeply felt emotional need on the part of the writer. Beyond that, an inept writer who has been emotionally abused (quite possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with his writing) may need not only to put words onto paper as a raw outpouring in order to demonstrate to himself his own unimpaired competence; but may need also, and more imperatively, to see that outpouring validated, as unlikely as the prospect may be, through the unstinting admiration of others. In such a case, the writer is bound to take criticism of the writing very badly — to experience it as a personal attack.

If one participates, as I do, in an occasional public forum whose ostensible purpose is for writers to discuss their work and their struggles with it, how is one to work out whether a given writer is really seeking comments that will improve her work, or whether she is actually seeking unqualified approval and emotional support using the presentation to others of her dismal writing as a springboard or game marker?

One might also ask whether, in the latter case, one ought to tiptoe quietly away, or whether one ought to suggest ever so gently that she might better achieve her emotional goal by improving her writing rather than by defending it in its decrepitude.

For my own part, I’m quite aware (or I hope I am) when I do things in a paragraph or chapter that may be frowned on by other knowledgeable writers. I’m not always willing to change! I’m trying neither to maximize the commercial potential of my work nor to live up to some rigid and exalted standard of “good” writing. Sometimes I write a passage in a certain way just because I’m having fun. I’m satisfying my own emotional need or my own peculiar taste, and that’s all I aspire to do.

My longstanding motto is, “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.” If the novel you’re writing isn’t your favorite toy, you’re probably writing the wrong novel.

Yet at the same time, I try not to invalidate whatever criticism I receive (unless it’s plainly just wrong-headed). Sometimes other people have good ideas. Sometimes they notice things I have missed.

None of us is so smart that we don’t need a second opinion from another story doctor. If you think you’re a misunderstood genius, you’re wrong. As the Firesign Theatre once put it, we’re all bozos on this bus.


Thinking Out Loud

When you’re working on a large creative project — a novel, let’s say — it’s hard to find someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth. When you find yourself stuck, laying out all of the factors in the stuckness can take quite a bit of time and effort, even if you know someone who has the patience to listen. As a result, brainstorming becomes a private business, and groping your way out of a blind alley can be endlessly frustrating. Even if your listener has no brilliant ideas to offer, not infrequently it’s when you’re explaining a knotty problem to someone else that the problem untangles itself.

So we’re going to try that here. I’m going to explain what has me baffled, and you can listen or not, your choice. I’ll pretend you’re listening, and try to lay out every relevant piece of the puzzle for you without burdening you with too much that’s extraneous.

I’m doing a rewrite of Book 3 of my four-volume fantasy epic. The basic plot premise of the story is that a young woman named Kyura has discovered that she’s not just an ordinary innkeeper’s niece. No, she’s the hereditary ruler of the distant land where she was born. The land is currently ruled by her cousin Tornibrac, who is a malevolent tyrant and quite possibly crazy. Also, he’s only a puppet ruler — the real villains are powers behind the throne, and Kyura is going to have to deal with them too.

She has now, after overcoming various dangers on the road, arrived in the land of her birth, and she’s trying to figure out what to do. In my previous draft, somehow it all worked out even though Kyura didn’t really take a lot of bold actions. My editor objected. “Kyura is too passive,” the editor cried. “You need to make her more active.” So okay, I’ve been giving her some actions. She has no army, unfortunately, and no way to raise an army, so an armed uprising — a revolution — would be difficult to mount even if she were a skilled general; and she’s not. She and her friends can engage in some significant sabotage, however, in order to create turmoil and tip the scales in their favor, and the sabotage is on their drawing board.

But because Kyura is a Good Person, she is not willing to carry out the sabotage until she has first spoken to her cousin face to face and asked him if he’s willing to step aside voluntarily and let her take over as the ruler. If he refuses (and of course the reader can readily guess he will refuse), she will feel justified in taking other action. She’s sure he will refuse; for one thing, he has already tried to kill her twice. But she feels honor-bound to ask.

The first question that this raises is, what on Earth is she planning to say to him? If she can make no proposal that sounds plausible to her and to her friends when they rehearse it, confronting him would just be silly, and she shouldn’t bother. Not being stupid, she will know that it would be pointless. He won’t budge unless she has a lever to pry him loose. Saying, “Pretty please,” is not going to work, and it’s not going to make readers happy either. Having your hero act like a complete idiot — not a good tactic for the writer.

The second question is, how exactly is she going to arrange to confront him face to face? He’s in his castle, and well guarded. She’s in hiding in the city. She can sneak into the castle easily enough; I’ve set that up without trouble. But what then? If she pops up in his bedroom wanting to chat, he’s just going to holler for the guards, and she’ll be arrested and have her head chopped off, and that will be the end of the story.

For the same reason, she can’t send him a message offering to meet him somewhere on neutral ground. He’ll just send guards or lay a trap, she’ll be arrested, the outcome will be no different.

If he’s traveling around the city in his lovely gilt-painted horseless carriage, she and her friends could possibly hijack the carriage. But this puts the forward movement of the plot on a bad footing. The good guys might have to wait weeks, twiddling their thumbs, until Tornibrac decides to take a little jaunt. Could they create an emergency that he would have to take care of personally? No, he has people to take care of emergencies. Hands-on supervision is not fun for him.

What’s worse, as Kyura plans this encounter, she has to contemplate what would follow in the unlikely event that Tornibrac gracefully agreed to step aside. She would then have to deal openly with the powerful men who have put Tornibrac on the throne. Unless she has a plan for how to do that, buttonholing Tornbrac would be about as useful as drinking a glass full of strychnine.

But let’s not worry about that quite yet. Let’s stick with how the confrontation between Kyura and Tornibrac could be arranged. The one slim hope that I can see is this: There’s an older woman, Siallon, who is apparently one of the bad guys, at least as far as the bad guys are aware. (She’s the aunt of the chief villain, who is Tornibrac’s mentor and the power behind the throne.) But way back in Book 1, Siallon allowed Kyura to escape from a cell by not blowing the whistle during the escape, instead telling Kyura, “Go, quickly!” Might Siallon be able to help the good guys by luring Tornibrac out of his castle? Yes, she might be willing to do that.

That’s my best idea so far, but it’s riddled with pitfalls.

First, the good guys don’t have any assurance at all that they can trust Siallon. If Kyura’s friend Roma even approaches Siallon and starts hinting about it, for all they know Siallon could have Roma arrested and tortured until she tells the bad guys where Kyura is hiding. The good guys may think or hope they can trust Siallon, but they don’t know her well, and she’s certainly hanging out with the bad guys, so approaching her is very risky.

Second, Siallon is a houseguest in the mansion of the evil wizard, Posthilnueze. Even if Siallon is inclined to be cooperative, the good guys have no way to insure that Posthilnueze or his servants won’t be eavesdropping on the conversation between Roma and Siallon, which would be disastrous.

Third, even if Siallon agrees to try to help, how can she lure Tornibrac out of his castle to a meeting with Kyura without in the process revealing to the bad guys that she, Siallon, is a traitor to their evil cause? “Oh, what a coincidence! Here’s Kyura. Maybe you and she should sit down and have a nice talk.” No, that’s not very believable. And I need Siallon to stay in the bad guys’ good graces, because near the end of the book she’s going to have to rescue Kyura from a very nasty situation, at which point she does finally reveal to the bad guys that she has switched sides. Having her visibly change allegiance at an earlier point in the story would create deep plot problems later on.

The next sound you hear will be the author making soft whimpering noises.

Red Shirts

Devising dramatic scenes in action-oriented fiction can pose a difficult problem for the author. The moment your bad guys march onstage with their weapons drawn, the question is, who is going to get maimed or killed? There are only three possible answers, and all of them are bad.

If none of the good guys is killed or horribly injured in the melee, the reader will soon begin to feel that nothing was truly at stake. After a couple of incidents of this sort, the reader is likely to think, “Oh, dear, here we go again.” The supposedly action-packed moments will start to feel like cardboard, or like ballet.

If you start killing off important characters every time there’s an action scene, the action will seem a lot more real and emotionally meaningful, and that’s vital if you’re trying to write an effective story. But if there’s more than one scene of this sort in your book, you’ll soon run out of good guys. Assuming you’re working from an outline (you are outlining, aren’t you? Sure you are — but that’s a topic for another time), you may have plans for those characters, so you may not be able to kill them.

The third option is, you put a couple of minor characters in the scene and have the bad guys kill them. See, the drama is serious! The good guys did not emerge from the encounter unscathed! This may be the least bad choice. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible cliche.

Such characters are called red shirts. In the original Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock and McCoy beamed down to a planet, no matter how dire were the conditions they encountered, you knew they were going to survive, because they were the main series characters. But if they were accompanied by one or two anonymous crew members — people you had never seen before — you could be pretty sure those crew members were going to die before the first commercial break. They wore red shirts, because they were just part of the crew, and that was their uniform. That’s how a character who is introduced merely in order to die came to be called a red shirt.

My approach to this dilemma is, I try to give the red shirt a name, a personality, and a life of their own. And when they die, I make sure to show the aftermath. In one scene, a fussy old guy name Iknizer is shot, and dies. We know a little of his life story, we’re heard his plans for the future — and when he dies, the good guys have to bury him in the mountain pass where the battle took place. They pile stones on the grave and hold a little service before they go on. My editor complained that Iknizer is a red shirt, and of course he is. But what am I supposed to do?

A Good Bad Guy

Donald Westlake, in his crime novels, makes a clear distinction between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. This is true in his Dortmunder stories, and also in a couple of other novels, such as Cops & Robbers. Dortmunder and his friends are thieves. They’re career criminals. But they never hurt anybody, they’re ethical, and they seldom come home with all the loot they’d like. They’re good bad guys. Generally they find themselves pitted against unscrupulous, amoral, sleazy bad bad guys.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The title of this little essay refers, rather, to the necessity of creating a villain who is believable and effective. All too often, authors create bad guys whose entire motivation seems to be to cause problems for the good guys. The villain may freely behave in ways that are inconsistent or contrary to his/her own best interest, because the author has thought no more deeply about the character of the villain than that he (we’ll say it’s a he) is to be a constant source of trouble.

This is not just a weakness found in the work of amateurs. Professionals fall into the same trap.

Writing a believable villain is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many authors (being fundamentally nice people, as I’m sure we all are) have trouble imagining how a truly evil person thinks and acts. Second, a villain who is truly following his own evil agenda may not do the things that the author needs in order to move the story forward.

One extreme form of this failure is, of course, the moment when the villain seems to have won the contest. The hero is at the villain’s mercy. Whereupon, rather than simply dispatching the hero with a quick bullet to the head, the villain pauses to explain, for several pages, his reasons for all the villainy, in the process clearing up any questions the reader may have about the plot. While the villain is expostulating endlessly, the hero manages to wriggle out of the handcuffs or whatever, turn the tables on the villain, and emerge victorious.

This cliche, which is very common indeed, may be why the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the guy who is attacking him in the marketplace is so funny. We understand at once that Jones is refusing to participate in a cliche.

But leaving aside the extremes of villainous ineptitude, we need to look clearly at exactly who our villains are. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Are they attempting to achieve their villainous triumph in sensible ways? Or, if they’re not being sensible, are they failing to be sensible in ways that we can understand as arising out of their basic character?

I was smacked in the face this week with this realization. It hit me that my chief villain was pretty much a cardboard cutout. He wasn’t doing much to advance his own evil agenda. Although very rich, he didn’t even bother to hire half a dozen mercenaries to stomp around and beat people up.

Also, he’s from an entirely different culture than the good guys. Technically, he’s not even human. And yet he acts and talks exactly like a typical evil human nobleman. He has no colorful or even detectable nonhuman characteristics.

Who is this guy? I don’t even know, and my manuscript is already as long as Lord of the Rings. (And getting longer, bit by bit.) Turning him into a believable, three-dimensional bad guy is likely to have all sorts of repercussions in the plot. I don’t know yet what those repercussions may be, though I’m starting to glimpse a few of them. This is one of those weeks when the writing process consists not of drafting scenes but of throwing down thousands of words of detailed notes — asking myself all the tough questions I can think of, proposing reasonable or far-fetched answers to those questions, and then looking at what ramifications those answers would have elsewhere in the story.

I arrived at this point while rewriting Book 3 of the four-volume saga. About a third of the way through the rewrite, I found myself getting bored. So I took a few days off. Sometimes you have to trust your subconscious. I started re-reading Jared Diamond’s wonderful (nonfiction) book Guns, Germs, and Steel. And then the light bulb went on. Why was my supposedly masterful villain bopping around all by himself? Why hadn’t he hired a few mercenaries?

That question led quickly to a dozen more. Fortunately, I’m not on a deadline. My self-imposed goal was to have the rewrite done by September. It’s now looking more like next January, if not the January after that. But the good news is, I’m not bored anymore. The even better news is, every decision I make about my villain will lead to a stronger, more believable story. So it’s bad, but it’s good.

In the Dark

In the 18th century, physicists were trying to understand what happened when things burned. It was theorized that combustible substances such as wood and coal contained something called phlogiston, which was released during burning. This theory seemed to explain some of the results of experiments, but of course it was completely wrong.

In what may turn out to be a similar flight of fancy, physicists today are enamored of the theory of dark matter. Like phlogiston, dark matter itself has never been observed; it’s proposed as a way to explain certain things that have been observed.

The problem that the dark matter theory attempts to address is quite real. The problem is that the outer parts of galaxies are spinning too rapidly. It’s possible to measure the spin of some galaxies — those that are tilted so that we observe them somewhat edge-on. This is possible because the light on one edge of the galaxy (the edge that’s spinning toward us) will be blue-shifted, while the opposite edge is red-shifted because it’s receding from us. This is basic physics. I couldn’t do the math, but I understand the concept.

We can also estimate the mass of a galaxy. This is done by estimating the number of stars in it (based on its brightness) and multiplying that estimate by the average mass of a star. Mass causes gravitational attraction, and gravity causes stuff to orbit the center of mass, in exactly the way that the Earth orbits the sun. The speed of the orbiting body depends on both the diameter of the orbit and the amount of mass around which the object is orbiting. Again, I couldn’t do the math, but this is basic stuff.

When the rate of spin of the outer parts of nearby spiral galaxies is calculated, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not nearly enough mass to explain the speed of rotation. This means one of two things: Either there’s a bunch of mass that we don’t see, or we don’t understand how gravity works at galactic distances. The idea that the law of gravity needs to be revised is not popular, though some theorists are working on it. The general consensus is that these galaxies are embedded in a halo of dark matter — stuff we can’t see, but that adds significantly to the mass of the galaxy.

One idea, which seems not to be panning out, is that galaxies are studded with “brown dwarfs.” A brown dwarf is a a lot bigger than Jupiter, but a lot smaller than the sun. It’s small enough that nuclear fusion has failed to ignite; thus it doesn’t put out much in the way of visible light. It’s brown, and it’s a dwarf star. But while there are certainly brown dwarfs floating around, a survey of our own galactic neighborhood suggests that there aren’t nearly enough of them to account for the rapid spin of spiral galaxies like our own.

A more popular notion is that the dark matter is a cloud of non-baryonic particles. Protons, neutrons, and electronics are baryonic; they’re the stuff we’re made of. We can’t see this non-baryonic matter, so the theory goes, because it neither absorbs nor emits light. However, it has mass, so it generates a gravitational field. (Don’t ask me whether “generates a gravitational field” is how physicists would talk about it. I don’t know.)

I have no problem with the idea that the universe is filled with particles that we know nothing about. But I have yet to read an explanation of how this massive dark matter is supposed to be behaving.

I also have a problem with how confident some authorities are that such a mysterious thing exists. In poking around on the Web, I quickly found a site (detailing the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) that asserts, baldly, this: “The WMAP science team has … completed a census of the universe and finds that dark matter (matter not made up of atoms) is 24.0%.” Well, imagine that. They can’t see it; they don’t know what its properties might be; but they’ve done a census. Shee-it.

The idea that they’re treating as gospel is this: The clouds of dark matter are supposed to produce gravitational fields within which the baryonic matter (clouds of hydrogen, to start with) congregates, condenses into stars, and so forth. But if this cloud is imagined as consisting of zillions of tiny particles (perhaps not much larger than a proton), it doesn’t seem, to my muddled way of thinking, to be behaving in a sensible way. Some of these particles will be moving rather rapidly; some will be moving more slowly. That seems indisputable. Those that are moving too rapidly will have enough velocity to escape from the cloud. They’ll be gone. So there’s a maximum velocity that the dark matter particles (they’re called WIMPS — weakly interacting massive particles) can have, and some will be dawdling along more slowly than that.

Baryonic matter forms clumps under the influence of gravity. We call these clumps stars. So why hasn’t the dark matter formed clumps? Any variation in density of a dark matter cloud, no matter how slight, will gradually attract more and more of the slower-moving WIMPS. After a few billion years you won’t have a diffuse cloud anymore; you’ll have clots of the stuff. These clots will be drifting around within our galaxy. They will be invisible, but they will cause gravitational perturbations, because some of them will be rather massive.

No such perturbations are observed.

Not only that, but a massive object like a star will naturally acquire its own halo of dark matter. Slower-moving WIMPS that drift in close to our own sun won’t have enough velocity to escape. And we know for certain that this hasn’t happened. If there was any such halo around the sun, Newton’s law of gravitation would never have been discovered, because the planets in our own solar system would be orbiting more quickly than they are.

Thus the theory requires that dark matter (a) remain in a stable galaxy-sized cloud rather than drifting off into the cosmos but also (b) not form clumps. We haven’t the least idea what the characteristics of WIMPS might be, so we can’t actually rule that out, but it does seem rather implausible, doesn’t it?

When rain falls on a large flat paved area, you’ll soon see shallow pools of water. The pavement is never perfectly flat. I find myself wondering why physicists think the universe itself (spacetime) is perfectly flat except where there’s mass. One way of looking at gravitation (this is Einstein stuff) is that a massive object distorts spacetime. The sun, for instance, creates the three-dimensional equivalent of a large and very deep dimple in the fabric of spacetime. That’s what gravity is.

But why should we assume that mass is the only thing that can warp spacetime in this way? The supposed galactic halo might not be a cloud of massive particles at all; it might simply be a slightly lower place in spacetime, a sort of shallow 3D puddle of slightly enhanced gravity. The cloud of primordial hydrogen would naturally coagulate in such places, and that would create galaxies. It’s known that there are slight anisotropies (uneven places) in the hot, dense plasma that erupted in the Big Bang. Why shouldn’t some gravitational anisotropies still be hanging around?

Of course there’s no physics theory that would explain such a gravitational puddle — but there’s no theory that explains what dark matter is, either. We can be fairly sure it’s not phlogiston, but beyond that, who knows?

Long Ago & Far Away

Tonight I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. It’s another of those books on physics and cosmology for the layperson — no math, just occasional diagrams. The book’s mandate or organizing principle is to attempt to unravel what time actually is. This is a fairly profound mystery, and Carroll seems well qualified to tackle it.

And yet, in his discussion we find odd lacunae. (Sorry; my erudition is showing. That’s Latin for “gaps.”) In Chapter 3 he discusses the Big Bang and the subsequent history of the universe. The current theory is not only that the universe started in a hot, dense form and has been expanding ever since, but that the expansion is speeding up. This is the opposite of what one would expect: Gravitational attraction, however tenuous it may be at vast distances, should be slowing the expansion.

Nobody really knows why the expansion is speeding up. The explanation, such as it is, rests on the concept of “dark energy,” a mysterious force that pushes galaxies gently away from one another.

On page 58, Carroll says this: “We don’t know much about dark energy, but we do know two very crucial things: It’s nearly constant throughout space (the same amount of energy from place to place), and also nearly constant in density through time (the same amount of energy per cubic centimeter at different times).”

Implicit in that rather remarkable sentence is the notion that we (meaning scientists) can know what is going on at places that are very distant (millions of light-years away) and very remote in time (billions of years ago). And how, you might well ask, can we be certain of such things?

The short answer is because distant galaxies are speeding away from us at higher than expected velocities. Ah, but how do we measure the speed of galaxies? The operative theory is this: When an object is traveling away from you, the light it emits is red-shifted. That is, the wavelengths get longer. This is the Doppler Effect, and it’s too well known to be worth explaining here. The red shift will tell us how fast a galaxy is receding from us, but it won’t tell us how far away the galaxy is. The distance is calibrated by observing Type I supernovae in the distant galaxies. The theory is that a supernova of this type always produces about the same amount of light. And that’s a great deal of light — an individual supernova can be seen across untold millions of light-years. By measuring the amount of light we’re seeing from a supernova, we can figure out how far away it must be. We then correlate that distance with the observed red shift of the galaxy where it’s located, and presto, we know that distant galaxies are speeding up.

But you’ll notice that this idea rests on two pillars of theory: first, that nothing other than the velocity relative to an Earth observer of that distant galaxy could cause a red-shift of its light; and second, that Type I supernovae were just as bright two billion years ago as they are today.

Both of these pillars rest, in turn, on the idea that the universe in distant places and at distant times was fundamentally the same, with respect to its physical laws, as it is in our neighborhood today. By that measure, what Carroll has said is a tautology. He’s saying, in essence, “We know that physical laws in distant places and at distant times have always been the same as they are here and now — and therefore, we can deduce that dark energy in distant places and at distant times has always been the same.”

What if the speed of light were increasing gradually over the course of billions of years? That would cause a red shift: Light that has been traveling for a long, long time would have started its journey at a slower speed. As the speed of light increases, the wavelengths will get longer. Just to be clear, this is only my pet theory, and there’s probably something horribly wrong with it that any grad student in the physics department could explain. I’m not that smart! The point I’m making is that the theory rests on an assumption, namely, that the speed of light has always been the same as it is today. And we can’t demonstrate that, because we’re only here today. We weren’t there two billion years ago.

I’m not a physicist. I don’t even try to tackle the books with the math. It’s entirely possible that Carroll is skipping some very solid experimental evidence in this book because he judges (correctly) that his readers won’t be equipped to understand it. But here again, as in other similar books I’ve read, I sometimes have the feeling that too much is being taken for granted. Is that a characteristic of the books, or is it a characteristic of contemporary physics itself? I don’t know.

Much of modern physics is based on mathematical models of phenomena. The observations that are made tend to be really quite tenuous. A quick trip down the aisle in your local library will present you with a handful of books that will tell you all about black holes, including the fact that there is a massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. What is less often emphasized in these books is the fact that no human being has ever seen a black hole! Everything we know about them, or think we know, is based on mathematical models.

It is known that the mathematical models sometimes fail. On page 60, Carroll mentions one of the more spectacular failures. The theory being that perhaps the energy of virtual particles (quite possibly a real phenomenon, though not directly observable) is the source of dark energy, physicists have calculated the amount of “vacuum energy” that would arise from the froth of virtual particles. Unfortunately, the calculations show that this vacuum energy should be about 10 to the 105th power joules per cubic centimeter, when what is actually observed is a vacuum energy of about 10 to the minus 15 joules per cubic centimeter. (Don’t ask me what joules are; I don’t know. I know what a cubic centimeter is.) This is a discrepancy of 10 to the 120th power.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the math, or more likely with the theory that the math attempts to explain. But the math that tells us how black holes must behave? Oh, yeah, we’ve got that one nailed down — right, Mr. Hawking?

Phun with Physics

As I suggested yesterday, human intuition gives us a lousy set of tools with which to understand the underlying nature of physical reality. The English language supplies a few pitfalls too. Last night I started reading Black Holes & Time Warps by Kip S. Thorne. Thorne is described on the back cover as the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology, so we can fairly conclude that he knows whereof he speaks. And yet, toward the end of Chapter 1, we find this odd passage (italics in the original):

“…most physicists are driven to believe that these sequences [of laws] are converging toward a set of ultimate laws that truly governs the Universe, laws that force the Universe to behave the way it does, that force … the Sun to burn nuclear fuel, force black holes to produce gravitational waves when they collide, and so on.”

I may be only a poor dumb shitkicker from Illinois, but I know that’s just plain wrong. The way that’s phrased, it seems to say (quite clearly) that the laws of physics that physicists strive to understand are an outside force, a force that compels, for example, an electron or a photon to behave the way it does. But that’s not the case at all. There is no outside force that compels a thing we call an electron to behave like an electron rather than like a quark, a muon, or a neutrino.

An electron is not even a thing in that sense, and the laws of physics are not laws in that sense. They don’t compel any fundamental particle to behave the way it does. Rather, the laws of physics are simply descriptions of what happens. There is no thing called an electron that behaves in any manner at all. What we call an electron is, on the contrary, a tiny portion of a vast interaction (ultimately, of the whole Universe) that we have isolated for purposes of analysis and description. But it isn’t a separate thing. An electron never exists in isolation, because there isn’t any isolation in which it could exist. We can only describe it in terms of what it does with respect to the nucleus of an atom, or in terms of what it does when it releases or absorbs a photon, or whatever. Absent these interactions, the term “electron” would be meaningless.

This may sound rather mystical, and in a sense it is. The Universe is all a single thing. We can describe how it behaves. It vibrates. It resonates. It pushes and pulls at itself in unbelievably complex ways. But there is no force compelling it to behave in that manner. It just does. Even that sentence (“It just does”) is wrong, because there isn’t any “it” that “does” anything. The Universe is those vibrations and resonances. That’s all it is. It’s like the ringing of a bell — but there’s no bell.

Okay, I didn’t intend that to be a pun, but I’m not going to back away from it.

Gradually, over the course of eons or over a stretch of billions of light-years, the vibrations and resonances may change. The Universe may come to behave in some other manner — because there are no “laws” that would prevent it.

Will physicists ever be able to derive a tidy set of equations that perfectly describe every interaction that can conceivably occur in the Universe, past, present, and future? I doubt it. Not just because of the limitations of our instruments or the limitations of our mental abilities but because the Universe is continuous rather than discrete. (There is a notion floating around that at the deepest level space-time is digital — composed of discrete cells. I’ll point out the deep flaws in that idea some other time.)

Every time physicists think they have a law of nature nailed down, a few years later they have to add a fudge factor, because the real Universe doesn’t know anything about these supposed laws. The fudge factors have come to resemble the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy, and that analogy may suggest that physicists don’t yet know as much as they think they do.

Thorne’s book begins with an as-if science fiction tale in which a spaceship crewed by humans investigates a few black holes. The weirdness that they encounter is fascinating, but Thorne barely mentions the caveat: No human has ever observed a black hole. We don’t actually know how matter, energy, and spacetime behave in such a bizarre region. All we have are the equations. We know that the equations are very good at predicting a bunch of stuff, such as how the light from a distant star is bent by the sun’s gravitational field. But everything to do with black holes and the Big Bang is pure extrapolation. In such extreme circumstances, what other fudge factors, at present unknown, might become huge? We don’t know.

Sure, if there were physical laws that compelled the entire Universe, everywhere and forevermore, to behave in thus-and-such a fashion, then we could extrapolate with confidence. But no compulsion is involved, because there’s no bell, only the ringing. All we have, and all we will ever have, is description.

Nuts & Bolts

Books for the interested layperson on the theory of relativity are not in short supply. The local library has a shelf full of them, and I don’t think that’s entirely because I live in Livermore, with an important national laboratory just a couple of miles down the street.

A physics book with equations in it would be completely over my head. But I’d sure appreciate a book that didn’t cut corners. I’m not looking for Relativity for Dummies.

Case in point: The classic thought experiment in which I fly past you in a spaceship at a significant fraction of the speed of light. From your point of view, a clock on my spaceship is running slower than your clock. However, from my point of view your clock is running slower than mine.

I get that. And every book on the subject will tell me that that’s what will happen. (I won’t say they explain it, because there isn’t really an explanation, is there? That’s just the way the universe operates.) What none of the books I’ve read bother to explain is what happens when I turn my spaceship around, come back to where you’re standing, stop the ship, and hop out carrying my clock. We then compare the two clocks.

Which clock will be faster or slower? Neither answer makes sense. The only answer that makes sense is, the two clocks will show exactly the same time. But that doesn’t make sense either. At what point did each clock speed up relative to the other clock? I’d sure like to know.

Here’s another slippery bit. Any number of books will tell you that the speed of light is an absolute. No matter how fast you’re going relative to anybody else, you’ll always measure the speed of light to be the same. If the book is trying to be meticulous, it will say, “the speed of light in a vacuum.” It’s known that light slows down when traveling through a medium such as air, water, or glass; if it didn’t, your glasses wouldn’t work, and telescopes wouldn’t work either.

But wait: There’s no such thing as a vacuum! Our current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests that even a “vacuum” is full of virtual particles, which pop into existence and vanish too quickly for us sluggardly humans to observe them. But a photon is pretty fast, isn’t it? What effect might those virtual particles have on a photon? Even if the answer is, “no effect,” a supposed vacuum is also full of other photons (to say nothing of gravitational waves and neutrinos) zipping around and through one another. Even in a black box from which all the air has been pumped out, the walls of the box will be shedding infrared photons to beat the band, and billions of neutrinos will be zipping through the box as if the walls weren’t even there.. Is that a vacuum?

Here’s the kicker, though. Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity (according to the book I’m reading) with the aid of his intuition, which assured him that the laws of the physical universe must be simple and beautiful. Unfortunately, one of the things we definitely know about physics is that our intuitions are very seldom of any value when it comes to understanding the universe. Light is a wave, and also a particle. Intuition will tell you that’s flatly impossible, that it has to be one thing or the other, and indeed physicists rejected the notion for a couple of centuries — but your intuition is wrong. Your intuition will tell you that a particle such as an electron must be at some specific location in space at all times, but that’s wrong too. An electron is sort of smeared or spread out, except when it isn’t.

Why should the laws that govern the physical universe be either simple or beautiful in the way that “simple” and “beautiful” are understood by the bags of protoplasm squidging around on this particular unimportant little planet? In all likelihood, they aren’t. Physicists are now aware of about 30 mathematical constants — pure numbers — that govern the way the universe works, and there appears to be no sensible reason why any of those numbers has the value that it does. Physicists have no theory that would even remotely begin to explain those numbers.

There’s also the fact that while both general relativity and quantum mechanics make excellent predictions, predictions that can be confirmed experimentally, those two theories are not compatible with one another. But why should we expect that they would be compatible? Just because we humans want them to be compatible?

Maybe the universe is just plain messy. But Relativity for Dummies is not going to tell us that.

Mulling, Stewing, and the Back Burner

Last week I realized that I had a really awful, intractable plot problem. I should have noticed a year ago, but for some reason (lack of innate talent, in all likelihood) I allowed myself to be satisfied with an utterly inadequate explanation for certain key events. In order for the plot of my series to work, a certain thing has to have happened in the prequel — and I finally tumbled to the fact that I had not the least idea how it could have happened.

It’s down to character motivation, basically. None of the characters who were on the scene at the time would have done the right things. Well, there was one character who might have the motivation, but he was an eight-year-old boy, and he didn’t have the means.

I wrote pages of notes. (I’m good at writing notes.) The solution was not appearing. I used my patented brainstorming method, without notable results.

In desperation, I thought to enlist the services of a story doctor. I contacted a couple of freelance editors that I found online and pitched them on the idea of doing a three- or four-hour brainstorming session. For pay. (And not cheap — we’re talking $100 an hour.) I was desperate! If I couldn’t solve the problem, my whole series of novels was going to collapse into a pile of matchsticks.

I wrote a 3,000-word description of the problem and sent it off to an editor. (A novelist in her own right, actually.) I asked her to have a look at it and then send me an invoice if she thought she wanted to tackle it.

While I was waiting for her invoice, a second editor responded. In readying the description of the problem to send to her, I thought of a solution to part of it. It was a four-part problem, actually, and I seemed to have an idea about how two of the parts might work.

A whole day went by. No invoice arrived from either editor. So tonight I sat down, started taking more notes — and I figured out how to do it. Problem solved! And I didn’t have to pay anybody a nickel.

One lesson here, I think, is that sometimes it takes the unconscious a few days to mull things over. Ideas, especially complex ideas, have their own timetable. If I had gotten hopelessly frustrated and started beating myself up, I wouldn’t necessarily have found any viable answers. Yes, I was frustrated — but I asked for help.

I also spent a couple of days thinking, okay, if this doesn’t work, I’ll just spend the rest of my life playing music. That will be fun. Either way, with or without a solution to the plot problem, I’ll go right on enjoying life. So I worked on a couple of pieces of music and didn’t slide into worry.

I don’t yet know whether my new story line will be a couple of new chapters in Book 1, or whether one of the characters who was on the scene during the events in the prequel will just tell my heroine how it all happened. Probably new chapters. It’s a good thing I’m not on a deadline, nor writing to a fixed word count.

Sympathy for the Devil

George Bernard Shaw was a very successful playwright. (He was also a failure as a novelist, but that’s another story.) One criticism that was leveled at Shaw, and with considerable justification, was that all his characters spoke like Shaw. They were all articulate.

The fact that Shaw’s voice and views were engaging made him a success. But I’m pretty sure most authors of fiction, be it prose or script, are in danger of suffering from this malady. Certainly I suffer from it. Not that my characters all sound alike — they don’t. (My dialog is pretty diverse, actually.) The deeper problem is that I find it hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings of people whose experiences and views are different from my own.

My characters, that is, tend to reflect my own view of the world.

The best fiction writers, I’m sure, have an ability to understand and feel sympathy for a wide variety of people, even their villains. The worst fiction writers (one thinks, for example, of Ayn Rand) have no sympathy for anyone but themselves and people who agree with them. As a result, their work is filled with cardboard stereotypes.

If you care nothing for money and can’t imagine why anybody would, then a rich man in your story is likely to be a stereotype. If you’re a free spirit, you may have trouble sympathizing with a character who is a by-the-book police officer. If you’ve never had children, you may have trouble imagining the tender feelings of a mother and how they will inevitably affect her actions. And so it goes.

I got to thinking about this because I’m a 68-year-old man trying to write an effective story about a 17-year-old girl. Also, I’m an atheist and have very little sympathy for people who are religious, yet my heroine has some direct contact with a god, who seems to want her to be his high priest. I haven’t written any scenes in which she is praying, because I personally have no use for prayer. She often worries that her mad quest will get her killed — because old men think about death. Teenagers think they’ll live forever! And when my editor says, “Why is she attracted to this boy?”, I have not the faintest clue. I don’t know what it is about boys that teen girls are attracted to. I can’t even imagine being attracted to a boy. Yuck! So I’ve got the character all wrong.

And this after a couple of years of hard work on the story. You’d think I would have figured it out long ago, but I didn’t. I’m a perfectly decent writer, but I’m not a natural storyteller, and this is a vivid example for you of why (or how) I’m not.

Learn from my mistakes, children.