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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Science Metaphors in Literature

with Don Webb

Slipstream and Interstitial Genres
appears in this issue.

Thanks for the letter, Tantra! It’s very interesting to hear about what you’re up to in your courses on postmodern writing. Bewildering Stories can and ought to take an interest.

I’ve added “Slipstream” as the first word in the description meta-tag of Equinox Mirror. It may help anyone who does a Net search for the term. But that’s only one instance. A lot of titles will pass under the searchers’ radar, so to speak. Just a thought: compiling bibliographies is a laborious task, but it would be worth the effort. Once even a rudimentary bibliography is on line, your students will have something to work with.

Literature has always sought to define itself; critics and theorists do have their place. They try to answer the second of the four basic questions of literary criticism, i.e. reading: “How does the work say what it does?” And that includes discussions of what it means to write in a particular style, be it neoclassical drama, Romanticism, Realism, Magical Realism, Surrealism, Slipstream or what have you.

Thus we can analyze, for example, what Equinox Mirror says and how it says it. But what does it mean that the story says what it does in the way it does? Meta-criticism, namely theory, can tell us something about reading as well as about writing.

As you say, critical theories can use physics as a metaphor to help illustrate dramatic devices. For example, Newtonian physics establishes constants, such as the force of gravity and the law of the conservation of energy. In literature, it means we can’t say “anything goes”; literature must be self-consistent. One of our unofficial mottoes phrases the principle cautionarily: “Something that can mean anything means nothing.”

Einstein’s relativity shows that time and mass, for example, vary according to velocity. If you were a photon traveling from Earth to the Andromeda galaxy, the trip would take 2½ million years from the perspective of Earthlings; but for you, the photon, the trip would be instantaneous. In literature, characters may time-travel into the future — or perhaps the past — without aging. But they can’t come back; they can’t return to the time of their departure.

I’d be careful about Quantum Mechanics; it’s a slippery subject. However, literature might take its principle of complementary as a metaphor. For example, light is either a wave or a particle, depending on how you experiment with it. And if you drift through the event horizon of a black hole, you may not notice — at first — that anything has changed. But someone who has managed to suspend a thermometer at your point of entry may find that the black hole is radiating heat. Are you like an egg that has been fried, scrambled, and swallowed up at the speed of light? From the observer’s point of view, yes; but you have all the time in the world to say, “Not so fast here...”

Complementarity can be used as a metaphor for dramatic structure in literature. For example, a character may gradually slip into an altered mental state without noticing anything unusual; meanwhile, his friends may be alarmed to see what’s happening to him. Both points of view may be equally valid, but no one person — including the narrator — can hold both points of view at the same time.

Metaphors abound. Complementarity also applies to time. At what point in time does this essay exist? In the past, present or future? The question can be answered only by another question: Whose past, present or future? The nature of time is summed up in another of our unofficial mottoes: “Everything we perceive comes to us from the past; everything we do goes into the future.”

Therefore, this essay is being written in my present and goes into my future. It comes to you from your past, but you’re reading it in your present. And if you answer, the same thing happens: you write in your present; your answer goes into your future and comes to me from my past. And I read it in my present. There’s nothing at all strange about that; it’s true for everybody and everything and of every event in the universe.

We can’t say there’s no such thing as time; it does exist, if only because everything is constantly changing in some way. Rather, past, present, future and duration coexist simultaneously as modes of perception. We move readily from one to the other, but we can choose only one at a time.

While acknowledging that existence cannot be predicated, we may nonetheless acknowledge that we can’t imagine anything that does not already exist or has not already existed in nature in some form. Is it possible, then, to imagine an entity or principle that can perceive all modes of time simultaneously?

No, we can hypothesize such an entity or principle, but we can no more imagine it than we can experience a journey as taking 2½ million years and, at the same time, as taking no time at all. Such a feat would require partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life. For mortals, that can be done only in death.

As we like to say, “There is no story so truly Bewildering as reality.”

Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb

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