Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Disintegrating Sky

Poul Anderson's "The Disintegrating Sky" (Strangers From Earth, London, 1965), originally published in Fantastic Universe in 1953, sixty years ago, is a very minor work, a seven and a half page short story recounting a conversation between four characters. The title and the last three words are identical.

I frequently need a dictionary when reading Anderson. This time, I was sure that "...thunger..." (p. 149) was a misprint either for "hunger" or, more probably in this context, for "thunder." However, google informs me that "thunger" can mean "hunger roaring like thunder."

Like HG Wells' Time Traveler and his dinner guests, these characters discuss the nature of time. The options considered are:

according to relativity (and Wells' Time Traveler), "'...simply one dimension in a four-dimensional continuum. The past and the future...equally real and fixed...'" (p. 152);

but wave-mechanics and the uncertainty principle cast doubt on that theory;

seen as flowing because it "' the direction of increase of entropy...'" (ibid.);

"'...the Author is writing all the time. The movement of time is the movement...of his pen...The future has not yet been written. The present is what he is writing this instant. The past is what he has already written.'" (ibid.)

That last account is nonsense. Claiming to explain our experience of the passage of time, Anderson's character merely assumes a passage of time for the Author, thereby presupposing precisely the phenomenon that he is supposed to be explaining. "'...the Author is writing all the time...yet...this instant...already'" etc.

If we can separate the idea that we are being written from the notion that our being written explains time, what do we think of the idea? We are used to the thought that reality and appearance are not identical:

"'This table isn't less heavy because science has shown that it's built up of atoms which are mostly empty space.'" (p. 153)

So, if a superhuman "Author" were able to work in the medium not of paper and ink but of self-conscious organisms, then, yes, we might be characters in a novel of sorts. In the Animal Man graphic novel series by Grant Morrison, one character holds up an open comic book page to others and says, "If you could see our universe from the outside, that is what it would look like."

"'Earth's history reads like the magnum opus of a romantic fourteen-year-old.'" (p. 154)

Anderson's viewpoint character says that, if he had written an unsatisfactory novel in his teens, then, before ending it in a flaming conclusion, he would have expressed his disgust with his unrealistic characters by making some of them "'...realize what they were - characters in a poorly written novel...'" (p. 156)

No, he wouldn't. He would simply have stopped writing and destroyed the manuscript. But, in this case, if the characters are conscious, then maybe that is what they are experiencing right at the end when "'...the total-disintegration bomb...'" (p. 155) is being used.

No comments: