Since somewhere in the early 1960s science fiction and fantasy have been basketed together in commercial terms as “SF,” for that product label contained enough in content common to be marketed in the same genre category to something like the same readership demographic, or at least overlapping readership demographics. And ever since then there has been an ongoing argument as to whether or not “science fiction” and “fantasy” were really aspects of the same thing, or whether lumping them together as “SF” was actually a shotgun marriage for the marketing convenience of the publishers holding the said marketing weapon.
In business terms, it is true that the commercial success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in mass market paperback created a mass market for original fantasy novels that hadn’t existed before, that publishers turned to “science fiction writers” to produce them, and that that was really how science fiction and fantasy came to cohabit in “SF” genre lines.
It is also undeniably true that in strictly technical literary and, indeed, philosophical terms, there is a clear difference between “science fiction” and “fantasy.” That by definition, science fiction is literature that speculates within the bounds of the known laws of mass and energy, the reality in which the readers find themselves, and fantasy is the literature that lives outside the boundaries of the scientifically possible, the literature that is what it is because it embraces the clearly impossible. Well, maybe.
In those terms, it seemed pretty clear cut that science fiction and fantasy were quite obviously not the same thing at all in literary terms—indeed were polar opposites. I must confess that I saw things more or less in those terms myself until fairly recently, and I would still contend that this distinction holds up and is of clear and serious import when it comes to fantasy and “hard science fiction,” and even to the kind of “extended hard science fiction” I write most of the time myself.
Back in the day, “hard science fiction” more or less meant science fiction in which the speculative scientific and/or technological element was the McGuffin of the story, generated the plot and theme, was, one way or another, what the story was about. But what I mean by “extended hard science fiction” is, simply and more broadly, fiction that has some sort of speculative element and takes care not to violate the known laws of mass and energy, but does not necessarily make the scientific and/or technological speculation front and center in story or thematic terms.
But by now, things having evolved the way they have, maybe this is what should be called “hard science fiction,” or just “science fiction,” period, and all other fiction taking place in sociotechnological settings different from that of the readership should be called something else.
I’d call what is now shoehorned into the commercial “SF” category “Alternate Reality Fiction,” because that would be accurate and inclusive of science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history fiction, if only it fell trippingly on the inner ear, which, alas, it doesn’t seem to.
For looked at that way, science fiction, fantasy, and the alternate history story do have one very large thing in common—something so central that they do appeal to somewhat overlapping readerships.
The stories of all three of these literary mode are set in realities other than that of the consensus reality of the readers’ here and now. And the way this clade of modes, or genres, or whatever you want to call them, have been more recently evolving, the borders between them have been fuzzing out.
Decades ago, Alexei Panshin was writing about “science fiction that knows it’s science fiction,” but those terms were a little misleading to what Panshin was actually pointing out. Namely, that science fiction rife with things like faster-than-light starships, swamp lizards on Venus, Martian Canals, and so forth not only violated known scientific knowledge, but knew it was doing so.
Not really science fiction that knew it was science fiction, but science fiction that knew (when it was not simply ignorant) that it was really fantasy.
Out of this, and much more recently, arose the so-called “New Space Opera,” which in effect said to itself and to readers, “Why the hell not?”
The story’s the thing, and if literarily engaging and entertaining fantasy fiction can be set in alternate realities where various impossible magics work, where unicorns frolic and fire-breathing dragons fly, where vampires and werewolves are top predators, where wishing can make it so, why can’t we have dinosaurs on Venus and canal-side civilizations on Mars and faster than light galleons—science fiction that knows it’s really fantasy in “science fiction” clothing and admits it, and thus frees itself to become the New Space Opera?
Around 2002, something called the “Mundane SF Movement” was founded and has been championed by the excellent writer Geoff Ryman. The thesis of this movement is to purify “science fiction” from this sort of thing, or at any rate to champion a subgenre of science fiction that is free from it, and set entirely on Earth.
Well, for sure, I have written a lot of such stuff myself. But by individual creative choice, I’ve also written things like Russian Spring, which manage to work within the constraints of “hard science fiction” without being confined entirely to Terra, Firma or otherwise, as well as science fiction that takes place entirely on this planet; it’s done by a great many writers throughout the long history of speculative fiction.
And this sort of arbitrarily restrictive manifesto puts me in mind of the Tea Party dogma of no tax increases no matter what.
And in between the emergences of the New Space Opera and the Mundane SF Movement we’ve had China Miéville’s New Weird, which to me seems nothing much more or less than Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” applied to freeing fantasy from even the constraints of internal consistency within its own created alternate reality.
And now we have Embassytown by China Miéville himself, which could be classified as a kind of New Space Opera, set as it is and fictionally dependent upon a reality that includes faster than light starships, and a fairly star-flung human civilization and somewhat less star-flung colonialist human empire, in a galaxy where sapient aliens abound.
The Mundane SF Movement might righteously deem this New Space Opera, and the New Space Opera folks might welcome it in to their ranks, and technically and taxonomically they might both be right.
But while in some ways this might be the weirdest thing Miéville has written, the New Weird it is not, for it is scrupulously consistent internally for once. It’s hard science fiction even, if you are willing to swallow Miéville’s particular brand of rubber science faster-than-light travel, and it’s very serious indeed in certain other scientific terms, absolute terms involving that most central of questions, the relationship between language and consciousness, and therefore between external reality and the experience thereof by sapients.
You can’t get much deeper into the literary deeps of alternate realities than that.
The narrative female first person voice, is that of Avice Benner Cho, human colonial daughter of the Embassytown of the title, who left Arieka, the planet of her birth out there on the fringes of the regions of the galaxy known to humans, for a more adventurous cosmopolitan life as an “immerser,” crewing on faster-than-light starships plying the starways via one of the usual rubber science means concocted for story purposes, but who returns to Arieka and to Embassytown for complex personal and more or less political reasons near the beginning of the novel.
Embassytown is just what the title says it is, a human embassy to the native Ariekei amidst an alien city on a planet where humans cannot even breathe the atmosphere without enabling technology.
The Ariekei are really alien aliens, possibly the most alien aliens in the literature, at any rate certainly as alien to humans as a sapient species can get, as alien, that is, as a fictional sapient species can be presented to the reader by a novelist as puissant as China Miéville.
It’s a masterful job of it, made so in part by what Miéville does not describe, namely what the Ariekei actually look like, taking a cue perhaps from H.P. Lovecraft’s deliberately adjectivally vague nondescriptions of the hideous Old Ones. But being a much better and more subtle literary artist than Lovecraft, Miéville does it much more cleverly and subtly.
What we get instead of attempts at an overall physical description is narrow-focus descriptions of various outré organs and appendages, giving the impression that the Ariekei are so physically different from anything evolved in the terrestrial biomass that they cannot even be fully apprehended by the human visual apparatus as a coherent whole.
It doesn’t get any more alien than that, now does it?
Well, yes it does.
For what Miéville is centrally after here is the molding of sapient consciousness, and therefore also sapient culture, by language and vice versa in a feedback loop.
There’s a complex political and, in the end anti-colonial struggle that is the story backbone of Embassytown. Nor is Avice’s personal story scanted, and the various threads do come together successfully in a climactic epiphany at the end. But this exploration of how language, consciousness, and culture interact with each other, and shape each other to arguably create a subjective perceptual reality that is the only reality that sapience can directly know, is what takes Embassytown far deeper than what would otherwise be merely top drawer New Space Opera.
The Ariekei cannot lie. This is not a matter of moral virtue. Their language, unique in the known galaxy, has no way of directly describing something that does not presently exist. It’s not that they won’t or can’t tell anything but the truth, but that they can’t conceive of anything non-existent in realtime because their language is not equipped to let them do so.
And it’s not that they don’t want to be able do so either, not after they come in contact with humans, who have no linguistic problem with conceiving and speaking more than the current concrete truth and are therefore able to think and convey thoughts that are speculative.
To make linguistic matters even more complicated, Ariekei is a kind of fugal language that is spoken via the interaction of two different voices at the same time, and the Ariekei do not recognize anything that does not speak this way as sapient. It’s not racism, it’s not species chauvinism, it’s the way they are biologically hardwired.
Humans, of course, do not have the physical apparatus to do this, so they must somehow work around it, and they do this by creating “Ambassadors” composed of two genetically identical humans raised and trained from birth to function as a single entity, and therefore able to say two things at the same time—and therefore recognizable as single sapient beings by the Ariekei.
Who do want to learn how to lie in their own language, not merely to be able to dissemble for personal or political gain, but in order to be able to expand their linguistic and conceptual consciousnesses to include speculative consideration of that which does not exist, as the humans can.
This they attempt to do by turning specific humans into similes and, ultimately, perhaps into metaphors. They put the human through some sort of physical act like “eating whatever is given to her” and then they can say and conceive something like “what I am being asked to do is like the girl who ate whatever was given to her.” This introduces the very concept of simile and metaphor into an alien language and therefore an alien consciousness, and therefore an alien subjective reality where it had not existed before.
China Miéville is not crazy or hubristic enough to try to put the reader actually inside Ariekei consciousness. It’s all experienced from the outside, from the point of view of Avice, who is one of the human similes, and which for complicated reasons is part of why she has returned to Embassytown.
And while the foregoing may be the brilliantly portrayed central speculative concern of Embassytown, the novel is not at all as dry and theoretical as this may make it sound. There is a well written story of a complex anti-colonialist struggle here, and, as almost always with Miéville, there is a genuine and sophisticated political passion behind it. Nor are Avice and other principle players cardboard characters.
But that being said, it is Miéville’s exploration of an alien language, consciousness, and culture, and indeed how it is altered by contact with human language, consciousness, and culture, which raises Embassytown above sub-genre definitions like New Space Opera, the New Weird, and so forth, and makes it a special work of literature in general, intellectually challenging and emotionally engaging at the same time, and quite unique. True speculative fiction and true science fiction, if those terms are to have any real and useful meaning at all.
Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm, on the other hand, is indeed alternate reality fiction, but not science fiction at all—“A Tall Tale Too True,” as the subtitle on the cover proclaims, which, of course, is not true at all. It’s a sort of alternate history story, but it’s really not quite that either.
The cover blurb by Michael Moorcock compares it to the work of Thomas Pynchon in general terms, and Moorcock does have a point, though I would liken Enigmatic Pilot more specifically to Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and even to Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series. For while I would not presume to contend that either Saknussemm or Card are quite on the literary level of Pynchon, these three works do have something central in common, something that distinguishes them from alternate history tales like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Harry Turtledove’s alternate World War II novels, or any number of stories set in alternate histories where the South won the American Civil War.
This is alternate history of a kind, but not that kind.
Enigmatic Pilot, like Mason & Dixon, is set in the American past, albeit in a later period, and like the Pynchon, and to a lesser extent the Card, is a hybrid of what might be called interstitial alternate history and outright fantasy.
What I mean by interstitial alternate history is fiction set in the holes in the historical record, denying or overthrowing no real-world recorded history, but shoehorning its story into events, setting, characters, perhaps even technology, that just might have existed in a real-world historical period.
Fantasy is the fiction that requires violation of the present-day knowledge of the laws of mass and energy, even when it comes to events in the past. So magical powers and so forth—carefully limited in the Alvin Maker series, played around with more free form in Mason & Dixon and in somewhat different fashion in Enigmatic Pilot—render this sort of thing arguably fantasy.
Arguably because if the fantasy elements do not change history, do not end up creating or mandating an alternate present, a reality different from that of the reader, then who is to say what was real and what was not.
It’s the middle of the nineteenth century in the American Midwest, which, however, in that period was the American frontier. The main protagonist of what indeed is a tall tale, but rather than too true, really too tall to be true, is Lloyd Sitturd, child prodigy of a hard-scrabble frontier family, who, among more mysterious psychic powers, is a wizard inventor, a kind of steampunk pre-teen Thomas Edison decades ahead of the historical technology of his time. Pre-teen but not pre-pubescent, with a full-blown sexual libido, if not a sophisticated perception or control of same, at least when his journey begins.
After various screw-ups of which Lloyd is not exactly innocent, the family loses its farm, and thanks to a mysterious missive from a relative in distant Texas promising succor and greater things, sets out on a difficult, perilous, magical mystery tour of an odyssey from their lost farm outside relatively settled Zanesville, Ohio, via land and river through wild, woolly, and colorful frontier towns like St. Louis toward the enigmatically promised pot of something in far-off Texas.
The journey is the main interest in this sort of tale, and a tall tale it is, involving complex and ambiguous conflicts between two secret societies of masters or would-be masters of the world seeking to use Lloyd as a pawn or maybe even a knight in their game, Lloyd’s sexual awakening and finding of his possibly long-lost true love to be, escapes, fantastic inventions, and along the way colorful, apparently well-researched, engaging depiction of this scruffily baroque period of the early American frontier.
Beautifully written, colorfully rendered, overwhelmingly rich in inventive detail, adventurous fun, reminiscent of Pynchon indeed, Enigmatic Pilot is everything this sort of tall tale should be, except . . .
. . . if only . . .
The novel begins with a flash-forward to 1869 and a Cavalry Lieutenant in the Dakotas encountering mysterious entities that maybe seem to be something like aliens on their way to the future Hanger 51, the mystery of which is not resolved. The insertion of this flash-forward from the point of view of a character who does not appear in the rest of the novel is not explained either as you approach the final pages.
And the Sitturd family does not seem to have enough pages left to reach the goal of their journey in Texas either. . . . Oh no! He wouldn’t!
Oh yes, he would, and he did.
Enigmatic Pilot ends without even a partial resolution. The secret society threads are not resolved. Lloyd is not reunited with his lost love, nor is she definitively lost, either. What’s the meaning of the opening flash-forward? What awaits Lloyd in Texas?
Buy the next installment to find out!
Only at the end of the book does Enigmatic Pilot reveal itself as the opening book of a novel series. Worse still, much worse, outrageously worse, infuriatingly worse, nowhere in the package is this even revealed!
Kris Saknussemm writes like a major novelist to come. Moorcock’s blurb is not hyperbole. I greatly enjoyed Enigmatic Pilot until the last few pages when I realized I had been so unfairly conned, and had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room.
At the very least any first novel in a series should conclude with enough of a partial resolution to leave the readers partially satisfied. To fail to do this without even letting you know that you are reading the first novel in a series is being hotly seduced and then left hanging by your thumbs in mid-air panting with a case of the literary blue balls.
And for present purposes, without even a clear understanding of what species of alternate reality fiction this novel, or rather this novel series, is going to turn out to be, since it’s impossible to tell which way it’s going. Will it somehow turn into a kind of alternate reality science fiction or New Space Opera with the beings in the opening flash-forward revealed as history-changing aliens? Will it continue as interstitial alternate history with the tale snake-dancing through the gaps in the historical record?
Well, it’s certainly not going to turn into something like Reves de Gloire, by Roland C. Wagner, even if it does at the end weigh in at almost seven hundred pages. Because, as far as I know, no one has ever written an alternate history novel like Reves de Gloire.
I’d better deal with the disclosures first.
Reves de Gloire
Reves de Gloire is written in French, though it certainly deserves to be translated into English. Roland Wagner is a long-time friend of mine who has co-translated some of my novels into French. He has also written an introduction to an edition of The Iron Dream that is going to be relevant to this discussion.
So how dare to review a novel currently available only in French, by a writer who I admit is a personal friend?
The haiku version of an answer:
Decades ago, Algys Budrys, a fine novelist and perhaps the most important science fiction critic of the day, had the amazing chutzpah to review his own novel, and quite favorably too.
Wrote Budrys, in effect: I’m an important critic and this is a fine novel, so why should it suffer from not being reviewed by the great me?
Well, I didn’t write Reves de Gloire, and Roland Wagner is not writing this review. But this is a ground-breaking novel, and aside from whether the author should or should not suffer from it not being reviewed in these pages, Anglophone writers of alternate history surely should not be deprived of what it means for the evolution of that mode just because it’s written in French and the critic who was impressed enough to be enticed to read its seven hundred pages in his second language happens to have a personal relationship with the author thereof.
Indeed, as we shall see, in this case, it’s a critical advantage.
The time-honored literary method of writing an alternate history novel is to change a single key historical inflection point and proceed from there to create an alternate reality deriving from that pivotal alteration. What would the world be like if the Nazis had won the Second World War? If Hitler had died in the trenches of World War I? If the South had won the Civil War? If Lincoln had not gone to the theater to be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth? And so forth.
That’s not what Roland Wagner has done in Reves de Gloire.
He’s not altered one inflection point but many. Charles De Gaulle is assassinated and doesn’t end the Algerian war of independence from France. JFK does not die in Dallas and remains alive as president in a wheelchair. Lavrenti Beria is ruler of the Soviet Union during the Hungarian uprising and lobs a nuclear bomb at Budapest that doesn’t go off. The space race to the Moon between the Soviet Union and the United States ends with two spacecraft actually racing to the Moon, the Russians getting there minutes ahead of the Americans, but crashing with no survivors. And so on and so forth.
An alternate history created by the complex interaction of many independent changes. And not just political ones.
Reves de Gloire literally translates into “Dreams of Glory” in English, but in the novel it’s more multiplex than that. The novel is about dreams of glory to be sure, but Gloire is the name of a psychedelic drug that may or may not be LSD (and there’s an unstated bilingual pun here, because in English morning glory seeds are another psychedelic), but which is certainly introduced into Europe by Timothy Leary (further disclosure: Tim was a friend of mine). First by throwing a permanent party in a grand luxe suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris that he could never have afforded in our reality, and then at a kind of summer-long Woodstock in Biarritz spawning a counterculture called the “vautriens,” something like the hippies but more overtly politically socialist in the manner of Israeli kibbutzim, and more pragmatically together.
And Wagner further creates a bewilderingly detailed future history of rock and roll, combining musicians, groups, songs, albums, subgenres, from our own musicological popular culture tradition with entirely invented ones, to the point where one would have to be as obsessed with this stuff as the record collector and dealer who is one of his main characters to figure out which is which.
There’s more, there’s much more, and Wagner goes even further out on his literary limb by writing this long novel as a series of first person narrations by many characters, some ongoing, some one-shots, none of whom introduce themselves to the reader by name or are introduced by name by the author, and whose names the readers learn, if they learn them at all, only if mentioned by name by another first person viewpoint character.
And to make matters even more complicated, the story of Reves de Gloire, covering decades of alternate history, not only unfurls in three separate time-streams, but not even in sequence, so that the full meaning of events and personages in the furthest future ones may be elucidated by revelations of their formative pasts only toward the end of the novel.
How, you may well ask, can all this possibly make enough coherent sense to carry someone through seven hundred pages of reading it even in their first language without bogging down and losing their way, let alone in their second?
But it does.
And not only that, even with my good-deal-less than perfect command of French, even with the multiple styles therein generated by the narrative form, it doesn’t read like pretentious and tedious experimental fiction at all. It reads fast, it rocks and it rolls, like Wagner’s previous relatively straightforward popular science fiction. And this for an Anglophone reading it in French, who can only jealously imagine how facilely it must read to a French reader.
How, you may well ask, does Wagner manage to pull this off ?
This is fiction as experimental as it gets, but it’s not experimentation just for its own sake. Wagner is first and foremost using these experimental techniques and forms in the service of a passionately told and engaging story, and that’s why Reves de Gloire is an experiment that works.
That, after all, is what experimental fiction should be trying to achieve, isn’t it? If it doesn’t, it’s just a technically interesting failure.
And now we have arrived at the point where the critic’s personal relationship with the author of the novel and what is revealed in the author’s introduction to the critic’s own novel becomes a critical advantage rather than just a bit of a queasy embarrassment.
Reves de Gloire is, among other things, centrally a political novel, created in wide, deep, detailed, and, yes, scholarly detail even though the history it portrays is an imaginary alternate one. And while Roland Wagner has written plenty of fiction rooted in rock and roll and psychedelia, even to the point of fronting a band called Brain Damage, he has never written anything like this before, and certainly not with this level of political and cultural passion, infused with real anger and in the end bordering on real tragedy.
The central alternate history here is that of what in our reality is a single Algeria, from the 1950s to more or less the present day, but which in Wagner’s fictional reality is partitioned into “Algerie,” the Arab portion, and “Algerois,” the French portion. The latter initially includes the capital city of the whole thing in our reality, Algiers, which later becomes the city state of Alger in the novel, modeled to a certain degree on the Paris Commune of 1871, and/or the San Francisco of the 1967 Summer of Love.
There is no mistaking on which side Wagner’s political, cultural, musical, and mystical psychedelic loyalty and passion lies in Reves de Gloire. Namely, against the endless fascist and chauvinistic coups in his “Algerie” and “Algerois” and his alternate France, and with the multicultural vautrien communards of Alger, at least tentatively done in by the macropolitics and by a scourge of the “blanch,” a white powder, which may be heroin, or may be cocaine, or may be the very methedrine that turned the Summer of Love in San Francisco into a Winter of Despair.
What I didn’t know until I read the tangentially autobiographical essay that Wagner wrote for an edition of The Iron Dream—which is an alternate history within an alternate history psychologically deconstructing Nazi Germany and, the psychic pathology of Adolf Hitler and therefore, the fascist psyche—because he had never really spoken much about it to me was that Wagner comes from a “Pied Noir” family background.
That is, from the political and psychic culture of the several million French families who were citizens and cultural products of colonial Algeria in our reality and fled to France after the whole of Algeria became an independent state.
Thus the deeply personal and passionate involvement in the overall tale of Reves de Gloire and Roland Wagner’s interesting and surprising ability to nevertheless tell it in the multiplex and even measuredly sympathetically first person viewpoints not only of those with whom the author is wholeheartedly sympathetic, but to allow Arab Muslims of various degrees of Islamic fundamentalism and passion, veterans of the French Foreign Legion, and even raving fascists, to have their own credible first person say.
Which is why Reves de Gloire is a personal breakthrough for the author, a “masterpiece” in the medieval sense of a breakthrough to a more mature literary level.
But that it is also a formal and stylistic quantum leap in the literary possibilities of the alternate reality novel, no matter what language it is written in, or how successful on any other level, is why I am reviewing it here, whether it ever gets translated into English or not. Not so much primarily for the benefit of the author, but for the benefit of future would-be authors of the alternate history novel, whose possibilities Roland C. Wagner has expanded herein.
The Vodou Quantum Leap
And speaking of quantum leaps, nor am I about to review The Vodou Quantum Leap, a non-fiction book by Reginald Crosley, M.D., primarily for the benefit of the author—though this obscure book deserves far more attention than whatever accolades that it and its author have managed to get—but for the benefit of any readership interested at all in the scientific aspect of science fiction.
Because the first two or three chapters at least are probably the best, most complete, most lucid, and most readable explication of quantum physics, and indeed the entire history of physics, ever written for a reasonably educated but unspecialized readership.
First published in 2000 by an outfit in St. Paul, Minnesota, called Llewellyn Publications, seemingly never reprinted and hard to get, The Vodou Quantum Leap deserves a much wider readership and vice versa. For were there a Nobel Prize for educating readers in physics, Reginald Crosley would have deserved to have gotten it. I count myself among the beneficiaries, even though I did not count myself as someone who would have benefited from a “Quantum Physics for Dummies” primer.
But Quantum Physics for Dummies this is not!
I came upon The Vodou Quantum Leap for quite another purpose, looking for a credible non-bullshit textbook on voodoo as research for a novel I am writing, and believe me there are not many such things.
I was attracted by the title, but also by the back cover copy:
In this unique synthesis of African-Haitian spirituality, Western Religion, Eastern mysticism, and modern science, Dr. Crosley presents Vodou as a metaphysical experience—a bridge to parallel universes and mystical dimensions, confirmed by the eerie tenets of quantum physics.
For once, cover copy was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I found that Reginald Crosley’s book was by far the best thing around for my original purpose, too, an exhaustingly, scholarly yet well-written and eminently readable complete history, theological and metaphysical primer, and anthropological study of the evolution of Haitian voodoo, tracing it back to several West African versions and loa pantheons, which was exactly what I needed.
But Crosley, as the cover copy clearly promised, was after much more than that. Reginald Crosley is a Haitian doctor living and working in the United States, and a published poet in French, though The Vodou Quantum Leap was written in English. His thesis here is that the loas of the several voodoo pantheons, rather than being “gods” in the conventional sense, are actually real sentient entities existing in the alternate reality of quantum physics, dark matter entities with desires, and less than morally perfect agendas of their own, to simplify an exhaustively complex argument, and what is more of his work, that West African metaphysics has long come reasonably close to this truth, at least on a metaphorical level.
Well, this is very interesting, to say the least, and if it interests you, by all means read his book for that reason alone if you can lay hands on it. But this is not why I am writing about Crosley’s book in an essay about alternate realities in a science fiction magazine.
I am steering readers of science fiction to The Vodou Quantum Leap because anyone interested in the science end of science fiction and its fictional alternate realities surely should have some interest in quantum physics. For quantum physics presents an alternate reality that, while currently more or less accepted by science as the real deal on the microcosmic quantum level, is most certainly a reality quite different from what we actually perceive on the macrocosmic level. A paradox yet to be fully resolved, and arcane and difficult enough to fully comprehend on a metaphysical level for the likes of Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein to argue about it for years without coming to a full agreement as to the nature of ultimate reality.
Reginald Crosley herein actually tries to resolve it via a grand synthesis of Western theology, Eastern mysticism, African voodoo, and quantum physics, and comes pretty damn close to bridging it with a speculation as to the quantum nature of dark matter. And while this may be subject to very interesting argument on a metaphysical and scientific level, I’m not about to get into that here.
The reason that I am so wholeheartedly recommending The Vodou Quantum Leap to readers of science fiction is the first two or three chapters of this eight chapter book. Because in order to make his case to a general readership—not one of experts in quantum physics or voodoo devotees or even science fiction readers—Crosley has to fully educate it in the entire history of physics and its relationship to various traditions of metaphysics, up to and including general and special relativity, quantum physics, and their disagreements and paradoxes.
And he actually pulls it off.
Before sitting down to read The Vodou Quantum Leap, I thought the first few chapters were something I was going to have to breeze through to get to the information on voodoo that I was after.
Boy, was I wrong!
I’d thought myself reasonably knowledgeable when it came to quantum physics. I had gone into quantum cosmology at significant detail and depth in He Walked Among Us and done the necessary homework. I had even read Einstein and gotten through Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics in order to comprehend string theory, or so I thought.
But I think that even Stephen Hawking might have something to learn, or at least ponder, from the first three chapters or so of The Vodou Quantum Leap. And I would certainly recommend them as required reading in any college-level introductory course in physics, or even a graduate course in Quantum Physics 101.
Reginald Crosley’s explication of the evolution of physics and its currently evolved status is the most lucid and well written introduction to the general and specific subjects that I have ever read or heard of. And it is scientifically and scholarly rigorous enough to earn the respect of the specialists who might be more interested in his metaphysical speculations within those restraints than in gaining an education in what they more or less already know.
I can certainly attest that as far as I’m personally concerned, reading The Vodou Quantum Leap has been a quantum leap for my own understanding of quantum physics.
Which is not to say I can yet quite comprehend quantum physics on the level that Reginald Crosley does, though I think that maybe I could if I re-read those first three chapters several times very slowly. Well written they are and brilliantly explanatory, but a quick and easy read they are not. Because there is nothing easy about the subject matter—after all, Bohr and Einstein themselves were never able to come to clear agreement on it.
Required reading for university level courses? The first three chapters of The Vodou Quantum Leap could just as well serve as the only textbook for Quantum Physics 101.
And certainly for writers and readers interested in the alternate physics and literary metaphysics of quantum reality.
Copyright © 2012 by Norman Spinrad