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TED KOSMATKA

Ted's work has been reprinted in nine Year's Best anthologies, translated into a dozen languages, and performed on stage in Indiana and New York. He's been nominated for both the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and is co-winner of the 2010 Asimov's Readers' Choice Award. His novel, The Games, was nominated for a Locus Award for Best First Novel. He grew up in Chesterton, Indiana and now works as a video game writer in the Pacific Northwest. READ MORE

Post by Ted Kosmatka:

I’ve always been a fan of fiction that explores the big ideas.

From a reader’s standpoint, it’s fun to go where the mysteries are, and there are fewer bigger mysteries in science than quantum mechanics. Even the people who understand it don’t understand it.

TheFlickerMenIn a lot of ways, I think quantum mechanics is the wild west of hard sci-fi. There’s so much that still hasn’t been mapped out and tamed. It’s a dangerous, unknowable territory full of paradoxes and counter intuitions. My new novel The Flicker Men  (based on my earlier novelette “Divining Light,” originally published in Asimov’s, August 2008) is my attempt at a sojourn into that strange land.

Like a lot of stories, this one began life as scribble on the back of a scrap piece of paper. At the time, I wasn’t sure that the idea even really was a story, so much as a thought experiment that I wished I could perform in real life. My mind kept returning to the idea again and again over several months until one day, after a long shift working as a lab tech, everything kind of clicked into place, and I suddenly knew how to begin.

For me, writing stories is at least in part about trying to learn as much as I can about a subject. By pinning an idea down into a narrative, I can lay it flat and submit it to the line. It’s a way to investigate something from different angles, and then turn it on its head to see if it still holds true. If your goal in studying quantum mechanics is to understand the world, you’re going to come away disappointed. But if your goal is to put into action a theoretical model that accurately predicts phenomena, then you have in quantum mechanics a finely tuned machine that’s already proven that it works over and over. That can be cold comfort though in the face of quantum mechanics’ more troubling idiosyncrasies. 

Werner_Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg 
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. 

It’s been said that at the heart of things, almost everything is physics, and yet Werner Heisenberg had this to add, “Atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” That, to me, sounds like a fictional world, yet it’s the real world that we live in. And in no place is that laid out more clearly than in the famous double slit experiment.

I remember at some point having this plan of actually building my own double slit experiment out in the garage, because I wanted so badly to see it in action. I went so far as to draw out some plans on how I would construct it; but when your plans include things like “photon gun,” and you find yourself writing those words down on a piece of paper, like a grocery list that you can just swing by the store to pick up, you quickly realize that you’ve drifted off from reality, and it’s time to adjust expectations.

Double_Slit_Experiment
Double Slit Experiment

When I first came up with the idea for the story, it was a simple thought experiment. What would happen if. And then from that first if came another, and then another; and it began to look like a kind of road map that I was following. I honestly had no idea where the story would go when I first began. I just had that original, central what if. What if you embraced an idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics? What if you followed that where it took you? Light as both particle and wave. Matter as both particle and wave. Everything around you, everything you’ve ever looked at, or touched, or interacted with. An entire universe with this whole other aspect to it—and it’s like the old myths of yore had come to exist because someone had intuited the deep, hidden truth about existence. There is a dual nature to reality, just like the shamans always said. And then there’s this old question: are we just this physical form, or is there something more?

tree-cartoon

I remember the first time I heard the philosophical question about the tree falling in the woods. My thought was, of course it makes a sound! Why wouldn’t it make a sound? But quantum mechanics undoes that to some extent, or at least calls it into question. Does a tree make a sound if nobody experiences it? Does a wave function collapse if it isn’t observed?

I’ve worked at a lot of different jobs over the years, moving from one career to another. Dishwasher, zookeeper, lab tech. Back when I used to work at a research lab, I sometimes ran an electron microscope. The first time I used it, there was this sense that the secrets of the universe were being peeled back before my eyes. The experience had a profound effect on me. Later that evening, I pulled out a scrap piece of paper and wrote down several hundred words that later ended up going right into the story “Divining Light.”

Once the short story was finished and published, I always knew I’d return to it someday and write more, because the story raised so many more questions than it answered. I really wanted to know what happened next. What did it all mean? It took me a number of years to figure it all out, and once I knew, it took me another two years of constant writing to actually finish the novel. My saintly editor Michael Signorelli put up with draft after draft. The Flicker Men is built in part on the foundations of “Divining Light,” and is in part a reimagining of it in order to tell the complete tale.

Quantum mechanics tells us that light is both a particle and a wave. It occurs to me that a story can be like that, too. Two things at once. Maybe fiction has its own strange kind of physics as well.

 

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