Carcinization in Science Fiction

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.  This post may also contain spoilers for Tomorrow News Network books that I have not yet written.

Hello, friends!

In my research process, there comes a point where my brain switches over from learning science facts to making up science fiction.  Over the last month of so, I’ve been doing a ton of research on carcinization.  In that time, I have not become an expert on this topic—not by a long shot.  But at this point, I have learned enough science facts for my brain to switch over to Sci-Fi mode.

Carcinization is commonly defined as the process of evolving into a crab.  This has happened a surprising number of times, leading to Internet memes about crabs being some sort of “ultimate life form” or some sort of evolutionary end goal.  Given how common carcinization is (or at least how popular the memes about it are), I’ve often thought that we should see way more crab monsters in science fiction.  And nothing in my recent research has dissuaded me from that opinion.

Of course, giant crab monsters have appeared in Sci-Fi before.  The nameless time traveler in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine has a close call with some giant crabs:

Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front?  Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there.  I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flicking and feeling as it moved.

The word carcinization didn’t exist yet when Wells wrote The Time Machine, but the idea of carcinization did.  As far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists were already puzzling over “the many attempts of Nature to evolve a crab.”  With that in mind, I think H.G. Wells knew exactly what he was doing when he populated the Earth of the distant future with giant, hungry crab monsters.

More recently, a crab-like extraterrestrial appeared in Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.  I’m pretty sure Weir even used the word carcinization in his book, to help explain how this crab-like species could exist (though after spending about twenty minutes flipping through my copy of Project Hail Mary, I couldn’t find the reference—it’s possible I’m misremembering things).  Fortunately for the protagonist of Project Hail Mary, the crab-like extraterrestrial he meets turns out to be friendly.  An important ally, in fact!

After all the research I’ve done, I feel pretty comfortable exploiting the concept of carcinization for a Sci-Fi story.  And given that H.G. Wells and Andy Weir already did this, I feel like I’m putting myself in good company, too.  Now I do not currently have a release date set for the next Tomorrow News Network novella, but I can tell you that I’m working on it, and there will be giant crabs from outer space.  Will they be friendly crabs, like the crab-like alien from Project Hail Mary?  Or will they be hostile, like the future crabs from The Time Machine?

Okay, yeah, they’re definitely hostile. Sorry for the spoiler.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Please check out some of my previous posts on carcinization, as well as my post on orthogenesis (a closely related concept).

Sciency Words: Time’s Arrow

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Sciency Words!  Each week, we take a closer look at the definition and etymology of a science or science-related term.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

TIME’S ARROW

Which way is time going?  Prior to the 1890’s, no one would have asked such a silly question.  Time is time.  Everything about time is self-evident.  Why would anyone question it?

But then in 1895, H.G. Wells introduced the concept of time travel to the readers of adventure fiction.  And then in 1915, Albert Einstein started treating time as a variable, rather than a constant, as part of his general theory of relativity.  In his book Time Travel: A History, science historian James Gleick explains:

Millennia had gone by without scientists needing special shorthand like “time’s arrow” to state the obvious—the great thing about time is that it goes on.  Now, however, it was no longer obvious.  Physicists were writing laws of nature in a way that made time directionless, a mere change of sign separating +t from –t.

British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington gets credit for introducing the “arrow of time” as a conceptual metaphor.  Eddington’s arrow points from the past toward the future.  Unless it doesn’t.  Depending on what sort of physics problem you’re trying to solve (or what sort of Sci-Fi story you’re trying to tell), it may be more convenient to imagine time’s arrow pointing from the future toward the past.

In 1927, in a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and then later in a book titled The Nature of the Physical World, Eddington made three key points about time’s arrow, which I’ll paraphrase as:

  1. Gosh, time’s arrow sure does seem real to us humans.
  2. And common sense reasoning insists that time’s arrow must always point in the same direction.
  3. But when you do the math, you’ll find that none of the laws of physics actually require time’s arrow to exist, except one.

That one exception is the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the entropy of a closed thermodynamic system will inevitably increase with the passage of time.  So time’s arrow must always point in the direction of increasing entropy.

Of course a lot of people remain skeptical about time travel.  The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a fine piece of fiction.  As for general relativity, treating time as a variable (rather than a constant) might help make the math work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean variable time is a real phenomenon.

Still, thanks in larger part to Arthur Eddington and his arrow metaphors, the question “which way is time going?” no longer sounds like total nonsense.

Next time on Planet Pailly: have we discovered a second planet orbiting Proxima Centauri?

Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Origin Stories, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we trace the origins of popular concepts in science fiction.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re making the jump into:

HYPERSPACE

As you know, nothing can travel faster than light.  Or it least, not in our universe.  But what if there were another universe next door to our own where the laws of physics were different, where faster-than-light travel were possible.  Wouldn’t that be convenient?

At least that’s how the concept of hyperspace was first explained to me.  I can’t remember if I picked that up from a Star Wars novel or an episode of Babylon 5.  Either way, I remember having an instant dislike for this idea.  It’s always seemed to me to be a little too convenient.

But then I started researching this post and learned that hyperspace is—or at least used to be—a much more interesting concept.  Let me explain by telling you a story:

Once upon a time, there was a happy little square living in a two-dimensional world with all his two-dimensional friends.  Then one day, this square met a rather extraordinary circle, a circle that had strange and mysterious powers.  The circle could grow larger or smaller at will, expanding out to a certain radius or shrinking down until it completely disappeared!

“What are you?” the square asked in awe.

In a booming, god-like voice, the circle answered: “I am a sphere.  As I pass through the two-dimensional plane of your realm, you perceive two-dimensional cross sections of my three dimensional form.”

This is the story of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884.  Or at least that’s part of the story of Flatland.  Our protagonist square also encounters one-dimensional beings living in a one-dimensional world (Lineland) before learning about the world of three dimensions (Spaceland) from the sphere.

Flatland was one of many books published in the late 1800’s toying with other dimensions.  Another is, of course, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which postulates that time might be the fourth dimension.  But other writers assumed the fourth dimension would simply be another spatial dimension.  And just as the protagonist of Flatland struggled to understand the third dimension, we humans, as three-dimensional beings, can never fully comprehend the fourth dimension.

A linguistic convention soon emerged.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional sphere, you’d call it a hyper-sphere.  If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional pyramid, that would be a hyper-pyramid, and a four-dimensional cube would be a hyper-cube (or a tesseract, as Charles Howard Higgins proposed calling hyper-cubes in 1888).  And where would all these hyper-shapes exist?  Why, in hyper-space!  Where else?

According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it would still take a while for hyperspace to make the jump from mathematics and philosophy into the pages of science fiction.  Initially, the term seems to have retained its esoteric, philosophical sense of a world beyond our limited human perception.

Are we not justified in supposing, […] that the boundary lines of space and hyper-space may not be so rigidly drawn as we have supposed?

“Invisible Bubble” by K. Meadowcraft, 1928.

But Sci-Fi writers quickly started exploiting hyperspace as a plot device to allow faster-than-light travel.

Well, in this hyperspace we are creating, matter cannot exist at a velocity lower than a certain quantity […].

“Islands of Space” by J.W. Campbell, 1931.

Speeds, a mathematician would hasten to add, as measured in the ordinary space that the vessel went around; both acceleration and velocity being quite moderate in the hyperspace it really went through.

“Legion of Space” by J. Williamson, 1934.

I’m still not a big fan of hyperspace, or at least I’m not a fan of consequence-free hyperspace.  If you’re going to pop out of normal space—whether you’re entering another universe where the laws of physics are different or you’re taking some sort of four-dimensional shortcut—I feel like there should be some side effects, either for you or your spacecraft (or both).  Otherwise, hyperspace just seems a little too easy, a little too convenient.

At least that’s how I feel about it.  But what do you think?  Am I being too picky?  Am I overthinking things?  Or do you also roll your eyes whenever hyperspace comes up in science fiction?

Origin Stories: Who Invented Time Travel?

Welcome to Origin Stories, a monthly series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at the origins of popular Sci-Fi concepts.  Today on Origin Stories, we’re looking at the origins of:

TIME TRAVEL

If I ever have a time machine—a real, working time machine—the first thing I’d do is go back in time and meet the person who invented time travel.  We do know who that person was.  His name was H.G. Wells, and he was the author of the classic science fiction novella The Time Machine.

Wells got the inspiration for The Time Machine from an unlikely source.  As science historian James Gleick explains in his book Time Travel: A History:

At some point [Wells] sees a printed advertisement for a contraption called Hacker’s Home Bicycle: a stationary stand with rubber wheels to let a person pedal for exercise without going anywhere.  Anywhere through space, that is.  The wheels go round and time goes by.

Of course there had been time travel-like stories before.  Remember the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  Remember the story of Rip Van Winkle, who found himself suddenly in the future after a really long nap.  Or remember Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Authur’s Court, in which a man from Connecticut gets bonked on the head and wakes up to find himself in the distant past.

But H.G. Wells was the first to take the idea of time travel semi-seriously.  He was the first to try to dress up the idea with scientific and technological jargon.  And in my opinion, no other author has handled time travel so clearly and concisely as Wells did.

The protagonist of The Time Machine, a man of science referred to only as “the Time Traveler,” first explains to a group of friends that we exist in a world of not three dimensions but four.  Everything that exists in this universe has the qualities of “Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”  The Time Traveler’s friends then raise all the objections Wells’ readers might have had, and the Time Traveler explains all those objections away in exchanges like this:

“But,” said the Medical Man, staring hard at a coal in the fire, “if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been, regarded as something different?  And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?”

The Time Traveler smiled.  “Are you sure we can move freely in Space?  Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough, and men always have done so.  I admit we move freely in two dimensions.  But how about up and down?  Gravitation limits us there.”

“Not exactly,” said the Medical Man.  “There are balloons.”

“But before the balloons, save for spasmodic jumping and the inequalities of the surface, man had no freedom of vertical movement.”

In other words, we can only move freely in the third dimension thanks to technology—hot air balloons, airplanes, rockets….  Therefore technology may also give us the power to move freely through the fourth dimension of time.

Of course H.G. Wells didn’t actually believe in time travel.  As James Gleick goes on to say, all Wells was trying to do was “gin up a plausible-sounding plot device for a piece of fantastic storytelling.”  But as it would turn out a decade or so later, Wells was not too far off from the truth.  Physicists like Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski were soon treating time as variable, rather than a constant.  No, Einstein and Minkowski didn’t build any bicycle-like contraptions in their basements, but the notion of time as the fourth dimension—that soon became serious science.

Time travel has always been my favorite subgenre of science fiction.  It has been ever since my Dad first introduced me to Doctor Who.  I realize time travel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I enjoy the kinds of brain-twisting puzzles that a good time travel adventure presents.  It’s the reason I still love Doctor Who, and it’s the reason time travel features so prominently in my own writing.

So if I ever have my own time machine, the first thing I’d do is go back in time to meet H.G. Wells.  I think I owe Mr. Wells a thank you.