Sunday, June 24, 2007

Alternate science - a possible new direction for scifi?

A desire to really piss off the mundane sf-ists got me thinking about the possibility of scifi written under the assumption that some significant scientific fact were otherwise.

We are all familiar with "alternate-history" novels in which the South won the Civil War, the Nazis won WWII or the Bills won Superbowl XXV (okay, Scott Norwood and I are still waiting on that last one). Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, in my opinion the best alternate-history novel ever, assumes that the Black Plague, rather than killing 30% of the population of Europe killed 99%, resulting in a world dominated by Asian, Middle Eastern and Aboriginal American cultures.

But what about a novel/story in which the Michelson-Morley experiment confirmed the existence of the Luminous Aether?(Pynchon toys with this idea in Against the Day, but doesn't take it very far.) Or a story in which Goethe's well-reasoned but discredited theory on color turned out to be correct?

For this to be any good, you'd want it to be based on a theory or hypothesis that was plausible based on what experiments had suggested at the time it was made, but was then superseded by a better theory based on an important experiment or experiments. So for a scifi author to just say "lets' pretend Einstein was wrong" so that he can have his starship go 200c and get to alpha centauri in a week would represent laziness, not alternate science, unless he was basing his physics on some other well-reasoned but discredited hypothesis.

And for it really to be good, you'd have to explore the social consequences of what the confirmation of that theory would mean. Over time, understanding of a theory seeps into popular culture, and changes how people think. The aether was once jokingly called "The British Theory." How would the confirmation of it (as opposed to competing German theories) affect the coming world war/wars?

What other "alternate science histories" could be the basis of a good story?

ps. I remember vaguely that TSR created an offshoot D&D universe in which interstellar ships sailed on Aether winds, and British colonialism extended to an indigenously inhabited mars. Does anyone else remember that?


Denni said...

I love this idea!

There are quite a few works out there which toy with the idea that the computer age arrived earlier, and there is quite an overlap with steampunk, but still plenty of scope.

Rodion Cherkasov said...

As a blogger who wears many hats [and an amateur historian of the Victorian Aether Phenomenon is not the only one], this is just what I was after.
For me, "The British Theory" is not a joke. As Sir J.J. Thomson put it in 1906, "The aether is not a fantastic creation of the speculative philosopher; it is as essential to us as the air we breath". From the works of MacCullagh and Rankine up to Abricosov's and Barrenghi's, we see nothing but the aether vorticity.
However, what I have been wondering about for two decades now is wether it is possible to write an "alternate-history" of the Theories of Aether and Electricity.
Reading on a problem of the void and plenum in 2000, I stumbled across a brilliant Platonov's counter-utopia. From then on, "The Ethereal Trail" became my own project.
There is definitely a Russian Trail of the Victorian Aether. I have identified at least two historical prototypes of Platonov' characters. Interesting enough, Ovchinnikov [stand for Egor Kirpichnikov] was a student of Mitkevich [stand for Marand]. Both wore a striking resemblance of family and have been obsessed with Thomson's aether.
The question is: "How would the victory of "Arenida" in a 1937 debate affect the Vortex Dynamics?" [And what would be the Einstein-ether in Stalinist science?]