by Edward M. Lerner
(Phoenix Pick, April 2018, ebook & hardcover [hc, 362 pp.])
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction is a collection of sixteen articles by science and science fiction writer Edward M. Lerner. They were originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact from 2011 to 2016 and have been “integrated, expanded…, and updated” for this book.
Lerner was a physicist and computer scientist and is now a full-time writer of SF, techno-thrillers, and non-fiction articles. He has authored the InterstellerNet series and co-authored the Fleet of Worlds series with Larry Niven. His most recently published book prior to this was his 2016 novel Dark Secret, reviewed here.
The punning title indicates that tropes will be a focus (though not always to the extent expected from such a title). “Trope,” as used in the book, means an element of a science fiction story in which a science-like motif is used, often in the background as a story-telling convenience and not as a literal scientific element. Examples include bumpy-forehead aliens or faster-than-light travel which is simply given and accepted to get characters from place to place. Opposed to the Freakin’ Magic of a “trope” is any Actual Machinery (or biology, etc.) of a literal scientific element. This leads to the concept of deciding whether to accomplish something “by technology or by trope” (akin to “by hook or by crook”). Both methods have their uses and advantages but an SF writer, especially the hard SF writer, obviously needs to distinguish between the two.
While not entirely representative of all the articles, I’ll examine the first article in detail to describe the best of what the book has to offer, which is most shared in the articles with “Alien” in the title, especially “Alien Aliens: Beyond Rubber Suits.” That first article, “Say, What?: Ruminations about Language, Communications, and Science Fiction” tackles the “universal translator” and similar science fictional furniture, examining the real or theoretical issues involved in communication both with other humans and with aliens. It also explains how and why such tropes are sometimes deployed. (One of the most extreme examples is the “shush!-we’ve-all-agreed-to-look-the-other-way” trope as in, e.g., Stargate: Atlantis and the “blatantly allegorical” Planet of the Apes, in which everyone just speaks English, which is utterly impossible but extremely convenient and clears the way for the writers to tell the stories they want to tell.) This chapter’s topic is a natural starting point, since the story which began the author’s regular publishing history, “Dangling Conversations,” deals with SETI, first contact, and interstellar messaging and formed the kernel of his InterstellarNet book series.
The article begins with a snippet of demonstration fiction in which suspension of disbelief is ruined by an inappropriate depiction of alien communication. It then backs up to discuss issues with communications between humans with our many languages, backs up further to how our biology conditions our language and proposes alternate biologies and alternate languages, then moves on to how language changes over time, and then gets into the various tropes that have been developed to deal with some of these scientific issues, discussing their assumptions, conveniences, and limitations. Then it moves on to a variety of ways alien languages can be rendered in fiction. Finally it discusses the cases such as SETI and METI and first contact where the tropes rarely, if ever, suffice, before circling back around to the demo fiction and closing with a humorous note.
The principles applied throughout include being or becoming knowledgeable about the issues and then examining similarities and variances, applying techniques of extrapolation, inversion, or transference. For example, in the sections around biology, the article addresses how humans communicate with sound but are largely visual. So let’s note the similarities and differences in that dolphins perceive in a semi-visual way with sound, building up 3D images with sonar. Let’s expand and reverse this concept and have them communicate the same way. Let’s vary this by imagining aliens who communicate with 3D representations by radar. And so on. Let’s think about how we are conditioned not just by our use of sound, but also by our very bodily structure: our language is conditioned by our bilateral symmetry, with our perception pointed forward, shown by our feelings about things said to our faces and behind our backs, which illustrates how our senses lead out to our psychology and our social mores.
Now let’s imagine trilaterally symmetrical aliens who have no front or back and how this would change everything. The article takes a radically holistic approach in its thinking—differences (such as aliens having a single language) are not isolated facts but indicate multiplying differences throughout their existential matrix (biology, psychology, sociology, etc.). Similarly, things don’t just blip into existence in an isolated moment of time, but have pasts and futures.
In addition to thinking of such things in a large scope, there are also fine-grained issues. Telepathy is not a magic bullet if examined closely, because of those differences in worldview, especially if thought is inextricably bound up with language. Even mathematics may not provide an easy basis for communication because “understanding of physical principles does not assure compatible representations.” Newton and Leibniz had very different notation systems for representing calculus—how much more different might alien representations be? In the course of this article, so many difficulties are raised that it might be demoralizing, but so many solutions are proposed that it should keep the dedicated SF writer engaged.
Finally, as a line near the article’s end says, “Tropes and translations, alphabets and aliens, worldviews and walruses…this chapter has covered a lot of ground.” Even so, it’s not necessarily exhaustive but it is that wide-ranging and thorough. Enough that writers should certainly be oriented and in a good position to pursue further self-education.
The next three articles deal with interstellar travel and break out a few mild equations in this otherwise math-light book. The first touches on FTL but might be seen more as getting the lay of the incredibly vast land and the problems travel in such an immense domain entails. Voyager, the fastest thing we’ve ever launched, has been traveling for decades and, in scale, basically hasn’t moved. It then proceeds on to relativity and other subjects. The second asks whether we are all starship trope-ers and gets into the nitty-gritty mechanical, biological, and sociological engineering challenges of STL interstellar travel (which are “daunting”). It covers the 100 Year StarShip program and also includes a neat bit on communication relays which use gravitational lensing. The third is almost the “workarounds” chapter to the previous “challenges” and tries to address theoretical FTL in a reasonably rigorous, though highly speculative manner, dealing with tachyons, warps, wormholes, etc. These chapters get a little away from the fiction and the holistic complex perspective and are more focused on technical problems. The last optimistically concludes, “Are FTL travel and FTL communications merely SF tropes? Not always. Plenty of science at the cutting edge deals with concepts that might create FTL technology.”
The meat of the book, in my opinion, comes in the next several articles. The previously mentioned “Alien Aliens” returns to the essential style of the first article and a section title in it gives us the book’s title, making the essential distinction between alien aliens and “trope” aliens (actual biological entities interesting in their own right vs. symbols of “self-examination”). It ends with a case study of Lerner’s own Gw’oth, who evolved into multi-worm creatures in an ocean under the ice of a moon. “Alien Worlds” gets into those ice moons and other habitable bodies, considering many of the factors that go into credible world-building (in its literal, science fictional sense), concluding with a few of the handiest theoretical and mathematical tools to use. “Alien Dimensions” travels further afield and anticipates some of the later chapters, dealing with the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and other such temporal and dimensional digressions. It includes a great footnote, though. Speaking of string theory’s postulated dimensions and the M-theory generalization of it which deals with “branes” (membranes) Lerner lightly observes: “Eleven dimensions aren’t too many for some theorists, but two syllables are. Go figure.” The next chapter, “Alien AWOLs,” discusses the Fermi paradox of the Great (Alien) Silence, touching on SETI, the Drake equation, SETT (alien megastructures), and gets into panspermia theories, as well as all the ways to silence technological species, and a wise take on the inadvisability of METI (attempted Messaging to theoretical ExtraTerrestrial Intelligences). Lastly, “Alien Altercations” takes on some of the obstacles that might prevent, or drives which might cause, interstellar/interspecies conflicts.
The remaining section of the book comes in a trio of smaller chunks. The first devotes what is basically one long chapter in two parts to more time travel, which is theoretically possible on the edges but is almost always a trope. Next is a trio starting with a chapter on “psi” abilities—which are also almost always tropes but a subset of which could conceivably be science-fictionalized—along with another chapter-pair on “Human 2.0” which is largely a laundry list telling us to pick up alphabet soup, as it discusses DBS, rTMS, VNS, and BMI. Finally, the last chapter pair deals with “A Mind of Its Own” and weak and strong AI, ending in superintelligence and a discussion of the theories of “the Singularity” and computronium and whether this is all good or bad and can or should be prevented. A particularly interesting part of the AI discussion covers the limitations of the Turing test and discusses alternatives such as Winograd schemas.
Taking the book as a whole, while the articles are clearly updated and even expanded, they could have been better integrated (such as deleting earlier chunks on AI and many-worlds or integrating them into the main later chapters) and sometimes the individual articles are loose and discursive (which is basically unavoidable in a book which covers hundreds of scientific and science fictional elements). While no individual can comprehensively survey the body of science fiction and this book’s examples are helpful, they were less comprehensive and restricted to “the best” than I’d hoped. While unsurprisingly pulled from a lot of the MAFIA (those who Make Appearances Frequently In Analog) and ranging well beyond that (from the classics of Wells and Burroughs—but not Verne!) to those who rarely if ever appear in Analog (Chiang, Egan, Le Guin, Scalzi) and even touching on genre-adjacent authors like Crichton and some self-published authors, the fictional examples seemed somewhat idiosyncratic. Even the non-fiction references seemed odd in ways. Articles in Brian Stableford’s Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia were frequently listed for further reading but the SFE, while not particularly science-oriented, was not mentioned once. Similarly, one of the best books of this type, Charles Sheffield’s The Borderlands of Science was never mentioned and Sheffield, himself, appears only once as a co-editor of a non-fiction volume, with his legions of relevant fictional works ignored. Lastly, a trivial thing which nevertheless bothered me was the footnoting and endnoting. A few footnotes were bare references; a few endnotes had more substantial comments in them; some chapters were almost bare while some were littered with them (in one case a word had an asterisk, a dagger, and a double-dagger after it).
All these are relatively trivial complaints, though, and merely observations of limitations or places where a good book could have been better. Ultimately, while nothing could be complete, this is a book which covers a huge number of topics well and provides great scientific and science fictional stimulation. The author writes,
If this book helps genre readers to better appreciate the underpinnings of hard SF or inspires even a few readers to careers in science or technology (as SF pointed me to my first career), or proves useful as a reference—or a source of story ideas—for SF writers, I’ll be most gratified.
I think this book will accomplish all those goals.
More of Jason McGregor’s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.