Monday, April 15, 2013

ARCANUM: Clarke's Law, Harry Potter and ARCANUM

Or at least Clarke's 3rd Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I have a physics degree from McGill University in Montreal, where several well-meaning humans -- with the exception of a Thermodynamics professor who intentionally posted incorrect office hours -- attempted to instill in me an appreciation for the order of the universe. The problem is, of course, then if you learn to speak the mathematical language of physics, the "order" gets pretty damn weird. Or, as my Quantum Physics professor said on the day we ground out the math for quantum tunneling: "This is the bit where people's brains begin to crackle."

It's hard to understand, as we wander around with cell phones in our pockets, the disruptive effect quantum mechanics -- the physics of the unknowable, or at the very least the physics of the best-guessable -- had on the scientific world in the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein's famous "God does not play dice with the universe!" quote comes out of this era. To put it bluntly, the smartest people on earth were, on a daily basis, losing their shit.

ARCANUM is born out of two impulses. First, blending body horror with fantasy, much as Charles Stross found the inherent harmonies between Chtulhoid Horror and Cold War sensibilities in the Laundry Series. We'll discuss that later. But it also comes out of my love of science fiction, specifically my amusement at how the most important, disruptive moment in most alien invasion movies is tossed over the movie's shoulder. The aliens have come from beyond the stars, they have come for our ...

 ... wait, what? No, they don't want our seawater, they don't want our brains, whatever you -- THEY CAME FROM BEYOND THE STARS?! Assuming that's not a generation ship or some self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those aliens just BROKE PHYSICS.

Except, of course, in the (mainstream) alien invasion story, they didn't break physics. In every (mainstream) alien invasion story they're here. We can shoot them, and talk to them, and be dissected by them, they're wandering around in our physical universe and so are beholden to the same physics, Newtonian or Quantum, that we are. So that fictional universe has rules, the aliens just ... apparently ... know some better ones than we do?

But faster-then-light travel mucks with such fundamental boundaries of our physical universe that if they can circumvent that, they can damn well circumvent any of the boring rules which would allow us to interact, or perhaps even perceive them. There's an inherent paradox -- if the aliens are interstellar, they are certainly not walking our streets in hacked-together HALO armor gunning down humans. Unless that's, like, a thing they get off on. Which would be double-plus unbad now that I think about it.

For chrissake, in the 21st Century one country is untouchably pounding the hell out of terrorists and unfortunately placed Afghani weddings with remote-piloted drones operated by kids from half a planet away. And we don't even leave our local gravity well except for special occasions.

Those aliens would not be fight-able. They would be unknowable. They would incomprehensible. They would be soul-shatteringly terrifying. They would be terrifying sky gods who rain down destruction on a helpless human populace as if by ... magic. 

So why not jump straight to magic?

This is tied to one of my pet peeves in the Harry Potter universe (stay with me). I am always a little disappointed that Hermione Granger (the hero of the series) at no point says "You know, I rather like science. Has anyone noticed that none of what we do obeys the laws of physics, and yet we co-exist with the world of Muggles where the laws of physics hold sway? I mean, shouldn't we talk to some clever Cambridge blokes about the fact that we gesture and point with a stick and manufacture objects out of thin air --"

 -- THEY MANUFACTURE OBJECTS OUT OF THIN AIR?! Assuming that's not a self-replicating/self-perpetuating nanobot swarm, those tweens just BROKE PHYSICS.

You see what I did there. (After all, the Harry Potter Universe is Secretly Terrifying).



The structure of Arcanum is derived from my instinctive love of that paradox. There are multiple alien invasion styles to choose from, of course. To emphasize the horror aspects, I'm patterning our magic invasion on the slow-burn secret invasions of UFO or The Invaders or the criminally short-lived Threshold. If anything even vaguely resembling alien tech were discovered, you'd see the US government immediately put two programs in play: 1.) a Manhattan project to unravel the broken physics of said tech and 2.) a secret military/intelligence agency to keep tabs on it. Just substitute "magic" into those sentences and you have Arcanum.

Next time: immortality is so, so creepy.

In the meantime: Catch this week's Arcanum here.

Start from the beginning here.

Read Mark Waid's Insufferable, his awesome super-hero meta-story -- what if you were a dark detective of the night, and your teen sidekick grew up to be a douchebag? -- starting at the beginning here. The latest arc, Volume Two, starts here.

Read our gritty, true-life crime thriller The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood here.

And sample all our comics, from our continuing series to one-shot experiments to shorter (8-10 week) series, from the THRILLBENT HOME PAGE.

42 comments:

mymatedave said...

Regarding the Harry Potter issue, there is a great fanfic where Harry's aunt married a scientist and is freaked out about magic breaking all of the laws of nature. Also works as a bit of an Aesop for rationalism and the scientific method.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
HPMOR.COM

Cunningham said...

Magic is nothing more than the physical code of universe being hacked...

Wizards are codemonkeys...

Scott K. Andrews said...

Intriguing :-) You should check out Wizards vs Aliens - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizards_vs_Aliens

Thom said...

I also came here to recommend Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It sounds like it'd be right up your alley. It is among the most entertaining things I have ever read.

pambc said...

Sometimes I forget why I love you - then you remind me so eloquently! John Michael Rogers - you are my hero!
love, Pam

Anonymous said...

I've read the first three installments of Arcanum and am looking forward to seeing more backfill on this terrifying universe. Also, the sequence where Al the cop takes out a couple of the knights made me cheer. Seeing homicidal ratf--ks who act as if they're invincible will do that.

Neil W said...

Immortality: creepy. Also interesting. In extended Lord of the Rings, there's Elrond having a flashback to the battle where Sauron lost the ring. A battle that took place 3000 years ago. He still has the same haircut*.

Galadriel was born before the sun and moon were created.

Avidly waiting for your thoughts.

* Should have given him a scar, so he could still have it 3000 years later.

Doc Nebula said...

It's... bnargle. Where to start.

First, obviously, Hollywood pays absolutely no attention to physics and science and like that when it makes movies and other entertainment constructs supposedly referencing physics and science and like that. This is because most people who write, direct, and produce for Hollywood don't understand any of that stuff, but, hey, that's okay, because the vast vast majority of the folks who will buy tickets don't understand it, either. (And the enormous majority of the vanishingly small percentage who do understand it, even slightly, just don't care. Really smart computer geeks I know still love INDEPENDENCE DAY.)

Make a sci fi movie where the science works and the science is important and you've probably made PRIMER. I love PRIMER and you may well love PRIMER, too, but we may be as much as 12% of the people in the world who have heard of PRIMER and 2% of the people in the world who like it. My friends the computer geeks who love INDEPENDENCE DAY ran screaming from the room eleven minutes into PRIMER. Yes. They did.

Leaving all that aside, there are endless scenarios in which advanced aliens that break physics with FTL drive could still be confrontable by humans with, you know, black powder weapons. They are... hrm... shall we say, somewhat CONTRIVED scenarios, involving things like 'some REALLY advanced aliens put a bunch of nasty slug things in a ship, set the ship on autopilot, and pointed it at Earth'... but... why bother with all that? People don't want to THINK while their eyes track movement and color and boobies and their eardrums register changes in air pressure and their taste buds register stale popcorn with urine flavored oleo on it. They just want to, you know, kind of emote.

Now, YOU'RE saying, hey, what if I did a science fiction story in a different medium, one which requires the actual engagement of some sort of active imagination and, one hopes, higher reasoning powers (although, y'know, the last Free Comic Book Day copy of a Bendis AVENGERS comic leaves a lot of room for doubt on both propositions) and, you know, I made it make more sense?

And I say, hey, you go, you. As long as you understand that you're not going to get 7 million rednecks to spend 12 bucks each so they can sit and stare at your comic book, I mean. Because otherwise, you're in for quite a disappointment.

Which is to say, when you start telling people things like 'aliens that can travel faster than light cannot be fought with black powder weapons' -- you have already excluded 9/10s of your potential audience.

Which is okay. You'll still probably get a bigger audience share than PRIMER.

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www.utfifa.com said...

You all know the story of Harry Potter's development, poor I have not read the series of films!! What a pity!

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Mebel Jepara said...

In extended Lord of the Rings, there's Elrond having a flashback to the battle where Sauron lost the ring. A battle that took place 3000 years ago. He still has the same haircut*.

Galadriel was born before the sun and moon were created.

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