Friday, 15 June 2012

The Galactic Connection

Science fiction writers and readers are very aware that we inhabit not only a planet and a planetary system but also a galaxy. That we inhabit one of many galaxies is awesomely expressed in the Brian Aldiss title, Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand. Our galactic connection, like the God of mysticism, is within us at all times whether or not we realise it because it was stellar fusion that synthesised the elements of which we are composed. It is also possible that pre-biotic complex molecules came to Earth from elsewhere.

Fiction reflects our galactic context in different ways. Most obviously, human and other organic beings can cross interstellar distances but imaginative writers can do more. In Larry Niven's Known Space future history, terrestrial human beings are mutated Pak breeder colonists of a former Slaver food planet so neither we nor our biosphere originated on Earth.

In Poul Anderson's Brain Wave, no spacecraft arrive and none have yet been launched (but read on). Instead, life is proceeding as normal in the 1950's. However, gyromagnetic action within atomic nuclei near the galactic centre had generated an electromagnetic force field radiating outward in a cone now many light years across, inhibiting electromagnetic and electrochemical processes, particularly neuronic interactions. Nervous systems adapted to the inhibiting force by becoming more efficient. Now the Solar System moves out of the field so that everyone becomes more intelligent. A small quantitative change in neuronic efficiency causes a big qualitative change in thought because the processes involved in consciousness are so sensitive.

Anderson wrote much about spaceships later but here, in his first novel, he invented an original way to show human beings interacting with the galaxy.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

One of the cherished items in my collection of the works of Poul Anderson is a first edition hardback of BRAIN WAVE which I purchased for a surprisinly low price a few years ago. Alas, without the jacket cover.

One thing I noticed about BRAIN WAVE is how Poul Anderson touched on ideas and themes which he took up with far greater strength, depth of thought, and imagination in his later works (beginning with THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS). I do have my doubts, though, on whether animals could undergo the sudden jump in intelligence we see in BRAIN WAVE. What good is it for horses and elephants to have human level intelligence if they can't USE it? They still wouldn't have the hands or grasping limbs needed to make practical use of intelligence.

So, it seems likely that intelligence would atrophy over time from not being able to use it. In fact, Anderson speculated about that very idea in his story/essay "In Memoriam" (which you can find in ALL ONE UNIVERSE).


Paul Shackley said...

Sean, Thanks for comment. I have just inserted a sentence about Aldiss in the first paragraph.