Sunday, October 26, 2008

Labyrinth Inhabitant Issue 4

It's up! And here's the part of it I wrote:

Let me quote a dialogue from Neal Stephenson’s recent novel Anathem:

MENTOR: “[The] whole point of living in a cloistered math is to reduce our causal linkages with the extramuros world to the minimum, isn’t it?”

STUDENT: “Socially, yes. Culturally, yes. Ecologically, even. But we use the same atmosphere, we hear their mobes driving by—on a pure theoric level, there is no causal separation at all!”

MENTOR: “If there were another universe, altogether separate from ours—no causal linkages whatsoever between Universes A and B—would time flow at the same rate between them?”

(In Anathem, a “math” is a sort of monastic order for mathematicians and scientists who shut themselves off from the outside or “extramuros” world for one, ten, one hundred or one thousand years. “Mobes” are cars, except awesomer.)

The question the wise old mentor raises in this passage is central to the labyrinth inhabitant subgenre: If humans create such a self-sufficient environment for themselves that it effectively becomes a world unto itself, is there any meaningful connection between events inside the artificial environment and events in the outside world? The mentor speculates that there may have been a secret math whose inhabitants cut themselves off for ten thousand years, and who separated themselves from the outside world so effectively that they created a separate causal domain unknowable to people in the rest of the world, like the inside of that box that contained Schrödinger’s cat. In a phenomenon called “Causal Domain Shear,” their timeline ended up drifting so far afield from the timeline everyone else inhabited that when they finished their ten-thousand year mission and came out their front gate, only some three thousand years had passed in the outside world.

Anathem spends hundreds of pages showing how artificial environments enable the development of unique cultures despite the abjectly postmodern global monoculture outside the maths’ gates (the cloisters themselves aren’t in the form of labyrinths, but when the inhabitants choose to promote themselves to a math that will be cut off for a longer period, they do so by traversing a labyrinth to reach the more isolated area where their new order lives). But Anathem isn’t just a labyrinth inhabitant novel; it’s a meta-labyrinth inhabitant novel. Events force members of the maths to come out of their cloisters so they can influence one another and be influenced, and they tangle with enemies who live in an artificial environment of a different sort and who have a habit of spinning off new causal domains right and left. In fact, the discovery of the different ways that causal domains can influence one another is arguably the central intellectual adventure of the book. It’s a question that quickly runs into some thorny issues of quantum physics and philosophy. I couldn’t do justice to Anathem by trying to summarize Stephenson's ideas any further, but I recommend it as a thought-provoking book and a good example of why there deserves to be a whole subgenre of stories about people who live in giant artificial environments of mystery.

But do the stories in this fourth issue of Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine happen to address the very same theme? Why, yes, it seems that they do!

The prison cell in Terence Kuch’s “Simon Says” is a perfect example of an isolated causal domain. The prisoner seems to have some residual knowledge of what the outside world is like, but ever since he got imprisoned by some totalitarian overlord his access to new information has been strictly curtailed. And, of course, the assumption that there is a totalitarian overlord is part of the problem. In the prisoner's mind, the system that keeps him in captivity is personified as a single Keeper doling out the same rations and stimuli every day and every year. But in the outside world, it’s just as likely that the prisoner has a succession of jailers working from the same set of directions, or perhaps an automated feeding device programmed by the now-dead Keeper long ago. Maybe the Keeper is so far out of the prisoner’s causal domain that he’s in an indeterminate state between all of these possibilities. At least, until the day when the prisoner gets out of his cell and learns that his causal relationship with the outside world is even stranger than it seems.

That’s right, “Simon Says” isn’t one of those prisoner stories where the hero is trapped in a cell and he thinks some thoughts and then the author gives you the “artistic” ending leaving it up in the air what, if anything, will ever happen. In “Simon Says” the prisoner is in the cell, and then he is outside the cell, and then something further happens. Here at Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine we get things done.

In Therese Arkenberg’s “The Wall,” I’m pretty sure the heroine’s causal domain includes the entire planet except for a dead zone right in the center of the city where she lives. It’s as if humankind fanned out and started exploring the planet at the exact antipodes of her city, and now the normal rules of reality apply everywhere except that one spot they don’t quite have a handle on. My theory is that the city is essentially a donut-shaped labyrinth. What I’m trying to say is that if somebody who lived in the city was to sneak into that mysterious area in the center—I’m not saying somebody will sneak in, I’m just saying if somebody was to sneak in—some crazy shit would probably happen to that person.

And in Lindsey Duncan’s “Ten Cities Down,” the causal domains are arranged in a hierarchy one on top of the other like the levels of the Inferno, and there are strict immigration controls between them. The privileged people who live below are free to travel to higher levels, but travel in the opposite direction is prohibited. As a result, people from the lower levels are free to influence whoever they want in the higher levels, but they can prevent the Hylaean flow from running in the opposite direction (I can’t explain it; read Anathem). But the normal order of things turns upside down when one man returns from the dead in the lowest city, and the authorities must keep him from escaping to the surface.

Thanks to this issue’s authors, and thanks to all of the approximately 100 authors who submitted to Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine during its first year!

No comments: