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John's Thought For November 2003

The subtitle indicates a monthly contribution of some sort. A first draft consciousness-dump about some randomly chosen topic. Shall we give it a whirl, and see how long this lasts? What shall we talk about first? How about... the nature of written stories. It's an appropriate start. And I think I'll use a physical metaphor dressed up as a simile, if you don't mind.

Consider a photograph.

More importantly, think about the negative: reversed, it becomes a transparency, the kind of thing we used to put into slide projectors before we all bought digital cameras and uploading and downloading images became as commonplace as transferring consciousness to a sleeve in Richard Morgan's universe. (You haven't read Altered Carbon or Broken Angels yet? Shame on you, unless you live in the US... in which case, they're coming soon.)

On a black and white negative, each point holds one piece of data: the brightness of the corresponding point on the original image. (If the twentieth century becomes remembered for anything besides the mass slaughter of innocents, it will be for modelling physics as information. Oh, and the idea of atoms. And DNA. And... Hmm.) By adding more chemicals to the mix, we can also store the colour.

No, I haven't got there yet.

I became fascinated with holograms as a kid, though my attempt to build a laser from scratch – blowing glass cylinders in the school chemistry lab, inserting electrodes, all that stuff – came to a sorry end. What a hologram stores is brightness, colour... and depth.

It's an interference pattern, between a reference beam and the light reflected from the original subject. To view an ordinary slide, you simply shine light through it. To produce a real or virtual hologram, you shine something very like the original reference beam through the interference pattern. The combination of reference light plus beam re-creates the original image... with depth. Three-dimensional.

A virtual holo lets you view from different angles, but appears to be inside the film which holds the pattern. A real holo is a solid-looking image you can walk around. You can get one of each simultaneously if you do it right.

Of course, as with 2-dimensional movies, a series of snapshots presented quickly enough gives you realtime motion. Prototype holomovies were created in the late 1960s.

Now, here's another idea. (And let me add, for any would-be writers, that my best stories always come from the tension between two wild ideas: one just ain't enough.) There's no such thing as a single personality. Any writer who's written a few novels knows that sometimes the characters just take over. But they're neural groups, or emergent properties thereof, within the writer's brain... So be afraid.

This is worth a small essay in its own right. One of my collection of books on neurology and consciousness – sorry, I can't remember which one – declares that famous actors tend to misbehave and self-destruct (terrible term: shouldn't it be self-destroy?) because of a stressful dichotomy. The personality which accepts awards and tries to live an everyday life is not the same one which acts before the public gaze, on camera. The more conscious personality loses any notion of self-worth, feeling that they don't deserve the awards being showered on them.

A written story is the interference pattern which lies between the events shining in the writer's mind and the part of that mind which observes the tale unfolding.

This definition should nicely piss off the literary establishment, who have no understanding of physical reality and think it's all beneath them. Americans may be less familiar with C.P. Snow than British readers, so I'll paraphrase his famous diatribe against the humanities generally: that a scientist who's never read Shakespeare is considered ignorant (and there aren't many like that!), while a literary figure ignorant of the 2nd law of thermodynamics is not even remotely embarrassed. And they bloody well ought to be, because it describes a fundamental feature of the world, as most people reading this page will know.

People who read science fiction get the parallax view, the three-dimensional reality which brings a notion of how the universe – miraculously! – works, as well as its vast scale in space and time, alongside the aesthetic consideration of those who appreciate a rich and rigorous art form

Post-modernists, eat your hearts out.

Oh, yeah. This explains why reading isn't just a passive activity. It's the laser beam of the reader's mind which lights up and brings to life the fresh and exciting story unfolding all around them; the words on the page are a scrambled pattern until the illumination occurs.

Exercise your laser today. Don't let anyone get in your way.


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