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Dr. Phil Speaks: Interview With the Self-Reference ENGINE Physics Consultant!

If you’ve not entered the giveaway contest for Self-Reference ENGINE you totally should. It’s a book like few others, and was enough of a challenge to translate and edit that we hired a physics consultant, Dr. Phil Kaldon, to help us out. Dr. Phil is not only a physicist, but a science fiction writer and even an anime fan in his own right, so he was the perfect choice to bring in. His book notes were so interesting, I decided to interview him for this blog about Self-Reference ENGINE and about what happens when all of space-time falls apart.

First, a bit about Phil: Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon teaches Physics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, while writing of the great wars of the 29th century and elsewhen at night. He earned a B.A. in Integrated Sciences (everything) at Northwestern and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Michigan Tech. His stories have been published on three continents on this planet, including “A Man in the Moon” in the 24th Writers of the Future anthology, “The Brother on the Shelf” in Analog, “The New Tenant” in the U.K. anthology Rocket Science, the quiet 29th century SF “Le Grand Bazar” at Space Westerns, plus the military SF stories “End Run” at GigaNotoSaurus and “Brooding in the Dark” at Interstellar Fiction. Dr. Phil’s website is at dr-phil-physics.com.

Q: Hard SF is supposed to be the subgenre of science fiction in which the laws of physics are held to. Of course, a lot of hard SF is really just science fiction that pretends toward rigor in its exposition—hard choices, Cold Equations, and tough guy/engineering stuff. Is Self-Reference ENGINE hard SF?

A: As a physics professor I’m all for holding to the laws of Physics, up to the practical limit of the story. Self-Reference ENGINE bends hard what we are sure can happen. It’s more thoughtful and cerebral than most hard SF, but if you consider Frank Herbert’s Destination: Void and The Jesus Incident hard SF — and I do — then SRE clearly fits in. Same with the Ghost in the Shell series. You can have drama through interesting discourse in hard SF. Part of what makes hard SF “hard” is the discussion of difficult technical concepts. This doesn’t mean every space marine or future cop has to have long debates on scientific minutia. But hard SF doesn’t have to be cliffhanger action or military space battles or impossible choices for the protagonist, as fun as those can be. Indeed, it’s hard to figure out who would be the protagonist in SRE, since there are so many entities — I’m thinking the concept is the star here.


From time-bombs to bobby socks, we put the concepts on the cover!

Q: You’re a working physicist, and a science fiction writer, and an occasional consumer of anime/manga. SRE is the book for you, definitely! But, who else might like it? Play a round or two of “If you like Author X, you’ll like SRE…”

A: Somewhere I wanted to stick in a comment about Samuel R. Delany’s novel Babel-17—the only SF novel I know of whose plot is based on FORTRAN. So here it is. (grin) Or Perl script in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. SRE enters into some rather rarefied territory with its AI/giant corpus of knowledge systems.

This isn’t to say if you liked Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, you’ll like SRE, though you might. What I am saying is that if you’ve an interested in AI, if you like meta self-referential things from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to the inside jokes of Firefly to complicated plot flows—I’ve a friend who once diagrammed all the timelines in the Back To The Future trilogy—or pondered the arrow of time in Merlin’s youthening, why then you might be the reader for SRE.

Q: What’s up with shattered space-time anyway? Is that something we should worry about in real life? We keep all our stuff in space-time, after all.

A: Bending space-time with gravity—check. Multiverses and the Copenhagen many worlds theory—probable. Collapsing multiverses—seems likely in view of universe creation. We perceive only one set of space-time dimensions. All other dimensions are effectively perpendicular to ours, so just as motion in the y-direction is independent of motion in the x-direction, though they may be connected by time, then multiverse-6128 or a 26th spatial dimension probably has no influence on us directly.

Should we worry about it? I’m more concerned with the possible next extinction level event asteroid or comet collision, but I’m not losing any sleep over it. Though we might witness a 50 km diameter comet ELE [extinction level event—ed.] strike on Mars in late 2014. Or not.

A: Are perpendicular universes where our socks go? Is that why there is a talking bobby sock in SRE?

A: I thought exactly this when I read about the bobby socks! Plus it’s a great character. The same SF wags who try to justify every dumb error in Star Trek will start imagining that a rotating heated and ventilated drum, combined with the static cling of dried socks might open a vortex to another dimension… Me? I’m thinking about the difference between distinguishable and indistinguishable particles. Buy only one brand and color of socks, and you’ll never notice if socks go missing. If you don’t notice, it never happened.

Q: Is the Singularity going to happen? Will we notice when or if it does?

A: I doubt that the Singularity will happen, or at least not as commonly described. Though fun for stories, I’m not sure a net consciousness would be much aware of us. We are not actually the center of the universe.

Q: What’s up with the idea of self-creating and self-annihilating machines?

A: We already have program generating software. Automating some aspects of design and virtual prototyping objects. It’s a short jump to having to just input specifications into a machine and let it come up with the result. If we get that far, we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t understand how it works or if there are unintended interactions.

In both The Matrix and Tron universes there are issues with obsolete programs hanging around past their usefulness. Building in a sunset directive to terminate would seem useful… but there are always those unintended consequences.

Q: What were you expecting when I asked you to check out SRE as a physics consultant? Were you pleasantly surprised, or just confused?

A: Well, you promised “a short weird book” full of math and physics. As a consultant, I was worried about whether too much would be out of my information base. I really had no expectations, though the title suggested some sort of meta computer. But I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting and convoluted the story evolved. Quite unlike most SF novels. And I was delighted that nearly all my comments were positive confirmations. Indeed the one error I know I flagged was probably not the author’s or translator’s, but a typesetter unfamiliar with writing mathematical expressions.

Self-Reference ENGINE is a smart SF novel.

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Haikasoru Birthday Alert: George Takei


Takei, in a rare blue-shirt appearance.

He’s 73 years old today, and forever young in his Star Trek uniform. You could argue that his turn as Captain Hikaru Sulu provided a flash point in science fiction. At the very least, he gave us an iconic view of the future… a Japanese future. So here’s to you, Mr. Takei. Have a happy birthday. Everyone in the Haikasoru bullpen salutes you.

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