Above the atomic level, our universe is defined by limits. We can’t go faster than speed of light. We can’t escape the event horizon of a black hole. We can’t break the laws of physics. It’s very frustrating.
But there were times in our history when we thought we couldn’t do things and ended up doing them anyway. The classic example is breaking the speed of sound. There are many more such instances. With such a track record of doing the impossible, it is only natural that science fiction asks the what if we break through these limits?
Only breaking through these limits can lead us to directly experiencing these states. We might have some idea of what expect from extrapolating scientific theories, but until we get there, we can never be certain we are right. So anything goes.
The most common barrier to break in science fiction is the speed of light. We have had wormholes, quantum physics portals, warp drives, or just straightforward accelerating through the barrier by brute force to demonstrate our knowledge of physics is wrong. What lies on the other side of this barrier? A grey light from our universe. That’s what the theorists say. Not the stars streaking into lines so beloved of Star Wars imagery. Yet, this fictitious image has entered humanity’s psyche and persisted.
Some science fiction themes need to be unlearned before science fiction of the true to our known science can progress and develop. Any teacher will tell you that is hard. It leads to a phase of confusion by the pupil where little can be absorbed. But the pupil does eventually break through to the truth and move on with learning.
Anything goes in these ultra-lightspeed-verses. Writers however tend to tell stories that can resonate with human experience. They tend to world-build environments similar to what we are already used to. Earth-like places abound. It is rare that world-building stretches our sense of wonder into the interestingly strange.
Of course the ultra-lightspeed-verses are not the only verses to allow this. There are the intra-black-hole-verses, minuscule quantum-physics-verses and goodness knows what else verses. These are rarely explored because humans would find it hard to exist in most of these verses. One such author who does attempt this is Greg Egan and he has come up with some interesting results as in Schild’s Ladder (see Greg Egan’s Website here).
The common cross-over between these strange verses is sentience, the means of understanding one verse by another at the very least, preferably understanding each other’s verses so that some form of communication can exist to allow for explanation in the fictional text.
Sentience has always and continues to be difficult to define. Worse its definition is tied up in philosophical debate, which tends to be obscure at best, gobbledygook to most.
Yet defining sentience is the barrier science fiction must break through – or putting it another way we have to understand the way sentience can work before we can move into strange verses in order to describe these verses satisfactorily.
I know this is a deep thought that needs mulling over – so I’ll leave the discussion of what what sentience is and is not to another post. In the meantime I’ll end with saying it again:
Defining sentience is the barrier science fiction must break through if it is to progress and develop.