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Writing “Return to the Hollow Earth”

May 8th, 2018

I can’t quite remember where I first heard about the concept of the Hollow Earth.

Early on, I read Jules Verne’s 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth—I was a huge fan of Verne—but even as a boy I could see that his novel was a failure. The book is about a large underground cave with a small ocean in it. Big deal. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar novels of the Hollow Earth were equally disappointing. Nothing’s all that different or special in these books, it’s just a bunch of people running around and fighting with each other.

The first book that really gave me a taste of what I was after was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which I didn’t closely study until I was about thirty, at which time I got a European Penguin edition of the novel, annotated by the excellent scholar Harold Beaver.

Poe’s novel is seemingly unfinished—as it’s a narrative written by Arthur Gordon Pym, who disappears. It describes a sea voyage to the walls of ice around the Southern pole, with the implication that there is a huge opening to be found there, a great shaft leading into Mother Earth’s womb. So deep was Eddie’s subtlety that when his voyagers made it to the lip of a great maelstrom at the South Hole, it takes some deep thought to figure out that’s what they’re seeing. In the final scene on March 22 (my birthday!), they seem to go over the edge and into the hole. Here’s Poe’s ending:

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li.

Wanting more of this, I reasoned that, even if Poe had erred about the hole being clearly visible, it might still exist, but be hidden beneath a sheet of accumulated snow and ice. In 1986, I started work on my novel, The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia. The Earth is hollow, like a tennis ball. And you’re weightless in there. The wondrous Hollow Earth holds jungles, seas, native tribes, flying pigs, killer nautiluses, giant ants, and live flying saucers. Godlike sea cucumbers at the Hollow Earth’s core illuminate the great spherical space with branching rays of pink light.

I began preparing to write a novel about my new hero Mason Reynolds’s journey from Virginia to Antarctica and through the South Hole into the Hollow Earth. My old friend Gregory Gibson, in his capacity as antiquarian bookseller, sent me some nineteenth century sailing narratives, and a fine twenty-volume edition of the collected works of Poe. I pored over these, coming to identify with Eddie. Poe wrote of being possessed by an imp of the perverse, who impelled him to do deliberately alienating and antisocial things—which described my punk attitude to a tee.

While still in Lynchburg, my expanding researches had led me to the rare book room in the library of the University of Virginia, where I found writings about John Cleves Symmes Jr., who began proselytizing his doctrine of the Hollow Earth in 1818. Symmes lived in Newport, Kentucky, and he styled himself the Newton of the West. He was too busy lecturing—or too sly—to publish any books under his own name, but I found a nonfiction Symmes’ Theory of Concentric Spheres, and a novel, Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery, which are purportedly written by Symmes’ followers. My feeling is that, as the books speak so very highly of Symmes, he either wrote them himself or collaborated heavily.

In 1985, the Lynchburg, Virginia, traffic police remanded me to a series of driver education classes. (It was a kind of turning point for me—the first time that I internalized the fact that I had some problems. Not that I managed to fix them as yet—that would take me about ten more years.) Anyway, in these classes, I sat next to a Black guy called Otha Rucker. He wasn’t from Lynchburg proper, but from way out in the country. I had a kind of family feeling towards him, and I hung out with him during the class breaks. Otha’s country accent was so strange that I could hardly understand a word that he said—often I couldn’t even discern the general topic he was talking about. But I liked being with him anyway. After we left Lynchburg and I got going on The Hollow Earth, I’d write about a white boy from a farm near Lynchburg who makes a fabulous voyage with his Black half-brother, Otha. [In that painting above, that’s Mason on the left, but it’s not Otha on the right, it’s Mason’s wife Seela from the Hollow Earth.]

My dog Arf was another influence. One day in 1985, he and I floated down the James River from Lynchburg in a rubber raft, just the two of us.. Arf spent most of the ride sitting like a person, with his butt down, and with his back leaning against the fat ring of the raft. He raised his noble muzzle to the gentle breezes, staring off across the water, cocking his ears, taking everything in, twitching his beautiful black nose. Eventually we fetched up in some shallows and made our way to the highway. An old farmer in a pick-up gave us a ride back into town. This little outing was another seed for The Hollow Earth .

Another key to getting the book started was my recollection of Newton’s so-called “Shell Theorem” of 1687, which I’d even proved for myself using calculus…it’s not even that hard. As Newton puts it: “No net gravitational force is exerted by a hollow shell on any object inside, regardless of the object’s location within the shell.” Inside the Hollow Earth, you float around like in space—but there’s air to breathe! Perfect.

Oddly enough, so far as I know, nobody else’s Hollow Earth novels take this key fact into account. Blind fools! They always have the characters walking around “upside down” on the inner surface of the Rind. Thereby missing the real adventure and excitement of being inside the Hollow Earth. I was writing, as I liked to say, “Geography SF.”

It took me several years to finish my novel as, just as I was starting, my family and I moved from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Los Gatos, California, where I’d found a job teaching math and computer science at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley. It was hard getting started, as I didn’t know jack shit about computers. I only had time to write during the summer months—when, metaphorically speaking, the pack ice would melt.

Once I got going, I wasn’t sure how to light up the inside of the Hollow Earth. If you put an Inner Sun in the center, then it seems like everything would fall up into the sun. By now we were settling into California, and I was walking around San Francisco with my new friend Marc Laidlaw, also an SF writer. This would have been 1986 or 1987. In a new age store called Star Magic on 24th St. near Castro St., Marc and I spotted a new science toy called a plasma sphere. By now nearly everyone’s seen one of these things—it’s a hollow glass ball with an electrode in the center. Branching lines of electrical discharge reach out from the electrode to the outer surface, and if you move your fingertips around on the sphere, the glow lines trail after them. Aha! That’s the way to light up the Hollow Earth! Have titanic aurora-like streamers of light reaching from the Central Anomaly to the inhabited inner surface of the Rind.

I had some fun flipping the races back and forth in The Hollow Earth. At the core of the Hollow Earth they find the sky-surfing tribe known as the black gods. Nearby are a cluster of great sea cucumbers, who are known as the woomo. Mason’s traveling companion, the Black Otha, stays at the core. Mason, his wife Seela, and Eddie Poe make their way out through the crust and back to Earth. Due to their time in the strong light of the woomo, their skins are now black. And they have to deal with that, as it’s 1850 in the South.

Repeatedly iced-in by my teaching duties, I took nearly three years to finish writing The Hollow Earth, which finally appeared in 1990, edited by, as I recall, John Douglas at William Morrow. The book got good reviews. One might have termed it steampunk, but that word wasn’t yet widely in use. My favorite review wasn’t even printed, it was just something that Marc Laidlaw said in an email: “Rudy has written the great American science fiction novel.” [That’s a recent photo of Marc and me above.] For more blurbs, and more about the book’s publishing history, see my Hollow Earth book page.

At the end of the book, I used the hoaxing Poe-like expedient of writing an afterword to the effect that The Hollow Earth was a manuscript that I’d found in the rare books room at the University of Virginia. For years I got occasional emails from readers taken in by the hoax. They wondered why I haven’t done anything to help mount an expedition to retrace my hero Mason’s steps. One guy even assumed that since The Hollow Earth was just an old public-domain manuscript that I’d edited, it was okay to post a page-scan of my book on the web!

My kids liked hearing me talk about the Hollow Earth. Once, while cross-country skiing with my daughter Isabel near Lake Tahoe, I pointed out the blueness of the light that seemed to emerge from the holes our ski-poles made in the snow.

“Proof that the Earth is hollow!” I told Isabel. “As if more proof were needed,” she responded cheerfully. “When will they see?”

In 1990, there was an article about my novel in the San Jose Mercury News, and a street person came by my office to tell me some news. “The sun is cold and hollow,” he said. “That light you see overhead is just the interaction of some special rays from the sun with our upper atmosphere. You should write about the Hollow Sun.”

I’m always wondering how long I can keep writing books. I even have an ongoing Excel graph of of my books per year, with a curve fit to the numbers.

I started thinking about writing Return to the Hollow Earth in January, 2017, but I didn’t get down to writing the opening until April, 2017. First I had to go through a lot of possibilities. I did even, in fact, consider a side trip to the interior of the Hollow Sun—but I decided there were still a lot of interesting things to do inside the good old Hollow Earth. A big breakthrough was when I decided decide to bring back Eddie Poe as a character—even though it seemed like he died at the end of The Hollow Earth. But writing the book without Eddie would have been like a hotdog without a bun or a dog.

For a long time I wondered what kind of twist I could put at the end. And then I decided to have Mason jump into the future at the end of this new narrative. In April, 2017, I emailed Marc Laidlaw about this plan.

I thought of an angle to pick up the pace on Return to the Hollow Earth. Mason and the not-dead-after-all Poe go back into the Hollow Earth, fine. And Poe wants to go back through the Anomaly to the original Earth he came from, as he would still have a shot at a literary career there. Mason goes along for the ride. But they don’t actually get back to the old Earth. They get hung up inside the Anomaly, the taffy-slow-time zone in between the two worlds, and the stay too long, and end up being spit back out, still on our side…only now it’s 2050 AD. Boffo! It took me three solid months of note-writing to get here. I worried I was done writing novels, out of the biz. I always think my process won’t work, and then, thank you muse, it does again. My trick, as you know, is to start a separate manuscript that’s my writing notes for the book I want to write, and keep going back in there and wheenking, and trying ideas and discarding them, and pushing like it’s a car mired in mud or deep snow, and finally I get so desperate and hopeless that I finally notice a tiny air hole or a stock move where I might, if I just go and try it, might find some oxygen to breathe, even if it’s dumb, and, gasping and sobbing, I claw my way onto a floating bit of flotsam and jetsam that I ride down into the roaring glorious maelstrom of the novel.

Later, I changed my mind about how far Mason goes into the future, and I had him emerge from the Hollow Earth in 2018—so he could meet his editor, yours truly, Rudy Rucker, who, as it turns out, has in fact already written Return to the Hollow Earth via woomo tekelili transcriptions of Mason’s thoughts. This is what I’d call a “wild hair” fix for the question of when Mason wrote this second narrative, and how I got hold of it. Love it. Such total bullshit! A Poe-quality hoax! Here’s the scene where Rudy meets up with Mason in a Santa Cruz graveyard on March 28, 2018.

Old Rudy strode up to me and shook my hand. He seemed to know exactly what was going on. And he wanted to tell me all of it at once. “I knew you’d come to Santa Cruz,” said Rudy. “So I drove over today, and right away I saw your story in the Good Times free newspaper, and of course I went by their office. The woman said to look for you in this cemetery, and here you are. And you’re still black. What a trip. I can hardly believe this is happening. And, oh my god, there’s Poe and Ina. They look so gnarly. Hi Eddie! So insane that you buried yourself in a bronze casket for a hundred and forty years. You’re nuts! I love it! Glad to see you’ve got your box. And here’s Seela and Brumble? So wonderful to meet you, Seela. You’re gorgeous. I know it’s hard when your baby cries like that.” He drew out a handkerchief, dried Brumbles face, and cooed to him in a high voice. “Did the policeman scare you? Do you need a new di-di? Can I hold him, Seela? Maybe he’ll be so surprised that he stops.” Seela glanced at me, and I nodded, and she handed the baby to Rudy. Brumble emitted a single, shocked squall, and then settled down into hiccups, resting his head on Rudy’s shoulder. Finally I found my voice. “How do you know all this?” I asked Rudy. “I understand that you edited The Hollow Earth—so of course you’d know my history. But the new things—how do you know them?”

To make Rudy’s channeling of Mason plausible, I mention several times during Return to the Hollow Earth that Mason was longing to start writing his narrative, and was embroiled in too much ongoing chaos to write, but he was composing the book in his head, with his mind singularly enhanced by the rumbies. He was in effect writing it to “the cloud” via telepathy, and Rudy was in effect receiving it from the cloud. The cloud here being the shared cosmic mind of the woomo. And then, naturally, Mason and Rudy have to negotiate about the royalty rights!


“Honeymoon” oil on canvas, April, 2018, 24” x 18”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Inspired by a new painting, I wrote a nice scene in Big Sur at the end, where we have humans riding in flying saucers with the Hollow Earth woomo aliens. Also giant ants, of course.

Return to the Hollow Earth is my twenty-third novel and I’ve now finished writing the first draft. I’m currently revising it, with an eye to publishing it by August, 2018, in ebook, paperback, and hardback. I’ll be publishing it as a set of three titles; The Hollow Earth, 3rd Edition, Return to the Hollow Earth, and Notes for Return to the Hollow Earth. My daughter Georgia is designing the covers.

Rather than taking the book to a commercial publisher or to a small press, I’ll be publishing it myself via my Transreal Books and running a Kickstarter to garner the equivalent of a book advance for my year of writing labor. By the way, Mason Reynolds is angry at Rudy for not getting a large commercial publisher to take on this new narrative. But what else can I do? That’s how publishing is in this odd future world of 2018.

Out here on the surface. But maybe we won’t be here long. As I point out in my Editor’s Note to Return to the Hollow Earth:

Definitive proofs of the Hollow Earth doctrine are in the cards. Eventually the passageways at the poles will reopen. As the Antarctic ice melts, the cap across the South Hole will crumble. And, as ice vanishes from the Arctic and the speeds of the polar jet streams increase, the pre-1850 North Hole maelstrom will reemerge. And then will Mason Reynolds be granted his place in the Pantheon of great explorers!

And if you don’t believe all this, you can come to my house and see Mason’s dog…who happens to be named Arf. Living proof that the Hollow Earth is real.

Great Book on 4D. Christopher White, OTHER WORLDS!

April 25th, 2018

For the last couple of months I’ve been obsessively busy with finishing my novel Return to the Hollow Earth—which I’ll discuss in a different post next week. Re. blogging, what with the rampaging ubiquity of social media, long-form blog posts are slippping in their popularity as a communication format. But there’s no replacement for a meaty post when I’ve got a lot of things to say and a lot of photos to show.

Today’s topic is Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Searth for Invisible Dimensions, by Christopher G. White (Harvard University Press 2018), available in hardback or Kindle for about $35. I met Chris a couple of times while he was working on the book—it took him a number of years. He’s a professor of religion at Vassar, and a nice guy. I like his book exceedingly, and I wrote an official blurb for it.

Other Worlds is a magisterial and deeply satisfying work on the history of a peculiarly modern idea: the fourth dimension. This esoteric concept points beyond the quotidian world, and Christopher White’s volume shows how readily the notion of hyperspace blends with human spiritual aspirations. The fun is that White makes his history into a juicy narrative, rife with geniuses, scientists, charlatans, impresarios, and artists of every stripe. The depth of research and wealth of information is stunning. One almost feels the author has surveyed our times with an all-seeing, higher-dimensional eye. A book to treasure, a feast.

In my post today, I’ll present some excerpts from the book, along with a more or less random bunch of my recent photos.

The core 4D book that most people know about is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland of 1888. It’s what we might now call a first-person science-fiction or fantasy novel, narrated by A Square, who lives on a plane called Flatland. A 3D sphere shows herself to our Square by passing through his plane, and then she lifts him out into “higher space” (that is, into three-dimensional space) and he looks down upon his world and sees…the insides of things. I kind of took off on this in my novel Spaceland.

Perhaps the fact that Abbott was a clergyman helped promote a movement to start thinking of the supernatural in terms of the fourth dimension—and this is one of the key notions in White’s book. The following quote, and all the others, are from his Other Worlds.

It was not that Abbott thought spirits existed in a higher, fourth dimension, though other Christians would make such arguments, as we will see. It was more that the overall aim of the Flatland narrative was to expand the imagination, to show that extra-empirical realms might exist. “I hope,” Abbott once commented about Flatland, that it “may prove suggestive . . . to those Spacelanders of moderate and modest minds who—speaking of that which is of the highest importance but lies beyond experience—decline to say on the one hand that ‘This can never be,’ and on the other hand, ‘It must needs be precisely thus, and we know all about it.’ ” Elsewhere he arrived at a similar formulation, saying that he hoped to help others “conceive that there may be a Thoughtland, as much more real than Factland as the land of three dimensions seems to us more real than the land of two.”

There’s a countervailing notion of the fourth dimension, which even now we still see in Lovecraft—the fourth dimension as a crazy, almost evil concept. I myself have taken some flak about this over the years. “Won’t the fourth dimension drive you crazy?” White:

Contemporary fiction also dealt at length with the idea that the fourth dimension could be an unhealthy obsession, though the topic was sometimes dealt with humorously. (One notice in Life Magazine from 1912, for example, warned readers about professors who taught esoteric higher-dimensional notions that entangled one’s mental faculties.) Though Howard Hinton denied that developing fourth-dimensional vision caused mental problems, he often encountered these criticisms. It did not help that there were widely publicized cases linking fourth-dimensional enthusiasms and mental illness, including one notice, picked up by a number of British newspapers, that an Oxford undergraduate and son of a local priest committed suicide after studying the fourth dimension. Newspapers reported his brother saying that the evening before the suicide the troubled undergraduate “wished to discuss the ‘fourth dimension,’ and higher mathematics. He was very excited. The next morning, he was very white, and his eyes were staring. He said he had been out of his mind, but was then sane, and that he knew it at that time, but might forget it.” Did transcending normal perceptual abilities make one unfit for regular, three-dimensional life?

The fourth dimension is of course invoked in the Minkowski-Einstein notion of spacetime, as used in the theory of Relativity. But it’s not really time that true aficionados of the fourth dimension are after. We want to think of a different space direction. So, yes, time is like a higher dimension, but we want four dimensions of actual space. This notion had early currency among physicists as well. White:

While many mathematicians and scientists did not embrace the fourth dimension as a pathway to ecstatic religious visions the concept nevertheless did important imaginative work for them. Some, including the mathematical physicists James Clerk Maxwell and Peter Tait and the Canadian-American mathematician and astronomer Simon Newcomb, seemed to think that the fourth-dimension concept made the existence of heaven or a spirit world more plausible. In The Unseen Universe, for example, Tait and his coauthor speculated that the soul was like a knotted vortex ring that came from an invisible dimension.

One of my favorite writers on the fourth dimension is Charles Howard Hinton, indeed I once edited a book of his essays and somewhat science-fictional stories. Hinton also appears as a character in my novel Jim and the Flims. Here’s White’s very dramatic account of Hinton’s death.

On April 30, 1907, C. Howard Hinton and his wife Mary attended the annual dinner of the Society of Philanthropic Inquiry in Washington, D.C. Hinton did not know it, but it would be not just his last time socializing with friends but also his final exit from three-dimensional existence. The evening began auspiciously, with printed programs that featured Hinton’s talk at the end of the night. When his turn came, Hinton stood up and gave what his wife remembered, writing in a sad letter to William James, as a “wonderful speech.” By the end of it, however, something was wrong. Hinton finished his remarks, walked out of the banquet, and fell to the ground dead. Hinton generally promised a lot, but that evening’s remarks were particularly ambitious—a brief talk, the program announced, on “Psychic Entrance into Life in the Fourth Dimension or Heaven or any Other Place.” On this occasion at least, Hinton succeeded in ways no one could have imagined.

In the early 1900s, numerous ministers began drawing on notion of the fourth dimension as a symbol or even an explanation of God, heaven, and the afterlife.

There was nothing specifically Christian about higher-dimensional notions. In fact, most people who used higher dimensions did so not to buttress Christian doctrines but to argue for more general spiritual notions such as the existence of a spirit world, life after death, or transcendent intuitions and visions. Certain that modern people needed religious ideas even if they could not accept them on dogmatic authority, W. F. Tyler argued in a thoughtful book on The Dimensional Idea as an Aid to Religion (1907) that the dimensional idea might “be grafted on to any existing religion,” lifting all religious believers out of the “quagmire” of superstition and irrationality.

The Russian mystic writer Pieter D. Ouspensky is another key figure in four-dimensional thought. I was a great student of his work when I was younger. White:

In 1909 the Russian mystic and fourth-dimensional philosopher Pieter D. Ouspensky moved to St. Petersburg, where he held court at a bar called the Stray Dog, a seedy, foul-smelling, and badly lit bar where metaphysical seekers talked all night long. The Stray Dog crowd called him “Ouspensky Fourth Dimension” and dancers, poets, painters, musicians, and radicals came to smoke, drink, and listen, day and night, as Ouspensky expounded with authority on the Tarot, yoga, “reality,” time, consciousness, God, and higher dimensions. Even Leo Tolstoy listened patiently over lunch one day as Ouspensky drew multidimensional diagrams on the tablecloth. This metaphysical bar chatter was collected in Ouspensky’s The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1911). As one who had experienced altered states of consciousness that were both frightening and revelatory, Ouspensky spoke with some authority. He studied James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and other books on consciousness, and he experimented with nitrous oxide and hashish. His experiences varied.

I well remember one of Ouspensky’s essays on “Experimental Mysticism.” He talks about how after one of his “experiments.” he awoke with the unpleasant sensation that everything was made of splintery, rough wood. Every pot-smoker knows this feeling all to well.

Claude Bragdon was another early favorite of mine. I studied his work while writing my very first book, Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension. , which is still in print from Dover Books, having sold an astounding 200,000 copies. (I got $1000 for the rights back in 1976.) White:

The Rochester architect Claude Bragdon believed that specific types of art and design could help people develop this kind of higher-dimensional sight. His pen and ink renderings, for instance, instead of using vanishing-point perspective, were isometric, employing a kind of perspective in which objects that are drawn seem to oscillate between different views. Isometric drawings oscillate in this way because parallel lines are drawn parallel on the page instead of receding in a triangle toward a vanishing point. There are a number of famous examples of isometric depth ambiguity, such as Escher’s drawings [and the Necker Cube], which have unstable corners and thus cause the eye to move between different views. Bragdon used the technique because it put the viewer in simultaneous multiple positions vis-a-vis the drawing, forcing a kind of higher vision upon the viewer: The viewer saw different sides of a thing at once.

And here’s more:

After 1919 … Bragdon turned to the theater as a way to develop spiritual spaces and narratives. A Broadway actor, manager, and (later) film actor, Hampden asked Bragdon to be the artistic director of his production of Hamlet.
This involved designing everything—all the costumes, sets, stage elements, and lighting. The close friendship between the two turned into a successful collaboration, and by 1923 Bragdon had closed his architectural practice in Rochester and moved to New York City, where he became a full-time stage designer. He moved into the Shelton Hotel, sharing the building and often his breakfast table with Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other likeminded artists, writers, and spiritual seekers.

As I discuss in my book The Fourth Dimension, that magic cupboard in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books is a magic door to another world. As it happens, the physicists have designed such a construct, a kind of tunnel that leads from one sheet of reality to the next—it’s called an Einstein-Rosen bridge.
Religion was another great interest of C. S. Lewis’s, and here White discusses that.

At some point Lewis annotated and underlined copies of Flatland and Hinton’s New Era of Thought. At different times he spoke of Flatland in particular as a modern classic—“the original manuscript of the Iliad,” he once proclaimed, “could not be more precious.” He used dimensional ideas to argue that nature was open and layered rather than closed and determined. In his book On Miracles, for instance, he used dimensional ideas to argue that nature was “perforated” and “pock-marked” rather than closed, as logical positivists and scientific materialists insisted. Like Abbott and other theists, Lewis knew that in order to persuade others about the existence of a higher, spiritual realm (not to mention miraculous incursions from that realm) he would have to advocate for a universe that was open-ended.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s books such as Wrinkle in Time, tesseracts become passageways between worlds—and now there’s a hugely popular movie about it. Her ideas were drawn from the earlier 4D philosphers such as Hinton. White:

The word “tesseract,” of course, was Hinton’s term for a hypercube, and in many ways L’Engle continued in the tradition of Hinton enthusiasts deploying this mystical object in order to glimpse higher realities. In Wrinkle, Mr. Murray and other government scientists had studied tesseracts and had had some success in creating them. Mr. Murray had “tessered” through the universe, in fact, landing, unfortunately, on an evil planet where he was now imprisoned. When the Mrs. Ws began their search for Mr. Murray with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe, they explained tessering to them as a folding or wrinkling of spacetime. Mrs. Who lifted the hem of her skirt and stretched it into a straight line. She told the children to imagine an ant traveling along the hem. It would take a long time to travel straight across, but imagine if the path itself could be folded and its two ends brought together? If this were the case, the ant could very quickly travel from one end to the other. Tessering, she said was folding the fabric of spacetime to create new, shorter paths between destinations. When Meg complained that she did not understand, Mrs. Whatsit said that Meg was thinking of space “only in three dimensions,” and that tessering involved higher levels of spacetime. This led to a lengthy lesson on dimensionality that would have made Hinton proud.

White has a final chapter discussing various oddly hyperspatial ways to think about contemporary media.

A sense of mystery surrounded how moving images and information were transmitted invisibly and received by television antennae. In fact when televisual technologies emerged they were understood by many as a type of psychic seeing-at-a-distance. Stefan Andriopoulos has argued that the arrival of the television in Europe in the 1930s was facilitated not just by advances in engineering and physics but also by occult beliefs and practices related to telepathy, telesight, and clairvoyance. The imaginative insight and technical knowledge that made electrical television possible, he has shown, developed in part from “occultist studies on psychic ‘clairvoyance’ (Hellsehen) and ‘television’ (Fernsehen), carried out in the same period by spiritualists who emulated the rules and procedures of science.” When early electrical televisions brought wireless moving pictures into peoples’ homes many wondered if this was a new way of bringing the “supernatural or marvelous in one’s own living room.” Televisions were like crystal balls or the magic mirrors of fairy tales.

So, yeah, Other Worlds is a wonderful book. Here’s a photo me with a 72nd birhtday card from my daughter. I feel kind of nostalgic, recommending a young writer’s 4D book. Like I’m passing the baton. One of the first writers on the fourth dimension whom I encountered was the redoubtable Martin Gardner, who ran the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American all through my youth. He was a great hero of mine and, eventually, my mentor. When he retired from writing his column in 1981, I managed to get a freelance writing gig to interview him for a magazine called Science 81. And when I told Martin I was working on a book about the fourth dimension, he loaded me down with about a dozen rare old 4D books—on loan. And the next year he wrote a great intro for my book, The Fourth Dimension, which I mentioned above. And now it’s Chris White’s turn.

And so I bid a hail and farewell to all the great 4D thinkers up and down the timeline!

Podcast #104. My Life as an SF Writer. Cyberpunk and Transrealism.

March 7th, 2018

March 6, 2018. Talking to Tim Fitzmaurice’s class at Crown College, UC Santa Cruz. What it’s like to be an SF writer. Cyberpunk and transrealism as revolutionary art. Press the arrow below to play “Podcast #104. My Life as an SF Writer. Cyberpunk and Transrealism.”

Play

And, if you like, Subscribe to Rudy Rucker Podcasts.


Skrbina’s “Panpsychism in the West.” Rudy’s “Panpsychic Manifesto.” Robot Consciousness.

March 5th, 2018

This will be a long blog post as I’m going to incorporate three things. Three takes on the same subject. The subject is panpsychism, which is the doctrine that everything is conscious, and that every individual thing has, if you will, a soul.

I myself have written about panpsychism, both in my nonfiction books, such as Infinity and the Mind, and in my novels, such as Hylozoic. (By the way, “hylozoism,” is a doctrine similar to panpsychism: it’s the belief that every object is in some sense alive.) While I was researching panpsychism for my novel, I came across David Skrbina’s wonderful philosophy book, Panpsychism in the West. And I realized I wasn’t alone. Up till then I’d almost thought, as Skrbina puts it, “the only panpsychic in history.” I was glad to learn I wasn’t!

I’m impelled to write about Skrbina’s book today, as a second edition has recently appeared. You can get an ebook or paperback for quite a reasonable price, either from MIT Press, or from Amazon.

What we have in my post today is, as I say, three takes. Take #1: Excerpts from Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West , Take #2 Rudy’s “Panpsychic Manifesto”, and Take #3 On Robot Consciousness from Rudy’s Infinity and the Mind. You’ll notice a bit of overlap among the takes, but never mind.

Take #1. Excerpts from Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West

Rather than summarizing what Skrbina says, I’ll quote excerpts from his book, and reprint some of the sources that he himself quotes. And, I hope, you’ll see for yourself what a terrific little tome this is. Introducing Panpsychism in the West, Skrbina says the following.

In reviewing the many cases for panpsychism, one notices over and over again a striking fact: that there is almost no recognition of panpsychist predecessors. In other words, most philosophers cited here seem to operate in a vacuum; they appear to have no knowledge of the long and lustrous history of panpsychism. They typically cite no one—or at most one or two individuals. … In essence, they almost act as if they were the only panpsychic in history.

Surveying ancient philosophy, Skrbina unearths a remark by Aristotle about Thales. “Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.” All things are full of gods. I love that.

The scientist-philosopher Gustav Fechner is of particular interest to Skrbina, who writes the following.

The most important aspect of Fechner’s panpsychism is his conception of the world as composed of a hierarchy of minds or souls. There are souls ‘below’ us in the plants, and there are souls ‘above’ us in the Earth, the stars, and the universe as a whole. Humans are surrounded, at all levels of being, by varying degrees of soul. This is Fechner’s ‘daylight view’— the human soul at home in an ensouled cosmos. He contrasted it with the materialist ‘night view’ of humans as alone, isolated points of light in a universe of utter blackness.

You can learn more about Gustav Fechner’s panpsychism in Chapter 4 of this online edition of a 1909 book by William James A Pluralistic Universe .

Skrbina mentions that the physicist Ernst Mach equates the processes of nature with human inclinations and feelings, and that his opposition to mechanistic ontology steers him toward a view of “nature as animate” rather than “human as mechanical.”

Skrbina writes about the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, known for his wonderful turn of the century book Art Forms in Nature, filled with gnarly images of jellyfish and the like.

Haeckel was explicitly panpsychist by 1892. “I regard all matter as ensouled, that is to say as endowed with feeling (pleasure and pain) and motion.” This affinity, Haeckel says, can be explained only “on the supposition that the molecules … mutually feel each other” He says that evolution shows “the essential unity of inorganic and organic nature” and “an immaterial living spirit is just as unthinkable as a dead, spiritless material; the two are inseparably combined in every atom.”

We learn that in1880, Samuel Butler wrote, “I would recommend the reader to see every atom in the universe as living and able to feel and to remember, but in a humble way. … Thus he will see God everywhere.”

Skrbina tells us that, according to Herbert Spencer in 1884 the man of science must conclude that: “Every point in space thrills with an infinity of vibrations passing through it in all directions; the conception to which [the scientist must] tend is much less that of a Universe of dead matter than that of a Universe everywhere alive: alive if not in the restricted sense, still in a general sense.”

Another great bit: In a brief essay titled “Intelligent Atoms,” Thomas Edison stated that “All matter lives, and everything that lives possesses intelligence. … The atom is conscious if man is conscious, … exercises will-power if man does, is, in its own little way, all that man is. … I cannot avoid the conclusion that all matter is composed of intelligent atoms and that life and mind are merely synonyms for the aggregation of atomic intelligence.”

And another: Josiah Royce advances this line of thinking in Studies of Good and Evil (1898), displaying a deepening conviction that all things have inner lives with as much reality and intrinsic worth as those of humans: “We have no sort of right to speak in any way as if the inner experience behind any fact of nature were of a grade lower than ours, or less conscious, or less rational, or more atomic. … This reality is, like that of our own experience, conscious, organic, full of clear contrasts, rational, definite. We ought not to speak of dead nature.”

As Skrbina puts it: The “dead nature” of mechanism is fundamentally challenged by the panpsychic worldview. Skrbina ends with a compelling peroration.

Panpsychism is a distinctive metaphysical worldview. As such, it stands in an awkward relationship with conventional positivist, mechanistic thinking. It can seem inconsequential, or even incomprehensible. And yet these are the very hallmarks of new worldviews; anything less would imply a superficial or minor revision to the prevailing view. The problems of mind and consciousness are so difficult, so intractable, that “drastic actions”— perhaps even as drastic as panpsychism— are warranted. … We may be approaching one of those times in history when fundamental assumptions about the world change.

And in closing, Skribina proposes a call to action:

Natural resources, including plant and animal species, are generally seen as mindless and insentient objects, and thus as deserving no particular respect or moral consideration. With no deeper meaning or value, they exist solely to benefit us. … [But] our mechanistic worldview is in error: that, by treating nature as mindless, we engage in irrational and destructive behavior. Metaphysics has consequences.

[You can see a one-minute YouTube video of David Skribina making this last point at an “Emergence and Panpsychism” conference in Munich, 2011. More videos from this conference are online as well.]

Take #2. Rudy’s “Panpsychic Manifesto”

For some reason, I don’t quite remember why, a couple of weeks ago I started thinking about David Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West, and about panpsychism in general, and I took a break from working on my novel-in-progress, Return to the Hollow Earth, and I wrote a kind of manifesto—which is a fanatical format I’ve always found congenial. And then I emailed Skrbina to thank him for his book, and he told me he’d published a new edition, and I engaged to get a copy of it and to write this blog post as a type of review. My thoughts scuttling around like a nest of ants.

“Ants and Gems” acrylic on canvas, February, 2018, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Every entity is in some sense conscious. Putting it differently, every individual thing has a soul—from atoms to plants to societies to planets to the universe itself. The principle of universal mind is panpsychism.

This doctrine is familiar from the earliest history of philosophy, although it’s not popular now. Panpsychism fell out of favor during the Industrial Revolution, and even more so during the Computer Age.

The current tendency is to regard a mind as a computation, and to suppose that the only non-human minds are computers or robots or devices with chips. But a talking smart phone doesn’t represent the living consciousness that I’m looking for.

Panpsychic is about soul—an inner glow, far richer than any sly imitation. Trees, flowers, rocks, chairs, sandwiches, and atoms all have the glow. All are conscious.

Zen Buddhists tell the story of a monk who asks the sage, “Does a stone have Buddha-nature?” The sage answers, “The universal rain moistens all creatures.”

The inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms. Each object has a mind. Another list: Stars, hills, scraps of paper, molecules—each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences, each of them takes in sensations.

The underlying reason for this may be that natural processes embody what we can call gnarly natural computations. Think of swaying trees, a candle flame, drying mud, flowing water, even a rock. Physical chaos is everywhere. To the human eye, a rock appears not to be doing much. But at the atomic level, a rock is like a zillion balls connected by springs. A lot going on! Deep thinker.

Okay, but why bother to believe in panpsychism? Because there’s an emotional reward. It feels pleasant to suppose I’m surrounded by living minds. The nineteenth century philosopher-scientist Gustav Fechner was an eloquent advocate for this point of view. He drew a contrast between what he called the daylight view and the night view of the world.

The night view: We’re the only minds around. We’re like fireflies in a silent, utterly black warehouse of cluttered junk and grim clockwork machinery. We’re specks of light amid great gears and unforgiving barriers. Lost in a gloomy, dead, uncaring world.

The day view: We’re surrounded by other souls as bright as ourselves. We wing across sunny meadows of beautiful flowers, and into the dappled forest. The air throbs with music. On every side, large and small creatures greet us. A teeming, cheerful, living, friendly world.

Which world do you prefer? I think for most of us the answer is clear.

Fine, but is there any practical use for panpsychism? I feel there is already an application. If I have a good talk with someone, I can sense they have a mind. The back and forth play of empathy brings us into a shared state. And now—here’s a jump. If you think in a certain way, it’s possible to have empathy with objects , and to see objects as glowing with inner light. This is a pleasant sensation indeed. And it comes very naturally to a carpenter, a mechanic, a painter, or a jeweler—or even to a writer, if you go so far as to think of a manuscript as a conscious, living thing.

Not practical enough? Consider this. We don’t use clockwork gears in our watches anymore, and we don’t make radios out of vacuum tubes. The era of digital computer chips will fade. Biotech computation will come and go And in the end we’ll be working with the gnarly natural computations of ordinary objects—a flame, a stream of water, a plant. Panpsychic panpsychic empathy can provide the input/output and the programming tools for these natural devices. Stare at a candle flame, and it’ll tell you what to do. Seers already do this!

A final point. Panpsychism, like other forms of higher consciousness, is dangerous to the established order. If the soil and the plants have minds, I feel more respect for them in their natural state, and I’m prone to be more environmentally aware. If I feel myself among friends in the universe, I’m less likely to waste my life in serving Mammon. If even a corpse is alive, then I don’t care so much about dying. And it’s that much harder for political oppressors to cow me into submission.

Take #3: Rudy on Robot Consciousness in Infinity and the Mind

I wrote about panpsychism in the “Robot Consciousness” section of my book, Infinity and the Mind in 1982. (At that time, as Skrbina might put it, I didn’t truly understand I was dipping into the panpsychist tradition of philosophy.)

It seems evident that there could be robots whose general behavior was the same as the behavior of human beings. These robots would be thinking beings who had evolved on a substrate of metal and silicon chips, just as we are thinking beings who have evolved on a substrate of amino acids and other carbon-based compounds. Would one be justified in saying that these highly evolved robots possess consciousness in the same sense that humans do?

Upon lengthy introspection, most people will agree that the individual person consists of three distinct parts: (a) the hardware, the physical body and brain; (b) the software, the memories, skills, opinions, and behavior in general; (c) consciousness, the sense of self or personal identity, pure awareness, the spark of life, or even the soul.

I would like to argue that any component of parts (a) or (b) can be replaced or altered without really affecting (c). My purpose in arguing this way will be to show that there is nothing about part (c) that is specific to the individual. …

I contend that the sum total of the individual consciousness is the bare feeling of existence, expressed by the primal utterance, I am. Anything else is either hardware or software, and can be changed or dispensed with. Only the single thought I am ties me to the person I was twenty years ago.

The curious thing is that you must express your individual consciousness in the same words that I use: I am. I am me. I exist. The philosopher Hegel was very struck by this fact, and deemed it an instance of “the divine nature of language.”

What conclusion might one draw from the fact that your essential consciousness and my essential consciousness are expressed in the same words? Perhaps it is reasonable to suppose that there really is only one consciousness, that individual humans are simply disparate faces of what the classical mystic tradition calls the One.

The essence of consciousness is, really, nothing more than simple existence. I am. Why should the possession of this sort of consciousness be denied to anything that does exist? Aquinas has said that God is pure existence unmodified. Is it not evident that there is a certain single something–call it God, or the One, or pure existence–that pervades the world as it is?

Consider the Zen phrasing of this: The universal rain moistens all creatures. Or think of the world as a stained-glass window with light shining through every part.

To exist is to have consciousness. The other things one might feel are necessary for consciousness are more or less complicated sorts of hardware and software, patterns of mass and energy. But no pattern can be conscious until it exists, until it is brought into reality. Existence is, finally, the only thing required for consciousness.

A rock is conscious. This piece of paper is conscious. And so, of course, is a robot, both before and after his behavior evolves to our level. Traditionally, those who have asserted the equivalence of men and (possible) machines have been positivists, mechanists, materialists. They put their viewpoint this way: “People are no better than machines.” But if one only changes the emphasis, then this equivalence can become the expression of a deep [panpsychic] belief in the universality and reality of consciousness: “Machines can be as good as people!”


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