Science entangled with fantasy

This post points out some references in The Wizard's Harvest Table to science and the natural world that inform the story, often humourously. To be sure, it doesn't offer a guide to how portals work; our best efforts at teleportation is at the atomic level, and there's no sign that will improve soon.

Modern thinking takes seriously the idea that there is a sort of bridge between the awareness and consciousness and biological foundation of the brain and a sort of corresponding awareness and consciousness and biological foundation in the gut. I do not know all the details for this argument, but biologists claim there are brain-cell-like structures in the stomach; you can look up 'the brain-gut axis' or 'neurogastroenterology' if you want to find out more. In our times, people certainly admonish each other not to think with their belly. But it's acceptable to act on gut instinct. The feature of the book this idea relates to is possession, or shared minds, which suffuses the story, although it isn't explicit at first.

Image from an illuminated Psalter

This image is from the Lutrell psalter maintained in the British Library. I recommend looking up the high resolution pages online, as they are beautiful and surprising. The blue man with an orange face in place of his belly is just art; there's no scientific insight hidden there, but it's a strange context for a joke. It may be an illustration of the psalm: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.

If you look at different Bible versions, almost every line from cover to cover is phrased differently from edition to edition: (http://biblehub.com/philippians/3-19.htm). On this point, there is something of a playful digression in The Wizard's Harvest Table, when the characters, as best they know, reflect on how magical incantations work. The section plays with the slow bending and filtering of knowledge as it translates through time and through the hands of many people:

Modest now felt less frustrated by the notion of the harvest table and the steps to learning its purpose. Rastarian filled in many blanks, incrementally, often without Modest noticing. For details Balkan had overlooked mentioning about the wizard’s table, Modest could now cite many sources Rastarian had compiled at length. Much of the literature the wizard had encountered consisted of blindly copied manuscripts, scribed and illuminated by earnest scriveners in the service of well titled wizards in universities and councils in thirty or more contiguous worlds, but the knowledge was from a time nearly lost to memory. It was like a legend by which learned men lived their lives, far from actual events. They were men who could calculate the orbits of distant planets around dying suns, without being able to go there. They held the darkness at bay with a mere candle, borrowing against the day their massive debt would come back to them.

Modest, who had seldom handled a book, now not only knew how to read but could discern the quality of its author. Typically, a book about the harvest table began with praiseworthy histories of the commissioning wizard, a master whose likeness was rendered in the frontispiece, surrounded by runic details and scrolls hinting at their collections of rare works. Each austere portrait tended to call to mind a crab or eel fortified in its coral cave. Many books added a unique contribution attributed to the book’s patron, such as variations on one of the originally elucidated enchantments or lists of atmospheric readings conducted in the underworld, or accounts of afflictions during demonic wars, having to wear a mask to breathe or growing additional ears or losing the ability to speak except in animal cries. Many also included copies of maps, folded into the binding. A few included anatomical figures of fell creatures, and lists of dread names such as Kashprav, Saktu, Sel, Giger and Tseudon.

The diagrams in the table struck Modest as being conveniently coherent, mathematically precise, and nicely matching the prevalent astrology of the world in which the book originated. On this topic there was certainly no ambiguity in Rastarian’s edition, which said that most wizards went blundering towards truth and tried to fit it into accordance with whatever rules and systems they felt comfortable with. Rastarian’s index of incantations surpassed the collections of grimoires hidden away in any library or academy Modest had any chance to discover. But Rastarian drew few conclusions from the myriad versions of each diagram that were now stored somewhere in the moist package of Modest’s brain. It was up to Modest to compare them, and at first the weight of difference made his mind feel foggy and he despaired of the task.

Making a list of incantations using a geometric diagram helped with memorisation, he supposed. The lists were endless. There were generations of minor errors passed down until they had become significant features of lore. There were even catalogues of known errors and comparisons of errors between editions, criticisms, reappraisals, and authorities. Over time even the strongest points of knowledge gradually changed. Lee Tam Nol for example, an incantation which was also the name of the girl goddess of the Morning World, was first written Leet Arn Nol. From book to book, the letters shifted and fused, and scriveners began to print using hand drawn letters instead of pressed ligatures. Wizards struggled to depict in letters the accents and declensions that gave power to their uttered words, and they were prone to decoration and elaboration. Tables existed of every incantation including the fragments LEE or TAM or NOL. Gliding his eyes over these lists made Modest drowsy, but he could imagine earnest novice mages poring over the glyphs in frigid castle cells like monks, ardently pursuing lost knowledge, living by candlelight and tallow torches until their craft was learned by rote and their eyes white and rheumy. Perhaps in the afterlife their knowledge was a considerable benefit amongst the shades and spooks of the immortal realms. During their lives, wizards gained repute according to three main distinctions: First, their harrowing journeys in the underworld, and how many demons they brought low through their magical exploits. Second, those whose lives were given entirely to research, bent towards a theoretical innovation that benefited other wizards. Third, those whose power grew so great they went mad and became tyrannical. Hadron the Wild, the master of Yuzz the undead was such a wizard, as infamous as a knight of hell.

To ease his troubled mind, Modest smoked a pipe after hauling up to the hold enough native plants to fill a book (and a good deal of the galley), which was what Doctor Foss, assisted by Opole, had a mind to do. They looked at stalks and seeds one by one through a lens, and burned leaves to smell the smoke, taking notes. Doctor Foss was continually reminding Opole that in each and every plant lay a discovery to make, the more so since they travelled lands seldom visited by humanity, but the making was more than a matter of method. You could burn, grind, distil and chew as many leaves as you liked and realise nothing in a lifetime. A cognitive leap, spanning the misty gaps between mountains of understanding, was what a scholar had to do, come what may. A leap of the imagination is seldom fatal, but to withstand a great many failures, the mind must be strong. Modest agreed, watching shafts of light play through the clouds of peaceable inebriation.

The decay of human knowledge was an idea I first came across in the book Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1960), which I read first when I was far too young to understand it, but tried again later and was blown away. All I remembered when I was a child was that monks had mistaken a technical plan for a machine as a sacred text, and had copied it slavishly without knowing the content, until the meaning was nearly washed away. The harvest table, a sort of periodic table listing words of power, and diagrams of incantations and runes, has the same kind of blend of science and magic that makes it a mystery even to those who know it. In recent decades, the standard model of particle physics maps out a highly packed set of attributes explaining matter and energy, and most people don't get it, and struggle to understand the explanations of those who do (or claim to), such a lovely theory we wish it was true.

“Incantations are often like arrows which break the bow string.” When he saw his audience was confused, Doctor Foss took a long patient breath. “It is a feature of the mind of man that he can make use of things without knowing how they came to be. For demons, the incantations are an effective deterrent and control. Asking to know why it is so, well, why not ask why the sun goes up and goes down instead of drifting around the horizon like a spinning top?”

The border of the known and unknown is where magic and science interplay. Gaud's Thaumoscopic Scale is referenced when describing, among other things, how engineers on the Night Offensive can use a screen to view outside of the ship, albeit a fuzzy and tenuous view. There is no explanation of the principle, and the Thaumoscope on the Night Offensive is smashed, thrown over the side as the crew rush to lighten the ship. This this is a deliberate ploy meant to suggest that Gaud's views might not have been correct, a fringe theory or superceded theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories).

“Theories such as Gird’s Thaumoscopic Scale attempt to point the way to a portal or disclose its stability. In some worlds men have, or once had, craftsmanship to construct machinery to map an entire world, in communication with the light energy of the sky and stars, but in our case, we must use lists and send out journeyman mages to patrol the field, as it’s referred to.”

A scalar field is a term used in modern cosmology, usually by mathematicians interested in unusual geometries, that is thrown about when describing how energy transmits in waves, and there must be something for the universe's energy to be contained in, or transmit through. The field is an attempt to simply describe the underpinnings of the universe, or what we might call 'the fabric of the universe'. I imagine, if you are a comsologist, then The Wizard's Harvest Table would either be a treat or a horror. Our best notions of particle physics and cosmology, the extreme verges of what we can observe about the universe, suggests that the smallest and largest scales have a sort of fractal similarity. Possessing a demon to dive into the inky black depths of eternity, Rastarian relates, at least in his friend's imagination, his vision of the abyss.

“I was swallowed into the depths and gave up hope of another breath. In the silence I could clearly hear the blood flowing in the demon’s veins, the trickle of fluid driving its muscles. Clavstam died eventually. I drifted on. The tiniest things to see in the void resemble the largest in the heavens. Both lie out of reach. I am still falling. I feel things around me never before illuminated.”

Scientists, particularly the Germanic sort who do weird tests on people's minds, have created audio-silent rooms that few people can enter for long without needing to leave, distressed by the sounds of their own body, not usually heard amongst the ambient noise which usually cancels them out. There are sensory deprivation chambers where people can go even further into the empty space of the mind alone, which was the basis for the film Altered States (1980) starring William Hurt.

'Altered States' movie poster

In the book, the deep dive of the character Rastarian continues well beyond the end of the book, a journey into the infinite.

Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” nicely frames the worlds in which The Wizard's Harvest Table is set. Worlds are connected by portals that none can explain, some fleeting and invisible, some massive, permanent gates that people exploit by trade and exploration. Demons can conjure a portal, and the underworld has portals that open into dungeon dimensions, prison worlds, places that breed monsters like the Iderthorn, that consume everything unstoppably. Dimensional outbreaks are a a staple of literature and religion, for instance the Kirtimukha is an all-consuming monster, and such Cthullu-like creatures are often associated with guarding the gates of hell. Even in modern science the notion of 'grey goo', which is essentially nano-machines that convert stuff into themselves, is considered technically possible, enough that Prince Charles expressed concern about its risk, and also Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, in which he gives humanity a 50-50 chance of surviving the century (probably due to many other factors besides unleashed nano-machines). One of the ambient religions in Easom's Prize is that underlying everything is a great monad, Os, whose role is to end all things.

In the book, there are hints of higher worlds where technology is advanced even beyond our level. Astrid, a guard from Easom's Prize who uses free-floating pearls to attack targets, is one example. To the other characters she is amazing, but the wizard Balkan is quick to point out that the ability to make better tools does not necessarily make people better, morally; and suggests it even tends to make them worse. Is there some antecedent for autonomous attack swarms? There are certainly now miniature drones that would seem magical to people from previous centuries, and some potentially alarming political scenarios for micro-drone usage.

Much of modern technological innovation is due to miniaturisation enlarging the world. We already live in a time where existing projects extend beyond the span of life we're given to witness. 'Breakthrough Starshot', the first viable unmanned interstellar flight plan is tackling a set of final obstacles to reaching another star. Vetted by the late Stephen Hawking, the plan includes shooting a tiny recorder at twenty per cent of the speed of light, to reach Alpha Centauri in a trip of twenty years, so it can send back data using lasers. In The Wizard's Harvest Table, one of the characters is a mind-sharing construct originally encoded into such a vessel to cross between worlds without the use of a portal, because some worlds don't have any.

Where men lack knowledge of portals and magic they must produce by sheer cleverness the tools to understand the universe. Lapis was produced to that end,” Balkan explained. “His story is one of solitude. In one long lost world, learned men engineered a telescope, a glass eye, of such refinement it could discern another planet at distances none could traverse. They knew it had air to breathe, vegetation, and mild seasons, even cities. Two islands of life in the same world, displaced between stars. Can you imagine it?”

Avril, holding up the lantern, shone it from face to face, to see what they thought.

“Without portals, how could they reach each other?” Balkan continued. “No ship could fly so far with a mortal crew. Therefore, they endeavoured over lifetimes, a mere fraction of the journey time, to model an explorer’s spirit in the heart of the ship which would carry it, a transmission of all their knowledge making its own path across the stars like a garden butterfly from flower to flower. The voyager, not really being human, or corporeal at all, did not perceive the distance between worlds as being much different to the distance between two ideas. During its journey, it considered the mystery that separates flesh from stone, life from dust. On its grandiose trajectory the ship passed many planets and wonders of the cosmos, eventually washing up at its intended destination to find only a few hardy souls, survivors of a terrible cataclysm. The ship, or its mind, elected to accompany them in exodus via a closing portal, whereupon it came to us.”

A strange attractor

In that passage, there's a passing mention of butterflies. This is a direct reference to the famous observation named by Edward Lorenz that initial conditions, minutely different, lead to large scale differences over time. This idea has been popularised by chaos theorists ever since and even in movies like The Butterfly Effect (2004): "You can't change who people are without destroying who they were." This is arguable, but very much true of Modest Dart, on whom lies the responsibility of defeating the underworld demon Ilsov Kashprav. Rastarian directly refers to the phenomenon and is rewarded by a little thunderclap in response:

Overhead the glass was clouded by the built-up moisture in the confined space, so light shining in seemed distant and heavily diffuse, except one square pane was broken, open to the sky. When a few dusky butterflies passed through the canopy, Modest did indeed feel a moment’s peace.

Rastarian inspected the glasshouse. “The beating of wings of a single butterfly might produce a storm that ravages a faraway land. Oh look, there are two of them.”

A gentle thunderclap heralded a quick downpour that rattled the glass roof, dimming the light. The delighted smile on Clavstam’s face was averse to his natural state. Modest pitied the demon.

The characters in the story have different levels of experience, which I use to play off what the reader knows or doesn't know, with what I want them to understand. For instance, Modest and Balkan uncover a specimen in a jar collected by the captain of the Night Offensive, which Modest thinks is a penis in a jar, and Balkan corrects him, pointing out it is instead of fungus.

After a while he found something in a locker, a glass tube capped by silver endings, domes screwed tight. The glass was thick, but he could see within an oily substance, yellow and olive. In the candle light he saw his own face curving and stretching, and he was surprised to see his reflected skin glowed with a tracery of moonlit lines, extending from his arm up his neck to his ear. He almost dropped the casing. He peered again into the glass container, turning it in his hands. Within, so far as he could tell, was a severed penis.

He pointed it out to Balkan, who grinned, admitting a little pain as he took a look. “The captain probably kept it as a ribald joke or private superstition. He was a sailor after all. It is in fact a toadstool. That variety produces visions when ingested, but the preparation it is preserved in has probably spoiled its potency.”

“Are you sure?” Modest asked, inspecting the spongy, thick tissue with unscientific fascination. It looked like it had been cut at the base and bled, clouding the oil it was suspended in.

Note, that although in history people have preserved a penis in a jar, notably Napoleon's and possibly Rasputin's, the one in the image is actually fake, so you don't need to avert your gaze. You can even buy one just like it online: https://sparepartsandgifts.com/products/the-hunter

Balkan and Modest both share an interest in hallucinations, being avid associates of the pipe, and Modest is even offered headier stuff by another wizard, Mardigan of Tunico. Throughout his travels, his taste for local weed changes, not only due to the different crop but because his circumstances change. Modest is a bad pupil of magic but a good study in whether it is nature or nurture that maketh the man. That is not quite a quote, but an idea put forth by Francis Galton, the English polymath and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. To his credit, when psychologist Donald Hebb was asked which contributes more to personality, nature or nurture, he answered, "Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?" The notion is a reaction to the philosophical idea of people starting off as a 'blank slate' and Modest has that role as a sort of representative for the reader to start the book with, though we quickly see Modest is loaded with unusual views such as that pilgrims carry disease and their prayers invoke demons.

Demons are the default monsters in The Wizard's Harvest Table. Above them, however, we discover there is an elemental, which is a demon transcended into a state of pure energy, escaping to places 'between worlds'.

“If a human lives in the hope of replacing their life of pain with some form of bliss, a demon’s futile dream is to replace their chaos with some form of pure energy. An elemental exceeds these worlds we travel. Portal after portal. It is forgivable to think you may occupy a false world, a prison in which you subsist in fetters.”

Clavstam circled Opole, listening, but appeared dissatisfied. “An elemental is a mind set free of worldly constraints.”

This is, in part, a reference to human efforts to digitally encode a brain, so that it can live in an immortal network, or at least outlive its failing body before finding a new host. Apart from the endless pseudo-science common on social media posts, there are real efforts in solving this problem. Here's an example: Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov has developed the 2045 initiative (http://www.2045.com/), aiming to be able to exactly reproduce a person's mind as a functional hologram (or a beta in the language of my favorite science fiction author Alastair Reynolds). Another, Nectome, offers to embalm the human brain or keep it fresh for an extended time by hooking it up to terminally ill volunteers, but in either case the process is 100% fatal. Although presently just a far out idea, the notion of embedding minds into everyday objects is one that occurs in The Wizard's Harvest Table. In fact, the Onquerol, a demon captured on the face of a shield, describes himself as just a remote presence, which is technology we already have today.

One of the characters who explains the wizard's harvest table, is Hadron Kelmak, who is found in a pleasant glasshouse filled with plants in the land of the dead.

Kelmak challenges Modest with the great question: “Is it better to endure a demon-haunted world or a world devoid of all magic? Sometimes knowing one thing excludes knowing many things besides.” The phrase 'demon-haunted world' is a hat tip towards Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World ; Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Kelmaks's question echoes one that particle physicists at CERN posed when, on the cusp of proving the Higgs Boson, they wondered whether having a proof in one field of enquiry would forever close off knowledge in other aspects. This idea is mentioned in the documentary Particle Fever (2014), and echoes the principle that determining one variable of a particle limits determining another, often confused with a similar effect in physics called the 'observer effect', where measurements you make may change what you're measuring.

Yuzz took the arm in his emaciated, skeletal hands. “A spirit stirs within your bones. It is older than mortal men and demons. A heavenly magic, as someone from Lual might say. It touched you here, but it encodes upon your soul, yes?” He let go and waved his own arm. “No metric exists to measure its power, but you feel its grasp.”

During the writing of the book I resisted revealing the nature of Modest's magical arm, which led to gradually revealing it, in stages, from different sources. That is one of the largest forces in the book, but much of the story is in the small details, the distractions and things underfoot. From any one angle you can't see the whole.

Insects and plants are frequently mentioned in the book, as we step from world to world, and the wizards readily turn their hand to natural history, drawing pictures and making notes on the journey. Modest and the demon Kashprav also witness a rare moment for a human to see where an underworld bug digs its silver body into the ground.

Rain had never fallen in these arid lands but still the seeds of some extreme plant scattered on the wind. The wind lowered as they descended a flight of steps marked by pillars which some demonic architect had peppered with cavities that imps roosted within.

Modest found himself glancing at the incline to either side, looking around his feet as the precarious ground shifted. He noticed crawling insects. Kashprav obliged by picking from between the stones of the stairs underfoot a crawler that shone like a silver jewel. It curled over the harsh claw of his finger then fell to the ground and penetrated the soil and was gone.

“Do you think that is how they get from world to world? By mining their way through the firmament, by drifting on the air? Life even here mutely follows its imperatives, heedless of the distance or destination. You and I are the same, carrying out instructions written in blood till life is done with our atoms,” Kashprav said sombrely as Modest stared at the vista. Rastarian had often tried to explain to Modest the notion of atoms, the tiniest organs of being, themselves like stars, innumerable as sand, but with the vastness of space between each one like an ocean. All energy, but not alive. Not alive but giving life.

“It takes an extreme kind of life to exist here,” Modest replied.

Insects make a vast proportion of the life on earth, and their study by us spans history, such that we know bugs can detect each other without seeing each other, by touch or chemical signals. The Irish have a saying: "Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile" – One beetle recognizes another.

https://sciencecalling.com/2011/07/15/the-science-behind-irish-proverbs/

I use this as a joke by which two wizards recognise each other:

“Did you take a wizard with you when you went on that expedition?”

“Yes,” Debron said, as if it would be absurd not to. “The doctor, didn’t you know?”

Balkan’s surprise was evident. “No, I did not.” He glanced back in the direction they’d come, as if seeing through the walls of the cabin.

“The doctor came with me to tend to my legs, an affliction I’ve had treated all my days. I only fathomed his secret after he got his head inked. I know a supernumerary nipple from a magical mole, as the saying goes. With a secret shared, we trusted each other, though I’m not sure he’s quite the master of arcane arts you appear to be. I thought, you know, one insect recognises another, and all that.” He called for a drink, and his aide went out and returned with silverware.

The famous poem Siphonaptera https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siphonaptera_(poem) is another insect related literary reference in the book, when Modest sees, from the air, a massive beast reduced to a tiny scale by altitude:

Modest stared down through the torn hull at the distant ground. A massive beast was ploughing out of the soil, as large as a town, its surface a reflective gleam as it displaced the bog, enveloped in white water. When it breached the surface, smaller beasts followed, swarming around it, perhaps feeding on the dross in its path that it broke up in a heedless rampage. The head of the beast was like a raw cut of meat plated with lava-baked rock. Multiple mouths dug into the banks of weed and vegetation, fiery hot around a massive central maw that peeled open in the air to disgorge gouts of bog sediment, clamping closed as it dove again. Modest felt that this was no demon however, but a monstrous product of nature, blindly following its instincts. The lesser creatures, though massive, looked like pups scattered over its vast bulk. Some took to the air, but most teemed around the hexagonal spread of the beast’s all-crushing maw.

Modest couldn’t take his eyes off the spot as the monster descended out of view, leaving its followers to sink and swim ahead awaiting its next emergence.

“Big bugs have bigger bugs,” he murmured.

Apart from world building, the numerous passing comments about bugs and plants, being different in each world, are accompanied by food being difficult to identify as safe, or causing rashes, itches, and other discomforts of travel.

The sailors however noted that every time they landed it was insect bites and stings that launched some vector of vomiting or fever or rash through their number. They weren’t cheered at all by Balkan’s observations that they might well be the first men ever to see this world’s biome.

Though he was not a physician like Doctor Foss, he understood that berries were nutritious while walking, and there were plenty to be had as they’d arrived in the perfect season.

“But which are safe to eat? None of us has seen their like before. Since we’ve to go on foot I’d rather not come down with the shits,” Beshand joked ruefully, which got him much mirth, since nobody was sure at all about the plants that grew in the valley.

“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Neneste said. “If it’s sweet, you should be alright. If it’s bitter, spit it out.” This also got a chuckle, but Neneste growled and the men shut up.

In our world, travelers to new lands brought, and were subject to, diseases that were sometimes lethal; additionally, diet had a heavy impact on the success of both the journey and the survival of towns. Columbus' men are thought to have suffered scurvy and and abandoned their first town La Isabela even while the local food was abundant: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140415-columbus-crew-town-scurvy-science/

In the book, it is Balkan the wizard who has traveled the most worlds and is most adept at magic; he has a far reaching view of how the universe works, something like Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC) advanced by theoretical physicists like Roger Penrose, but he also has a stoic view of his own place in it.

“I have been around Lual, but no, I’m not from Lual, nor even from the same planet, galaxy or iteration. An iteration is what you might call the entire bounds of space. A cosmos. The totality of a world. But only one of many. And everything is bundled together.”

“Everything…”

“Everything. Everything around us, every little jiggling particle within us, begins, splits apart, and comes back together again.” Balkan tried to indicate this was continual, while struggling not to lose Modest. “Some people think that each world is an echo of a single truth, an expression of a divine law, each world just different pitches on a scale, as it were. People like to think of heaven of course, but I haven’t been there. I do know the underworld. Demons claim it connects all places. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do know there are many worlds, some balmy like this one. Some dark and unpleasant. For all I’ve seen, the underworld is the least pleasant of all.”

“Don’t drag me there then, whatever you do,” Modest replied. “So, where do you come from?”

“I came to Dunedin about the time you were born, if I’m not mistaken. Before that, I roamed.” Modest watched Balkan cast the shadow of reflection over his past and it seemed longer than was natural for even an old wizard. “Like you, I grew up in remote parts and barely knew the lie of the land a day’s walk from my bed before I found myself adrift in another world, never to return.”

“I’m going to return,” Modest interrupted. “And soon I hope.”

“Returning is not the thing. The thing is to be content wherever you find yourself.”