Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Along the Ashfold Road
by Robert Dawson

Big Boost
by N.E. Chenier

Ceres Beach Resort
by Paul Michael Moreau

by Michael Hodges

Space Squid!
by Myke Edwards

Dahlia and the Ronin
by Milo James Fowler

A Self-Digging Well
by Jay Fuller

World Without Rot
by Erin Lale

Water Finds Its Path
by Robert Lowell Russell

Turning Humans On
by Antha Ann Adkins


Biology of a Hyper-Evolved Theropod
by John McCormick

How Airplanes Fly, Really
by Eric M. Jones

You’ve Got Fantasy in My Science!
by Carol Kean




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



You’ve Got Fantasy in My Science!

By Carol Kean

SPACE AGE HAS A LAST-CENTURY connotation, these days, but New Age hasn’t lost its foothold in popular thinking. It’s invaded the hallowed realm of science— and science fiction. Like that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial, someone got quantum mysticism in my science fiction chocolate, or biocentricism in my space-opera peanut butter. The FDA has warning labels for food allergens such as wheat, soy, eggs and nuts, but there’s no red flag waving to weed the nuts out of my science fiction. Am I the only one who’d like to do what Jesus would do and throw these posers out of the temple?

Poser is a pejorative term (I know, I know), and it’s incorrect in this case, not just politically but technically. Still, when I read of Robert Lanza on a bestseller list with the #science tag, I think snarky thoughts about wannabes who copy the style of punk, goth and other subcultures even though they don’t understand the values or philosophy of the subculture. The Lakota have a similar term for New Agers who trivialize, distort, or simply misunderstand the spiritual ways of Natives. “Plastic shaman” or medicine men who are outsiders and have no genuine connection to the traditions or cultures they claim to represent.

I have no grudge against Robert Lanza, an American doctor of medicine, a scientist in the fields of regenerative medicine and biology. I’m just annoyed that he uses science to “prove” his theory of biocentrism (2007). Biocentrism posits that life creates the universe rather than the other way around. Lanza says current theories of the physical world do not work. Biology, not, physics, should rule; scientists should place biology before the other sciences to produce a theory of everything. Lanza’s theory is not falsifiable, but he claims future experiments such as scaled-up quantum superposition (say what?) will either support or contradict biocentricism, which actually is a 21st Century version of ancient Greek idealism.

Which brings me back to my own half-baked theory: imposters, simpletons, and posers write fantastical stories with a smattering of quantum physics and call it science fiction. I wouldn’t do the snarky name calling thing if they’d stop calling their fantasy “science” fiction. Tell me death is only a state of mind, and something deep inside me starts channeling Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” in the film “Punch Drunk Love”). Life is the illusion, and death releases us to the “real” world? Now I’m channeling Shere Khan, the tiger who slaps down the hypnotic snake in Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (“I don’t have time for this nonsense”).

I could “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” when writers claim to have substantial “evidence” from scientific experiments on the effect of the observer on reality, but not when book sellers slap the science fiction label on books that might actually be good literature, but not science fiction. Does it matter? Does anyone besides me care? Maybe I should bring these complaints to a shrink, not fellow science fiction readers.

Via Twitter, a cyber-stranger known as @sacha_is_good echoed my own sentiments with a cosmic complaint: “I have just remembered that I don’t know how wind works and I am trying to keep calm but I DON’T KNOW AND IT’S MAKING ME MAD AND RELIGIOUS.” Somehow, this random tweet encapsulates the mood I’m in after finding pseudo-science in my science fiction.

Immortality is one of the basic motifs of speculative thought, which is no surprise, because the sentient human’s preoccupation with death shows up in every genre of literature, music and art. The surprise is that some people exploit a premise of quantum theory—“by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality”—to unite science and spirituality. Perhaps what these writers really demonstrate is that mainstream science deals with what we call “real,” even at the nebulous, invisible atomic level, and quantum physics is a fringe science.

Or maybe Carl Sagan was right: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it’s a source of spirituality.” Then again, Sagan liked marijuana. He dictated his ideas into a recorder and later had a secretary type out his thoughts. “Sometimes the pot and the dictation would be paired,” Joel Achenbach reports in Smithsonian Magazine (March, 2014). “A cannabis brainstorm would send him dashing out of a room to speak into his tape recorder.”

Perhaps this explains why Sagan, who did so much to bring science to the common man, was excluded from the National Academy of Sciences. What were his actual scientific attainments, beyond that endearing awe of his for the cosmos? With stars in his eyes and reverence in his mellow voice he enchanted us with an appreciation of the universe (aka “Creation”) that one seldom encounters even in mega-churches. Now I struggle to reconcile my exulted image of the reverent atheist with the stoner’s “Wowwww, check it out, man.” A recent YouTube video went viral when a common man stopped to film a double rainbow. The rainbows didn’t entertain us; the man’s astounded comments did.

I’m not incriminating Sagan, whose books have a hallowed home on my shelves. I’m just annoyed that Sagan’s sensawunda may have been less spiritual and more chemical in origin. So much for spirituality and science being inextricably united in the eyes of no less a scientific personage than Carl Sagan.

Scientists, I’ve always believed, appreciate the marvels of nature more than most people, in part because they know more about nature. They explore the ocean deeps, dig for fossils, photograph exotic wildlife that we ordinary people would never encounter on our own, and peer into the night skies with gargantuan telescopes, calculating elements in emitted light from distant stars, then telling us there’s enough nitrogen for life to exist on some planet light years away. I have no way to dispute these claims. Scientists speak of black holes, quarks and invisible things that are both matter and non-matter, depending on how we look at them.

My husband knows what they’re talking about. He was never tormented by Kant’s tree falling in silence if no one is there to hear the crash, because he understands that sound is just a pressure wave. Without ears to register the vibrations of disturbed air molecules, what we call “sound” does not exist. That's disturbing. Still, it makes more sense than Lanza's conundrum: does the universe exist if nobody is there to observe it? That stretches my brain like a slinky about to snap. The slinky metaphor is used to great effect in a 1948 Coronet science film, in which a nice, fatherly radio guy explains that nebulous concept “sound” to young Jimmy, who progresses from “I guess so, sure” to “Say, that’s wonderful!” (with none of Carl’s cannabis). I wish I’d seen that film in grade school.

My sister cracked me up over Easter dinner, saying she had to take “something called geometry” in college. I didn’t console her with the sad fact that if physicists tell us a particle can simultaneously be a wave, and death is only a state of mind, I have nothing in my intellectual arsenal to argue against it. I can’t dispute scientists, but I presume to challenge fiction writers: believe we’re immortal because you want to, but not because science has proven we are. Tell me God inspired your words, but don’t ask me to believe science backs you up on that one.

The most grievous offenders are the intellectuals who make millions peddling science concepts as proof of their New Age visions. Science may show that most human brains are wired for spirituality while others are not, which is a more tenable way of saying I stood in the wrong line when the gift of faith was handed out. Instead of being inspired by the miracles others report, I’m annoyed. I don’t “sense” the presence of Another, aka God, much less “know” it, which makes me less likely to sacrifice my life for some noble cause.

Alas, all the martyrs who died for Allah and Jesus, having been promised that this life is but a brief stay in a cheap motel, but in the next life are many mansions and bliss eternal (and seventy virgins for the Muslim martyrs). I wince at the Old Testament story of seven brothers and their mother arrested and tortured by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. One by one, each chose to suffer horribly and die rather than break the holy rules of their ancestors. Where is the evidence that their reward in heaven was great? Such stories are supposed to inspire us to rise above our sinful human natures, not make me want to eat bacon until I die of natural causes.

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” isn’t just a Biblical concept (1 Corinthians 15:55 KJV). It’s the theme of so many great science fiction stories, beginning (some say) with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”—a classic cautionary tale of hubris and the horror of immortality. The list of stories in science fiction that remind us that immortality comes with dangers and downsides is too long for me to list. Chances are, Rod Serling covered them all in “The Twilight Zone.”

In science fiction, immortality isn’t granted by magic or gods. Most often, it’s achieved replacing the mortal human body with man-made components or machines. Extraterrestrial life might be immortal or able to bestow immortality on humans. Greek mythology did that thousands of years before, but Odysseus passed up immortality for his mortal Penelope only in fiction. Biblical accounts notwithstanding, nobody has demonstrably survived death or cheated it.

But oh, how I want to believe it. Other people experience things that convince them our lost loved ones are with us in spirit. In a Facebook chat with Libby McGugan, whose novel “The Eidolon” is full of dead people interacting with the living, I could see why she might embrace the theories of Robert Lanza. “Sometimes I find real life stranger than fiction,” she told me. “I’ve spent a long time reviewing how I see things and making peace with the world. The more I go on the more it seems the world mirrors how you feel inside, so I’ve practiced feeling as good as I can in spite of circumstances. Things have improved beyond measure.” I told her how much I love her character Casimir, the stargazing beekeeper who never got a college degree. From his conversations with Robert, he might have a PhD in physics or philosophy. “Casimir was my dad,” Libby confessed. “We had those conversations (like Robert’s and Casimir’s) before he died and we made the pledge to tell the other the Big Secret.”

Did he?

“He did, but in a really subtle way,” Libby answered. “I understand how things are now (at least from my perspective) and I feel like I get it. I’ve no doubt he’d something to do with the stuff I just happened across that helped me understand how I could see things. But this is all only my take on things, of course. I suppose truth is only ever based on perspective. That’s all we have, really.”

That’s why I love “The Eidolon,” however irately I read it the first time. With a second reading, I was hooked and ready for Book Two.

As a book critic, I get a lot of requests for reviews from authors who think they’ve written science fiction when in fact they’re fictionalizing science in some way that might inspire or entertain others, but not me. I did get over my indignation at Isaac Hooke and Libby McGugan for using physics and quantum confusion to keep their protagonists sentient and active, and I even endorsed the novels as worth buying and reading (and re-reading), because, darn it, their stories kept me turning pages. Any crazy idea can keep a reader hooked if the author achieves that elusive quality we call “voice.”

But I haven’t seen anyone yet who’s hooked me on the tenets of posthumanism or transhumanism. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I believe Transhumanism envisions the use of technology to change what we are. Not that we’d replace ourselves with machines or mechanical components that outlast our biological bodies, but we’d somehow realize our potential to become something “more” than human. As a species, we might evolve into “more mature” beings with posthuman capacities. At 100,000 or so years on planet Earth, humans are still babies. We may be mere tadpole versions of what we’ll become, in the T-Rex scale of being. With our reptile brains still lurking and active under our mammalian brain, our progress to greater human wisdom and compassion has been slow.

Then again, it took millions of years for eohippus to emerge as today’s horse. The catch is to keep humans from annihilating themselves before evolving the necessary moral understanding to ... uh, make the world a better place, or ascertain our chances at an afterlife, or whatever it is that transhumanists strive to do in hopes of improving the human condition. If anyone can show us what that might be, it’s sure to be science fiction novelists. I just haven’t found the definitive novel to prove it.

The most engaging novels I reviewed were written by people trained in science. Gina DeMarco has a Ph.D. in bio-engineering. Libby McGugan is an emergency physician. Isaac Hooke has a degree in Engineering Physics. John L. Monk (not cybermanthat his debut novel “KICK” qualifies as “hard” science fiction) has a degree in anthropology. The list is much longer than this, but I’m trying not to derail too far or too often from my main rant.

Fantasy has been around as long as people have been walking and talking. Putting ideas into practice is another story, the story that science fiction tells so well. Every year, some techno-gadget from “Star Trek” will turn up in our daily lives. Who’da thought? In Doctor Who mythology, Cybermen are human brains in mechanical bodies, minus the emotions. (The downside isn’t that these persons are unfeeling, but that once they become immortal, they lost the incentive to strive for anything more.) Rockets to the moon, picture phones, the Internet, lasers, all sorts of things were conceived by science fiction authors first. Fantasy is pure wish-fulfillment, the impossible coming to life in stories, while science fiction is gratifying because we believe the ideas may in fact, someday, be possible.

Johannes Kepler, way back in 1634, wrote “Somnium,” about a guy named Duracotus who is transported to the moon by demons. While most of the story is fantasy, its scientific facts about the moon and how the lunar environment shaped its non-human inhabitants constitute the beginnings of science fiction.

In the TV series “Stargate SG-1,” the Goa’uld bad guys’ genetic memory gives them a sort of immortality because their direct descendants have all the memories of their predecessors. Part of the Goa’uld lives on forever.

In Tad Williams’ Otherland novels, a group of the world’s most affluent people seek to achieve eternal life in virtual reality. They copy their neural pathways into virtual replicas, storing all their memories, then kill their physical forms. It doesn’t work. The system’s artificial intelligence has about as many glitches as Microsoft Windows.

Whatever the myth or religion, from imminence to eminence, sorcery to pantheism, paganism to polytheism to monotheism, the first promise is life after death for individual sentient beings—namely, humans—never mind crazy talk that Jesus died for humans but not for our cats, dogs and whatever critters we loved enough (i.e., the Velveteen Rabbit Principle of the Universe). The loss of a loved one traumatizes us no matter how young or old the person was, but viewing death as a doorway to the next life tends to soften the blow.

Times of war, natural disaster, accident and disease may be so tragic, our only reason to go on is that we’re biologically programmed to do just that. The real world is a tough place, but stories (and sometimes stuffed bunnies and pet dogs) help us get through whatever horrors life dishes out. Good triumphs over evil, wrongs are righted, bullies defeated, criminals caught and punished—and if takes magic or superheroes, gods or goddesses, fairies or extraterrestrials, so be it.

We enjoy movies like “Cocoon” because we’d love to see Grandma and Grandpa young and healthy again, but deep down we know it can’t happen, so their immortality comes with a price—their new source of energy is stolen from alien embryos stored in the pond (who knew?). We love to see E.T. point his glowing finger to heal an injury, but ultimately, E.T. must phone home. Earth cannot sustain him.

From Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” came “Blade Runner.” Then there was “The Matrix.” Various movies and novels since have tortured us with the nuances of what is human versus what is artificial intelligence, what is life, what is the soul. That’s fine, but I’ve seen too many indie novelists launching exotic premises and justifying them as science fiction, the way Robert Lanza and Bob Berman have proclaimed that consciousness must have created the universe, a concept that’s older than the Book of Genesis, but using a physics experiment to prove it? Meh.

Einstein coined a profound, new technical term for this sort of thing: spooky at a distance. Quantum mechanics is spooky at any distance, if you ask me. For all I know,  Einstein may have been talking about the Heisenberg principle, or Schrödinger’s ineffable cat.

I can settle the cat conundrum in a word: dead. The cat is dead, Erwin. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger could (if he wasn’t dead himself now) herd a million cats into a closed box along with a vial of poison gas, a piece of uranium, and a Geiger counter, and every one of those cats might, for about a nanosecond, be both alive and dead, but who cares? Dead is dead. Otherwise, Schrödinger might have to come back as a mouse in a closed box with a cat.

Anyone can say the universe only exists because we observe it, or perceive it. The trick is proving it. Scientific discoveries re-labeled as quantum mechanics or entanglement have not proven our sentient souls to be immortal. Death has always aggravated us even more than taxes do, so we’ve created hundreds of explanations for what happens to us after we die.

This, we know: when our bodies die, our brains die. The energy that animated our bodies cannot just disappear, but where does it go, and what sentience or memories might it contain? Invisible radio waves carry a digital stream of ones and zeroes that can be converted into words, music and movies, but only if a receiver is hooked up to a power source and built to unscramble the signals.

Our lost loved ones (and villains, long may they remain dead!) have not found a way to hop a light beam and communicate with us. By the law of conservation of energy, Grandpa’s life force may be traveling the light years with dear old Fido’s, but who knows? Shamans, prophets, mystics and schizophrenics may believe they know, but the only way our energy appears to live on is as the fuse that through the green shoot drives the flower (as the poet Dylan Thomas may have put it).

Biocentrism is okay as a theory but not as the foundation for novels on my already cluttered bookshelves. (Even my Kindle overfloweth with thousands of titles, and the search engine never works like it’s supposed to.) I love Matt Haig’s observation in “The Humans” that there is only one genre, and it is “book,” but even “The Humans” annoyed me because it was labeled science fiction and really, I didn’t see as much science as I’d hoped to. A token space ship, maybe, would appease me? The alien could heal sick dogs and mend broken bones, as capably as E.T. did, but there were no feats of alien technology to speak of.

I have the same complaint about “The Hawks of Kamalon.” Michael Reisig resorts to a trick of the fantasy genre to get his WWII pilots from Earth to another galaxy. Even so, I love these novels.

So, I have this habit of investing my time in science fiction novels that barely meet my “hard” science fiction criteria. I’ve never tallied these books. The only measure is how irritable I become when the novel is marvelously engaging, thought provoking and well written and built on the foundations of “hard” science fiction, but resorts to a literary “cheat” involving twisted views of quantum physics to keep their heroes and villains immortal. The observer may have arrived before the universe did, i.e., consciousness must have created the universe, but who’s calling that stuff science and what is it doing in my science fiction? To quote my favorite source of information,, “We’ll take back every bad thing we’ve ever said about science if it will just make us immortal. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.” END

Carol Kean is the Book Critic for “Perihelion.” She has a degree in English teaching with a journalism minor from the University of Northern Iowa. She has also worked as a tech writer for Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation and Rockwell Collins.


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