Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Running Tangent
by Dale Ivan Smith
and K.C. Ball

Food, Glorious Food
by Joey To

by Dave Creek

by Siobhan Gallagher

An Island in Your Arms
by James Patrick Riser

Rim’s End
by John Walters

by Holly Schofield

Ooze Love
by Andrew James Woodyard

Shorter Stories

Deus Ex Machina
by Erin Lale

It’s, Like, So Boring at the End of the World
by Amy Sisson

by Robin Wyatt Dunn


Making Sense of it All
by Libby McGugan

Is There Life in Space?
by Peter Cawdron



Comic Strips




Making Sense of it All

By Libby McGugan

TRANSREALISM IN SCIENCE FICTION. I had to look it up, before I realised that this is kind of what I write anyway. It’s defined as a literary mode that mixes the techniques of incorporating fantastic elements used in science fiction with the techniques of describing immediate perceptions from naturalistic realism. What writers write is informed at some level by their take on the world. How you see things leaks into stories, characters, and plot twists. I can only write about things from my own perspective, because I don’t have access to anyone else’s. There are lots of ways to look at life, but in one respect, it boils down to Einstein’s quote: “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”

We interpret the world through our senses. Information surrounds us on all levels—photons deliver visual cues, sound waves deliver auditory signals, chemical particulates deliver scents and tastes, mechanical vibrations deliver touch. All of it is detected by our sense organs and transmitted to our brains where it’s reassembled, to allow us to make sense of things.

The age-old question of whether we can be sure we are interacting with a real world that’s out there, or whether it’s all in our heads is coloured by the idea that we are, at best, filtering and extracting information based on what our sense deliver. Making sense of that information is what makes experience subjective.

How do I know that the red I see is the same as the red you see? We can agree that it’s red when we both look at a tomato, but how do I know if my experience of red is the same as yours? I can’t. The best we can do is agree on the name for the thing in front of us, and perhaps try to describe what it seems to be to us, in words that will fall short. How we truly experience it will, though, always be our secret. The way we make sense of things isn’t just down to the information we process—it’s entangled with our experience.

Two men, Ben and Luke, are walking down the same street one morning, on their way to work. It’s sunny, spring, and white blossoms lace the trees that line the road. Both men have jobs—they work at the same office. They both have families. They both have enough money to buy food and clothes. They both have a place to live, with running water and electricity, and live in a country that enjoys peace. They’re both healthy. They’re both young. In that snapshot in time, you would think they would be having broadly similar experiences. Look inside their heads, though, and you find radically different perspectives.

Luke is worried about his mortgage and his marriage. He lost sleep last night after an argument with his wife about things, when he tried to suggest they should tighten the reigns. This morning’s meeting with his boss is giving him indigestion. He doesn’t notice the trees. Ben is enjoying the walk. He’s not particularly looking forward to the morning’s meeting with the boss, but it’s just a job. At least he has a family he loves. And he likes the scent of the trees—it’s fresh and clean and makes him feel more alive.

This is a plastic account to make a point. More telling is a real one from Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but most of his family died or were killed. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl describes how, amidst the horror that surrounded him, he found something he could focus on that got him through the day—an act of kindness, like sharing some bread or showing some comfort. He writes:

Everything can be taken from a man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Perspective is the lens through which we view the world, and that is made up of perception and its interaction with previous experience. You could almost write an equation about it. If you did, it might look something like this:


So we get it. We all know that we see the world differently. But sometimes we conveniently forget it when we try to establish consensus. We need consensus about how things work in order for society to exist harmoniously. The consequences of not falling into line with the general view are sometimes harsh. But we need differences in opinion if we are to evolve. And evolution is inevitable—there’s no escaping it. We are not on the outside, studying evolution through the display cabinet of a museum. It’s happening right now, and we’re part of it. It’s just that, because of the stealth of its creep, we sometimes forget that we’re in its midst, not at its pinnacle. We don’t know everything there is to know, not just because we haven’t satisfactorily explained everything around us, but because everything hasn’t happened yet.

Every so often, something comes along that challenges the way we view the world. Before dismissing it, it’s worth stepping back to review which lens we’re using to see things in the first place.

From the scientific standpoint, most of us are working within a mechanistic framework. It dates back to the 17th century when, amongst others, the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes began dissecting things into smaller pieces to try to understand how they worked. He saw the body as a machine that could be best understood when it is broken down into its constituent parts. He and his contemporaries lived at a time when the secular purity of scientific enquiry was refuge from the religious wars that raged through Europe.

Reductionism is brilliant, and from it we now understand things like molecular biology and pharmacology. It has opened the trap doors into atoms themselves, which, it turns out, seem to be made mostly of nothing. Any particles we do encounter occasionally, in that vast emptiness, behave in ways that make no sense and leave us scratching our heads.

This is epitomised in one of the landmark experiments in physics—the double slit experiment. For one of the best descriptions of this, see Professor Jim Al-Khalili on YouTube.

Physicists fire individual particles, such as electrons, at a board which has one slit cut into it. A little farther beyond the board is a detector screen made of tiny lights, each one designed to switch on when an electron lands on it, pinpointing the electron’s arrival.

As you would expect, when you fire electrons, some will go through the slit and result in a cluster of lights that illuminate in line with the slit. The first mystery of quantum mechanics comes when you open the second slit and fire electrons again, one at a time, as individual particles. You might expect that the pattern you get on the detector screen, when some electrons matwo slitke it through one slit or the other, are two clusters of lights in line with the slits—symbolising the final destination of two piles of electrons. But that’s not what happens. Gradually what you see emerging is a series of dark and light bands—an interference pattern—like two groups of ripples coinciding in a pond. To create this pattern, individual electrons must have gone through both slits at the same time. What seemed to be individual particles are behaving like waves. And it gets stranger.

To try to figure out which slit an individual electron goes through, you can mount a monitor next to one of the slits. When an electron passes through that slit, the monitor beeps as it detects it, confirming that, yes, one electron did in fact go through this slit. Fine. Except that when you do, the pattern you get on the screen is not light and dark bands, but two distinct clusters, reflecting that the electrons have behaved like individual particles.

Scientists have tried to outsmart the electrons by leaving the monitor in place, but quietly unplugging it, and then rerunning the experiment. What shows up on the screen this time is series of interference bands—which means the electrons are again behaving like waves. It’s like they know when they’re being watched and their behaviour changes accordingly. Unobserved, they behave like waves. Turn your attention to them, and they behave like particles.

Scientists hotly debate the machinations of this. One take is the Copenhagen Interpretation, formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg between 1925–1927, and forms a collection of doctrines which attempts to explain quantum mechanics. Part of this is the proposal that things exist as potentials, and the act of observation forces quantum particles to assume a definite physical state. This ties in with another theory of physics–the quantum field theory–which postulates that particles are excited states in an underlying field. The theoretical physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, speculated that this is a participatory universe whose reality is created by the observers within it.

Many scientists don’t buy this. It flies in the face of the objectivity of science. It’s just not realistic. But what does it mean to be a realist in the quantum world? It means accepting its weirdness. And in this context, the idea that, as observers, we are somehow influencing the universe around us is not that strange. What do observers bring to the table? They bring expectations. The implications of this do not sit well with established wisdom. So we find ourselves in a position where either we find another explanation for things, or we change the lens we’re looking through. And what would happen if we did?

A lot of other things might fall into place.

Take medicine. It, too, is embedded in mechanistic roots. Thanks to Descartes, we have learned to see the body as a machine. But a closer look at emerging evidence suggests that we may need to rethink this.

If we’re working from a mechanistic standpoint, the placebo effect should not happen. Giving someone an inert pill or sham surgery should have no effect. But it does. Taking a placebo alters brain activity that we can see on functional MRI scanning. Our brains actually produce the neuropeptides that mimic the drugs we think we’re taking. What we believe we’re taking matters and it informs our cellular response.

Fabrizio Benedetti is one of the world’s leading placebo researchers and runs tightly controlled studies that are forming a strong evidence base. In one study, diazepam did not reduce post-operative anxiety in patients unless they knew they were taking it. In another, patients who did not know they were getting a morphine injection required a much higher dose to control pain than patients who knew they were receiving it. Expectation, of both patient and doctor, plays a powerful role in physiological response.

And it’s not just in research studies. We’re seeing this in real people. Optimists have been shown to live longer and have better immune systems. Hopelessness has been identified as a strong independent risk factor for the development of heart disease.

There are countless documented cases of recoveries that surpass medical expectation. Recoveries from end-stage conditions should not happen from a medical standpoint, but they do. Whether patients attribute this to a dietary change, visualisation, or some other practice, the common denominator in these people seems to be a determination to live and an expectation that they will. They keep coming back to the result they want, and learn to focus on it.

Seemingly miraculous cures, for instance in cancer, are often medically explained by the “immune system suddenly turning against the tumours.” But what switches on the immune system? Research into epigenetics is telling us that our genes are not fixed. Genes provide the code for protein production that determines cellular function, such as immune response. Gene expression—the switching on and off of genes—happens in response to environmental factors, and one such factor appears to be thought. We now know about brain plasticity, and evidence shows that repetitive practiced thought causes chemical and structural brain changes.

However we look at it, expectation and belief are entangled with health.

In the spirit of scientific enquiry, before we dismiss these accounts as codswallop, we owe it to everyone at the very least, to be curious. In his 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued that observations—what we see around us—do not stand alone. Instead they are contained within a theory. The theory is a story that explains the meaning or significance of the observations. The dominant theory, at any given time, is called a paradigm, and we place our observations within that paradigm.

So the paradigm can be considered as a container that houses the observations. That’s fine, as long as the observations we make fit into the paradigm, but when they don’t, a problem arises. When too many of these observations no longer fit into the old paradigm, we reach a crisis, and at that point, a new theory needs to be proposed. If this accounts for the observations better than the old theory, then there is a paradigm shift in which the old theory gives way to the new. So there is an on-going cycle that involves the destruction of the old paradigm and the addition of new observations.

Just as physicists had to concede that classical physics didn’t cut it anymore when they began to observe quantum effects, the medical world may need to rethink the paradigm it’s working within.

Without action, all this is just meandering in a philosophical wasteland. Taking the principles and applying it to our own existence is where it becomes fun.

From a personal standpoint, I first encountered this way of thinking during the editing phase of the first draft of a novel I’d written. I had been to a writing festival and had some fairly harsh but accurate feedback that made it clear that things would not work as they were. I was facing a mammoth re-write: narrative stance, tense, character and about ninety percent of the plot. The concept was fine, but that was about it.

After a weeklong dummy-spitting, teddy-throwing tantrum, I realised that my critics had a point. The worst part was, I knew they were right. As it happened, around the same time, I stumbled upon an approach which suggested thinking from the end. Effectively, it was like taking Wheeler’s idea of a participatory universe and, as an experiment, giving the game a go. The rules are: 1) You create your reality; 2) Focus on what you want; 3) Feel as good as you can while you do that.

So rather than bashing the keys in anger, I would take a walk, do some mundane task like tidying or washing up, and all the while I would be lining up with the feeling of being really satisfied with the outcome of whatever scene or chapter I was about to write. I paid no attention to the details of the story, but rather hung out in that space where it felt good just to imagine that I had already written it, and it had worked out well.

Just doing this small ritual before each writing session somehow opened up ideas that flowed more easily. A book that had taken three years of hard slog to write, I rewrote in ten weeks. I did the same thing with getting an agent—spending time imagining how good it would feel to have representation. (I had taken pleasure in ripping up the A4 sheet of paper we were given at the writing festival, which outlined the statistics of how unlikely it is to get published. Statistics mean nothing to the individual, because it only needs to happen once).

Twenty-four hours after sending the manuscript off, I got calls from two agents and had an offer of representation three days later. Maybe I just got lucky. But I use this approach as a way to live now, and my personal experience keeps showing me evidence that we, or at least, I, live in a participatory universe. I know when I’m on track and I know when I’m off, by how it feels. At risk of sounding like a tree-hugging hippie, it seems that the universe picks up the vibration we’re offering. Get out of bed and stub your toe, it pisses you off. Then you lose your keys and you’re late for work. Get up and appreciate a few things about life (there’s always something) and, chances are, the day goes more smoothly. It’s like the world reflects back events, situations, and rendezvous that match the vibe you put out there.

Is that really so outrageous? String theory suggests that when we take things back to their absolute basics, the universe is made of tiny strings whose frequency of vibration determines the nature of the particles they create. We know that observation influences outcome. We know that quantum particles have both wave and particle properties. What makes us think we’re separate? Why should we be exempt from the show?

If we are, that makes us ghosts in a way that is weirder than anything proposed so far. We are still a bunch of quarks and leptons bumping around in our own specific patterns within the universe. As much as we like to remove ourselves from the equation and peer in from the outside, as we attempt to unpick the fabric of our universe, we are part of it.

We have the unsettling observations of quantum physics. We have evidence of the impact of expectation and belief on genes, cellular function, and brain activity. We have accounts of people who have defied the medical odds through a specific determination, albeit via different approaches. Maybe this is all coincidence, but what if it’s not? At the end of the day, only personal experience and perception can inform our own perspective. This is just mine. You choose your own. END

Libby McGugan is also an emergency physician. She was nominated for Best Newcomer in last year’s British Fantasy Awards for her novel, “The Eidolon,” the first in the Quantum Ghosts Trilogy. The sequel, “The Fifth Force,” will be available soon.




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