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Technology Review TRSF: The Flame Is Roses

Monday 10th October, cool grey skies, luminous cloud. Yesterday, the wabi-sabi traditions of autumn, we planted out wallflowers and scoured the pools, savaging the clumps of yellow flag and exhuming soggy sheaves of dead leaves from the depths. Five fish and sundry frogs seemed to appreciate the clean-up. Flames of Roses keynote photo by Pattoise (Patrick Bouquet)/click through to his Flickr site.

TRSF, MIT's Technology Review Science Fiction anthology, out very soon, be sure to order your copy. My story for this exciting new collection has a story behind it: I was invited to submit back in May, with the brief that it was to be about near-future technologies, and went off to the Hay Fringe, where I was on a panel discussing the utility of vast projects like CERN... Some young people asked me, on the way out, what thrilling apps did I expect to "come out" of bizarre massive experiments in high energy physics?

If you've read my books and stories you'll know the answer: I write about a form of faster than light travel, "coming out" of a combination of information space science and high energy physics. But the Buonarotti Torus is a metaphor, not an extrapolation. It just means there has to be some huge shift, in basic science, before we can be starfarers. Something's got to give. What I said was, very firmly: I DON'T KNOW, because I thought that was the point of the lively discussion we'd just been having. You can't know. You can't put in an order for truly novel science, or it wouldn't be really novel, would it? But then I tried to think, because I had a story to write. What kind of app would I like? How could I link it to current cutting edge ideas? Then I read (classically) a timely New Scientist article about Bousso and Susskind's quantum global multiverse, which you can also read about in TR: http://www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_blog.aspx?id=26787 I felt immediately drawn to this. Hey, weird and totally cosmic scientists in need of an experiment/ What do I have in the locker that I could use, to make a story out of that...? I went to sleep one night, and woke up with the words the flames are roses, the smoke is briars. I knew it was a quote from T.S.Eliot's The Four Quartets, but it seemed highly suggestive. Flames, the pattern of fire of the neurons, I've often used that one. Roses, the pulsing, convoluted false-coloured rose of a brain scan, I've often used that one too... But what about that random T. S. Eliot connection? Was it just a pretty title? Or was there anything useful in Eliot?

Our Big Science throws up perverse hints and glimpses of a hidden level of reality, where time does not exist (and therefore neither does space); where everything is contiguous. Maybe, who knows, best described as a fantastically complex single object (mathematically speaking), that contains all possible universes. We can't observe this reality, we can't live in it, though it must be all around us, all the time. We can only deduce the immanent, enormous presence from the most fleeting phenomena, the faintest traces. And yet the fact that we have these glimpses seems to suggest that there is some bridge, some intersection, between what goes on in our causation-bound, flaccid jelly and chemistry brains, and the contiguous universe of information. Meanwhile artists and poets, such as Thomas Stearns Eliot, have wrestled for millenia with a strangely similar, aesthetic and spiritual dilemma. How human life; how consciousness itself, only exists painfully poised between physical, bodily existence, and ungraspable eternity. On the intersection, as he puts it, between the timeless, and time.

So, anyway, out of these scattered hints and traces I made an art/science sf story: realised it was far from being "good old fashioned clunky near future sf", and decided to send it off anyway, with apologies for being so undisciplined. But good old fashioned clunky sf had its moments of poetry too, after all...

The church on the headland, with the mysterious void below the Sanctuary (it's probably just a disused mediaeval crypt) is St Peter Vincula at Wisborough Green, West Sussex. If you know the Four Quartets, you'll know why there had to be a river.

I hope I haven't put you off, but I trust not. The list of contributors is stellar, the rest of the stories certain to be thrilling, and just what you need, a generous dose of the real stuff of science fiction.

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