Monday, June 18, 2012

To Stand on Charn

Since C.S. Lewis showed us a world on the other side of a wardrobe (and perhaps before), fantasy and science-fiction stories have abounded with this idea of traveling to parallel universes and experiencing strange new worlds.  It's almost iconic: awkward teenager struggling in school and with bullies, gets sucked in to an alternate magical world, meets fascinating elves and confronts evil, and finds confidence to face real-world issues on his or her return.

Typical example

So here's my question: how do they interact with matter in the alternate universe?
I'm almost sorry I asked this question, to myself, a year ago.  I really am.  It has almost ruined this genre for me.  If you don't want it ruined for you, too, then please do not read my explanation of why this is a huge problem.

original illustration of Charn
The question originated when I first read the Chronicles of Narnia (when I was 22 - I'm afraid I was one of those children, who received a full set when I was 7 and refused to read it because it looked too happy).  In particular, the scene in the Magician's Nephew where Jadis attempts to cast a spell in Digory's neighborhood... and nothing happens.  Magic works in Charn; it doesn't work here.  Along with various other physical constants, there is some magical constant, and must just be zero for us.

Charn works differently from Earth.

Then began a personal quest for "hardcore fantasy".  That sounds dirtier than it is.  Think hardcore science fiction - futuristic fiction where tech obeys actual known physics.  I want to see this done in fantasy.  I want magic to become physics.  Real physics.  Like, with equations.  I want to know the mathematical laws for what Jadis did in Charn and why they don't work in England.  And there are authors trying this, getting closer each time, making magic more and more a novel technology.  They haven't gotten to the point yet of mathematical formulations of magic, which is where I want this to end, but they have tried magic that obeys at least global conservation of energy.  I haven't seen magic that obeys local conservation of energy, and definitely not increase of entropy.  (Let me add as an aside, if you can use magic to reverse entropy, then there are MUCH BETTER things to do with that power.)

So I started musing about this problem, of an alternate magical universe that was only "magical" because their physics was foreign to us - a universe where fire elementals are part of basic engineering and an electric toaster is considered blasphemous demonism by residents and superstitious nonsense by scientists.  I won't pretend I got very far in to it, but it is an enticing (to me) question.

And that's when I realized that an earth human in this world would be incapable of even seeing the place, much less going on a coming-of-age-journey to slay a dark beast and outwit an evil sorcerer.

That's right; in my personal Narnia where electricity doesn't exist, you would see total and complete blackness.  After all, you only see things by light which is just an electromagnetic wave, and you only process that wave in to visual sensory information by photoreceptors, which is an electronic process!  If things don't obey the electromagnetic interaction, you cannot see them.

physicists like to pretend all solids are crystalline
But worse, you couldn't go on your adventure because you couldn't even stand on the ground.  The experience of solidity is caused by electromagnetic repulsion.  In our world (as opposed to my non-electromagnetic Narnia, NEN) things our held together by - essentially - the electromagnetic repulsion and attraction of the constituent atoms and electrons.  In solid matter, like a table, the atoms are very close together and don't have a lot of room to jiggle around - unlike a gas, where the atoms can come and ago essentially however they wish.  You cannot pass your hand through your table because your hand is also made of atoms.  Your hand atoms interact with the table atoms and repel one another, so you have to displace the table atoms to move through it, but the atoms don't have a lot of room, as I said.  (Moving through air is no problem, as the atoms aren't bound.)

Even if some explanation were given for how an NEN solid held together, Lucy's hand would just pass right through it because there is nothing in an NEN solid that would stop it from passing right through it.  The NEN solid doesn't interact with her hand.  Not only would she not see Mr. Tumnus, not only would she not be able to pick up his cakes, but she wouldn't even stand on the ground - she'd float blankly through space with constant velocity, not interacting even with the earth.

I have applied these thoughts to electromagnetic interactions and a world without them, but suppose Narnia did have electricity.  Why would Narnian electrons recognize Lucy's electrons and repel them accordingly?  I also assumed in the above paragraph that there was no gravity acting on her (or else she wouldn't have constant velocity), because gravity wouldn't act on her.  Why would the down-ward-pulling force of Narnia (gravity or otherwise) respond to Lucy as though she were normal Narnian matter?  Why would any force that may exist in a fantastic imaginary world interact with matter from a different world?

If this all sounds abstract, this is essentially the position physics is in with dark matter and energy (which is not even close to my area of research, so please consider me a layman on this topic).  The "dark" adjective means that it does not interact with normal matter except through gravity (and maybe the weak force) - we can't see it or touch it.  Whatever sort of physical interactions dark matter obeys besides gravity, it would seem that normal matter manifestly does not obey those physical laws.  There may be a second copy of electromagnetics that dark matter follows, but we wouldn't know because we don't interact with it - "dark electrons" don't repel our electrons.

And so, that is where hardcore fantasy ended.  Disappointment and the destruction of one of my favorite plot devices in young adult fantasy.  Narnia would not be a remotely fun place to visit after all... unless of course Aslan bent the rules for you, which I wouldn't put past him.


  1. This sounds like City of Angles, a web serial that I have came across but have not read, and therefore cannot comment on the quality of. Based on the description, it seems to describe adventures in a non-euclidian universe, a concept that simultaneously confuses and intrigues me.

  2. You should read the Five-Twelfths of Heaven books by Melissa Scott. They have a FANTASTIC "hard fantasy" setting in which spaceships are powered by very regimented magical systems. Sounds like you'd like them. :)

    1. Thanks for the recommend! I'll check it out!

  3. It doesn't sound that difficult a problem to overcome, really, at least from a narrative point of view.

    All you need do is require that travel between universes necessitates a change in the traveler that transforms them into a being that is compatible with the physics (or physics equivalent) of the local universe.

    Moreover, it need not even be a perceptible change: Once you step through the looking glass, so to speak, you may not feel any different, or look any different, but physically, your body would not be the same on a very fundamental level. Instead of being formed of atoms it would be formed of, say... ectoplasm that looks indistinguishable from the physical matter of our Earth yet with the fundamental difference that it interacts with the local universe according to IT'S rules, rather than ours.

    This could easily explain the Narnian and Charnian travels - after all, if the travel itself was hand-waved away as "magic," certainly the interaction with the destination universes can be similarly hand-waved, as well.
    You can even go into great detail on the hand-waving, as well - formulae for the transformation of physical Earth-matter into foreign universe-matter, the energy requirements, where the energy comes from, etc. It all depends on how "hard" you want the science of your fantasy setting to be.


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