Home > My Fiction > Musings on “Abductive Reasoning” and universes (mild spoilers)

Musings on “Abductive Reasoning” and universes (mild spoilers)

I had an interesting thought last night about my newly published story in Analog, “Abductive Reasoning.” I’ve been assuming all along that AR was in its own self-contained universe, unconnected to any of my other “written worlds.” As I mentioned once before, there’s no specific reason it couldn’t theoretically share a universe with my other standalone story, “No Dominion,” but there’s no reason they should be connected either, since they’re rather different in tone and focus. It can’t be set in the Only Superhuman universe (as ISFDb calls my default continuity), since that universe includes a faster-than-light drive technology, the warp cage, while the protagonist of AR travels with her consciousness encoded on a biochip in a palm-sized “wafer ship” that travels at high sublight speed using vacuum-energy sails and takes millennia to cross significant galactic distances. If the technology for warp propulsion were possible in AR’s universe, surely its Galactic Coalition would’ve discovered it long ago. Plus, the existence of that Coalition is incompatible with the galactic history and politics I’ve developed in my main universe.

I assumed the same arguments would apply to the universe of my Hub stories, the other comedy tales I’ve done for Analog. As works of science fiction humor, they could potentially go together, but the Hub universe also includes a form of faster-than-light travel, the Hub itself, plus the Hub Network that’s grown up around it and encompasses nine different galaxies, including much of the Milky Way. It seemed obvious that the Hub Network and the Galactic Coalition couldn’t exist in the same reality without being aware of each other, and if the GC knew about the Hub, then surely they’d use it instead of taking centuries to traverse the stars in wafer ships, right?

But last night I started to wonder if that was really the case. The GC’s citizens, or at least those like “Abductive Reasoning”‘s protagonist Cjek’darrit, are effectively immortal in biochip form, and presumably can place their minds in a dormant state for most of a lengthy interstellar journey. Culturally, they might be satisfied with the slowness of sublight travel despite being aware of an instantaneous alternative. Maybe they don’t even get along with the Hub Network; maybe there’s some political, ideological, or economic reason that they refuse to associate with the Network or vice-versa. Still, those seem like feeble justifications.

Then it occurred to me that the key to viable two-way Hub travel is the use of quantelopes — the bioengineered animals that communicate through quantum entanglement, the only way a ship can send a signal to the Hub to call for the opening of the nearest known Hubpoint. So ships using the Hub Network need to be large enough to carry at least one or two rabbit-sized animals and their cryogenic life-support tank. A wafer ship therefore couldn’t use the Hub! Except, hang on, the Coalition’s member species are (at least in Cjek’s case) born as organic beings and live that way in nanofabricated bodies when they’re on planets. So they don’t need to use wafer ships exclusively. They could use regular spaceships and Hub travel if they were aware of the Hub’s existence. So that doesn’t explain it.

But that leads to the next possibility: What if the Galactic Coalition and the Hub Network simply aren’t aware of each other yet? The Hub isn’t like warp cages. It isn’t a technology that could be theorized and invented; it’s unique, a physical property of the galaxy’s center of mass. If you hadn’t had the good fortune of some Network scout discovering a Hubpoint near your star system, you’d have no way of knowing it existed. So in theory, a large interstellar civilization adapted to use slower-than-light travel could share the galaxy with the Hub Network without the two having encountered each other yet. It’s a big galaxy with hundreds of billions of star systems, after all. Statistically, it’s at least possible. Although AR implies that the Coalition is extremely ancient and pervasive, so it might be hard for them to miss each other.

Then it struck me — the Hub Network is not ancient, certainly not on the same scale. “Home is Where the Hub Is” establishes that the Hub was discovered by the Dosperhag only 16,000 years ago, making the Network at least several centuries younger than that. But AR says that Cjek’s “creche-mates only reconverged at the home star once every few hundred galactic microrotations.” A galactic rotation, at least at Earth’s distance from the center, takes about 250 million years, so a hundred microrotations is 25,000 years. So journeys through the Coalition take tens of millennia at high sublight speeds, meaning that new information transmitted at the speed of light would take a similar amount of time to propagate. If the Hub Network is about 16,000 years old, then the odds are that contact with the GC would’ve most likely happened somewhere near the middle of that span, say around 8 millennia ago give or take — except the Hub has grown in size and activity over time, which would make contact statistically more likely to have occurred in the latter half of that span. So it’s reasonably likely that if the two civilizations have made contact, it was only within the past few millennia. And since it takes tens of millennia for new information to cross the entire Coalition, that news might not yet have spread far enough to reach any world Cjek’darrit has visited lately. So it could work.

Although… wait, hold the phone. There’s the other side of the question to consider. The Network may only be 15-16,000 years old, but the Hub, as I said, is an intrinsic property of the galaxy, so it’s been there for 13-odd billion years. If the Coalition existed in the Hub universe, and has been traveling the galaxy for hundreds of thousands of years at least, then it’s quite possible they — or one of the multiple starfaring civilizations that came together to form them — would’ve discovered the Hub long before the Dosperhag did. I’ve established that the Hub is a radiation source, constantly emitting EM radiation and signals that leak through from every point in the greater galaxy. It’s not an especially intense emitter, since ships can safely pass through it on a routine basis, but it would emit a rather unique radiation signature that could be detected from a distance if it weren’t yet encased in the Shell that the Dosperhag had built around it. So Coalition wafer ships or microsail probes passing near that region of space could well have discovered it on their own long ago.

So… okay. It’s theoretically possible that “Abductive Reasoning” takes place in the Hub universe. It isn’t conclusively ruled out by the stories to date. And there’s certainly some appeal to the idea of putting all my SF comedy stories in a shared reality. So last night, I thought it was a reasonable idea, but after sleeping on it, I have to say it seems unlikely — and probably undesirable. Having the Galactic Coalition unaware of the Hub Network would not be out of the question, but it would require imposing significant constraints on the GC’s age, spread, and knowledge of the galaxy, constraints that don’t quite fit with what I implied in the story and that would limit my options if I wanted to write more stories in that setting. Having the GC know about the Hub, either through contact with the Network or through prior discovery, and nonetheless choose not to take advantage of its convenience would require making some rather arbitrary and limiting assumptions about their culture or politics. It could potentially happen; for all I know, I could come up with a story idea about the two civilizations interacting, and then I’d have reason to tweak things to fit. It’s nice to know I at least have that option. But it doesn’t really feel right to treat them as the same universe without good reason. I didn’t conceive them that way, so they don’t naturally mesh without a fair amount of contrivance. I could change my mind in the future, but for now, better to let them stand as their own entities. (This is why I prefer to develop unified continuities from the start, rather than grafting separate stories together after the fact.)

And that’s fine. It would’ve been fun to discover an unexpected opportunity to merge the universes, but on the other hand, I liked writing a story set in a universe without FTL, without the usual kind of spaceship. I like it that this little comedy story is perhaps my most scientifically plausible, cutting-edge depiction of interstellar travel yet. And if I do more with the setting, I’d probably prefer to embrace the things that make it different from my other universes.

Still, it would be perfectly fine with me if everyone reading this post went out and bought copies of the Sep/Oct 2017 Analog and the eBook collection Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy (just follow the above links, then follow the ordering links of your choice therein), if you don’t have them already, so you can compare the universes and decide for yourselves. Because people buying my stuff is good.

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