Wednesday, November 28, 2007

As Beauty Does

Turning to short stories, James Killus' "As Beauty Does" is essentially a 1930s story in 90s guise. A mad scientist, er, a physicist, invents a serum, er, builds an accelerator, that can never be duplicated and that is blown up at the end anyway. In this case, the accelerator emits "aestheton" particles that makes ugly things appear beautiful. A seriously ugly female grad student turns the beam on herself. Killus tries for tragicomic commentary on beauty in today's society, but the uneasy mixture never gels.--Steve Carper’s Tangent Reviews

The phonon is a particle used in quantum mechanics to describe the propagation of sound in a crystal matrix. It’s not a “real” particle, in the sense of having an existence independent of the crystal, but it’s real in the sense that it describes a property of the medium and can be analyzed by the same kind of equations that are used on particles having independent existence.

J. B. Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind was published in 1937, and it set off a wave of ESP stories in science fiction. The first of Kuttner and Moore’s “Baldy” stories appeared in 1945, for example. Of course, telepathy, clairvoyance, and related subjects had existed in fantastic literature probably as long as fantastic literature has existed, but Rhine put a newly scientific sheen on the subject, regardless of the criticisms that Rhine received from the scientific (and especially the statistical) community.

John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later renamed as Analog, fell in love with ESP, and renamed it Psi in the mid-fifties, introducing such novelties as the Hieronymous machine, a device that supposedly worked just as well when its innards were replaced by schematics, an entirely believable claim for something that did basically nothing.

By the late fifties, the Psi stories were coming thick and fast, not just in Astounding, but in the other magazines that, pretty much of necessity, found that many submissions were Campbell’s rejects. There were also the “reply stories,” stories that were written as part of the ongoing intellectual dialog in SF. The one that I always think of here is Ted Cogswell’s “Limiting Factor,” which observed that, even if ESP and Psi existed, they would still have biological limitations, whereas machines have no such limits and will therefore always eventually win a competion.

The view that human consciousness is somehow related to basic physics is resilient and perennial, especially among physicists and anyone else who has internalized the modern scientific status hierarchy, which places particle physics at the reductionistic apex. I believe the unconscious syllogism goes:

  • Particle physics is the most important knowledge
  • My consciousness is the most important phenomenon
  • Therefore my consciousness must be a product of particle physics

Some physicists/amateur philosophers use quantum mechanics instead of particle physics, which amounts to the same argument, but does add “mysterious” to “important” in the argument. Besides, particle physics and quantum physics are inextricably linked.

All of which is to say that my story “As Beauty Does” is actually a fifties retro reply story, not a thirties retro story. If consciousness is based on quantum particle physics, then aspects of consciousness, what we perceive as goodness, courage, faith, hope, and, yes, beauty, should have pseudo-particles associated with them, just as the phonon exists in a crystal lattice.

My original version of the story was a downer. After it bounced a couple of times, I remembered that John Campbell always wanted Astounding stories to have solutions. It wasn’t enough to set up the problem, you had to solve it, according to Campbell. So I wrote a version that used a trick (stimulated emission, in fact) to purge poor Marge of her aestheton charge and save the day.

That version bounced a few times also. Then, when I sent it to A. J. Budrys, he sent a response letter suggesting some changes that I realized was actually a request for the original version of the story. I sent it to him and he bought it for Tomorrow SF.

I don’t consider it a “tragicomic commentary on beauty” because I don’t actually find anything funny about it.

My friend and fellow writer Dave Smeds read the original story soon after it was written and found the “beauty vampire” aspect of it sufficiently interesting that he requested my permission to write a fantasy story based on the idea. That became “The Flower that Does Not Wither,” which appeared in Sword and Sorceress IX and got an Honorable Mention in Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,1993. It can be found, for a fee ($0.75), on Fictionwise.

But here at Crazy Jim’s we just give them away.

Because I like you guys so much.

1 comment:

black dog barking said...

Killus tries for tragicomic commentary on beauty in today's society, but the uneasy mixture never gels.

Authorial intent? That's one for the wayback machine, even in 1996. Romeo and Juliet, dead by their own hand, is pretty much just tragedy.

I'm willing to suspend disbelief for aestheton emanation blinding the eye (and ear) of the beholder. How does it work for poetry? If I read "the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows" silently Mr Frost's mystery works as well for me as when I read it aloud and absorb audio aesthetons.