The Ringworld Engineers, The Long Earth and The Furies of Calderon from the Codex Alera

Fantasy First: I love Jim Butcher and I wish I had written the Dresden Files. Let’s get that out in the open. I want another Dresden Files book and I want it now. Not getting what I want, I got side tracked into the Codex Alera. Let me say straight off, I hate it when people call their books or series Codex Something. It’s never fitting. But that is the only problem I have with The Furies of Calderon. This is the type of fantasy I love to read.

This novel is a mix of the Darkover Series by Marion Zimmer Bradley and the Shannara Series by Terry Brooks, not so much in its style or concept but rather in its magic. Almost every human on Calderon has some magic, from the lowly farm hand all the way up to their First Lord, who is massively powerful, though there are a few nulls, jokers, that have no magic at all. The main character is one of those unfortunates.

The magic in Furies of Calderon is a mix of telepathic powers as well as the ability to attract a Fury, an elemental spirit or native to Calderon. Furies can be small with hardly any power or they can be Great Furies with massive amounts of power. The more powerful the Fury the more powerful the wizard that controls them or rather is partnered with them.

This book has the flavor of both Darkover and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, in that you get the feeling that the humans on the planet are transplants and that their power is based on lineage, just as in Darkover. And like Lord of Light, that power is more psi than traditional magic. And yet, the magic also has the feel of elemental magic from Shannara. Furies can be stopped by their opposite element, Water can stop Fire, Air can nullify Earth and so on.

A magic user controls the Fury with his or her mind and can use the power in two ways. One way is to directly draw power from the Fury and use it to to do physical feats of speed or strength or to do true reading. The other way is call furycrafting. The furycrafter can manifest their Fury and have them take on physical form or allow them to mask the magic user in some way. Using furycrafting, the user can fly, heal, run very fast or hide and do other fantastical feats.

The political structure is very simple with Citizens, who are all men, at the bottom and then Lords, counts etc. Below Citizens are nonCitizens, that’s just about everyone else. Citizens are in charge of holdings. Next comes the High Lords with a First High Lord. One of the most interesting jobs or ranks in this system is the Cursor, who is ostensibly in charge of delivering the mail but also doubles as a spy and assassin. Calderon is also chock full of nonhumans who are presumably the natives to this world.

The Furies of Calderon has twists and turns, violence and love, danger and secrets, adventures and mystery. It’s the perfect fantasy novel and can even be read as a science fiction novel if one were so inclined. This is an adult novel but I would have read it as a pre-Adult, i.e., when I was in Fourth Grade.

This book straddles genres, as great books do. It invites one to think about politics, gender relations, misogyny, slavery, social stratification, realpolitik, disability, and so much more, as great books, and especially great fantasy, ought to do. It gives the reader a gentle universe and a framework, to think about real world problems in the comfort of a beautifully told, fantastical story.

Science Fantasy Next: The Long Earth is an interesting series. I adore Terry Pratchet’s humorous fantasy novels set in the Discworld. This is not that. This is more serious. It is cowritten by Stephen Baxter. I have not read any of Stephen Baxter’s work. He, by the way, has degrees in mathematics and engineering. Though, as will be seen, he doesn’t have any in physics.

The Long Earth, like the novel, is, at times, long and somewhat boring. The Long Earth itself is a retelling of the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics (QM). At each quantum event, the timeline, the worldline splits. In this case, for the long earth, they roll up all those little splits into one big split and you get another Earth or another Mars. There would still be an infinite number of alternative Earth’s or Mars’s, but, at least, it would be countably infinite rather than uncountably infinite. I have multiple problems with this as a plot device. Let’s start with the obvious and go from there.

The Long Earth interpretation of quantum mechanics is not supported by the mathematics. In the MWI of Quantum Mechanics (QM), there is no waveform collapse, as there is in the Copenhagen Interpretation, rather all the possibilities for each Quantum Event exist at the same time. So, every possibility of every quantum event exists in its own world, not just the major ones. This means that locality is preserved. That is, in MWI splitting is causal, local and relativistic. It avoids the non-locality or the non-relativistic propagation of information, spooky action at a distance, implied by the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. MWI is a realist, determinist and local theory akin to classical physics. MWI achieves this by removing wavefunction collapse, which is indeterministic and non-local, from the deterministic and local equations of quantum theory. MWI assumes realism and assumes minimal formal structure, rejecting hidden variables, etc.

So, it is obvious that the Long Earth is not actually the MWI of QM, because, for some reason, the splits are rolled up into only major historical events. How does one define or even judge an event to be significant enough to cause a split? This is not explained in the first book. The Long Earth is simply assumed and part of the plot of the series is to find the explanation for it: why and how does the Long Earth exist? Obviously, it is something beyond mathematics. Having only read the first book and part of the second, my guess would be that the Long Earth is a construct and not a natural phenomenon. A large part of my reasoning for this is that there are no humans or other sentient, fully aware, creatures in the Long Earth. Though to be fair, there are self-aware hominids populating the Long Earth.

Finally, it seems that our Earth is the only Earth giving off splits in the timeline/worldine or else there would be an uncountably infinite Earths in the Long Earth. Add to this that the only way to travel between the worlds is via brain power, that is, psychic power used by a conscious consciousness. This is a strange mixture of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM and MWI of QM and other cosmological theories of multiple universes and worlds with a large dose of psi or mystic powers. Thus, this is at best epic science fantasy and at worst epic fantasy wearing science fiction bangles.

Science Fiction, at last: Larry Niven’s Ringworld Engineers is a great science fiction book. I decided to read it because I didn’t remember if I had in the past. (I had.) This book is not only chockfull of interesting story, a human and a Kzin are captured by a Pierson’s puppeteer, and taken, via hyperdrive, back to the Ringworld but this book is also populated with fully specified aliens who are characters in the story, though not the raison d’être of the book. The Ringworld’s orbital mathematics are worked out. The spillage system to restore soil on the Ringworld is worked out. The attitude jets are Bussard ramjets that use a magnetic bottle to funnel solar winds into the scoops. This novel has superconducting cloth, gas lasers as big as a mountain, magnetic webs as big as a solar system to create flares that can power those laser and (spoiler alert) the ramjets. There are floating cities. Artificial gravity. Gravimetric propulsion. There are more alien cultures than one can believe and more aliens than one can keep track of, including pheromone vampires, all very well defined. The book answers why human age and become wrinkled. There are antigrav sleeping pads. There are teleportation discs. Stasis devices that suspend time. Impact suits that protect the wearer. Flying belts. Laser flashlights. Disintegrators. And magnifying goggles. Just to name of few of the science fiction elements in this story.

Those elements are a mixture of science fantasy, FTL, teleportation, antigavity, stasis fields, disintegrators, super material scrith, and a Ringworld that is bigger than a hundred earths, plausible but not yet created elements of science fiction, laser flashlights, Bussard ramjets, impact suits, lasers, monomolecular filament, and technologies that are with us today, communication devices, supercomputers, superconductors, lasers, rockets, orbital mechanics, vectors, simple physics and math and much more.

And the cultures, the customs, aliens, inter and intraalien sex and trade and wars. This book has everything. I’ve just scratched the surface. There are so many more goodies packed into this book. It is just overflowing with ideas and speculations wrapped up in a fast paced and gripping epic adventure.

It has made me rethink what a good science fiction story is about. It isn’t just about the idea, the math, the science, it’s about the wonder. If, after reading a science fiction book, a young child decides to become a scientist, an engineer, a technician, an astronaut, then that book is great science fiction else it might as well be science fantasy or just plain fantasy. So much of science fiction falls short nowadays of this wonderful series and others like it. The job of science fiction is to inspire fledgling scientists with wonder and the desire to explore. This book has all the features that have gone out of most contemporary science fiction. The idea is missing from modern science fiction. Alas, the science is missing from modern science fiction.

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