Do we each make our own reality? Can different observers create concretely different realities? It’s a fantastical line of thought that has also raised scientific questions — and now science and fantasy have come together in a new novel, The Observer.
says stem cell researcher Robert Lanza in the latest episode of the Science Fiction Podcast.
Lanza co-author, Seattle science fiction writer Nancy Kress, agrees that the novel aims at one of life’s greatest mysteries. “The novel is about how we understand reality, and nothing is more important than that, because everything else depends on it,” she says.
The central point of the book, and the underlying scientific concept, has to do with how consciousness shapes our perception of a fuzzy, fuzzy quantum universe made up mostly of empty space.
Debates about the fundamental nature of reality go back centuries, to Plato and the “Allegory of the Cave,” and to Immanuel Kant’s 18th-century philosophical musings on transcendental idealism.
More recently, special relativity and quantum mechanics have provided a solid foundation for the idea that the act of observation has an effect on external phenomena.
More than a decade ago, Lanza began making his case for claims that the act of observing the universe sets the parameters of the universe. He and his colleagues have published peer-reviewed research on the topic — including a study in Annalen der Physik, the same journal that published Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc.2 paper.
Lanza has also written three books on a concept he calls “biocentrism” — a concept that holds that our brains basically build the universe out of the raw material of quantum foam. But biocentrism has not gained much traction in the scientific mainstream. For example, theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll said Lanza’s argument involved some “downright madness”, while Philip Moriarty of the University of Nottingham called it “quantum physics”.
The idea that our view of reality is a mental construct definitely sounds like science fiction—and, in fact, the topic has sparked science fiction novels like Neil Stephenson’s “Fall; or Dodge in Hell” as well as science fiction films like the “The Matrix” movie franchise. So perhaps it makes sense that the latest work in Lanza’s life-centric bibliography would be a science fiction tale.
To tackle the fantasy side of the equation, Lanza and his agent turned to a seasoned professional: Nancy Kress, an award-winning writer who has lived in Seattle for 13 years.
Kress is a self-professed science collective who loves turning real-world research into a good story. A few years ago, I worked with scientists at Microsoft Research to write a short story about an artificial intelligence program that tries to help its programmer overcome his own grief. But The Observer is the first time Chris has collaborated on a novel with any co-author, let alone a scientist.
“Our main challenge was getting enough science in there to show the difficulty of self-learning, based on actual science, without turning it into a study or damaging the fictional elements that actually make it a novel,” Chris said.
Chris crafted a story centering on an overworked neurosurgeon who agrees to join a silent research project in the Cayman Islands, with the support of a Nobel Prize-winning drug discoverer who also happens to be her great uncle. The project involves infusing willing subjects—including a great-uncle—with brain implants that enable people to modify the way they view the outside world. Is it just a simulation or is it something else?
“Observer” includes plot twists pulled from the headlines, including shaming on social media, drone technology, and villainy on the dark web. There is even a romance between a neurosurgeon and a wonderful doctor who is brought in to help with brain surgery.
Chris said she fell in love with that character. “It’s probably too perfect,” she said. “I don’t think there are any guys hanging around here exactly that perfect…but you have to create them on the page at least.”
Although the story takes some far-fetched turns, Chris insists The Observer is closer to science than most sci-fi films do.
She said, “You wouldn’t want me to start on sci-fi movies, because I would do a very long, obnoxious rant about how science is twisted.” (Listen to her podcast, which specifically targets the movie “Interstellar.”)
For his part, Lanza admits it may be a long time before the consciousness-altering brain implants described in The Observer reach market. “The chips are a little further than our technology,” he said.
But in the long term, Lanza hopes The Observer will be seen as less fantasy and more scientific. “I hope that in a hundred years, someone will look back and go, ‘That book was right,’” he said, laughing.
How science fiction coincides with Seattle Tech
Although Kris is not a native of Seattle, she has been able to take advantage of her stay in one of the tech capitals of the country. Her collaboration on Visions of the Future, a collection of short stories commissioned by Microsoft Research, is a prime example.
“The tech community interests me,” she said. “I was able to view Microsoft’s Advanced Research Project area when they invited a couple of sci-fi writers to show what was going on, accompanied by someone who stuck with us like glue.”
Thanks in part to Seattle-based support networks like Clarion West—where Chris took on mentor duties starting in 1992—the Pacific Northwest has a strong community of science fiction writers. And some of these writers have a symbiotic relationship with the Seattle tech world.
For example, award-winning author Ted Chiang — who wrote the short story turned movie “Arrival” in 2016 — also worked as a technical writer at Microsoft. And Neil Stephenson, a master of the cyber sci-fi genre, kept his hand in the tech scene as an early advisor on Jeff Bezos’ space project Blue Origin. as Head of Futures at Magic Leap, an augmented reality company with offices in Seattle; and as co-founder of Lamina1, which is building a blockchain-based metaverse platform.
Chris said the death of Greg Behr, one of the pioneers of the sci-fi community in Seattle, came as a shock in November.
“His loss has been deeply felt by all of us here,” she said. “But there are a lot of up-and-coming writers, and some of them are really good. I’m not going to name names, because anyone I leave would be offended. But yeah, it’s a very vibrant SF community. That’s one of the reasons I love being here.”
Check out the original edition of this item at the Cosmic Log for additional resources on “Observer” and quantum physics, links to other work by Lanza and Kress, and an additional reading recommendation from the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.
My co-host of the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer and graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop who currently lives in Berkeley, CA. To learn more about Phetteplace, visit her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast across Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Public Radio and Reason.