This week’s short stories/excerpts were terrible. Characterless, plotless nonsense both. But I’d like to talk about some of the “science” used in this science fiction, particularly the electrons, the ether, and their interactions in the Platonov reading. While the extensions of the science of Platonov’s contemporaries is utterly ridiculous and fanciful to readers of our time, I found these hypothetical extensions to be quite creative and sort of beautiful in their own naivety.
In the time this work was written, Science was still trying to cope with light being a wave that can travel through empty space. That very statement could not make sense at the time, as waves were described as traveling vibrations or disturbances through some material. If light is a wave, and the vacuum of space really is empty, then light could not possibly travel through it. This paradox was a great mystery at the time, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, science turned to ancient philosophy for a drop-in solution: the aether. The aether was conceived as an omnipresent medium with which only light, electricity, and magnetism interact. As defined, it provided a convenient framework that solved the immediate paradox and gave science a direction in which to proceed: if we know the aether exists, what is it, and why does it only interact with light and electromagnetism?
Another major problem in science at the time was what held the atom together. Around the time of this work, electrons had already been isolated and were widely known; it was clear that atoms had lots of negatively charged electrons, but also had a lot of apparently empty space in them. In their center was a dense, positively charged thing (the nucleus) that no one understood.
Platonov took these two mysteries of contemporary science and made a guess at both their solutions in a way that allowed him to write a story using them. I think his decision to make the mechanics behind his solutions as few and as simple as possible worked out rather well, and produced an interesting set of ideas. His solution to the aether problem was that light was its own aether, which in the wave model of light isn’t too far from the truth. The nucleus holding the electrons of an atom together was a little pocket of aether, which happened to be a cluster of electron corpses, and the electrons themselves were little, hungry creatures that fed off their own dead. Thus his solution to these problems is almost elegant: everything is electrons, alive or dead. The living ones organize around their dead because of cannibalistic instinct, forming atoms, and large streams of dead ones form the aether, which we perceive as light.
This solution lends itself to having a story told about it because of its experimental possibilities: humans regularly experiment on life, and if all matter and energy is essentially composed of life, we could experiment on it too. This is exactly what happens in Platonov’s story, but what I wish was also addressed is the solution’s philosophical implications. Life as we know it exists as certain combinations of molecules that together perform organized actions. Now the atoms that make those molecules are discovered to be composed entirely of a combination of living and dead members of another form of life. Thus all the life we know is composed of a different form of life that is totally new to us. On a related note, are these electrons fundamental or composite, and is there an infinite regress of living things as building blocks of other living things?