Permanent Suspension of Disbelief

I get lost easily and often.

Not the sort of lost where a GPS or a map would help, and not the sort of Lost where I find myself on a strange island being ever-redesigned by writers who haven’t a clue what they’re doing. The kind of lost to which I’m referring is a complex world of diversion. I do not live in the same mental construct of the world that most people imagine. The world in which we live is defined by our impressions and visualizations, not by some absolute filter–there is no single “camera” through which the world exists. Every person experiences life through the filters of their accepted beliefs. I believe almost anything that can be imagined can be made–or already exists in some context. I’m not different from anyone else in the world–if I were to suggest such a thing, I would be a narcissist or paranoid schizophrenic, and that is not the case. No, what I am referring to is my personality type.

My personality type is INTP. My primary focus is internal, where I deal with things rationally and logically. I take things in primarily via intuition (my biggest filter). I live in the world of theoretical possibilities, valuing knowledge above all else. I do not like to lead or control people. Independent, unconventional, and original, and predictably so.

I never stop dreaming. I tear down and rebuild everything around me to make it better, then get frustrated by immobile people who don’t want change. I love fascinating ideas–can get lost in the possibilities that a new idea brings for days at a time. This worldview applies to everything I read and watch and do. Novels. Video games. Movies. Analyze and categorize and hope to be surprised, but hardly ever am. Three-stage plot? Check. (Boooorrrriiinnnggg!). Unlikely conflict to excite the reader? Check. (Boring). Easily recognized pattern to the plot shared by many other novels/scripts? Check. (Sigh). Then I run across the rare gem that assimilates my brain as if tendrils came out of the book itself and shot into my skull, and I’m mesmerized for days or weeks–or for the rest of my life.

Gene Roddenberry (genius). Ron Moore (genius). Isaac Asimov (genius). Stephen Baxter (former genius who lost his marbles). Greg Bear (genius).

There are some stories that were so mind-blowing that they are with me to this day, forever churning around in my mind, taking up mental threads and weaving their way into all of my perceptions. Gene Roddenberry is a hero of logic and imagination for creating a highly plausible future for humanity which, at the same time, has become an endless baking sheet for the imprint of new stories within this universe. It is plausible precisely because that over-arching “what if?” that Roddenberry put out there for others to consume agrees with my harsh and ever-changing filters of the world, traversing (intact) decades of thought, higher levels of maturity, and that “INTP” demand for theories to fit nicely together like a puzzle. So, the world in which we live today is not so much the “real world” as much as it is “pre-Trek” in my mind, the world inevitably leading to that plausible future with the characters and stories I have enjoyed my entire life. Diversion from reality? Hardly. A core belief, deeply ingrained and integrated. Assimilated. I could no more abandon my belief in this plausible future than I could just decide to change my race. I believe that future is possible, not exactly the way these writers have spelled it out, but in a similar vein. Two bigger questions arise: 1) Do we really need to go out into the cosmos (assuming we have the technology to do so), and 2) Is anyone else out there?

Ron Moore is a genius for his ability to work within the highly immutable environment of the dysfunctional film and TV industries and still manage to produce beautiful works of mind-blowingly creative dramatic art. His stories have won Emmy and Hugo awards. His screenplay entitled “Relics,” was the scene for bringing one of the old guard onto the Star Trek: The Next Generation set: Jimmy Doohan aka “Scotty.” While everyone was oohing and ahhing over Scotty, I was in a state of shock over the whole Dyson Sphere thing, and paid little attention to the rest of the episode beyond that technological marvel (was Scotty in that episode?). My mind was reeling for…months…afterward. I imagined the civilization that could thrive on the inside of the sphere, equal to millions of planets in habitable space to live. I wondered how they would deal with comets and asteroids hitting the sphere, but an engineer would know the answer to that–the tensile strength of the materials would have to be incredible for the structure to maintain its integrity due to its own gravity. Any object like a comet striking the surface of the sphere would no more phase it than drops of rain would harm a car windshield. How many millions of years had it been there, and what kind of civilization must there be inside?

Unfortunately, the episode was about Scotty, and reminiscing about “the old days,” so they had little time for the Dyson Sphere beyond the challenges it presented to the crew’s safety. (Moore is also known for his work on the ground-breaking series, Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 2004-2009). It turns out that Scotty was right when he said, “The engineering knowledge just to design the thing boggles the mind.” A complete sphere is probably impossible, for many reasons, the biggest being that artificial gravity assumes rotation, which would cause air in the sphere to congregate at the equator, and the rotation itself would cause the sphere to squish into an ovoid shape. I contest these claims. Why must the sphere rotate? That’s Civilization Type 0 thinking. If the civilization can master the engineering required to build something so magnificantly huge, then they have a mastery over the fundamental physics of gravity, and could generate gravity inside the sphere, not to mention maintain the structural integrity of the sphere with energy.

Fast forward about ten years, and a little-known game studio called Bungie, and their game: Halo: Combat Evolved. Innovative gameplay for the time period (2001), with relatively new concepts in gaming such as physics and vehicles, which had never before been introduced into a first-person shooter with so much success. I found myself often just gawking at the Halo ring rather than continuing to play…lost in the possibilities. While Freeman Dyson speculated on the potential for capturing solar energy, popular fiction has taken a more practical approach to the vision by suggesting that people could live on the ring. No one has thought about this more than Larry Niven, author of Ringworld. Not one of my favorite novels (or series), but compelling technology nonetheless. Imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of a ring, to look up and see the horizon rise instead of disappear! Imagine going to the outer edge where a lip must be to hold in the oceans and land masses, and how it must be miles high! I think night time would be most compelling, looking at the other side (directly above) with a telescope, without the air obstructing the view, and looking at the lights overhead.

If a ring had the diameter of a planet like earth–8,000 miles–then the other side certainly would be visible to the naked eye but I think it would quickly narrow as it climbs in both directions away from the viewer until it is thin as a thread near the top. And how wide would it be? 100 miles? 1,000 miles? I can imagine people in the very near future building a small ringworld out of asteroid materials, using construction robots and some sort of carbon nanotube factory that would churn out lightweight components as tough as stainless steel. The ring needn’t be 8,000 miles in diameter–it could be even as small as 100 miles across! Can you imagine a spaceship that is 100 miles long? That’s incredibly huge! So too would a ring of that size be huge. If the ring were perhaps 4 miles wide, that alone would give the ring a surface area (2Ï€rh, with radius of 50, height of 4, that’s 2 * Ï€ * 50 * 4) of 1257 square miles, or about the size of Rhode Island (with a population of over 1 million!). I can safely say, therefore, that a 100-mile diameter ringworld will comfortably support a million people.

Why a ring, though? Why not a spaceship or many ships? That’s easy: the ring can be filled with plant life and water and animals and become a self-sustaining ecosystem, and due to spin it has gravity.

What about solar radiation? That’s a definite problem! Most people think of solar panels when you bring up solar radiation, but the fact is, that radiation destroys life. Earth’s life is protected by its magnetic field which deflects most of the harmful rays. A ring in open space or in orbit has no such protection (even with its own atmosphere). Perhaps one or more giant coils could be built into the ring structure, that is powered by solar and designed to generate an artificial magnetic field?

There is one down side to getting lost in one’s own thoughts–it is hard to return to the matters of the real world. When fantasy is so much fun, why would anyone want to spend time dwelling on matters of the day? On to the real topic of this essay: the suspension of disbelief. Having a mind for flights of fancy, I find it easy to get lost in a story or to “suspend my disbelief” (that it is just a story, not real). As soon as I snap out of the reverie and realize it’s a story, that I’m actually sitting at my desk or on the back porch, I lose the almost hypnotic high of being lost in that other realm. I understand many people do not easily transition over, and merely read stories for what they are–stories. Some people never get lost in the story itself, but look at it entirely from an outside point of view, intellectually accepting the words but philosophically rejecting the fictional world. What loss! How much more fun is it to be teleported inside that world to live it with the characters than to merely observe them! But, alas, some people lack the mental projection mechanism (call it a mental holodeck if you will) needed to live inside it.

Furthermore, what happens when vision-less people are put in charge of creating highly visionary fictional content such as a movie or interactive video game? The results are all too obvious. Keep a look out for works in the popular culture, and judge for yourself: does it draw you in, or are the characters and events like so many Disney animatronics? I could cite my own examples, but that’s a matter of opinion. Suffice it to say, there are some works of fiction that I immediately dismiss, and some that keep my attention for a lifetime. When that happens, my suspension of disbelief is permanent, and I am grateful to the designer of that work of art for giving me a small pleasure in life.

Leave a Reply