beware, there be spoilers: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

When I first started my 2018 project of reading all of Kurt Vonnegut, I will admit I had no idea what to expect. I’d read a bit: Cat’s Cradle, the Sirens of Titan, and Welcome to the Monkey House, all of which have a science fiction flavor to them.

But I hadn’t realized the extent to which Vonnegut framed everything in a science fiction context. But up until this point, that’s what he’s been doing. Like Player Piano, Slapstick is a near future story, with telepathic communication, habitable asteroids, and plagues and the consequences of plagues.

All good stuff. But there was one thing that made an appearance in Slapstick, one idea, that I thought was an idea worthy of far greater exploration than occurred therein, and so I would, as unseemly a thing to do as it is, pick a bone with Mr Vonnegut.

Don’t get me wrong. I love his writing and I’m enjoying my Year of Vonnegut. He has a sense of humor that I will be chasing for the rest of my days. He has a collection of characters that I can only marvel at.

But he does have a habit, and it is something of a habit, of introducing a spectacular idea and not exploring it. In Cat’s Cradle, we have the different crystalline structures of water, one of which is Ice-9, which leads to the cataclysm at the end of the world, but that cataclysm isn’t explored in any real depth. What are the logistical issues, for instance, around getting drinking water? Is skin permeable to Ice-9? And so forth.

And here, in Slapstick, comes the idea that gravity has a time dependence to it. That gravity on Earth is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, and that we happened to have been living at a time when gravity had decided (for lack of a better term) to be constant.

The pyramids were built when gravity was weak and workers could just lift the stones, for instance.

But what would human society look like, how would we have developed, what beliefs might we hold, if gravity were sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger. Because I think this would have had a massive impact. We are story telling beings, after all, and we have over the course of our history been good at capturing some significant historical events with our stories, such as flood myths and the flooding of the Black Sea.

We believe that gravity acts independent of time. That it is mass that determines gravity, and essentially nothing more, and this leads me to ponder a clear and difficult to embrace human trait. We have been truly aware of our surroundings for a remarkably short part of the time that the Earth has been around, much less the universe.

Many of our beliefs contains these hypotheses and assumptions, such as gravity being time independent, because that’s all we’ve ever known. Well, that and the fact that the math of the situation works out well.

But what if. What if. And I do expect at least one physicist to write in and tell me why the what if isn’t really, but I would like to believe in the possibility with the same fervor as any academic being unwilling to admit that they’ve been fooled by a good magician.

~ by Jim Anderson on 19 August 2018.

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