Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, January 1950.

There’s a tendency to over-think the relationship between surrealism and science fiction. The entry in the Science Fiction Encylopedia (1999 print edition) refers you on to the absurdist SF, illustration and the New Wave. There doesn’t seem anywhere to address the fact that SF has been a vehicle for bringing dream-like imagery into the real world since the beginning.

SF grew up at the same time as the surrealist movement, and shared its post-war Golden Age. Its rational and analytical approach gives its imagery the same pin-sharp focus as Dali, Magritte or Max Ernst. This story presents us with a complex scientific justification but its premise wouldn’t be out of place in a movie by Luis Bunel: what would happen if colour drained from the world.

It’s not quite as simple as that of course. Two astronomers studying solar infra-red waves suddenly find that their equipment won’t register anything beyond 20,000 Angstroms. While they check their machinery over the following days, radio stations across the country fall dead. Somehow the possible wavelengths of radiation are falling.

Along comes an obscure academic with the answer: he postulates that our region of space-time is just a ‘clot’ in a larger universe, he call Xi space. Generally events in Xi space don’t effect the clots, but occasionally something happens. In those situations it’s possible that the dimensions of a clot could be effected. He suggests that what’s happened is that the boundary of the universe has begun to shrink. No radiation with a wave length longer than the universe can exist and so as the universe shrinks, higher types of radiation slowly disappear off the dial.

There’s a great moment when one of the main characters (they’re typically interchangeable SF mouthpiece characters) ponders this sudden practical demonstration of some of the abstruse science studied by his colleagues.
Could it be possible that some catastrophe from Outside had warped their little corner of space until the giant Jupiter had been brought to what would once have been arm’s length, so close that you might have seized it between your thumb and forefinger like a cherry? As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendental was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. In their seminars they talked of world lines and a space of n dimensions but did any of them really believe it? Now, perhaps it was here at last. He shivered in the damp night air. The ocean breeze blowing in through the dome felt real enough.
The scientists go down to their dark room and make a terrifying discovery – the red filter has turned a dull grey. Visible light is beginning to fade away.

The story progresses to an effective apocalypse with the two friends clinging together at the end, powerless against massive forces of nature they can barely comprehend. It’s cosmic horror again, that particular brand of nihilism we find in science fiction. The surreal image of the colourless world fading to black leads us ultimately to the acceptance that reality is a fragile thing with a contingent existence only.

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