The Metatechnology of The Book Of Lost Doors

“Iron is stronger than the sea
Fire is stronger than iron
Blood is stronger than fire
Breath is stronger than blood.”

NOTE: While I am trying to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I will be discussing specific events from both Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts.  The examples I use may not make sense if you haven’t read them, and I may let slip some information that could give some things away.   What I am discussing here is the “how” of the fantastic elements of my universe–it’s not necessary to understand the action, it’s more of my own rules for deciding how things work.

NOTE TWO: I realized this morning that I left out one of the metatechnology types: Manipulation Of Energy, so I have edited this to put it in.

I will confess that I did not think all this through in detail prior to beginning this series, however, I did have some of the main principals in mind.

Much of the pseudoscience is based on actual theories that have been advanced from time to time.  The application of the theories is comes from my desire to create a system of Outsider technology that would a) be internally consistent, b) have a wide variety of achievable effects, c) have a definite “cost” that would act as a limiting factor,  d) allow for different styles of technology e) allow those technological styles to be used to combat each other without any one clear “best” style, and f) allow for the creation of new effects within styles and entirely new styles to be developed as the series progresses.

In other words, I didn’t want to ever be in the position of making some new device or ability out of whole cloth to get out of a plot hole, and then find that this new thingy upset the balance of power.   I want my readers to be able to trust the framework on which I ask them to suspend their disbelief.  When Catskinner takes over James’ body, for example, he burns stored chemical energy at a highly accelerated rate, and can literally starve James to death if he stays in control for too long.  That’s a firm limit to his power.

In Cannibal Hearts I introduced a device that allowed Catskinner to draw power from another source.  It’s not going to disrupt the balance of power, however, because it’s absurdly inefficient.  In a few minutes Catskinner drained the device of power that it had been accumulating for months.  So the basic limit on Catskinner’s power remains–James has to be able to replenish the chemical energy in his body by eating in order to keep Catskinner from killing him.  The one-time fluke of being able to harvest a huge energy source isn’t going to be a viable alternative.

Fair enough?

The basic concept that underlies the metaphysics of the BOLD universe is that information can exist on its own, as a self-supporting “morphogenic field”, and that like matter and energy, information cannot be created or destroyed, simply changed in form.  However, the universe itself is aging, and the asymmetry of the arrow of time inevitably reduces the overall level of information in the universe as a whole.  (I discuss this some in a pair of essays, A Gaze Blank And Pitiless As The Sun, Part I and Part II.)

This allows for non-corporal creatures, The Outsiders, who are able to influence the material world by influencing information-creating events.  That is to say, events which can result in multiple outcomes which all have the same potential energy, but can result in different levels of disorder.  An Outsider, working by itself, could not effect a deck of cards that was sitting by itself on a table, however, once someone started shuffling the cards, the Outsider could influence the order that the cards ended up in–it could stack the deck.

Effecting probability is the crudest level of Outsider influence, it’s more of an innate ability and less of a “technology”.  Also, it comes with a cost, since the overall level of entropy within the universe cannot be altered–it is gradually increasing over time.  Outsiders don’t reverse entropy, they simply push it around.  If one uses its influence to increase the order of a particular group of objects, somewhere else something has to become disordered more quickly to compensate.

(This is why casinos need to be built close to entropy sinks–the ocean or a river or a desert. It also explains why so much of Vegas and Atlantic City look so decayed once you get off the strip.)

Other technologies are based on effecting the lesser levels of existence, as described in the mnemonic verse that opens this piece.

  • Manipulation Of Space (the sea)  Space is a function of time, which anyone who has driven a long distance can attest.  Outsiders, however, exist outside the light cone, and so distance and time are much more fluid concepts for them.  Furthermore, time is a function of entropy, the rate of change.  If the rate of change slows, then space is effectively smaller. (Which is how Catskinner is able to move so fast without shredding James’ body in the process.)  As an analogy, consider measuring interstate travel in terms of tanks of gas–if you increase the fuel efficiency of the car, your destination becomes effectively closer.  Relativistic effects can be created not just by velocity, but by manipulating the entropic gradient.  (Which is how the space warping effects at The Good Earth are achieved. )
  • Manipulation Of Matter (iron)  Matter has an innate structure (yes, even fluids are structured, which is why we can speak of a turbulent flow such as the wind as having a velocity.)  This structure determines the degree of information contained within the matter, and the natural tendency is for the degree of information to degrade (actually, in my metaphysic, to sublimate into a higher level of complexity, since the information is not destroyed.)  That is to say that when physical objects age, they shift to a higher level of entropy, which releases information into the orthosphere.  Consequently, by manipulating the entropy level of an object, Outsiders are able to cause or retard aging, and also to fundamentally alter the complexity of an object.  Note–this will generally involve the cooperation of corporal humans, however, the humans need have no understanding of what they are building, they simply provide the energy to cause the parts to move, the Outsider will direct the assembly by controlling the “random” motion.  (I totally stole this concept from David Brin’s The Practice Effect, BTW.)
  • Manipulation Of Energy (fire) This is perhaps the subtlest effect and the one most prone to lead to unbalancing the world–which may be why I skimmed over it in the first draft.  Energy is a state of matter that changes over time, it requires a medium to exist.  Changes in energy, therefor must be somehow propagated through something physical.  It must also be conserved in a local sense–if something gains heat, for example, something that is connected by a material path must loose a corresponding degree of energy, whether that is kinetic, heat, light, radio waves, what have you.  I can see entropic effects primarily changing the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation–redshifting light into heat or blueshifting heat into X-rays.
  • Manipulation Of Living Things (blood) Living things are orders of magnitude more complex than non-living things, and consequently have a far higher level of information contained within them.  The gradient is so sharp, in fact, that it gives rise to a morphogenic field, a region of informational complexity that is essentially “solid” to Outsiders.  Outsiders can manipulate morphogenic fields in various ways, including altering them in such a way as to change the resultant genetic pattern, causing mutation or even entirely new organisms.  (The plant symbiotes that live within ambimorphs began life as terrestrial plants and had their genetic pattern changed to that of alien organisms.) They can also strengthen morphogenic fields, which allows tissue to remain living even when the biochemical processes are disrupted or even halted.  (Most people use biochemistry to explain zombies–I do it with information theory.)  Also the collapse of a morphogenic field releases a huge amount of information, which is what Catskinner’s non-corporal body feeds on, and why he kills.
  • Manipulation Of Information (breath)  I use “information” as a stand in for the mystical/spiritual dimension of the universe–“Chi”, or “The Force”, or “Manna”, or “Orgone Energy”.  It’s not really energy, since it is not dependent upon a state of matter but exists independent of matter and non-local in space-time.   However, it’s the vital resource for both the Outsiders and the corporal life forms in my universe–and it’s decreasing.  Think of my universe as the Earth after the sun goes out.  There is a limited amount of heat energy left, and it is radiating away into space.  Heat can be moved from one place to another, or released from stored biochemical energy by burning things, or given off by biochemical processes in living things, but there is only so much, and when it’s gone, everything freezes solid.  The Outsiders are parasites from worlds that have suffered entropy-death; worlds that are no longer able to support orthovore life because the entropic gradient has gone flat and change no longer occurs there.

Things, as it were, fall apart, and the center does not hold. What’s more, things here on Earth are falling apart faster than they should be, because the Outsiders are sucking the order out of everything they touch.

Okay, I have no idea if anybody out there managed to struggle through that, but if you did, I hope it makes sense on some level.  To recap, the Outsiders are the bad guys.  They offer magic, but the price of the magic is that it causes the Earth to die that much faster.  The effects are not immediately obvious, but this is why I describe the areas around Outsider activity as so run down and decrepit– the Outsiders are sucking the life out of the neighborhood in order to fuel their power.

Any comments would be really appreciated.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Cannibal Hearts, On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Metatechnology of The Book Of Lost Doors

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    An excellent metaphysics: neatly layered and comprehensible enough to not seem capricious, yet not so deterministic as to steal the joy of chaos from the reader. I especially liked the aside regarding why the areas around casinos are so run down.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. I love Tim Power’s work, and I try to emulate his ability to mix the fantastic and the realistic. I also believe that the groundwork that goes into writing fantasy and science fiction is like the engineering that goes into building a roller coaster–if my cosmology is solid then the reader doesn’t have to worry about what’s holding everything together, she or he can just hang and enjoy the ride.

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