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Antimatter canister from ‘Angels and Demons’

The Writers Almanac got me thinking this week about antimatter and the positron. If that seems a strange topic for a writing site, then you need to consider all of the fictional uses of antimatter in literature and popular entertainment.

Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick are a few of the many who have played around with this scientific discovery. The British television series Doctor Who used it for a propulsion system. That sentient android, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a positronic brain that gives him powerful computational capabilities. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the Illuminati try to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

In physics, the idea that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us goes back to the late 19th century. It is difficult to grasp the idea that there are mirror-image anti-atoms for all our known atoms. take that idea bigger and there would be whole anti-solar systems.

And what if in those solar systems the matter and antimatter might meet? They would annihilate one another.

In 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea. Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber, a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation, like the vapor trails of miniscule airplanes, each type of particle forming a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious pattern — a trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve — an electron’s mirror image and evidence of an anti-electron.

He took a now famous photograph of the event and in it a particle is seen approaching the metal plate , and when it hits the plate, it loses energy but continues to curve in the direction appropriate for a positively charged electron. He later called it a positron.

He had discovered antimatter. The discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 (at the age of 31 he was the youngest person to be so honored).

Antiprotons were discovered in 1955, and the antineutron was discovered the following year. In 1985, scientists created the first anti-atoms. And other antiparticles, such as antiprotons and antineutrons, have been discovered.

These discoveries led to speculation on its practical use. In Star Trek, it forms the basis of high energy propulsion systems. So far, the amount of antimatter so far created on Earth is orders of magnitude short of what would be needed to power a spacecraft.

Back in the 1940s, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took up the newly discovered particle and made it the means for his fictional “positronic brain.” Made of platinum and iridium, it was his way of  imparting humanlike consciousness to the robots in his story collection I, Robot.



It’s 1962 and America has lost WWII. The east is the Greater Nazi Reich and the west is the Japanese Pacific States.

In The Man in the High Castle, a novel by Philip K. Dick,  this is the alternate history of the world. The United States and the Allied forces lost the war. This was the novel that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction.

He was better known before that novel became a TV series for his fiction that was adapted for films, such as the two film Blade Runner films that are based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  That novel, set in 2021, portrays a world where another World War has killed millions and moved much of mankind off-planet. Because so many species became extinct on Earth, people cherish living creatures,  but the less expensive alternatives are very realistic “simulacra” of  horses, birds, cats – and also humans. On Mars, these androids are common and so well made to be indistinguishable from true humans.

On Earth, there is fear about what these artificial humans might do and the government has banned them. Many of them go into hiding, some live among human beings, undetected. The novels’s protagonist, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation), is one of the officially sanctioned bounty hunters who find rogue androids and “retire” them.

Dick’s fiction approached and crossed the lines of popular science fiction, the serious novel of ideas, and the reality of his time and now our present and future.

The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963 and is one of my favorites of his novels, but Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) published 36 science fiction novels and 121 short stories, so there is plenty of his work to read – and to still be adapted.

Castle has a “novel within the novel” structure and so there is an alternate history within this alternate history. That internal novel is titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. (Minor Spoiler: Hawthorne is the man in the high castle) In this version the Allies defeat the Axis but not in the same ways or with the same results as the actual historical outcome. The Bible verse “The grasshopper shall be a burden” (Ecclesiastes 12:5) is supposed to be the title’s inspiration.

In season two of the Amazon TV series version, they play off the novel and the films that the “Man in the High Castle” has released that show the alternative history where the United States defeated the Nazis and Japan.  Of course, the Germans have tried to destroy all the copies of the film. In Dick’s novel plotline, the Grasshopper book is banned in the occupied U.S., but widely read in the Pacific, and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy tells of  President Roosevelt surviving an assassination attempt but not trying for a third term. The next President, Rexford Tugwell, pulls the Pacific fleet out of Pearl Harbor, saving it from Japanese attack. When the U.S. enters WWII, it is a well-equipped naval power. In this version, Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them.  At the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes.

Philip K. Dick (PKD) said the main inspiration for writing The Man in the High Castle was the novel Bring the Jubilee, a 1953 novel by Ward Moore of an alternate nineteenth-century U.S. wherein the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War.

The Man in the High Castle became a television series in 2015 produced by Amazon Studios that is somewhat loosely based on the 1962 novel. There have been two seasons with a third forthcoming. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch the series free. If not, some video from the series is available on YouTube that gives you a sense of how the series has progressed.

I know that the idea and images of the series turn off some people. My wife gave up on watching it with me. (She was creeped out right away by the version of “Edelweiss” used as the theme song.) In a 1976 interview with Philip Dick , he said he had planned to write a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but couldn’t make any real progress because he was too disturbed by his research for the two books and he could not mentally bear “to go back and read about Nazis again.”

He regarded the published novel as intentionally having an open ending that could segue into a sequel . He even suggested that perhaps the sequel might be a collaboration with another author:. Perhaps, the Amazon series would be to his liking.

The other books that he acknowledged inspired and disturbed him when writing the novel include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), The Goebbels Diaries (1948), and Foxes of the Desert (1960). He also acknowledged the influence of the 1950 translation of the ancient classic I Ching by Richard Wilhelm. That text is not only read and used by characters in his novel, but was used in its divination way by Dick himself to make decisions about the plot of The Man in the High Castle.

Two chapters of the sequel were published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. They touch on the Nazis using time-travel visits to a parallel world in which they lost the war, but stealing nuclear weapons from that world to bring back to their reality.

Dick said that his 1967 The Ganymede Takeover began as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but evolved into a new unrelated story. Some portions were used in VALIS, published in 1985, three years after Dick’s death.

Philip K. Dick’s later work turned toward deeply personal, metaphysical questions concerning the nature of God.

Eleven of his novels and short stories have been adapted to film, most notably Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

I believe PKD would have at least been amused by this android version of him.

Author Arthur C. Clarke is probably best known for the novel and screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. His writing always seemed to me to be more “science” than much science-fiction.

Clarke contributed to the idea that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays and the geostationary orbit is now sometimes known as the Clarke Orbit or the Clarke Belt in his honor. Clarke, who died in 2008, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he is the only science-fiction writer to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

My favorite novels by him are Rendezvous with Rama, Against the Fall of Night (which I read when I was much younger) and Childhood’s End.

Childhood’s End was a novel I taught several times and read very closely with students. It was written in 1953 and set in the late 20th century. Its plot, thankfully, did not occur by the end of that century. Well, it didn’t occur in the way Clarke described.

This novel was an early example of the “first contact” with aliens story. When he was writing, it was the time of  the United States and the Soviet Union competing to be the first in space and building rockets to fight nuclear war. That conflict was often portrayed in science fiction as aliens, nuclear mutants and “body snatchers.”

Childhood’s End opens at a time when we are preparing to launch the first spaceships into orbit for military purposes. That is when huge alien ships appear over Earth’s biggest cities. The “space race” immediately ends as we unite in our defense of the planet.

It only takes a week before the aliens announce that they will take over all international affairs. But the Overlords, as they call themselves, are doing this for our own good. They see that we are on the verge of destroying our planet and humanity.

The Overlords never appear, but Karellen, the “Supervisor for Earth,” is their representative speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the UN Secretary-General.

Karellen says, “Your race, in its present stage of evolution, cannot face that stupendous challenge. One of my duties has been to protect you from the powers and forces that lie among the stars—forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine.”

The plan is that the Overlords will reveal themselves in 50 years, when humanity is used to their presence.

Rather than the aliens of War of the Worlds and other novels, the Overlords don’t try to destroy Earth. They plan to make it better. Earth prospers. The end of war. A kind of utopia.

Things seem good, though not everyone is trusting. Spoiler alert: When the Overlords are finally seen, they look very much like our image of the Devil.

When Clarke died in 2008, no one had been able to bring his novel to the screen. Clarke unsuccessfully tried to adapt his novel back in the 1960s with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick moved on to 2001: A Space Odyssey which started with Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel.”

This year Childhood’s End finally came to the smaller screen in a three-episode series on the SyFy channel.

The camera eye of HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey

The camera eye of HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey

So, the Overlords didn’t come to Earth. Or did they? I wrote earlier today about how many of us are willingly giving up control of our lives for the sake of convenience. Maybe the “overlords” are here in the form of algorithms and technology.

Take that idea a step further and some have suggested that the technology was put here by aliens. Okay, this moves beyond science fiction into fringe science, but there are believers.

Clarke’s Overlords are very interested in psychic research. At a party, guests play with a Ouija board. They ask where the Overlords came from and the answer is a star-catalog number that matches the direction the Overlords’ supply ships come and go.Do they want us to know?

Without giving away the plot, I’ll say that psychic abilities and the children of Earth are keys to the Overlords’ ultimate plans.

Even the Overlords give up control to the Overmind. The Overmind is the interstellar Hive Mind that Clarke said dominates the Milky Way Galaxy.

Is the Internet and all its technology the Overmind? The Internet launched in the 1980s. If the Overlords decide to reveal themselves to us, it would be in the 2040s. Beware the Overmind.


“That which you believe becomes your world. ” – Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is a fantasy, horror, and sci-fi writer whom I discovered through the episodes he wrote of The Twilight Zone. That was my favorite TV series as a kid. It scared me, amazed me, made me think and sometimes amused me.  I was happy to discover he was, like me, born in New Jersey (Allendale, 1926).

He also wrote for Star Trek and other shows. A good number of his more than 20 novels and 100 short stories became films.  Later, I discovered Matheson’s books, including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, which was later retitled The Incredible Shrinking Man as a film.

Stephen King said that “When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson I wouldn’t be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley’s mother.”

His 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, is my favorite. The film that was made based on his novel stars Robin Williams. Along with The Fisher King, it is one of my favorite films with Robin.  In the book, Chris dies and goes to Heaven, but descends into Hell to rescue his wife.

Matheson stated in an interview, “I think What Dreams May Come is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive.”

As far as the science in the fiction, Matheson says in an introductory note that the characters are fictional but almost everything else is based on research. He even included a bibliography.

The title comes from a line in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” speech: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.”


The plot also makes several allusions to the journey through the underworld in Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Characters quote the 18th century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, theories from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Raymond Moody.

Matheson was struck with the stories told by revived suicides which were much more frightening tales than those near death experiences of others who came back. The references are often ones that might be termed “New Age.” For example, reincarnation is viewed as a choice rather than the automatic cycle found in Hinduism and Buddhism.  It is a subject that everyone considers at some point in their life. A new TV show, Proof, focuses on investigating supernatural cases of reincarnation and near-death experiences funded by a terminally ill man who hopes to find evidence that death is not final.

Trailer for What Dreams May Come (film)


H.G. Wells showing off his time machine in Time After Time

Science fiction was the first form to take on time travel. It probably started with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine in 1895. But movies probably have the lead today on getting audiences to think about the concept.

It is an idea that has some science behind the fiction. Physicists have been considering the possibility of traveling in time since Einstein’s theories of relativity were published. Einstein showed that time slows as moving objects approach the speed of light. And gravity also slows time.

In his book How to Build a Time Machine, physicist Paul Davies writes, “The theory of relativity implies that a limited form of time travel is certainly possible, while unrestricted time travel — to any epoch, past or future — might just be possible, too.”

That’s more encouraging than some earlier interpretations of Einstein’s work.

What would happen to our lives if time travel became a reality?

I have written here about the paradoxes that might occur when time traveling, but the real problem is trying to build that time machine. It will cost a lot of money. The complexity of such a machine would mean only a few time traveler would have access. But even a few travelers could have a big impact on life as we know it.

Science-fiction writers and moviemakers have been playing with time travel for a long time and have considered and overcome many problems.  For the stories to be interesting, we usually have to accept that the time machine allows a traveler to create a complete loop – to travel back into the past or future and then return. Traveling to the future has fewer paradox issues than traveling to the past.

One online article rates the top 22 time travel films.  I’m not a fan of all their choices but most of my favorites are there.

I think the first films I ever saw on time travel were The Time Machine and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.

Of all the films on this list, The Time Machine is the only book I read before seeing the film. I loved reading H.G. Wells’ books as a kid. The book influenced all the time travel books that followed and I think the film influenced subsequent time travel movies.

The film is set in 1899 London where inventor H. George Wells invites some friends to his home to see  his machine that allows one to travel into the fourth dimension of time. Wells travels into the future and back. The author Wells wanted to predict where he saw humanity headed and he goes as far as to 1966 and when he flies through an atomic blast, he is pushed all the way to the year 802,701. Civilization is unrecognizably horrible. When he returns to 1900, no one believes him.  Though a modern audience might chuckle at the movie’s effects, it did win an Oscar for Best Special Effects in 1961.

The older and cornier 1949, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is based on a Mark Twain book. I read the book after seeing the film on TV as a kid. The book is more satire than sci-fi. The film stars Bing Crosby as Hank, and yes, Bing sings songs. Like some later films, al it takes for Hank to time travel is a hit in the head. (So, did he dream it all?) What I enjoyed in the film and book is how Hank takes his 1912 knowledge back to King Arthur’s time (I’m a big Arthurian romance fan too.) and comes off like a wizard. For example, he knows about an eclipse that will occur and so makes it seem that he controls the sun.

Corny as the film seems today, that Twain story premise has been used in contemporary films like Black Knight, The Spaceman, King Arthur and  Just Visiting.

I really like the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, because it focuses on the effects of time traveling and sets aside the technology. In the film, Christopher Reeve’s character, Richard, travels back in time to 1912 to be with the woman he loves.

Another film that avoids explaining the time machine technology is Peggy Sue Got Married, a Francis Ford Coppola film starring Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage. Peggy (Turner), who is recently separated from her husband Charlie (Cage), passes out at her 25-year high school reunion and awakens (Wizard of Oz style) back in time in her senior year of high school. That’s the year she got pregnant and married Charlie. A chance to change her present presents itself. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and is fun and thoughtful.

A nice twist on time travel occurs in the book and film The Time Traveler’s Wife. Henry De Tamble (played by Eric Bana) has no control over when, where and for how long he goes in time. In this version, time traveling, like being a vampire, has some big drawbacks. But he persists. I would too if Rachel McAdams was waiting for me.

Hermoine does some time traveling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban using a “time-turner”, though it’s not a major part of the plot.

The Austin Powers films (International Man of Mystery, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember) play time travel for laughs, including a laughable time machine.

There’s no science in Hot Tub Time Machine but that movie surprised me by being funnier and better than it seemed in previews.

Monty Pythoners Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin wrote (and Gilliam directed)  Time Bandits. With a good cast that includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond and Shelley Duvall, this fantastical film features a young boy who joins up with some time-traveling, treasure-hunting little people. Sounds like a kids film, but it gets pretty strange and dark.

Talking about dark, I move right on to to another Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys. It’s a serious sci-fi thriller with Bruce Willis’ Cole trying to save the future from a virus created in the past. This is a complicated story that can easily be viewed again. Brad Pitt got an Academy Award nomination for playing a mental patient revolutionary.

One of my favorites is the 1979 film Time After Time. It takes H.G. Wells (Malcolm MacDowell) as its main character and takes him him from London in 1893 to 1979. The twist is that Wells’ friend Stevenson has used the time machine that Wells’ wrote about (turns out it really existed!) and took off. Unfortunately, Stevenson is Jack the Ripper and he used the machine for the ultimate escape. Wells goes to the future in pursuit. Wells also falls in love with a modern day woman played by Mary Steenburgen. The story has some interesting things to say about our modern world.

Most people think of Groundhog Day as pure comedy, but I think it has a lot of serious stuff to say about time and people.  I wrote a post on “The Zen of Groundhog Day” so I don’t need to go into that aspect here. Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman gets stuck in a time lop and keeps going back 24 hours and reliving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He learns a little bit more each time, and eventually he comes to a true revelation.

At the top of my list for time traveling entertainment and ideas is the Back to the Future trilogy.  I love the gull-wing DeLorean time machine, young Michael J. Fox’s (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd’s (Doc Brown), the paradoxes, all the tech talk (flux capacitors).

And the secret to time travel? 1.21 gigawatts and 88 miles per hour. Take that, Einstein! (Einstein is Doc Brown’s dog.)

Doc Brown & Marty with the time-traveling DeLorean

“I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth.”   –  Philip K. Dick  from The Exegesis

I heard the writer  Jonathan Lethem talking about the writer Philip K. Dick and a 900 page book he co-edited which comes from thousands of pages written by PKD. The collection is called the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. It becomes the final work of an incredibly imaginative author. It’s a big book and one I could never read all the way through. So, once again, I borrowed a copy from the library so that I could explore parts of it.

Exegesis (from the Greek, meaning “to lead out”) is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text. It is often used with religious texts and many people associate it with the exegesis of the Bible.  Today it is likely to be used to mean a critical explanation or exploration of the meaning, significance or relevance of some text.

Dick is known as a science-fiction writer and futurist who explored reality and perception, space and time, monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, altered states and the human and the divine. The Exegesis comes from 8 years of his attempts to document some visionary experiences he had in which the universe was “transformed into information.”

He tried to understand it by writing through it, and he came up with a number theories. He wrote several novels known as the VALIS trilogy that also deal with it. Co-editors Jackson and Lethem try to guide us through Dick’s actual exegesis and also make some connections with Dick’s life and other writing.

More people have encountered the imagination of Philip K. Dick through the movies that have been based on his writing like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau and Minority Report.

Who was Philip K. Dick?

He was born December 16, 1928.  He was an American novelist, short story writer and essayist whose later works shifted to his personal interest in metaphysics and theology. It seems that he also used his own experiences with drugs, paranoia, schizophrenia, and transcendental experiences in books like A Scanner Darkly. (Non-readers can watch the A Scanner Darkly film version)

He published 44 novels, and approximately 121 short stories, and yet lived most of his career in near-poverty.


ichthys symbol

Here’s the strangeness. After a dental visit in February 1974 during which he was given sodium pentothal (for an impacted wisdom tooth), Dick has a life-changing experience at his front door.

He went to his front door expecting a prescription delivery and encountered a woman who was going door-to-door. She was wearing a gold Christian fish-pendant known as the ichthys and as the sun glinted off it, the reflection generated a “pink beam.” Dick ultimately concluded that this “intelligent” beam imparted wisdom and clairvoyance to him.

After that day, he began to have strange visions. At first he thought it was from his medication, but after several weeks of these visions he began to attribute them to the beam.

As an example, one  instance when the pink beam returned he learned that his infant son was ill. He took the child to the hospital and the vision and diagnosis were confirmed. Dick called these experiences “2-3-74” for February–March 1974.

You can take his visions as real paranormal experiences, or you can see them as delusional, but Dick was a believer. He describes in his writing  visions as geometric patterns and even pictures including Jesus and ancient Rome. In fact, he began to be convinced that he was living a double life. In one world he was the Philip K. Dick writer we know, and in the other he was “Thomas”, a persecuted Christian in the first century A.D.

He wrote about the change that occurred within him as the “transcendentally rational mind” which he referred to as “Zebra,” “God” and “VALIS”. His semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth is about these experiences and they continue in The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which make up the VALIS trilogy.

Dick died on March 2, 1982, the result of a combination of recurrent strokes accompanied by heart failure. I have read articles that attribute his visions to those strokes or their precursors. I’m sure many readers of his late writing (or this post) will see it as a man gone mad.

But, perhaps, the one universal exegesis is our own attempts to arrive at some critical and rational explanation, through whatever exploration we do, in order to discover the meaning and significance of our own life.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.


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