The Mysterious Ether – Part 2 of 2

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In the dice and miniatures adventure game Dungeon and Dragons, the Ether exists as The Ethereal Plane, a special ‘wasteland’ plane of existence which is present in the background of all the inner planes, but part of none of them. Etheric cyclones were a danger to hapless adventurers, who would find themselves tossed into other planes of existence adjacent to the Ethereal at the Dungeon Master’s whim.

The oriental concepts of Chi and the Tao sound very close to the definition of Ether; an ultimate reality, a living void which simultaneously creates and consumes all physical forms in an endless churn. The field theory of matter as described by physicist Hermann Weyl in The Tao of Physics, p. 199, proposes that reality is ‘really’ just ultra high intensity electrical charges in a cosmic electrical field. The tiny electrical charges that make up the atoms of everything that exists manifest as physical matter in a cosmic field of static.

The carbon nature of the Ether is so fine as to be undetectable by eye or any current scientific instrument, but might explain why our Milky Way galaxy emits radio static hiss (first detected in 1931 by physicist Karl Jansky). Other galaxies also send out background radio hisses of their own. This ‘universal signal’ was discovered in another form in 1977 by SETI astronomer Jerry R. Ehman, originating in the constellation of Sagittarius.

Today, the Ether seems relevant only in terms of fiction and pseudoscience, conspiracy theory even. Sci Fi Fantasy Blog thinks perhaps science doth protest too much. Coming this weekend as promised; The Weapons of Sci Fi-Fantasy Part 3 – Projectiles.

 

The Mysterious Ether – Part 1 of 2

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A subject mentioned in the previous article on science and magic is interesting enough to deserve some remarks on its own. The Ether is a controversial topic spanning the realms science, magic, fact and fiction. Bear with us with a theoretical exploration in two parts, and Sci Fi Fantasy blog will follow up with The Weapons of Sci Fi-Fantasy – Part 3: Projectiles next weekend.

According to the Austrian scientist/inventor Karl Schappeller (1874-1947), the Ether is an ultra fine carbon-based “energy soil” filling all of space. The analogy of static on a pre-digital TV screen is useful when imagining what the Ether looks like. Solid matter passes through the Ether like a screen door swinging through the air. It has the properties of vacuum force, consciousness (but in a latent state) and transferring electrical power. In the same way that dense fog is only visible when seen from a distance, the Ether is only seen when looked at from across the galaxy. Like a multiverse-sized cloud of black Xerox toner, the Ether concept would explain why the night sky is black.

The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 disproved the existence of any Ether to the satisfaction of mainstream science, making way for Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which did not support the existence of the Ether. He popularized the idea that space is an empty void and that radio waves and light travel through it without being ‘carried’ through a stationary medium (like ocean water ‘carries’ fish).

In the 1901 book Thought Power: It’s Control and Culture, author Annie Besant states that thoughts travel through an Ethereal fluid like radio waves through the air. She explains the pineal gland in the center of the brain is sensitive to the Ether, and functions as a transmitter/receiver for thoughts of sentient beings.

Science and Magic: An Examination

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Arthur C. Clark, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Using that quote as a starting point, we will continue to explore the relationship between the two.

Magic is the art of conjuring the elemental forces of nature or supernatural beings of the spirit world to alter reality. Magic is produced by spells usually involving arcane symbols, objects and spoken or written words. One term for books of magic is Grimoire, which translates literally to ‘grammar’, giving another level of meaning to the word ‘spell’.

Science, on the other hand, is the art of understanding and manipulating reality through the use of advanced knowledge and technology. Science believes there are logical explanations for everything that exists, and that which is currently not explainable will be eventually understood through application of the scientific method. Modern science seems intent on using technology to zoom further and further down into the physical nature of reality, continuing to find smaller and smaller particles (quantum theory).

Both science and magic harness the energies of nature, although each is based upon a separate belief of what nature really is. Early scientific study proposed that there are four basic elements in the natural world; fire, water, earth and air (and wood according to Chinese belief). Cyril Davson wrote about the Austrian scientist Karl Schapeller in The Physics of the Primary State of Matter, who theorized that these elements are all comprised from the Ether, a conscious-physical energy pervading all of space. Schappeller’s work on a new source of energy was of great interest to Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi SS (Records of the Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police, p. 88). In the late 1800s the Michelson-Morley experiment supposedly disproved the existence of the Ether.

Alchemy is a pre-scientific practice which borders on both science and magic. The chief aims of alchemy were to change various metals into gold, concoct potions to cure any disease and grant immortality. Alchemists believed in magic while at the same time establishing some of the basic tenets of modern science such as laboratory techniques, experimental method and terminology. During the Renaissance, alchemy would go on to split into two branches, one rooted in philosophy, astrology and the occult, and the other branch the sciences of chemistry and medicine.

Today, the two realms of magic and science that once shared much in common are very separate belief systems that do not acknowledge the others’ validity. This evokes the image of the elephant and the blind men, each groping for an understanding of the same thing while in total disagreement with one another.

 

What Is Sci Fi Fantasy?

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Science fantasy, also known as sci fi fantasy, is a genre of books, games, films and other fictional media that continues to grow in popularity since its emergence as a distinct genre 100 years ago. A working definition of science fantasy could be fiction that blends advanced technology with supernatural magic. These aspects are opposites; one assumes a radically developed science, while the other defies the understanding of science. Crossing these styles allows for more freedom of expression on a wider scope.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, published in serial format in 1912, is one of the earliest known works of science fantasy. Burroughs, who worked for a pencil sharpening company at the time, had no formal training, deciding he could do at least as good as other contemporary pulp writers when he began in 1911.

Most science fantasy content leans more toward one genre or the other. Recall the Humongous, the steampunk mecha Goblin champion from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. The Star Wars franchise setting is mainly sci fi, but ranks as science fantasy because of the The Force and it’s similarity to magic and humongous-labrynthmysticism. Recall the Sith Lord Darth Vader in A New Hope speaking about the Death Star, “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force“.

The opposite is true in the case of Michael Moorcock’s 1970’s series of mainly-fantasy novels known as the Elric Saga. At one point Elric encounters a time and space travelling pig-like monster who changes back to it’s original self, calling itself the contemporary sounding ‘Frank’ before being destroyed. Another sci fi encounter in the saga involves two alien giants known as Agak and Gagak who appear to be enchanted towers in the eyes of the characters. Their scheme to consume the universe is thwarted by a unified version of three different warrior-mage aspects of Elric from other dimensions. These sci fi touches prove to be very satisfying raising the Elric Saga above the level of pure fantasy literature.

Vampire_Hunter_D_cyborg_horsesSome content has an even balance of both genres, such as the Saga graphic novel from Image First and Vampire Hunter D videos and manga. These examples weave a tight assimilation of both genres which makes them more engaging than if the stories were purely sci fi OR fantasy. The rising popularity of sci fi fantasy may be due to creators of strictly science fiction or fantasy finally running out of ideas for original material inside the stylistic boundaries of each genre. Maybe audiences really like the idea of adventure that weaves starships and spells, and content creators are simply producing what they want.

Obviously, not all content is benefitted by crossing genres all of the time. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are perfect just as they are; adding sci fi would seem gimmicky and forced. But as more and more derivative, formulaic content falls flat on bookshelves, Netflix and app stores, the innovative allure of sci fi fantasy will continue its steady expansion into the popular mind.

Review: Marvel Secret Wars 2015

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In the second of this two part series on the Marvel Comics Secret Wars graphic novels, we will look at the 2015 edition.

Based loosely on the original storyline (see previous post), Secret Wars 2015 begins with the end of the Multiverse at the hands of The Beyonders, a group of omnipotent beings from another dimension. Unable to stop the destruction of the Multiverse, Earth’s superheroes (and a few supervillains) launch two efforts; one is to provide escape from annihilation for a chosen few in starfaring ‘life rafts’ and second, to confront The Beyonders themselves in order to destroy them and acquire their unlimited power.

Both plans succeed in a way. From the ashes of the Multiverse, none other than Dr. Doom emerges as god, recreating a planet called Battleworld from the remains of all that was. The life rafts containing select heroes and villains from the previous reality lie buried in the ground, the passengers in suspended animation. The inhabitants of Battleworld are oblivious to their previous reality, knowing only that which their overlord wants them to know.

God Emperor Doom’s patchwork kingdom has a distinctly medieval quality that represents science fiction fantasy well. The visual experience of this 9 issue series is a beautifully rendered integration of traditional pencil and ink media with vibrant digital color. The characters look legendary, although likenesses are somewhat inconsistent in a few places (Mr. Fantastic’s eyes are brown in one issue and blue in another). The environments of Battleworld are richly cinematic and engaging, a reward for the eyes. Doom seated on a throne made from the Yggdrasil world tree is particularly original and evocative.

doom-castle2The story tells just how much comics and audiences have evolved in the 30 years separating the two versions of the Secret Wars. While the original Secret Wars was written so that new readers could get involved with the characters and action in any given issue, the 2015 version assumes its readers are familiar enough with the Marvel Universe to not need background information laid out for them. Also unlike its predecessor, the 2015 Secret Wars features a more obscure cast (Where’s Cap? Where’s Iron Man?), demonstrating how diverse and specialized Marvel titles have grown in the past 30 years. While the new version has some major plot holes, such as Dr. Doom being omnipotent but not omniscient (really, guys?), the story arc still pays off in the end.

So which version of Secret Wars is better? If you have the means, get both and decide for yourself. For a straight-ahead story drawn in the classic Marvel style, check out the 1984 edition. For a more complex story with next-limit art, grab the 2015 Secret Wars. Both are vibrant, wide-angle entertainment.

Review: Marvel Secret Wars 1984

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In a two part series, we will review the Marvel Comics Secret Wars graphic novels from both 1984 and 2015 beginning with the original version. Taking place in a 12 issue series, the widespread popularity of the first major crossover event in the Marvel Universe would go on to inspire countless other crossovers. The ‘Secret Wars’ title, interestingly enough, came from Mattel toys, who partnered with Marvel to release the first line of Marvel action figures.

The Secret Wars is an exciting sci fi-fantasy adventure featuring some of our favorite superheroes and supervillains such as The Avengers, Dr. Doom, The X-men, Spiderman, Ultron, Iron Man,  Galactus, The Wrecking Crew, The Lizard  and many others. This medley of characters are set against each other by an omnipotent antagonist, known as the Beyonder, on a remote planet called Battleworld. The Beyonder promises to grant the victors of the Secret Wars anything they can imagine, studying them in order to understand the nature of desire.

The Secret Wars is an example of classic Marvel writing and artwork. Comic books were once written so that new readers, including those who had never read a comic before, could get some basic idea of the powers of the characters and what was going on in any given issue. Secret Wars is a fine example of this. The storyline is easy to follow and widely imaginative, showcasing the ensemble performance of the cast in an authentic light. Of particular interest are the interactions between characters like Captain America and The Wolverine, who until this series, had not appeared on the page together. Secret Wars also features some scandalous cross title romances between both heroes and villains.

The characters are rendered with emphasis on action, such that even if they are only standing there they seem engaged and engaging. Characters are also drawn so that they look the same throughout the story due to the use of model sheets (visual reference drawings that help likenesses stay consistent). The machines, structures and environments of Battleworld are rich in detail and variety.

secret-wars-1-classic-VS-nowThe only criticism is regarding the cover of the  graphic novel which is based on the #1 issue in the series. Alex Ross, who painted the new cover following the original 1984 layout, is a master artist without peer, perhaps the very best in the industry. That said, the style of rendition he used works against the medium of comic books as a gateway for fantasy. To a degree, the less realistic the characters look the easier it is for readers to fantasize that they themselves are their favorite hero. Ross’s artwork looks like portrait paintings of real people, so detailed and lifelike that no one would ever recognize themselves in the heroes faces.

Proving to be the most interesting of all The Beyonder’s test subjects is the archfiend Dr. Doom. We gain insight into Doom’s innermost desires and memories as The Beyonder examines him before Doom succeeds in taking The Beyonder’s unlimited power through cunning and sheer force of will. Doom undergoes the greatest change of all the characters as he struggles with the mind-boggling consequences of limitless power

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For young comic book fans interested in the Marvel legacy as well as fans classic Marvel who missed the original series, the 1984 Secret Wars graphic novel receives the utmost recommendation from Sci Fi-Fantasy Blog.

Story Aspects of Sci Fi-Fantasy

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What are the basic elements that make Sci Fi stories different from those of Fantasy? And how are they similar? James Cameron’s Avatar follows the plot of Disney’s Mulan very closely, and the original Star Wars was influenced by the 1958 samurai film The Hidden Tower, set in feudal Japan. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was inspired by the modern day horror of both World Wars, which were propelled by industrial technology. I assert that there are no storylines exclusive to either Sci Fi or Fantasy; rather both genres draw from a common source deep within the human psyche.

Throughout history, the archetypal symbols found in dreams of people from all over the world gave rise to mythology and fairy tales. Carl Jung, in Man and His Symbols, pg. 87, stresses the definition of an archetype as both a symbol or image and the feeling or emotional energy carried by that image. Childlike primal instincts, fantasies, and belief in magic call to our rational waking selves through the language of dream imagery. These symbols have endured in the collective consciousness due to the emotional charge they carry, forcing the dreamer to pay attention to them and seek out their meaning despite not making rational sense.

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One example of an archetype common to both Sci Fi and Fantasy content is the Hero. The Hero’s story arc, as detailed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, begins as if by accident in ordinary life, revealing another world of mysterious wonder. The Hero crosses the threshold of adventure and is faced with an impossible challenge before emerging victorious and returning to the familiar world. Other aspects common to both Sci Fi and Fantasy stories include the archetypes of Paradise, The Underworld, The Dark Forest and The Labyrinth, with characters such as The Wise Man, The Great Mother, Angels and Demons.  These archetypes spring from the genetic blueprint of our original nature, explaining why the myths of people from around the world since time began have so much in common.

An example of a film which succeeds in synthesizing aspects of both Sci Fi and Fantasy is The Empire Strikes Back, the masterpiece of director Irving Kershner. Presenting the futuristic Star Wars adventure like a fairy tale, Kershner evokes a childlike fascination from the audience. His understated camera lens allows us to focus on the characters, and ultimately to see ourselves in them.

Stories of both Sci Fi and Fantasy genres inspire courage in both the young who face the inescapable uncertainty of adult life, and the elderly who face what lies beyond. They lend meaning to an existence riddled with opposites, leading us to become who we are.