Friday, April 23, 2010

Every Intelligent Being Must Sooner or Later Explore Its Options: The Planiverse

By the time I was thirteen, discussions at my house about what I would or should "do" when I grew up became more serious, and "movie director" was no longer an acceptable answer.

The going assumption was that I'd be best suited for "something with computers." I enjoyed tinkering with my Commodore 64 and Apple II, though it was hardly a pure love; I made my own video games when we couldn't afford the commercial ones. I developed bridge controls from the Enterprise, text adventures, even a few science applications. I entered programs from magazines like Ahoy! and Compute, line by tedious line. I learned to incrementally isolate and solve problems, one error at a time.

I'll admit that the prospect of growing up to isolate and solve problems under the green glow of a computer screen did not inspire me to race headlong into maturity. I dragged my feet as long as I could, hiding in my books, goofing off in school, hoping something might yet save me for a life of imagination.

And then I read A.K. Dewdney's The Planiverse. There, I discovered the answer to the age-old choice between right-brained and left-brained, imagination and reason, creativity and science, English and Engineering.

The answer was, "Yes, both, please."

In The Planiverse, a team of computer science students discovers that their computer simulation of a two-dimensional biological environment has somehow made contact with a real two-dimensional world. One particularly perceptive resident of that world, Yndrd, becomes their guide to the wonders of the planet Arde. They follow him on a spiritual journey from his home in Punizla across the continent to Vanizla, learning along the way about the science and culture of Yndrd's people.

On one level, perhaps the simplest, The Planiverse is a tour of an alien planet, just as fascinating and vividly imagined as Dune or Rendezvous with Rama. Dewdney takes great care to describe in detail just how the world works in two-dimensions, showing everything from atoms and chemical reactions to politics and daily life. These extrapolations, as in the best science fiction, could alone justify the time of a curious reader.

Yet there is something more to this book that makes it a neglected classic for readers of all ages, particularly those still as curious and adventurous as Yndrd. "Every intelligent being must sooner or later explore its options," the scientists tell Yndrd, and in his quest to understand what exists Beyond, Yndrd must grow to learn what it means to be alive and intelligent. His adventures show us that there are rewards and responsibilities implicit in our sentience, not to mention great costs for pursuing the things we love.

When we seek knowledge of how the world works, we learn how we work--and vice versa. There is no choosing between them because there is no between; they're really the same thing.

This is an extraordinary and moving book, fascinating for its science and inspiring for its human insight. It should be required reading for anyone still unsure what to do with his or her brains, if only because it reminds us that our decisions need not be two-dimensional, either-or choices. Like Yndrd, we too can reach for something Beyond.

(And what did I choose? Well, when I'm not writing speculative genre stories and reviews for you, I'm writing speculative documents as a technical writer. In a way, I'm fortunate to write something like The Planiverse every day. This book helped guide the way.)

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