There will never be a Literature of Reality

The first job of the myth maker is to shrink the universe. The shrinkage occurs along all dimensions: time, space and mind. You see this everywhere. Immortal vampires and wizards are, at most, a few thousand years old: younger than many real trees. Grand science fiction star empires seldom span a single galaxy in a universe of hundreds of billions. Time travelers never set their machines to zero or infinity; they have no interest in creation or ultimate ends. The demigods, super AI’s, and other transcendent beings brood unproductively, without original ideas, for millennia. Remember when Elrond reminisced about “being there” when Sauron was struck down three thousand Middle Earth years ago. In all that time the great, wise, and nearly immortal, elves of Middle Earth did not move beyond simple swords. How quickly the battle for Gondor would have gone with a few dozen Abrams tanks and a couple squadrons of Warthogs.

It’s hard to fault human authors for shrinking the universe. The real universe, the utterly vast and ancient universe slowly discovered by modern science, is beyond all human scales. Imagine a book that devoted one word to every star in the observable universe. The number of stars in the observable universe is a unit that has a name. It’s called a Sagan in honor of Carl Sagan. The Sagan is currently estimated to be around 7 x 1022.  Assuming there are one thousand words per page our book would have 7 x 1019 pages.

If we read nonstop at a rate of one hundred pages per hour it would take about 80 billion years, or six times the estimated age of the universe, to read this book. Yet, vast as this book is, it leaves out pretty much everything. There’s no mention of the Earth or other planets: so many pages and not even a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s “mostly harmless.” Reality overwhelms imagination. The magic of Harry Potter is piffle compared to cosmic inflation. Haldane was right. The universe is probably queerer than we can imagine and certainly deeper than we can grasp. Our meager fictions must float in serene little bubbles lest they overrun our short impatient lives. There will never be a literature of reality.

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