A Cat’s-Eye View of Liminal Space

Tuesday the cat loves to test my understanding of liminal space.

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“Check it out! I’m in a liminal space! Again!”

The word “liminal”comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means “threshhold.” Liminal space has evolved to describe a place, time, idea or event balanced on the fulcrum of imminent change.

The space can be physical or metaphysical; a tunnel between two buildings is a liminal space, but so is the space between the acceptance of a new belief and rejection of the original.

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Liminal spaces make Loki nervous. They remind him of Schrödinger’s cat.

Tuesday is somewhat heavy-handed when it comes to liminal space demonstrations. Every door, be it full-size or cupboard-size, is an opportunity to instruct the humans in her family. She loves to pose half-in, half-out, and becomes frustrated when we insist she pick a side, because after all, that isn’t the POINT.

Historically, liminal space was a period within a ritual when an initiate is neither one thing or the other; an example of this is the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, first described by Arnold van Gennep. He identified the following three stages: separation from parents, or ‘death of childhood;’ the passing of a test to prove the initiate is worthy of the prize of adulthood; and the ‘new birth’ as the initiate is welcomed back into society as a fully-fledged adult.

Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors and the developer of the Diskworld (a flat world that rests on the backs of four giant elephants, who balance on the shell of a giant, space-faring turtle), uses the “rite of passage” ritual in one of his rare non-Diskworld children’s books, NATION. Early on, the poor initiate discovers that although he has passed the test, and is worthy of full adult status, he will never experience the ‘new birth’ portion of the ritual. He is trapped in liminal space forever.

Not unlike Tuesday, or so she would have us believe.

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Space-Time for Springers

92CDEB86-I’d like to divert your attention to “Spacetime For Springers,” a short story by Fritz Lieber. It is my favorite short story of all time.

I can’t pick a favorite book, or even narrow my selections down to a favorite hundred books, but this story pushes all my buttons. It hits all the story beats. The form could not be better. Not a word or sentence is unnecessary, and each builds toward the climax.

The great reveal is both devastating yet trackable through the story.

The hero, a hyper-intelligent kitten named Gummitch, is both lovable and relatable, in spite of species’ differences. And the author’s use of language gapes my jaw; “…he flung his spirit into her like a fistful of flaming arrows;” “mirror beings were insubstantial or at least hermetically sealed into their other world, probably creatures of pure spirit, harmless imitative ghosts;” “…he teleported himself three yards to the rear, making use of that faculty for cutting corners in space-time, traveling by space-warp in fact, which was one of his powers…”

 All my favorite writers have poet’s souls, but this piece, this miniature magnum opus, speaks to my heart. The theme of self-sacrifice, especially when that sacrifice is made to protect or preserve family or friends, underlies all my favorite stories. I have a soft little place in my heart for unsung heroes.

Other readers either love it or hate it. Some object to the entire theme, and long for a happy-ever-after, a magical ending where everybody gets what they want and joy is everywhere and the sun shines forever. Others don’t appreciate being manipulated by the writer into tears, but who wants to read an emotionally sterile story? Some simply hate cats, but I’m not able to grok that mindset any more than a sea cucumber can channel the thoughts of a Saguaro cactus.

Others, like me, believe it is one of the most poignant and heart-breakingly-beautiful stories ever told. The tale of Gummitch-kitten is posted here, if you’d like to read it for yourself and make your own decision.

Another story with near-perfect craft and construction is, “Who’s There?” by Arthur C. Clarke.  Yes, one of the main characters, the essential supporting character, is a cat. So? What’s your point?

 

Lost in Space: The Unconsidered Hazards of Time Travel

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Little Loki is fascinated with the theory of time travel.

 

Hulu and Netflix make it way too easy for me to feed my time travel addiction.  Dr. Who, Time After Time, Quantum Leap, D.C.’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Continuum, Primeval–SF binge-watching has never been more fun.

The different time travel theories proposed by each show and the screenwriters’ various answers to the insidious paradox problem fascinate (and sometimes infuriate) me. My favorite theory so far was advanced by the character Fitz in Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; he insists that if a psychic truly saw the future, then of course that future can’t be changed. If anyone could change the future by their action or inaction, then the psychic wouldn’t have the ability to see the actual future, now would she, because what she saw was only a potential future. If she can view the future, then it will be as fixed and unchangeable as the past. Viewing the future collapses the waveform! I love it!

One thing everyone seems to ignore, though, is the critical “moving through space” part of time travel. If I went back in time an hour or so, my main problem wouldn’t be avoiding myself so as not to create a paradox; my problem would be my inability to breathe or maintain internal temperature and pressure in the vacuum of space.

Earth is rotating at 1000 miles an hour; it is rocketing around the Sun at a speed of 66,000 miles an hour; the sun is moving at a pretty fair turn of speed around the galaxy at 483,000 miles an hour, and the galaxy is streaking through space at 1.3  million miles an hour! (1)

Celestial motion won’t stop in deference to my little time-travel jaunt.

What makes my time-travel journey so exciting (and lethal) is the fact that we don’t have absolute reference points to quantify all this motion. We don’t know the precise location of the Big Bang, or the exact distance traveled so far, and we don’t know our precise speed, either.  Mathematicians are amazing people, and if they had absolute reference points I’ve no doubt they could calculate exactly where we are now and exactly where we were an hour ago. They could make my trip nonlethal–if we weren’t lost out here in space. We don’t know where we started and we don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going, either.

One popular way Hollywood ignores the whole “lost in space” problem: semi-sentient, gigantic wormholes are eager to assist time travelers. These wormholes magically know when and where they are going and how to expand to an improbable size and safely convey travelers to their destinations in one piece. Characters use mystical phrases like “quantum entanglement,” “negative longitude” and “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” in haphazard ways, but nobody does any math, and the mystical wormholes are in charge of celestial navigation.

Math is the antithesis of magic. Math requires a lot of hard work, and relies on facts, theories and formulas. It only looks magical from the outside.

Mastery of movement in time is only half the problem; quantifying travel in space is equally challenging. Still, I guess it’s just as well screenwriters cheat and pretend wormholes (or the machines traveling through them) can solve complex math problems and calculate the precise location of our tiny ball of rock as it hurtles through the universe. If they didn’t, those shows I love to watch would be awfully short.

(1) ASP: How Fast Are You Moving When You’re Sitting Still?