Nihilism Engineering

unspace interrupter: a type of switch used in extremely-high-power electrical systems, the unspace interrupter is designed to overcome the ultimate limit in switching: namely, the dielectric strength of possible insulators used to separate the contacts.

Perfect insulators are generally considered impossible since all baryonic – and most exotic – materials, even the most insulating, still contain small quantities of charge carriers, and sufficiently high voltages are capable of tearing the electrons from atoms, or otherwise motivating these charge carriers. Even vacuum is not a perfect insulator; a perfect vacuum still breaks down at 1e12 megavolts per meter, and the much more achievable high vacuum at a mere 30 megavolts per meter, even discounting processes such as thermionic emission.

The unspace interrupter bypasses this by observing that charge carriers require space to exist within, and by taking away that space, one assures that they cannot exist, and thus cannot flow. Unspace interrupters have been constructed using a variety of techniques, but one simple example is to consider two widely separated contact points – or an equivalent system, such as a photonic motor-generator set – linked by a tunable-pinch wormhole, i.e., one which can be closed or opened at will. When opened, current flows freely; when closed, the effective dielectric strength of the interrupter is determined by the arbitrarily large distance between its separated ends, which can be functionally infinite. Moreover, the opening of the contacts by this system is not subject to arcing or flashover.

– the Glossology of the Anbaric Spark, 997th ed.

Sidebar: Fixed Wormholes

(An in-universe explanation as to why the Empire, et. al., prefer to use their special – i.e., yes, per here, space-magic enhanced – wormhole technology.)

A common question among newcomers to the field of spacetime engineering, especially as it applies to wormholes, is the reasoning behind our use of dynamic wormholes (i.e., those that are created, used, and collapsed in the course of a single gating) rather than static wormholes, permanently inflated to allow passage and held open by exotic mass-energy “frames”. This seems, to these questioners, more elegant: being less wasteful in terms of energy (although the cost of maintaining the unstable exotic mass-energy frames should not be undercounted; the analogous Andracanth ram is not designed for continuous operation), and requiring nothing on the part of transiting vessels.

Sadly, this is prevented by the interaction of static wormholes with relativistics. Transporting a wormhole end incurs the time dilation of relativistic flight, such that one can travel through the wormhole to the destination system, in the reference frame of the transported end, years or decades before the wormhole end is delivered in the reference frame of the sender; sometimes, indeed, while the linelayer would still be visible leaving the origin system! This means, in effect, that outgoing travelers through the wormhole are stepping years or decades into the future, while returning travelers are likewise passing into the past, vis-à-vis flat space-time.

While this has interesting astrophysical and galactopolitical consequences (amply dealt with elsewhere), it alone does not cause issues from the point of view of infrastructure; since a return through flat space-time must require (per the Luminal Limit) more time than the wormhole’s time differential, the block universe is preserved.

However, it is easily demonstrable that the only topology which guarantees this is a pure directed acyclic structure, or tree, in which only one path is available to outgoing and returning traffic.

This is undesirable from an infrastructure point of view, since it greatly limits the capacity of the network given the bottleneck links near its core; forces all otherwise cross-link traffic, even between nearby systems, through a single distant core node (likely to be, as a strategic aside, near to if not within the builders’ most important star systems); and causes both of these issues to expand geometrically with scale.

More importantly, while there are a few primarily theoretical exceptions, almost any alternative structure containing cross-links (and therefore cyclic structures) enables certain routes to function as closed timelike curves, allowing particles, even virtual vacuum fluctuations, to return to their origin point at or before the time of their entry into the route. Such a path doubles the intensity of transiting particles with each retraversal (which all occur effectively instantaneously), thus creating arbitrarily high peak intensities, in turn resulting in the catastrophic resonance collapse of at least one of the wormholes along the critical path. Quite apart from the loss of route, the energies involved in this collapse along with those likely to be liberated from damaged stargate systems are such as to pose a significant hazard to the systems containing the mouths of the collapsing wormhole.

(This is also, as we will see later, perhaps the most important reason for the Imperial Timebase system being intertwined with stargate control systems at a very low level, and for the various sequencing and safety protocols encoded therein. While the wormholes used for gating are ephemeral, it would be possible – without coordination – for a simultaneous set of openings to form such a closed causal loop, which would then undergo such catastrophic collapse.

Bear in mind that, while we are able to lock the emergence of dynamic wormholes onto the empire time reference frame, the natural phenomenon of drift (q.v.) along t axis guarantees nonidentity, and as such this does not immunize loops of such wormholes from the catastrophic resonance collapse phenomenon.)

Since the point of collapse is controllable to a limited extent by the “strength” of the links along the CTC route, this effect is also weaponizable by hostile powers with wormhole capability (a causality attack, recognized by the Ley Accords as one prohibited form of causal weapon).

For these reasons, Imogen Andracanth’s team considered the static wormhole to not be viable as a large-scale interstellar transport technology.


– The Stargate Plexus: A Journeysoph’s Guide

Not Yo’ Mama’s Wormholes

Or, the Difficult Worldbuilding Compromises that Result when You Didn’t Design Everything at the Same Time.

It has been (entirely correctly) pointed out over on Google+ that this is not how wormholes, as we understand them today, would work.

(Because they’d work like this.)

This is one of those cases, though, where I end up invoking “firmish SF” – and one in which I’m trying hard to deprecate the term “wormhole”1 to refer to the kind of FTL there just to avoid confusion…

Having done my reading on said-hypothetically possible wormholes, I did my damnedest to use them properly. (Long-term readers of mine may, for example, remember some older references to wormholes as continuously existing Visser-type structures embedded in exotic matter frames, now quietly retconned out of canon – which indeed worked exactly as they should with regard to local conservation; having traversers’ mass and momentum added to the mouth they enter and subtracted from the mouth they exit.)

This would probably have worked a lot better for me if I’d not had an existing background/setting, because while I’ve rewritten a lot of things a lot of times to fit with hard-scientific plausibiity, after wrestling with it for a lengthy period – well, I came to the conclusion that while it offered me some very interesting options for how things would play out, there was pretty much no way I could reconcile it with what I had short of throwing out the setting and writing a new one from scratch. And, well, ouch.

So given the choice between that, badly mangling real science, or constructing some con-science to fit – in just this case, um, space magic? 🙂

1. Suggestions for alternative terminology gratefully accepted, since I really don’t want to keep calling these things wormholes when they don’t behave like wormholes. Especially since, arguably, there’s no reason that wormholes-which-are-wormholes couldn’t also exist there.

What is Ontotechnology?

…a reader asks.

Well, let me say right up front that ontotechnology as I describe it is pure-quill handwavium. Its connection to contemporary, real-world physics is that I endeavor to avoid coming right out and stabbing said contemporary, real-world physics in the face; after all, anything discovered in the future has to be consistent with the present. Rather, it is my speculation as to what the physics of the future as expanded by posthuman intellects running on hardware the size of small moons would look like – and as pure speculation, that means I don’t want to see any “but I read in this book that it was possible” arguments made anywhere, ‘kay?

Disclaimer over with, I stole the term from Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, who coined it as a neologism for “technology that permits manipulation of the fundamental rules of reality”. Which is exactly what ontotechnology does.

(How does it do it? Well, I postulate that the fundamental realization behind ontotechnology – by any of the three theories you care to use – is that at a very basic level, the map is the territory. Information and mass-energy are essentially equivalent. Mathematics doesn’t just represent the fundamental structure of reality; it is the fundamental structure of reality. Think of the universe, if you will, as a computer program, database, and processor all of which are also each other; ontotechnology, in those terms, is the skillful application of the root password and a debugger to it to make it work differently.)

You want to change the laws of physics? It does that. Treat space and time as building material? It does that, too. Set the speed of light to 60 mph, abolish the weak nuclear force, make gravity attract in proportion to the cube of the distance instead of the square, invent an entire new universal force that affects particles based on their heretofore-unknown qualities of shiny, fluffy, and matte? Sure, no problem. Can do. A fully mature ontotechnology would let you invent your very own personal version of physics that works exactly the way you want it to and impose it on whatever bit of the universe you want to work that way – or, hell, just reach outside, take hold of the brane, and make a new universe that runs according to your principles.

The problem, of course, is that even for weakly godlike moon-brains, programming universes is very, very complicated. The set of self-consistent/self-sustaining physical laws is a very, very tiny subset of the set of expressible physical laws, and the set of physical laws that are compatible with the existence of mass-energy as we know it is an even tinier subset of that subset, and the set of physical laws that are compatible with the existence of complex informational structures like, well, us is… you get the picture – and that’s without taking into account whatever laws control ontotechnology itself. (And, to further extend that debugging analogy, when you crash the universe tryin’, you don’t get a nice friendly exception message, or even a blue screen of death.)

All of which is why no-one, in the present time of the Eldraeverse, has a fully mature ontotechnology, and probably won’t for millions if not billions of years to come.

But they have been able to figure out a few applications that can be made to work safely and reliably, and that’s where technologies like the controllable wormhole, and the tangle channel, and vector control (which lets you do interesting things to gravity and the linkage between inertial and gravitational mass, starting with breaking mass into those two distinct concepts) come from – and where any future breakthroughs along those lines (say, if I decide at some point to let dimensional transcendence be invented) and/or mysterious rule-breaking alien artifacts dug up will draw from.

Trope-a-Day: Portal Network

Portal Network: The stargate plexus, which is the collection of all the stargate pairs in the Associated Worlds.  Pretty much every civilized system, except for really newly discovered ones, which may not, has at least one stargate in it.  Overall, the network vaguely resembles a spiderweb – the nodes being clusters of a few dozen systems (called constellations) linked together by a cluster of short-range wormholes, then hooked to neighboring clusters by longer-range wormholes.  The stargates themselves serve both to maintain the wormholes and act as communications relays for the extranet. Unlike many SF universes, these aren’t precursor gates; the system was established by the current polities, although only a few of the largest powers in the Worlds can manufacture their own gates – the Empire (and more specifically Ring Dynamics, ICC), and the Voniensa Republic (who make a point of maintaining their own state-run Portal Network – the Empire’s network, which forms most of the framework on which the Associated Worlds are based, they generously let the Accord of Galactic Polities treat as a common-carrier system, in exchange for, shall we say, consideration?) being the biggest two.  Almost everyone else piggybacks off theirs under the aegis of the Accord. While expansion used to be manual and painstaking, with improved automation making the Mark III Stargate more or less perpetually autonomous, most of the expansion of the network these days is being done by von Neumann wormhole-layers with only a little guidance from head office, so there are connected yet unexplored systems out there in the Periphery, and it’s entirely possible that the arrival of a stargate in their outer system, rather than that of explorers, will be many species’ first introduction to Life Out There.

Trope-a-Day: Faster Than Light Travel

Faster Than Light Travel: Means wormholes, which you have to drag to where you want them STL first.  (Or, for transmission only, tangle channels – which, for the physicists reading this, do not work by Quantum Entanglement As We Know It.)  For more details of which, see Cool Gate, Casual Interstellar Travel, and Corralled Cosmos.

And yes, faster than light travel, when combined with appropriate kinds of slower than light travel, absolutely does result in causality violations in the Eldraeverse.  (There are rules to govern which causality violations are possible – of which the short and mostly accurate version is “predestination paradoxes yes, grandfather paradoxes no” and various sophisticated computing techniques – “acausal logic” – make use of this fact.  It’s fun!)  Indeed, sometimes physics students are taken on (lengthy) field trips for the simple purpose of watching effects preceding causes.  It’s a fun day out for all the family!  (Even the ones who may not have been born yet.)

Trope-a-Day: Casual Interstellar Travel / Casual Interplanetary Travel

Casual Interstellar Travel / Casual Interplanetary Travel: It’s a little complicated.  Technically, yes, you can travel interstellarly fairly casually, since while you have to drag one end of your wormhole at subluminal speed to wherever you want it, interstellar travel to places where you have one already is pretty damn casual.  Step through and you’re there.  Ping.

Of course, wormholes and their associated stargates are Really Damn Expensive, and so is interstellar travel to anywhere that isn’t on the stargate networks involving as it does the many years relativity demands of you even in lighthugger starships, the great expense of said lighthugger, and for that matter, the even greater expense of the thousands or tens of thousands or even, for the largest luggers, hundreds of thousands of tons of antimatter you need to fuel the thing.

Further, and to subvert this slightly, while there’s casual interstellar travel, what there isn’t is casual interplanetary travel (speed-wise; it’s much more casual cost-wise).  No-one’s invented a convenient magical gravity drive that lets you whip up nigh-instantaneous thousands of gravities of acceleration (while there are vector-control drives, neither acceleration nor delta-v are any better, and indeed usually worse, than equivalent reaction drives; blame conservation of mass-energy), so getting anywhere in-system, including out to the stargate, still takes days or weeks, and for interstellar travel, that means on both ends of the wormhole.

This is resubverted for those with the right metaphysical attitude, because if you don’t go into quivering neo-Luddite theofear at the thought of having your mind separated from your body and transmitted elsewhere to be reinstalled in a different one at the far end (and granted, that’s not exactly most people outside the rampaging postsophontist neophile civilizations), then you can just mindcast where you want to go (assuming of course they have the right receiving equipment, which is by no means guaranteed outside the aforementioned civilizations).  Which is substantially quicker and counts as fully casual interplanetary/interstellar travel, because photons and (especially) tangle move a lot faster than your own personal meat/rock can be transported.


All is prepared.

The alignment is ready.  My bow spindle is perfectly aligned with the empty central apertures of the paired stargates, themselves aligned in matching orbits; in time, they will drift again out of alignment, but for now forced thrust keeps them together.

My accumulators seethe with energy bound into their superconducting coils, fusion reactors laboring to pump them with more energy still.

The final confirmations come in from external sources: traffic control confirms area clear.  Legal department confirms litigation threshold clear.  Kalcír Operations is ready to accept the new structure.  The new gatekeeper-pair has spun up its frame buffers and is ready to accept its duty.

I shift into my quantum-compiled submind, feeling my consciousness expand into a superposition of possible selves, and leak energy from the reactors – not touching the accumulators yet – into the spindle, feeling the shape of the manifold with its subtle field-manipulations.  Down at the quantum level, space is frothy, a tangled polydimensional labyrinth of impossible topology, twisted spatial constructs forming and collapsing in microtime, awash in a sea of virtual particles – existence and non-existence intertwined, causality itself impalpable at this – and among them all, a few possible wormhole candidates.

There.  My superposed selves reach consensus, and collapse back into my singular self.  The broad-spread radiators at the base of the spindle flare abruptly bright, as my accumulators discharge, exajoules of energy expended in a moment as I force inflation onto one knotted tube’s hypersurface —

And between the stargates, a space-black sphere – a distorted inside-out starfield, surface defined by the blue-purple glow as it struggles to radiate away its energy and collapse again – blossoms into reality.  My body feels the tug and shudder of the gravity-wave splash as space is bent far beyond its natural limits.  With a final thrust, I separate the wormhole’s overlapping ends – stretching the distortion into an ellipsoid, a barbell, and finally two separate spheres, pushed a little further, further, until they snap on to the exotic-matter frames held ready to accept them within the stargates.

A flood of information pours in from the gatekeepers, accepting responsibility for the new wormhole.  I let the spindle power down again – although the radiators will keep burning bright for hours yet – its work done.  The first and hardest part of the job is done; the wormhole is forged.

But now comes the longer part.  Vanlir 22-882 is nearly 20 light-years away, so I should have the gate in position in 22 years, or so.  At least I’ll only have to experience half-a-dozen of them.

Trope-a-Day: Black Box

Black Box: Quite a few of them lying around in the form of leftover elder race artifacts and other archaeological recoveries.  Sensible civilizations and corporations (like Probable Technologies, ICC) really hate this, because they know exactly how Sealed-Evil-In-A-Can dangerous that sort of thing can be, and the likelihood of unknown side effects, and decline to extensively use or commercialize any of them until they’ve figured out not only how to reproduce them, but also just how, exactly, the things work.  Very minor, very benign examples may be sold off to collectors, but no-one’s making them a part of their infrastructure until they know all about it.

There are, of course, plenty of sense-challenged people out there.

(On a lesser scale, there are some other examples: the secrets of stabilizing wormholes and building stargates, for example, are both a state secret of the Voniensa Republic and the highest possible grade of commercially-sensitive information for Ring Dynamics, ICC, for reasons in both cases less about maintaining their monopoly and more about wanting to discourage people from screwing with the infrastructure of their really expensive interstellar transportation system – so while the rough details of how they work are known to any schoolchild, that’s about it.  Likewise, the algorithms for producing recursively self-improving AI seeds are generally considered proprietary and closely held by informal agreement [the “Corícal Consensus“] of the people who have them, due to the tendency of amateurs to do really stupid things that Go Horribly Right.)

[Of course, in fairness to everyone else, it’s not like in their universe they ever ran into a recovered Black Box that was quite so all-fired useful as, say, Mass Effect‘s mass relay network.  On the other hand, I am fairly certain that, while the Imperials might have been unable to resist the urge to put that one into immediate operation, they also would have been sure to find a less important one somewhere that they could take apart to figure out how the damn things worked…]