Sunday, December 11, 2005

On the Problem of Celestial Bodies in the Land of the Lost, part I

Back in the early to mid 70's, Sid and Marty Krofft were a dominant force in Saturday morning kids programming. Mind you, this is equivalent to saying that you’re the tallest person at a dwarf convention. In those days, kids shows were done on the cheap and were largely considered an afterthought by the Networks — a way to provide a convenient slot for toy manufacturers to hawk their wares.

The Kroffts specialized in low-budget live action shows. Most of the shows were fairly dismal with such titles as Lidsville (a show about a land of living hats, which must have been inspired by LSD consumption), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, The Bugaloos, and similar dreck. There did exist one bright spot in their lineup: a show called Land of the Lost.

Land of the Lost was about the adventures of the Marshall family who were stranded, Robinson Caruso style, in a mysterious and strange world. The most obvious thing about the show (aside from its lack of budget and the dearth of good acting) was that it had dinosaurs (provided via stop animation as well as some truly pathetic puppets for close-ups). Indeed, from interviews with the Kroffts, it's clear that all they were interested in was plugging into the dinosaur market which, even in those pre-Jurassic Park days, had a hell of a lot of kid appeal. Left to their own devices, they would have probably come up with one of their standard crapfests. Fortunately, they were lucky enough to sign up David Gerrold as the story editor.

If the name tickles your hindbrain, it may because you've seen him credited for the much loved Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. Gerrold, by that point, had quite a few science fiction screen credits. More importantly, he was a bonified science fiction author in his own right (I would absolutely recommend his book The Man who Folded Himself, which is, in my opinion, the very best time travel story yet written). Even more importantly than that, he was well connected in the serious science fiction community and, thus, able to get such respected authors as Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon and Ben Bova to contribute stories. From the perspective of the Kroffts, this was like knowing someone who could get Stephen Hawking to help you with your physics homework.

I started watching the show when I was five years old. My initial attraction to the show was, of course, the dinosaurs. Even compared to other little boys, I was intensely interested in dinosaurs. I remember shouting out "That's a struthiomimus!" in Kindergarten when the teacher was showing us dino pictures. By the time I was six, half my vocabulary had an alarmingly high percentage of complex Latin and Greek names. Ultimately, though, it wasn't the dinosaurs that made me really love the show. What really kept me coming back for the full three years was the originality of the world that the Marshalls had found themselves in.

I suspect that most people, given the assignment of making a dinosaur show would have either set it in the past (via time travel) or would have done something in the present using some kind of Jurassic Park variant. Gerrold, in conjunction with Niven, came up with something really out of the box. The story was set in an entirely different universe. Erratic space-time doors would occasionally trap random people and beast in this other universe (hence the dinosaurs, as well as other curious flora and fauna, including a family of ape-like creatures called Pakuni1). The universe also had its natives in the form of the Sleestak who were a kind of hybrid insect/lizard people who were the degenerate descendants of the creators of the Land of the Lost.

The most interesting thing, for me, however was the nature of the universe. Rather than being a true world, the Land was actually a very small pocket universe that wrapped around itself. An early episode (by Larry Niven) has the Marshalls attempt to find their way to civilization by sailing down a river. At the end of the episode the river returns them to their starting point. A later episode has them on a mountain top looking through a pair of binoculars and seeing the backs of their own heads in the distance. Even as a kind, that scene simply blew me away with the awesomeness of its implications.

As a kid, of course, I didn't really understand what was being presented. I thought that it was cool and mind blowing, but I didn't realize that I was being exposed to the idea of higher geometries.

Allow me a slight digression to discuss this.

We tend to think of such concepts as the forth dimension as being thoroughly modern. In point of fact, the idea goes back some ways. One of the best treatments of the subject comes from Edwin Abbott's book Flatland. Flatland is a universe of two dimensional creatures (who mainly take the shape of simple polygons). Being constrained to a two dimensional plane, they have no concept of the third dimension. The protagonist of the story, a Mr. A Square, encounters a visitor from the 3rd dimension. This visitor, who is a sphere, demonstrates the existence of a third dimension beyond the two that Mr. Square can perceive. In the end, A Square ends up afoul of the authorities, who consider his claims to be anarchic and blasphemous. He also offends the sphere by suggesting the existence of dimensions beyond the third.

Flatland was simultaneously a parody of Victorian culture (a fact that gets lost of some of its detractors who object to the portrayal of women in the book) as well as a kind of theological speculation. At the time of its writing, some theologians and spiritualists believed that Heaven and Hell could be found in the fourth dimension (which is much more tenable than supposing that they can be found somewhere in our universe) and that angels and demons were able to accomplish their apparently magical interactions with the world via their privileged status of being four dimensional beings.

In the early part of the 20th century, Albert Einstein brought the idea of higher dimensions to the world of physics. Einstein proposed that space and time were a unified four-dimensional structure and that both are curved, in higher dimensions, by the presence of mass. With the ascendance of Relativity, the subject of higher dimensions ceased to be a theological parlor game.

With the emergence of science fiction, as a distinct genre, in the late 20s and early 30s, it wasn't long before the subject became the subject of popular fiction. One of the more memorable of the early efforts was Heinlein's And He Built a Crooked House which was about a man who built a house in the shape of a "flattened" hyper-cube (aka, a tesseract). Think of unfolding a cube and flattening it out and you have the basic analogy (for what it's worth, a "flattened" tesseract looks like a cross built of cubes with additional cubes struck in the front and back of the junction point). In the story and earthquake causes the house to fold up into a true tesseract, causing immense distress to the people trapped inside of it.

Although you find references to the fourth (and higher) dimensions in stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (which lasted through the 50s), it wasn't really that common of an idea. The bread and butter of the science fiction community were stories with spaceships and aliens (and scantily clad women in constant distress, to judge from the covers of the pulp magazines).

The late 60s and 70s represented a sea change in the SF community. So-called New Wave authors rejected the traditional tropes of science fiction in favor of more literary stories where the science fictional elements took a back stage to such things as characterization, politics, religion, sex, and so forth. Essentially, science fiction was trying to grow up and escape from the teenage-boy ghetto of its readership. Unfortunately, in attempting to become more mature, many of the authors threw the baby out with the bathwater. Hard SF, meaning stories with rigorous scientific speculation, were considered to be passé and undesirable. While a lot of good stories did come out of this era, many of the efforts come across as amateurish and self-indulgent. The actual scientific content became such a minor chord that some of the stories are barely recognizable as science fiction at all.

Larry Niven was one of the few authors who moved against the grain. Almost single-handedly he managed to revitalize the field of Hard SF. His stories were based on cutting edge theory in physics and astronomy, applying rigorous logic to the consequences of his speculations (for instance, he proposed that widespread teleportation booths would result in the existence of flash crowds showing up at major events). Many of his ideas came straight out of the covers of astrophysics journals.

One of the hot topics at the time was cosmology. During this period there was a vigorous debate over the origin and nature of the universe. Part of that discussion dealt with the question of the shape of the universe.

The notion that the universe has a shape is counterintuitive. We tend to think of it as just being a vast, featureless emptiness without either shape or substance beyond a small sprinkling of matter. It we recall Einstein, however, our perception of the universe is as limited as A Squares perception of flatland. Since space can be curved, the idea that the universe has a shape is not so outlandish. In point of fact, the actual shape of the universe is rather important when discussing its origins and ultimate fate. A universe that is relatively flat has different properties than a universe that has an overall curvature.

Different models speculated on different curvatures. One idea was that the universe was a kind of immense hyperdimensional sphere. Supposing that the universe is indeed a 4D sphere, certain odd properties arise. One of those is that, from our perspective, the universe seems boundless, meaning that you can travel around it forever without coming to an edge, but finite. In other words, if I got on a very fast spaceship and flew, in a straight line, in any direction, I would eventually return to my starting point.2

Sound familiar?

The Land of the Lost was envisioned, by Niven and Gerrold, as a miniature analog of what our own universe might be like on a much, much, much larger scale, thus providing what may well be the only intersection between popular kids entertainment and advanced cosmological theorization.

In the next installment of this essay (and I do, in fact, promise that there will be one), I will take a closer look at what sort of shape the Land of the Lost would have to have to be consistent with its portrayal. In particular, I will confront the problems caused by the fact that the Land of the Lost has a sun as well as a number of moons. Stay tuned.

1The producers actually got a professor of linguistics to develop a language for the Pakuni. It was that sort of attention to detail that really helped to make the show something beyond the ordinary.

2There's a couple of assumptions here, not least being the assumption that you can travel faster than the universe expands and that you have enough time to get back to your starting point before the heat death of the universe.

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