What was this SF novel about reality reshaping itself?
June 2, 2021 6:09 AM   Subscribe

What was this SF novel about the nature of reality changing as peoples' understanding of science advanced?

Posting for a friend:
Once upon a time (approx 1995-2005) I read an SF work. Might have been a novella, might have been a novel. Longer than a short story, I'm pretty sure. The main idea in it that I remember is that, throughout history, the nature of reality has changed in accordance with how people's understanding of it advanced. So, maybe the earth was once flat, but then when people realized it made more sense for it to be a globe, like the moon and sun, it became a globe, and that's why previous observers hadn't noticed things like ships disappearing over the horizon -- they didn't! This might be wrong, as I think about it more; I think I have cause and effect backwards. I suspect it was more like "reality got more complicated as humanity gained the ability to understand something more complicated".

The conclusion, which I remember being somewhat unsatisfying, had something to do with two (?) major characters figuring out that reality had this mutable nature and also learning how to manipulate it, with at least one character trying to reshape reality such that he (I'm sure it was a he) was a godlike being.
posted by EndsOfInvention to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This seems kind of, but not entirely, like Ursula LeGuin's short novel The Lathe of Heaven.
posted by gauche at 6:30 AM on June 2, 2021 [6 favorites]

Reminds me of David Brin's novel "The Practice Effect" a little, though that probably isn't it.

Still, while you wait for more answers, you may read the first couple of chapters for free at the author's web site, here.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:38 AM on June 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I've got no clue, but I either remember this in the ghosts of my memory, or I came up with the same idea myself. I've long had some idea "what if reality becomes more complicated the more science advances?" The particular bit about ships on the horizon is pinging as familiar to me though, so I think this is something I must have read the same thing you did. Lemme do some digging. (I haven't read The Lathe of Heaven, as a datapoint.)
posted by brook horse at 6:59 AM on June 2, 2021

Best answer: I came across someone asking the same question with a few different answers of stories with this concept. None of them are familiar to me, but maybe one of them would be the one you read?
posted by brook horse at 7:06 AM on June 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thanks brook horse, the answer was in that link: "The New Reality" by Charles L. Harness.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:15 AM on June 2, 2021 [7 favorites]

Glad you found it — for the benefit of future searchers who might be looking for something else, the synopsis also reminded me of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, a story first published on K5 (by MeFi's Own localroger) some years back.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:26 AM on June 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

For posterity, Alan Moore touches on this in the Tom Strong comic series and probably other works
posted by Dmenet at 7:56 AM on June 2, 2021

I don't know if you were specifically after that story or interested in the concept itself.
There was another story, in Analog, maybe in the 1990s, which used the same idea, but more subtly. It mentioned that the number of human chromosomes was considered to be different from the current number, and asks if it was reasonable that everyone with a photograph or a textbook miscounted them for decades, or if reality changed. There were other examples.
Greg Egan's Permutation City uses the same idea - people manufacture alternate realities, with rules they arbitrarily make up, but the realities rearrange themselves to be consistent, based on the perceptions of the creatures who inhabit them.
I find the idea fascinating, and while I don't think reality rearranges itself massively based on new Ideas, the evidence seems to suggest that people are more influential in the operation of reality than we think.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 12:18 PM on June 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also - I feel this is covered slightly by Greg Egan's Quarantine. I think a term for this is "consensus reality", and much quantum-aware sci-fi dives into it with the "observer-effect". (I would hazard that there are bits of this in Anathem as well)
posted by rozcakj at 12:53 PM on June 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

People interested in this kind of story might also be interested in the Sandman comic book Dream of a Thousand Cats.
posted by dkg at 5:02 PM on June 3, 2021

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