Science in the Fiction: Nonlinear Dynamics and Memes

My doctorate is in systems science. I study general ways to make sense of things that are too complex for the usual analytical approach of “let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.” And by “complex” I mean non-linear. And by “nonlinear” I mean many things affect each other simultaneously, so instead of getting a behavior that makes a straight line–like if you made a graph of how much you turn the faucet on vs. how much water comes out–you get behavior that makes curves–like the progress of infection in an epidemic over time as it rises exponentially, comes to a peak, and curves down again as it runs out of hosts. In nonlinear systems, wholes are different from the sums of their parts. I study how to study things like weather systems, stock markets, social negotiations, and flocking birds. So chaos theory, game theory, system dynamics (and dynamical systems), systems thinking, and a slew of other shiny systems-y things end up in the sciences underlying my fictions.

I created the alien élan vitals in part out of desire to geek out on nonlinear dynamics and feedback in ecosystems in an entertaining way. Humans influence aliens, as aliens influence humans, and changes in the structure of the relationship between the two can vastly change the behavior of them both and their behavior as a whole. Sometimes this is to the benefit of both parties; other times, not so much. Kind of like the delicate balance between two large predatory species co-inhabiting the same forest.

The other part of why I created the élan vitals was out of long-standing fascination with zeitgeists, and the way that ideas can move large groups of people to action. What gives a meme legs? How can an idea move social consciousness? These questions have become increasingly urgent in today’s informational climate, where we can spread ideas at an instant to millions. So what if ideas were creatures, with ideas of their own, and they could be talked to? What if we were ideas to them, too, ideas they resonate with? What happens as we resonate with, and amplify, each other?

The élan vitals provided me with a means to explore with readers both nonlinear relationships in ecosystems generally, and feedback loops in the ecosystem of society and information. Which, to a systems geek like me, is super-rad!

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