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Reader Questions: Can Fluctus be Detected with NIR?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 08:26

I love getting reader questions as blog prompts, and given the sort of people I hang out with, I get some really fascinating ones! Here's a question that Riia sent in for the blog. I've known Riia through the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) for a very long time and have been following her professional travels and adventures from Alaska to California to Tasmania (am I remembering that correctly?) to Italy to Sweden doing research with lasers and garnets (among other things). She broke her rule about "I'm only reading novels in Swedish because I need the practice" in order to start the Alpennia series. And she was curious about the following (edited slightly for clarity):

The bit in Mother of Souls where they notice the fluctus from some of the panes of stained glass made me wonder if the difference between the glass that has it and the glass that does not is measurable with other tools than a sensitive person.  My new research project will be using the geochemistry of steatite to try to determine where people were getting their kitchen tools from during the Viking age. One of the tools I am considering using for this project is Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR), an entirely non-destructive analytical technique which measures the reflectance of light off of an object. It can be used to distinguish between compositionally different yet visually similar materials. It is being increasingly used in archaeology, and on my recent trip to Umeå to meet with colleagues there, they showed me how they were able to distinguish between different types of quartzite and different types of quartz just by effectively taking photos of the rocks while shining a light on them.  They haven't published that study yet, but the attached paper is from their applying the technique to studying rock paintings.

So now I can't help but wonder how early people started playing with the earliest forms Near Infrared analysis. I guess much too late for your books, I would think that it is more like Marie Curie's time period before science starts experimenting with that kind of thing.

On the other hand, it could be interesting to read a story about a couple of modern day girls who study at the university that the Tanifrit Academy grows into, one of whom is hard science and using NIR in her research, the other of whom is studying things that would have been more of interest to Margerit, and who has been reading some of Margerit's preserved writings/notes who decide to apply NIR to the window glass Margerit wrote about (assuming that it survives the revolution that is looming, and then a couple of World Wars, which could happen, depending on the course of battles, fire, etc.).

I love it! And that would make a great fan-fic idea! I don't plan to write anything in Alpennia past the lifetimes of the major characters. (I have this weird superstition about fictional characters that if you don't write their deaths, then they're alive forever. It's one of the things I hated about Tolkien's appendices. Everyone dies eventually so now they've always been dead.) But I wouldn't at all mind other people playing with the idea.

So would it work? There's a constant tension in the Alpennian stories between mechanist ideas, the notion that mysteries--or whatever similar phenomenon one is considering in a non-Christian/religious context--can be analyzed down to a mechanical and scientific set of principles, and a more, well, mystical understanding of the underlying fantasy elements. As an author, I try to aim for an agnostic approach within the stories themselves. Some characters view what they're doing from an entirely mechanical point of view (though the intervention of divine powers may be part of the mechanism), while others view what they're doing from an entirely mystical viewpoint. And within the story there are enough confounding factors that no single definitive answer emerges.

But for me, as the author, from an external point of view, in order for the story to be fantasy rather than a type of science fiction, there has to be a non-rational, non-causal underpinning. And for my world-building to work within a large scale the way I need it to, there must be a clearly subjective aspect to any sort of mystical talents. There's a certain amount that can be analyzed and translated into rules and logical structures, but there will always be a point at which those rules and structures must be translated through...well, I'd say "a human talent", but it isn't simply a matter of specific magical people. There are also non-corporeal forces in the world that can provide that bridge between mystical cause and effect.

Here are some examples of the underlying "rules" I've set up that may help illustrate what I'm trying to say.

In Daughter of Mystery, Margerit and Barbara have some conversations about historical linguistics, and why the words used in mysteries are affected by the interaction of the specific vocabulary and the saint being invoked. While the specific historic semantics and the societal context in which language is associated with particular saints for particular purposes can be traced and utilized, the fact that those associations have an actaul effect on whether the mystery "works" or not operates on a non-rational plane. It just is.

In The Mystic Marriage, when Antuniet and Margerit are fiddling with the specific orientation of the alchemical furnace to get the alignment right for a specific formula, Margerit's talent for visions means that she can sense intuitively when the alignment is right, while Antuniet's weaker ability can only recognize it when it happens, and Anna has no talent for vision at all. Anna can use the resulting calculations and rules to create successful alchemical processes, but it's unlikely that she could ever develop new formulas on her own, even with a detailed experimental record of "what works." In a context like this your NIR question is similar to a question of whether scientific instrumentation could substitute for Margerit's vision to guide purely experimental manipulations to that point where it clicks and "works."

In a future story, there will be a character who has a talent for "seeing ghosts." That is, she can perceive (and interact with) intangible remnants of dead people. And there will be a clear implication that those intangible remnants have the ability to produce effects in the "real" world. She understands what she's seeing as "ghosts" because of the social framework she's operating in and because of the specific experiences and entitites she's interacted with. But at some point her talent will intersect with Margerit's talent for visions and it will come out that this person can "see" manifestations of saints at work during mysteries, even (although this is at the authorial-knowledge level) if those saints were never actually living people. But she doesn't have visions of fluctus or the other types of mystical perception we've been introduced to. It's specifically in the context of...I'd say "embodied" personality, except embodiment is definitely not what we're talking about here! And the entities that she senses have an existence outside of her perception of them, even if few other people perceive them in the exact way she does. It isn't a matter of a literal afterlife, and she isn't seeing "souls" (although she and Margerit will have some interesting theological debates about that).

I see the original question as having two sides. One is: within my understanding of the world I've built, is it possible for a purely mechanical instrument to detect the types of mystical effects that I call fluctus as a substitute for how talented human beings detect them? The second is: if that is possible, could a person who has no inherent mystical talent use the results of those instruments to create mystical effects? Similarly to how Anna can produce alchemical gems by following formulas. (To be sure, we don't actually know that Anna has no mystical talent at all, simply that she doesn't seen visions or perceive fluctus in any other noticeable way. But let's work on the assumption that she has no mystical talent at all.)

I think my answer is that somewhere in the process, there must be an introduction of the numinous. It may be in the design of the process, as in the alchemy formulas. It may be in the execution of the process, as with nonsense charms that can be made to work anyway by someone with the right talent. It may be in the amplification of the process by the participation of a community that includes a sufficient presence of trace mystical talent, as is the case with many of the traditional church mysteries. With specific regard to Near-infrared Spectroscopy and similar instruments, I think that they could work if a talented person were involved somewhere in the process. So, for example, someone with a very weak talent for visions might be able to use them to enhance that talent. Or a mystically talented engineer might be able to build an NIR device that could detect fluctus even when used by a non-talented technician. (But then another engineer without that talent might build a device from the same exact specifications that wouldn't work the same way.)

From a world-building and story-structure point of view, the magic of Alpennia only works if it's not entirely mechanical. Otherwise it would have been possible for talented people over the ages to create a sustainable body of knowledge and experimental work that would survive shifts in personnel. The basic shape of history, society, and technology can only function in the way I've set it up if the unpredicatability and instability of individual talent undermines the potential to build that sustainable knowledge-base. Margerit is going to try, and she will succeed to some extent precisely because--at some level--she recognizes that the key is being able to identify talented people in a systematic fashion. But magico-technological progress that relies on trusting an "invisible" talent that is distributed randomly with regard to social and political power structures has a really hard mountain to climb. That's one of the escape hatches for "why isn't the world of Alpennia a lot more different from our own than it is?" It's the same reason that aristocracies and hereditary oligarchies aren't sustainable in the long run: because the characteristics that put people in power in the first place are not inheritable in a direct sense, so the structures of power/knowledge/ability are left in the hands of people who don't have the skill to use them but have an investment in retaining those structures even when they no longer have the ability itself.

I've dropped a few hints that there have been many ups and downs in the history of effective systematic use of magic in my fictional world. If I ever write my "real story of Tanfrit" I may explore one of those "ups" in the context of the intersection of craft guilds and mystery guilds. But at the same time, as with the mystical stained glass, I've indicated that the "downs" in that history can leave all manner of clearly magical artifacts and practices scattered around where knowledge of how they were made or used has been lost.

But now I would like to read that fan-fic about the NIR lab at Tanfrit University analyzing the magical glass.

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