Science author turns to fiction

(Original publication: February 3, 2003)

YORKTOWN Popular-science author Clifford Pickover invented a clever scale to prime readers for his new fiction series about parallel universes, artificial intelligence and transcendence.

Pickover's Hawking Reality Scale, named in honor of British physicist Stephen Hawking, works like the decibel system: 0 is normal reality, 140 is total insanity.

It's good information to have if you buy Liquid Earth, the highest-scoring book on the scale in Pickover's "Neoreality" series, published by Lighthouse Press.

It's no accident that Liquid Earth is also set in Pickover's own back yard, Shrub Oak.

"It's definitely the spaciest," said Pickover, an award-winning researcher and patent holder at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, whose hobbies include computer art, hosting a Web site with 1 million hits and searching the universe for intelligent life.

Pickover gives Liquid Earth a 110 rating, although the author may be too modest.

Liquid Earth approaches the 140 limit several times in its 250 pages. In one case, a poetry-writing, Bible-quoting android breaks into verses of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as heroes search Shrub Oak for the source of Earth-threatening reality fractures forces that skew one's perception of reality.

Pickover, author of 45 books since 1990 covering subjects from popular science to mathematical puzzles and the editor of an additional eight collections, said he is probably the most prolific writer of his kind in the country.

With four fiction titles released in the fall, Pickover hopes to reach a wider audience and share his love of art, science, mathematics, mysticism and computers.

"If you told me my books wouldn't touch anyone, I probably wouldn't write as much," said Pickover, who lives with his wife and son in Yorktown Heights.

Jacket blurbs call Pickover the new Isaac Asimov and heir apparent to Carl Sagan. But some of his highest critical praise comes from Martin Gardner, who wrote a column on popular mathematical games for Scientific American. Gardner is considered by admirers as the leader of the modern skeptical movement for his 1952 book, "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science."

"I think he is a very skillful popular writer of a very complicated matter," Gardner said from his home in Hendersonville, N.C.

Publishing fiction may be new to Pickover, but his comfort with the complex properties of physics, chemistry and biology allows him to drop futuristic elements into ordinary situations.

He does it in The Lobotomy Club, when characters casually note that an android drummer at a rock concert has three legs to cover the base-drum pedals.

And he does it deftly in Liquid Earth, when heroine love-interest Mink Magdalene produces a kitten from her pocket for hero private-eye Max Bourne.

"Real kitten?" Max asks.

"No, but just as good," she says.

Pickover said his "Neoreality" series will appeal to science fiction readers, to readers who are seeking spiritual answers and to readers who appreciate humor.

"Liquid Earth" has a scene in which Max and Mink are urged by the owner of a knish shop to try fried gibbon brains with kasha. In the book, 2038 America is enamored with everything gibbon.

Max shuts his menu and scolds the owner, "Miriam! Not you too with the gibbon obsession!"

Miriam says it's a fad like sushi.

"Yes, but is it kosher?" he says.

Pickover, who was raised Jewish, said his belief in God begins where scientific understanding fails.

"There are areas of the universe we will never understand, in the same way a monkey can't understand physics or poetry," he said. "Part of the goal of these books is to get people to transcend their own realities."

The Series

In Liquid Earth, religious robots help humans cope with a reality that melts along a rustic Main Street in Shrub Oak, New York. In The Lobotomy Club, a group of people perform brain surgery on themselves to allow them to see religious visions and a "truer" reality. In Sushi Never Sleeps, readers ponder a fractal society with inhabitants living at different size scales. Would different population groups, because of size, develop their own separate societies, religion, and laws? Would some of the tiny Fractalians believe that individuals a million time their size even existed, or would they be relegated to the realm of mythological creatures, like the superhuman gods of yore? And, finally, in Egg Drop Soup, an alien object allows people to explore countless realities populated by a host of mysterious beings.

More information on the books series, here.

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